Over the past five years or so, there's been a major push for entrepreneurs to be "thought leaders" in their fields. And there's good reason for this: thought leadership is all about being the go-to expert in your particular industry -- something that any entrepreneur should strive to be. However, while many business owners are making valiant attempts to position themselves as thought leaders, their efforts often fall short because of one key reason: credibility (or lack thereof).

Now, I'm not talking about credibility in terms of education, pedigree, or even having a worthy product. I'm talking about personal credibility: being somebody who people can actually believe in, an honest and trustworthy voice that differentiates itself from the sea of spammy marketing pitches we're bombarded with every day. Here's a real-life example to illustrate this point:

A few years ago, I was shopping for a cocktail dress in a frilly Beverly Hills boutique. The salesperson asked me questions and seemed at least somewhat interested in what I had to say, but she was much more concerned with telling me how beautiful her dresses were and how much I'd love them. In fact, she even stood outside the dressing room like a predator ready to pounce, knowing I'd have to come out and look at the dress in the only full-length mirror there was in the boutique.

The first time I came out in a relatively well-fitting dress, she said, "Wow, you look amazing!" So I considered that dress might be an option . . . that is, until I came out in the second dress. Dress #2 clearly fit terribly: it bunched up at the stomach, the sleeves were too long, and it was poorly made (it showed every underwear line I had!). But when I came out of the dressing room, she said to me, "You look absolutely exquisite! Should I wrap that up?"

And all at once, her credibility was lost with me.

No matter what she said after that moment, I wasn't going to believe it -- because I already knew that she was more concerned with making a sale than helping me find a dress that I'd truly be happy with. I didn't buy any dresses from her that day -- and I've never returned!

This same scenario is what happens online when you use your thought leadership marketing as a means to sell, rather than to provide true value to your followers.

As a marketer myself, I receive tons of blogs from would-be thought leaders that appear to provide helpful, informative content on the surface -- but really just consist of thinly disguised self-promotion. The truth is that these misguided attempts at thought leadership don't fool anyone: in fact, they make entrepreneurs lose credibility with their readers, and thus constitute the opposite of what successful thought leadership should be.

To solve this problem, we can look to social influencers -- those YouTube vloggers, Instagram models, and other social media gurus who have been hugely successful in generating and engaging their audience. While most social influencers aren't traditional businesspeople, they sure know how build trust and rapport with their audience -- which is one of the reasons why social influencer marketing is delivering 11x the ROI as compared to other digital marketing strategies. Therefore, CEOs and entrepreneurs can learn a lot from how social influencers establish credibility in order to inform their own efforts to position themselves as credible thought leaders.

Social influencers build up their audience by creating entertaining, genuine content, and providing trustworthy information. Their goal is not to sell, but to engage and share knowledge. For example, when Kimra Luna first started video blogging, she was pregnant with her first child and wanted to find healthy vegan options to eat. Since there wasn't much information available at the time for vegan moms-to-be, her blog became the go-to resource -- which earned her the trust and loyalty of a powerful community of like-minded people.

After achieving a huge fan base (and learning a lot in the process), Luna decided to monetize her social influence by teaching other people how to create a successful online business, just as she had. Because she'd already established herself as a credible thought leader, she was able to sell her product organically, and her business grew rapidly. Today, her company Freedom Hackers is a multi-million dollar business (check out my recent video interview with her about How to Become a Social Influencer).

Indeed, if you approach thought leadership marketing as just another strategy to sell your product, you're unlikely to gain much traction -- and, like the saleswoman in Beverly Hills who was so wrapped up in making a sale that she complimented my ill-fitting dress, you might end up turning off your audience rather than prompting them to trust your expertise.

That's why entrepreneurs and business owners should look to social influencers when establishing themselves as thought leaders. By providing genuine value to your audience, you can plant the seeds of trust that make social influencers so successful. Doing so will provide you with the key ingredient that so many entrepreneurs lack -- credibility -- which marks the crucial difference between being a thought leader instead of just another self-promoting marketer.

Published on: Nov 23, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.