There was a time when the word "leader" brought a very specific profile to mind: strong, influential, and known around the world.  Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King are the first to come who mind for me.  We saw them in the press, at world events, and on the inspirational posters that adorned our office walls. Basically, only those who made the news were delegated to high profile leadership roles.

Today digital media adds a whole new dimension to the leadership profile: those who lead and influence online. Leaders who are online generate a large and loyal following via blogs, online news outlets, and social media and are virtually visible in homes and businesses around the world.  This is an exciting evolution for entrepreneurs because we have so many more great thought leaders to learn from, but also because we have a greater opportunity to become one of those influential leaders ourselves.

In doing so, you've worked hard to build your following. But whether you broadcast your expertise to an audience of 100 or 100,000 loyal followers, there's room to grow and to have an even greater impact on your industry. Here's how.

Make them think.

By challenging the status quo you can teach people to think outside the box.  Why is this important? Because creative thought leads to innovation--and that's what makes the world go round!

When Tony Hsieh joined the Zappos family he challenged corporate America's status quo by creating a fun, happy environment for his employees. Let's face it: traditionally, employee happiness was not top of mind in most corporations, yet we now know that it produces phenomenal results. Hsieh then took it a step further by authoring "Delivering Happiness," which went on to become a best seller.

Don't be afraid to buck the system or express controversial viewpoints. If you're doing your job well, it will attract some resistance but, as they say, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Give them more than they've bargained for.

As a leader online it's important to produce quality content, but is that enough? No, it's not. There's a lot of great content out there and you want to stand out from the rest, right?

To do this, develop a reputation for over-delivering on what your subscribers, customers, and followers expect from you.  You can achieve this through exceptional customer service, bonus and free products, and upgraded opportunities for loyal customers. Give your customers a reason to keep coming back and also to refer you to their network. Your reputation is the most important thing you own, make it a good one.

Connect with them.

It's thrilling to see your content shared by someone you respect and admire. For me, it's so much fun to check my Twitter connections page and see that someone I look up to has shared one of my tweets with their 200,000 followers.

Spend a little time each week to select a few good tweets or posts and share them with your audience. Not only will this help to spread good content, but you will solidify your virtual relationship with someone who may become a great resource and vocal advocate. Let your followers know that you are aware of them and that you appreciate their expertise and opinions as well.

Take it offline.

Virtual connections are powerful, but if you take some of those relationships to the next level it may lead to a wealth of opportunities. Just because someone has only a fraction of the followers you do, doesn't mean they aren't influential and resourceful. If you see something special in a follower, invite them to a phone conversation. Whether you end up playing the role of a mentor or receiving some great insight yourself, reaching out is a good idea.

Another way to connect outside of the virtual platform is through public speaking and networking events.  In spite of what you may believe not all influencers are online. Establishing connections in local communities is also very powerful.

Say thank you.

Leaders are human too. The problem is they aren't always comfortable showing it. Make sure to drop in on your loyal followers to let them know that you appreciate them.  Send a direct message or thank them publicly. Comment on their content periodically, not just to recognize them but also to help them to grow their following.

No matter how great your achievement, there is always more to learn and room for growth. Offering a simple thank you and a bit of recognition to your supporters is very grounding and will open new doors along the way.