Want to be a Thought Leader?

I was so humbled by the Email Experience Council to receive the Thought Leader of the Year dave-baker-awardsaward last week in New Orleans. Can’t pick a better city to celebrate an award with your long time peers than NOLA. I shared a video acceptance speech with the 500 or so in attendance, read by my oldest daughter, a real tear jerker that I’ll personally never forget.

The email marketing industry is a tight knit community with many great thought leaders and hundreds of bloggers, and so many new people popping up. 15 years ago there were maybe 10 or so people really active in the industry. Most organizations didn’t exist or were nascent. Email was a channel topic at larger events and we didn’t have the influence of billion dollar companies. There are hundreds of bloggers, speakers and brands that speak in/around events every year. It’s amazing to see the progress. Email can also be seen by many as a transient career. It’s a prime industry to learn so many great things. Get burned into creative production, learn data and how to get it, normalize it and apply it. Learn about reporting, ISPs, compliance, how to personalize. All core skills that translate well to any digital channel. For those making a career of this or simply passing through, participating in the industry is critical to the ecosystem. To lead it is a privilege and has its rewards. I thought it appropriate to somewhat define what is the essence of Thought Leadership through 6 sound bites.

Don’t Walk on the Grass: As the sign suggests, any compliance-oriented business has a set of guidelines and best practices. The email industry is unlike any other digital channel (search, media, social, web) as it is so heavily reliant on ISP gatekeepers and regulators of delivery that feed into this ecosystem. As such, Thought Leaders in this space have to have a firm grasp of compliance, but respect the grey area and practices that are so diverse. Think of these best practices for deliverability (not the sexiest topic), much like you would a “Don’t walk on the grass” sign. The goal of the sign is not that 100% of people won’t walk on the grass, rather everyone from trampling the entire field. Thought leaders must know the basics, yet be practical and help educate an industry so it doesn’t bring down the ecosystem.

If you gain too fast, you’ll feel the pain. This is a hard one to swallow for the instant gratification culture that’s developed in digital marketing. But this is where Thought leaders shine and should shine and continually learn. We trumpet list health, good acquisition practices, deliverability, and how much and often to send email. In a voiceless channel, with limited rich media to spice it up, you have to be real creative with timing, and messaging. This industry has morphed from mail merge to mass customization to highly personalized batch sending, and now trigger marketing. There are so many ways to build programs, yet few corners to cut. Great minds, apply stretch goals to pragmatic approaches to getting there.

Be a Story Teller. While trends, baselines and best practices are fantastic and really important early in your career, the real value is perspective. Email is much like trying to learn to ride a bicycle, you can watch, read and be told how to do it, but til you actually balance, fall and get over that fear, you don’t really know. This happens first person and through collaboration with others in the industry. You can accelerate this learning if you’re involved.

Give unconditionally. For the first half of my career I always thought, “Why would I share what I know with others, it’s my edge”, when in fact I found that by sharing and helping others unconditionally. This is hard to do in a “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”, but it’s a truism that is lasting. Help others, share, learn, and the world will be in perfect harmony. If you truly want to aspire to be a Thought Leader it begins with less self-promotion and more volunteerism in/around the industry. DMA/EEC is a prime example of people with heavy workloads giving unconditionally.

Write, and write often. This is the hardest thing for some people. To expose your ideas and open it up to the scrutiny of others is a tough first step. It is also a great way to expand your thinking, organize your thoughts and develop a discipline to record how you’ve matured your thinking over time. Start your own blog, keep it focused. Develop your digital voice and how you share learnings with others. This was a cornerstone of my development as a professional, and the most rewarding thing to walk into a room and hear people say they’ve been reading your stuff for years. Secret: you’ll seem a lot smarter than you really are by writing.

Don’t apologize for your program. Every program has its constraints. Even the best programs out there are littered with messy obstacles and things they haven’t been able to do. But don’t apologize for your program, focus on the core things you can do well and stretch every once in a while. To free yourself from constraints, focus on the steps, not how big the stones are. Just know there are always 5 ways to do things; the right way, the wrong way, the other way, Your-way and anyway you can- All are acceptable, but you won’t see it if you first apologize for what you haven’t done.

Thought Leadership is a funny thing. It’s as little as you want or as vast as you have the stamina for, but the principle of giving more than you take is the best way to think about your role in this whether you aspired to be rock star or not. I will leave you with this, being recognized by your peers is a real top tier Maslow moment (Maslow Hierarchy of Needs) I hope you all get to experience in some capacity in your life.

David Baker
The 2016 eec Thought Leader of the Year Award Recipient
Co-Founder, COO; Cordial.io

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One thought on “Want to be a Thought Leader?

  1. David, congrats on the recognition. My favorite sound bites is to “give unconditionally” and it is something I’ve tried to pattern my life around too. I found I always have more to learn and always can use help from someone so as much as I can share what I know with others to make some deposits into the karma bank I am happy to do it.

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