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Kelly J. Waffle: “Here Are 5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry”

Establish Your Expertise: Put a lot of emphasis on self-education and improving your skills. Take time to assess what you know and what people need to know. Start developing useful, great content and then create a substantial amount of it. Most of your efforts may tie back to customer work. Figure out the best ways […]


Establish Your Expertise: Put a lot of emphasis on self-education and improving your skills. Take time to assess what you know and what people need to know. Start developing useful, great content and then create a substantial amount of it. Most of your efforts may tie back to customer work. Figure out the best ways to get that content to your audiences. Not every audience consumes content the same way. Work on becoming more visible within your company and with your customers, partners, etc.


As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly J. Waffle.

With more than 15 years of hands-on B2B and digital marketing experience, Kelly guides clients through the complex interplay of technology, processes, research/data, programs, creative and analytics. Over the years, he has built and led teams in corporate marketing, marketing consulting, vendor and creative agency environments. He always brings an independent, 360-degree view of branding, demand generation and business growth to every engagement.

Kelly also leads the engagement efforts for the Hinge Research Institute — helping clients use research to grow and be more profitable. A well-known practitioner and thought leader in Account-Based Marketing (ABM), Kelly has been recognized by Onalytica as a Top 50 Martech Global Influencer. He has won awards with Eloqua (now Oracle) and Marketo (now Adobe) for his marketing automation expertise. A prolific writer and speaker, he has tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and LinkedIn.

He is a storyteller who loves watching the twinkle in someone’s eyes when one of his insights comes to life. A life-long learner, he strives to learn something new every day — and as a co-host of Hinge’s The Visible Expert Podcast, he gets to meet some of the professional services’ leading thinkers and teachers each week.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I have been in technology marketing for the last 20 years. I bring a unique 360 degree to topics such as growth, leadership, marketing, and sales, has been in leadership roles with start-up and enterprise companies — as well a consulting, vendor, and creative agency environments.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

At Hinge, we offer programs and consulting specifically around how to become a thought leader — either as an individual or as a company. Instead of “thought leaders,” we call them, “Visible Experts” or “Visible Firms.” The consulting and programs are based on on-going research we do with Visible Experts and various industry buyers.

I speak or consult with a broad range of folks with differing roles and responsibilities every week on this topic. Our firm has produced books, courses, articles, webinars, and speeches on the topic of how-to — and why — become a Visible Expert. I also co-host a weekly podcast called, “The Visible Expert,” where we chat with Visible Experts from a variety of organizations, industries, areas of expertise, and leadership levels. We have listeners in 40 countries and on six continents. Additionally, I have a large number of folks who follow me on social media to get insights, stories, and tips on becoming a Visible Expert — as well as other marketing, sales, and growth topics.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I took a new job at a marketing consulting firm and within days I was asked to fly out and start consulting on digital transformation and marketing automation with a Fortune 100 company. I spent months working on this project, but my client team did not understand the processes required to achieve success. Because I came onto the project late, I guess the client team did not know my background. After I left their west coast HQ to fly back east one time, they finally checked me out. As I was flying home, they called my firm and asked if I could fly back out the next day. I flew back out, met with the team, and then the next day I had to present to the CEO of this multi-billion-dollar company.

I had to convince him that the digital transformation that they were undertaking would produce a compelling ROI. Wow! I basically presented off the top of my head. No time for a thorough presentation. The company did not immediately implement my thinking, so I thought I had failed. A year later I was told that they had moved ahead with my recommendations. I don’t know if that is the most interesting story, but it is one of the most satisfying periods in my career. My visibility and reputation within many lines of business within that company grew significantly.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I don’t knowhow relevant this story is but early in my career, I worked at a technology start-up and the company was having its holiday party at a large resort and conference center. The company was staying there for a few days. The CEO was known to drink a bit. Sure enough, in the early morning, the CEO was down in the lobby — naked. No one wanted to deal with him. I went and got a towel for him. When I offered it to him, he started to run down the halls. I chased him up one hall and down another. Finally, he passed out and was taken to his room. The next day he was obviously embarrassed…but he blamed me for drawing attention to the situation. Needless to say, within months, I decided to leave. The business lesson that I learned was to be careful before you tell the emperor that he is not wearing any clothes…figuratively or literally.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

In my opinion, thought leaders are folks who are passionate about learning about a specific topic. They are subject matter experts and share what they learn through content. They are primarily driven by a desire to educate. Sometimes they receive additional payment for their content, other times they do not. Typical leaders don’t need to be subject matter experts. They are primarily driven by a desire to motivate. Influencers focus on being relatable and relevant to mass audiences. They are primarily driven by a desire to influence and have people take a course of action. The lines between thought leaders and influencers are getting more and more blurred every day. I think good thought leaders also influence their audiences. Good influencers are also subject matter experts who are passionate about a given topic.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

At every level of thought leadership and visible expertise, there are compelling benefits. These benefits include more lead generation, better branding, stronger customer experience, higher billing rates, and greater growth for companies. For individuals, they can see higher salaries, higher visibility, more recognition, greater reputation, and more. Few make it to Level 5 visible expertise, but many are glad they made the investment of time and energy to get to the level that benefitted them.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

Let me start with three ways that thought leadership can help a business grow.

1. Brand Building: According to our research, almost 62% of Visible Experts said that they substantially contribute to building their company’s brand. When we looked at specific brand-building activities, we learned that having a Visible Expert on staff helps companies establish market leadership and credibility, boost the company’s reputation, and heighten brand recognition in the marketplace.

2. Lead Generation: Visible Experts can be leveraged in a variety of ways to generate leads:

  • Content production — blog posts, articles, white papers, and books
  • Speaking engagements — keynotes, webinars, podcasts, and interviews
  • Networking activities and relationship building
  • Search engine marketing — highly ranked content written around specific keywords by the Visible Experts
  • A focus on target markets — use of Visible Experts’ knowledge to target industries, accounts, and benefits

Our research shows that as experts rise in prominence, more leads are driven by speaking engagements and search engine marketing.

3. Growth and Business Development: Our research shows that 66% of Visible Experts accelerate business growth and business development in their companies. For example, years ago Staci Riordan started the country’s first fashion law practice within the firm where she was working. A few years later, that firm folded. Staci then went to work at another law firm. She brought all of her fashion clients with her and founded the firm’s Fashion Law Practice Group. A little more than seven years after becoming a member of the bar, Staci became an equity partner — thanks to her visible expertise.

Here are just two ways that thought leadership can create lucrative opportunities. 1. Billing Rates of Visible Experts: In our programs, we identify five levels of Visible Experts. Our study reveals that buyers are willing to pay over 13 times more for a Level 5 Visible Expert than for a baseline regular employee in the professional services space. Take, for example, Charles Green, CEO, and founder of Trusted Advisors. Charles left the consulting world after 20 years. He started his own firm and wrote a book on trust-based consulting. After the success of his book launched him into the spotlight, Charles increased his fees by 150%. He was also able to increase his speaking fees. 2. Marketplace Demand for Visible Experts: Our data shows that demand for expertise rises consistently with the expert’s level of visibility. Here’s an example of when becoming a Level 5 Visible Expert pays off for both parties.

You may remember that back in the 1990s, chain store Target was trying to make a name for itself. But how could it differentiate itself from well-known competitors such as Wal-Mart? Enter Level 5 Visible Expert, Michael Graves, a world-famous architect who had already won more than 100 awards for architecture and design. Target partnered with Michael Graves, trading on his strong brand to bring an aura of sophistication to the store. The partnership was a huge success — lasting 13 years and creating a model for other retail-designer relationships. It was a win-win for both parties. Target became known for a sophisticated level of style and design. Michael Graves’ visibility grew even more. As a result of this single partnership, he would forever be known as the man who believed in “good design for all.”

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

Sure, we frame out five levels of visible expertise so I will pull from there.

1. Establish Your Expertise: Put a lot of emphasis on self-education and improving your skills. Take time to assess what you know and what people need to know. Start developing useful, great content and then create a substantial amount of it. Most of your efforts may tie back to customer work. Figure out the best ways to get that content to your audiences. Not every audience consumes content the same way. Work on becoming more visible within your company and with your customers, partners, etc.

2. Specialize: You will build followers faster if you can differentiate your expertise. Our research shows that “specialized skills and expertise” is what buyers value most when evaluating professional services firms. Focus on the target market. At this stage, you will want to “spread your wings” and start promoting your content on social media and engaging in conversations. Give an opinion on other relevant social media posts you see. You should also expand your visibility beyond your company by speaking at local or regional industry events. Chris Mercer, CEO, Mercer Capital, remembers this as a critical stage for his business. They couldn’t afford to turn down large bank consulting work, but they were spreading themselves too thin. Chris knew they had to specialize. They dropped consulting and focused exclusively on their valuation business. And that has been their primary niche for over 25 years.

3. Heavily Leverage Marketing Tools: This is the tipping point when it comes to visibility. If you frequently use blogging and social media, your reputation will strengthen, and people will start seeking you out for opportunities. Lori Randall Stradtman, Social Media Consultant, used blogging, social media, podcasting to build her visibility. People liked what she said and shared it. Soon Lori was seen as a social media guru and was being asked to host conferences, lecture at universities, and submit articles to major publications. Eventually, Wiley Publishing to write a book for their famous “Dummies” series. The book, “Online Reputation Management for Dummies,” cemented Lori as a Visible Expert — allowing her to work with much bigger clients and to raise her fees fivefold.

4. Manage Your Reputation: As you climb to the higher levels of visible expertise, you will reach a point where the buzz has been generated and leads and partnership requests are flowing inbound. This is great news for you and your company, but you have to manage the process. Hopefully, you can be selective and choose the customers that best fit your company. Here you are in a position to help close a higher percentage of sales than you had before. Your name and reputation will be more closely tied to your company — possible generating more growth and profitability. Your visibility within your industry will be high. Protect the trust that you have earned. Be ready for it. Robert Lang, engineer, and internationally known origami artist remembers when he was at this stage and his book was published. He started receiving requests for speaking and lectures. Then someone who saw one of his lectures asked him to do a TED talk. The TED talk led to a profile in The New Yorker, which led to more opportunities. It all led to a great surge of new business for him.

5. Launch a Product/Service on the Strength of Your Reputation: Visible Experts at the highest levels find that speaking engagements, TV interviews, articles, search engines, and books are their best lead generators. Here is the stage to launch a product or service or at least partner with a company that can truly benefit from the Visible Expert’s status.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

My example is Bill Gates. What impresses me about him is that he is an active thought leader and influencer. Not only does he get his ideas out there, but he also rallies key people who can make his ideas come to life. I have seen him do this with global water, sanitation, and literacy issues. One of the lessons that I have picked up from Bill Gates is to be a voracious reader. Never stop learning. Try to read multiple books at the same time to keep expanding your mind. Another lesson always challenges the status quo. Don’t accept the way things are. Be a change agent…with your time, influence, and money. Imagine what could be accomplished if more of us were active change agents!

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

I couldn’t agree more. Terms such as “thought leader” and “influencer” are overused and generate different definitions for different people. That is why we use the term, “Visible Expert.” Visible Expert conveys value, experience, and knowledge.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Everybody is different. Know your limitations and work around them. Be sure to make time for those activities or people who bring you joy. The work will still be there tomorrow.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

At some point, I would like to use my influence to focus more on world water and sanitation issues. We, as a nation, are blessed with so much affluence, technology, and great thinkers. We are blessed. Let’s share what we have with others, less fortunate, in other parts of the world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

Winston Churchill

I have always lived by these words. Giving simply makes my life richer and happier. The giving of time, knowledge, money. I love the feeling.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would say, Bill and Melinda Gates, Bill Belichick, or Clint Eastwood.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kellyjwaffle/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/KellyJWaffle

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

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