15 top social media thought leaders

How many names do you recognize? Which of them do you follow? And what other names would you add to the list?

Wikipedia defines a thought leader as “…an entity that is recognized by peers for having innovative ideas. Thought leaders often publish articles and blog posts on trends and topics influencing an industry.”

I’m often asked who the true “thought leaders” are in social media. In a world of voluminous tweets and blog posts, with many people simply compiling lists of others’ content or rehashing others’ ideas, it really is hard to determine who are held in high esteem by their peers and have innovative ideas about social media.

An interesting conversation in my Social Media Strategies for Business LinkedIn Group led to the list below. It all started with this question from a member:

Today’s top Thought Leaders of Social Media?

Aside from you, of course, Neal! Who would you (those in group) identify as the hot thought leaders and/or users of social media? Those who have just been getting it right in terms of providing insight, information and utilization.

Considering that those in the group are social media practitioners and thus could be considered “peers,” below is the list of everyone who was mentioned. This is by no means an authoritative or comprehensive list—as there weren’t many contributors—but it is a good (and eclectic) snapshot of some who have been recognized and are good to follow. Note that everyone is listed here in order of when they appeared in the discussion, earliest on top.

1. Brian Solis. He is a principal at Altimeter Group and prolific author of “The End of Business As Usual,” “Engage!” and “Putting the Public Back in Public Relations.” More important, though, he is someone who is always pushing the ball forward on our understanding of social media, and he provides new and unique insight with every speech.

2. Jeremiah Owyang. Though he hasn’t written any books (I wish he would), he is the leading industry analyst at the leading social media think tank Altimeter Group. If you go back to Jeremiah’s blog posts from a few years ago, you will recognize the tremendous insight that he has—and if you have the chance to hear him speak today, you’ll better understand the future direction of social business.

3. Charlene Li. Li is the founder of the above mentioned Altimeter Group and co-author of a groundbreaking book about social media: Groundswell. Her more recent book, Open Leadership, is also highly recommended.

4. Seth Godin. As group member Jennifer Bulman eloquently wrote, “Parse a post by Seth Godin. Every sentence is useful and every sentence is tweetable.” Although Seth is known more for being a general marketing guru, I’ve blogged at length at what Seth Godin taught me about social media marketing. Seth leads while everyone else follows. Seth has written a plethora of books, but start by reading his classic three: Tribes, Purple Cow, and Permission Marketing.

5. Jeff Bullas. He is an amazing Australian blogger who is continually giving out concrete advice to help us all in our social media marketing. Multiple people deemed him worthy of inclusion on this list. It is a shame that we have only one non-American on this list; please share in the comments who else from outside the United States deserves a mention.

6. Beth Kanter. Beth is without a doubt a thought leader in the realm of social media for nonprofits. Author of the classic The Networked Nonprofit, Beth brings to us knowledge and experience useful to any organization, be it not-for-profit or for-profit.

7. Katya Andresen. Another thought leader in the nonprofit space is Katya Andresen, who wrote the classic Robin Hood Marketing in 2006 and still blogs at her Non-Profit Marketing Blog.

8. Mark Schaefer. He has made a name for himself in social media not only by being extremely active and engaging within social media and on his blog, but also with his recent book “Return on Influence.” His first book, “The Tao of Twitter,” was recently republished.

9. Geri Stengel. Stengel runs the unique Ventureneer site, where she offers advice for social enterprise, nonprofit, and small businesses. Her advice delivers content for nonprofits and entrepreneurs, all with the thread of social responsibility. A refreshing leader to follow for social good.

10. Mari Smith. Although her best-selling book is “The New Relationship Marketing,” Mari is also co-author (with Windmill Networking contributor Chris Treadaway) of a book about Facebook (Facebook Marketing: An Hour a Day). Mari is the most tuned-in expert for advice on Facebook and one of the friendliest (and most interesting) people you will meet on social media.

11. Lee Odden. Odden is best known for his Top Rank Blog. His book “Optimize” looks at the intersection of social media marketing, search engine optimization, and content marketing.

12. Amy Porterfield. Following in the footsteps of Mari Smith is Amy Porterfield, co-author of “Facebook Marketing All-in-One for Dummies,” and popular blogger on all things Facebook-related.

13. Michael Stelzner. Stelzner was talking about content marketing before the term became popular, but he is best known for his leading social media website Social Media Examiner. Author of the classic “Launch,” Michael is also a genuinely nice and giving person who reveals all he knows in a truly selfless way. A true thought leader and role model.

14. Gary Vaynerchuk. Vaynerchuk is probably the one person on this list who has more chutzpah than Mark Zuckerberg. Vaynerchuk’s famous for the quote, “What’s the ROI of your mom?” He is one of the most successful entrepreneurs who used social media as a main platform to propel his business, with Wine Library TV. He is the author of the classics “The Thank You Economy” and “Crush It!” and is one of the most engaged people on Twitter—and speakers—that you will ever meet.

15. Jason Falls. Falls has been known for his blog Social Media Explorer, but the publication of his first book “No Bullshit Social Media” clearly placed him as a leader in insightful and practical advice for businesses of all sizes. I had a chance to meet Jason at Blog World; he is as down to Earth and thoughtful as is the advice in his book and his speeches.

So, there you have it. I expect you all to have your favorites, so here is your chance: Do you think the above is a representative list? Who is missing? Who are you glad was listed? Chime in, and have a say.

Neal Schaffer is president of Windmills Marketing, a social media strategy consulting firm. He blogs at WindmillNetworking.com, where a version of this article originally ran.

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