Thought Leadership in the Age of Technology

Are you someone who leads by sharing your best ideas with a defined audience? As a “thought leader” you may have noticed that technology has made certain tasks easier, but the overall challenge has become formidable.

As mentioned in my column dated October 4th, I have been hosting multi-day virtual conferences. For each one, I have invited thought leaders to be presenters, but recently, a separation has developed between experienced experts (Elders) and tech-savvy communicators (Youngsters).

The former have been thinking about issues in their field for some time: publishing books, articles, or conference presentations. Spending a decade or more in reflection and study, their deep content is provocative. Furthermore, they have probably assisted many other experts over their careers.

In general, they are in no hurry, as they are accustomed to cycles lasting months or even years between major outputs. From their point of view, it takes time to develop sound ideas; the wait between the first draft of a book and its appearance in a bookstore.

At the other extreme lies their young, digital counterparts: Youngsters who also intend to influence others with their thinking and creative products. However, they use the newest technologies to dramatically shorten the cycle between inspiration and public consumption.

Employing the latest virtual channels, they disseminate a high volume of content. As such, they are conscious of their online image, measuring success by the number of likes, followers and subscribers they garner.

Recently, these groups have been drifting further apart, leading to complaints. If you belong to or interact with either group, here is some advice.

Why Elders Must Pivot Their Delivery

I recall a conversation with a colleague who had some fine ideas about marketing products in Jamaica. When I suggested he share them publicly, he refused. “Someone will steal them!” he complained. When he migrated a few years later, all his plans went with him. But his limited thinking lives on in the heads of too many Elders. They grew up in an environment of scarcity, where an original theory or solution was rare and the opportunities to reach an audience were few.

Case in Point: As a young management consultant in the 1980s, I struggled to produce papers and give speeches due to the cost and time involved.

Today, such barriers have been removed, but most Elders have not caught up. They may know how to find and download ideas from other thinkers, but don’t know how to use a blog, vlog, podcast or social media to build an audience.

If you are an Elder, one place to start is to develop an “owned” asset – one that you control completely, rather than “renting” temporary space on a social network. Establish a website which allows you to share your creative outputs via text, audio, video or graphics.

Then, create a catalog of your best products. When you have at least ten or twenty decent units, publish them in sequence and start to build an audience. Use your friends on social media as a foundation and send out links to other thought leaders.

Why Youngsters Must Use Precedents

Thought-leaders who are tech-savvy are often enamored with their increasing ability to create followers. It’s never been easier to do so, and some self-proclaimed youthful “experts” have been able to attract millions. As such, they spend a great deal of time seeking better social media tricks, slicker graphics, more effective hashtags, and nicer filters. They look up to established influencers who are using these tweaks to extend their reach.

However, if you dig a bit deeper, you may find that some Youngsters are “all hat and no cattle.” In other words, while their followership is growing, their content comprises no more than shallow ideas and worn cliches.

As such, their followers tend to be young and impressionable, honestly believing that they are hearing brilliant, breakthrough insights. Before the inevitable loss of interest comes, there is something Youngsters could learn from their Elders: how to solve novel problems using existing research and fresh imagination. Following this approach would allow them to develop a better-quality audience that sticks around for truly original thinking.

By the same token, many Elders are waiting for their wisdom to be tapped. Consequently, they just aren’t learning the aggressive techniques Youngsters have acquired to reach their audience: they need to become active, skillful users of LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

For now, the momentum lies with those who use the latest technology, but it should swing back. Unfortunately, we can’t wait. In these tumultuous times, we require both Elders and Youngsters to develop the skills needed to make their contribution.

If it means embracing an uncomfortable challenge, so be it. The world needs people who combine high-quality thinking and channels of easy access to help solve the pressing problems of the day.

Converting Your In-Person Conference to a Virtual Summit

Is your organization accustomed to holding real-life gatherings for scores or hundreds of its followers, shareholders, customers or members? If so, what should it do in these pandemic times? Are large-scale, virtual events as simple as they seem?

In October last year, I got lucky. A colleague included me in the execution of his two-day online summit. Thousands participated from around the world, and based on what I learned, I subsequently launched two such events of my own. My most recent effort, CaribHRForum Virtual Conference featured over 1350 participants, with 75 speakers spread over three days.

While my learning curve has been quite steep, here are some shortcuts I recommend to scale this challenge, even in a world of continuous, disruptive change.

1. Get the Business Model Right

Like many activities of this nature, there is a commercial reality that must be addressed in order to produce a material benefit. While it might appear easy to copy other online events, that’s a mistake if the organizers’ goals aren’t exactly the same as yours.

To illustrate, some hosts are happy to increase the size of their mailing lists. Others just want to sell a specific product to a narrow audience. The point is, your organization must define the outcomes and target dates it wants to attain from the venture.

For example, at the start you must choose which crowd to attract, what topics to cover, which technologies to use, what skills are needed and more. These are strategic decisions which should be driven by your organization’s vision. That’s not to say the past should be ignored: but you should assume that you are looking to attract a younger, more tech-savvy version of your traditional audience.

By now you may realize: this is not simply about making a virtual carbon copy. Instead, this activity should complement your new post-COVID strategy and the best way to accomplish this is from a blank canvas.

2. Hunt for Skills

Unfortunately, the team of folks you relied on to pull off your in-person events may find itself lacking. The skills needed for a project of this nature are vast, deep and changing from one month to the next. As such, it’s unlikely that you will find them all at once. In other words, expect team members to be in a relentless learning mode as they grapple with evolving technologies.

For example, you’ll need folks who are skilled in internet marketing, website design, customer service, online community management, copywriting, image and video editing, event handling, speaker selection/training and more. While some of these may appear to be traditional capabilities, the virtual expression of them is unique.

Case in point: A skilled graphics designer accustomed to a traditional role may not understand the difference between Instagram Story promotions versus those in the Feed. Facebook’s advertising platform may be incomprehensible.

The bottom-line is that managing the skills needed for a virtual conference is a game of constant vigilance. Few organizations can afford to hire an external specialized team so you must use volunteers or employees. They will only possess a subset of the skills you need so get everyone in learning mode from the onset.

3. An Early Start

Most organizations under-estimate the need for a business model that works and the skills which are needed. Consequently, they start working on their online conference far too late.

This has a compound effect: an overdue start means a lesser choice of speakers. This, in turn, makes the event unattractive to your audience. They may conclude that you’re only offering a glorified webinar: heavy on splashy graphics and light on content. Unfortunately, fewer attendees means less revenue.

A late start may also push you into offering live presentations, versus those which are pre-recorded. While this may seem to be an easy substitute, it actually translates into a frantic last-minute struggle to bring together interviewers, interviewees and the audience in real time. Throw in different time zones, imperfect technology and a tricky supply of electricity or Internet access and you have a recipe for stress.

In these pandemic times, these are challenges you may not be able to avoid. Accept the fact that you are creating an experience that is distinctly different from ones you have undertaken in the past, and that direct comparisons to pre-COVID times add little value.

The truth is, in-person gatherings in large numbers are unlikely to resume in 2021. In the meantime, many of your audience members will become accustomed to the benefits of virtual conferences and summits, and start to prefer this option.

Embrace this aspect of the new normal as a unique capability to be used long beyond the time when herd immunity sets in. Instead, it will probably be a requirement your audience demands, a feature your organization will offer over and over again in the future.

Originally published in the Jamaica Gleaner.