Social media is where public thinking happens. So if you want to be a thought leader, you must lead on social media. Lead not only on social media, but like the tree falling in the woods, if you want to be heard you've got to fall among thinking people. If you are trying to influence the press, the press is on social media. If you are trying to lead scholarly discussions, scholars are already discussing their research on social media. If you want to lead the thinking about public policy, policymakers are all on social media, listening and thinking, even if they haven't quite grasped how to engage.
The days of publishing peer reviewed articles in obscure journals read by mere dozens of people as your primary (and often only) channel of distribution are over. Those academic journal articles now come with public discourse via social media. The days of relying primarily on people reading your quote in paragraph four on the front page of the New York Times to drive public discourse are over, too. Now you can publish your fleshed out comments on a blog, tumblr or even a Facebook wall post, then engage large public discussions via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and beyond.
Social media is where leading thought lives in the social age. Therefore, that is where thought leaders have to lead.
Social media thought leadership requires both direct and indirect tactics. Using your own social media channels is your direct reach. It is limited by the quality and size of your audiences on each of the social networks you use and how attentive your audiences are to your posts. You can improve attentiveness by being interesting, engaging and useful, but there are limits to what you can do with direct outreach here.
It is via indirect channels that you truly become a thought leader. When people share your posts with their networks, when they seek you out for answers to their questions and when they start talking about your ideas without even mentioning you, that is what thought leadership has become. When the press retweet you; when experts and policymakers follow you and incorporate your ideas into their work; when these things happen to you, you are a thought leader.
Being a thought leader means you not only have influential thinkers in your attentive audience, but that they use their influence to spread your ideas; they are influential on your behalf. This is the difference between blowing in the wind and stirring up a hurricane.
The value of social media to thought leadership has many layers, some more easily measured than others. But one basic measurement is to look for the rise and fall of comments about your thoughts among the general audience and among audiences key to your success. If you have a clear sense of what you mean by "thought leadership" and whose thoughts you are trying lead, you will know where to direct your ideas and whose responses to monitor. Learn from these metrics so that you can become more influential. Think deeper about your issues and practice the art and science of sharing your thoughts. Become a thought leader.