In my work coaching clients on how (and why) to use social media, I’ve found an interesting tendency: While people seem fairly confident they have industry wisdom to share, and believe they have insight to contribute to the existing conversation, the idea of developing their own “thought leadership” seems uncomfortable. As has often been pointed out, you can’t necessarily call yourself a thought leader (someone else needs to do that), so how could you openly admit to wanting to develop into one?

But, what happens when you turn the lens away from yourself and toward those you respect as the big thinkers or influencers in your field, for example? It takes the pressure OFF of you personally, removes the taboo of directly pursuing “thought leadership” and still, ultimately, gets those results. By being in and contributing to their conversations, you may just become more like them. It’s called influencer engagement.

It’s About Influencers

So, if you tweet it, will anyone read it? Not necessarily. And, certainly if you’ve done no due diligence in interacting with the type of people you hope might find value in what you have to say or share. If no one is following you, absolutely everything you might post goes out into a complete void. What usually happens then is that you decide “social media doesn’t work” for you. But, you’ve actually gone about it wrong.

Can you handle that truth?

To strategically grow your audience (beyond 20 of your closest friends and family, that is), you have to start by being intentional about who you follow. Don’t worry about following your supposed customer. Instead, identify and follow those who you think might already be influencing your customers (and these will likely be people you consider “thought leaders” yourself). Yes – this may feel counterintuitive.

This Isn’t Marketing

With business-to-business social media, the power is in engaging with the smart people (including journalists) you already love to learn from offline. The good thing is that a relatively small percentage of them will be actively engaging on a social network or two, making it a lot more manageable for you to dig in. So, a relatively small list of people or accounts is your digital influencer sweet spot.

The specific types of influencers with whom you seek to connect might be an academic researcher, a journalist who tends to cover things related to your industry, or even a super well-connected person from your running group in a seemingly unrelated field. These are the thinkers weaving in and around your particular industry or issue, whose perspective you may or may not agree with, but whose views already have an impact on the broader conversations about doing business or innovating in your industry.

Out of the gate, you take the position of knowing nothing. You should be focused on (listening and ) learning from them, and ultimately being a conduit through which all their great wisdom gets shared further.

Leaving your own sales pitches out of it, you have a real opportunity to get known by 1) the influencer who starts to notice that you are kindly sharing their work, and by 2) those people who are also interested in the key issues or concepts you are sharing links to (who may find you because they follow the “influencer” and see that you seem to share a lot of great, connected information).

There is no “pushing out” about it – it is authentic engagement around shared interests.

Your Time Will Come

Here’s the thing: influencer engagement has to occur organically to be authentic. There is no buying of followers, and again, no pushing out of information or “tricks” to this trade. Like the self-help books put it, you just need to trust that the goodwill you share with the universe will serve you well.

And, it will. I know any number of sustainability leaders on Twitter , for instance, who will vouch for that. They’ve each become recognized influencers (and had a lot of fun doing it) because they have engaged.  That means they’ve curated helpful links/shares in their streams, participated in chats, commented on other people’s posts or thanked and retweeted regularly. They took time to focus on the other.

(Stay tuned for: Influencer Engagement, Part II: It’s All About Them)

Special thanks to ileohidalgo for use of the image.