Who are the Top 15 Thought Leaders in Social Media Today?

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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 often get asked who are the true “thought leaders” in social media. In a world of voluminous tweets and blog posts, with many contributors simply compiling lists of other’s content or rehashing of other’s ideas, it really is hard to decipher who are those that are not only recognized by their peers but also have “innovative” ideas with regards to various aspects of social media.

An interesting conversation in my Social Media Strategies for Business LinkedIn Group, which you should all join if you haven’t already, led to the list which I am going to publish below. It all started by this question from a member:

Today’s top Thought Leaders of Social Media?

Aside from you of course Neal! ūüėČ 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 utlization.

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 too many contributors – but it is a good (and eclectic!) snapshot of some that have been recognized and are good to follow to get top advice from perceived thought leaders on a wide variety of social media-related topics. Note that everyone is listed here in order of when they appeared in the discussion, earliest being on top.

 Brian Solis РBrian is the prolific author of Engage!, The End of Business As Usual, and Putting the Public Back in Public Relations. More importantly, though, he is someone who is always pushing the ball forward on our understanding of social media, and provides new and unique insight with every speech.

Jeremiah Owyang – While Jeremiah 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 see him speak here and today, you’ll be on your way to better understanding the future direction of social business.

 Charlene Li РCharlene is the founder of the above mentioned Altimeter Group and is also the co-author of one of the historically groundbreaking books on social media: Groundswell. Her more recent book, Open Leadership, is also a highly recommended read.


¬†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 already 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 I would start by reading what I believe to be his classic 3: Tribes, Purple Cow, and Permission Marketing.

 Jeff Bullas РJeff is an amazing blogger hailing from Australia who is constantly giving out very concrete advice to help us all in our social media marketing and was mentioned by multiple people in the discussion as being worthy of being on this list. It is a shame that Jeff is our only non-American on this list Рplease do share in the comments who else from outside the United States deserves a place here!

 Beth Kanter РBeth is without a doubt a thought leader often mentioned in relationship to the realm of social media for nonprofits. Author of the classic The Networked Nonprofit, Beth brings to us knowledge and experience that can be utilized for any organization, not-for-profit or for-profit.

 Katya Andresen РAnother thought leader in the nonprofit space is Katya Andresen, who wrote the classic Robin Hood Marketing back in 2006 and still is active in blogging at her Non-Profit Marketing Blog.


¬†Mark Schaefer – Mark has made a name for himself in social media by not only being extremely active and engaging both within social media and on his blog, but also through the publication of his recent book Return on Influence. His first book, The Tao of Twitter, was also recently republished if you didn’t get a chance to read it the first time around.

 Geri Stengel РGeri runs the unique Ventureneer site, where she offer advice for the social enterprise, nonprofit, and small business. Her advice combines a unique combination of content for nonprofits and entrepreneurs, all woven with the thread of social responsibility. A refreshing leader to follow Рfor social good.

 Mari Smith РAlthough her best-selling book might be The New Relationship Marketing, Mari is also co-author (with Windmill Networking contributor Chris Treadaway) of a book regarding the platform that she is most famous for: Facebook (Facebook Marketing: An Hour a Day). Not only is Mari the most-tuned in expert for advice on Facebook, but she is also one of the friendliest (and interesting!) people you will ever met in socialmedialand.

 Lee Odden РLee is best known for his Top Rank Blog but also became an author with the release of his recent book Optimize, which looks at the intersection of social media marketing, search engine optimization, and content marketing.


 Amy Porterfield РFollowing 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.


 Michael Stelzner РMichael 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 that he knows in a truly selfless way. A true thought leader who is also a role model to emulate.

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

 Jason Falls РJason has been traditionally known for his leading social media 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 to better leverage social media. I had a chance to meet Jason at Blog World and can tell you that he is in person as down-to-earth and thoughtful as is his advice in his book and 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
The Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Maximize Social Business, Neal Schaffer is a leader in helping businesses and professionals strategically maximize their use of social media. Neal is the author of three social media books, including the recently published definitive social media strategy book Maximize Your Social. Forbes lists him as a Top 35 Social Media Power Influencer and AdAge lists his blog, Maximize Social Business (formerly known as Windmill Networking), as a top 100 global marketing blog. Neal provides social media strategy consulting and coaching, having worked with Fortune 500 companies and a Grammy-award winning musician. He has presented worldwide on social media at more than 150 events and also teaches social media marketing at Rutgers University. +Neal Schaffer
Neal Schaffer


Author, @MaxYourSocial | Founder @msocialbusiness & @socialtoolssmmt | Trilingual Social Media Strategy Consultant, Coach, and Speaker
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  1. says

    Not trying to be comprehensive list, but if they’re somehow sorted by thought leadership weight I’m missing in the first places Chris Brogan, Olivier Blanchard & Valeria Maltoni. And I’d certainly delete few whose leadership is a bit dubious in my opinion :o)

    • says

      Appreciate the comment Delfin. You are correct in that they are not sorted by thought leadership weight – perhaps if I had more data I could do so by number of votes. Maybe I will formalize a survey out of this, but certainly you mention names that come up a lot in similar conversations about social media thought leaders. Thanks for your contribution!

  2. says

    Right, as a Kiwi in Europe,  my hunt is on for non North American thought leaders. РGreat list though Neal.

    It’s good to see Jeff in there and I¬†like¬†the¬†suggestion¬†Delfin¬†makes¬†of – Oliver Blanchard.¬†

    Maybe Darren Rowse Рalthough he is quite niche in blogging?  

    Although also in the USA, I’d add David Meerman Scott as well.¬†

    • says

      Thanks for stopping by Nick!

      Olivier definitely comes up a lot as a thought leader in conversations, and Darren is definitely someone that is looked up to by a LOT of people! And how could we have forgotten David Meerman Scott, the author of the bible for social media? All great feedback – thank you sir!

  3. says

    I like all these people Neal but none of them are participating much in Empire Avenue so I do not really see a great future for them sorry. The true thought leaders of the future are collaborators I believe

    • says

      I have been a heavy supporter, commenter on and promoter of several of these people for about 4 years now but cannot recall a single tiny reciprocal gesture, an RT or a FB share aside from perhaps Mark and Jeff tweeting some of my posts via Triberr. Maybe I am really missing something and need to be hanging out in different spheres? Your post has really got me thinking. 

      • says

        Michael, interesting point you make. Based on this criteria, I put people like yourself and Neal at the top of my list, but I would also add people like Bob (Robert) Watson ‚ÄŹ @TopBrokerOC , Stacey Harmon ‚ÄŹ @staceyharmon¬† Mel Aclaro @melaclaro

      • says

        You and I will have to agree to disagree about the value of Empire Avenue. It is way down on my list of platforms that creates business value. It is an obscure game at this point in my view but I do appreciate your dissenting view on this Michael.

        I appreciate you!

        • says

          This post has generated fantastic discussion which is the main point. I tossed up a random thought about it on my Facebook profile before going to sleep 2 nights ago and when I woke up there were about 50 comments which quickly turned into over 80. 
          My big take on all this is that 2012 is a time where being open and supportive is the over riding trend. 
          Being an open networker who supports others while producing daily visionary content that you know how to get shared.

          An “obscure game” Mark? Empire Avenue is the central connection point for people who are getting shared most online right now and has been for about a year.¬†

          Many of us are making magic every day there. 

          Social media thought leaders of the future? Try this list of about 25 people all with Klout scores above 75 http://klout.com/#/MarkMillerITPro/list/empire-avenue-11

      • says

        Hey Michael, sorry for the belated comment here, but in Facebook I do think you bring up an interesting point: How can someone be considered a thought leader in “social” media if they are not “social” in social media themselves? Worth pondering…

        • says

          Neal, one of the first things I liked about you is how much you interact with the “little people” in your networks. Some of the big names talk about engagement and sharing, but rarely do except with each other.

  4. Jay Deragon says

    While all those mentioned have and continue to add to the knowledge inventory of all things social media Seth Godin is in a league of his own. I’d also add that while Doc Searls doesn’t talk about social media much he, along with the other authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, saw the web becoming social before social media was named. Additionally his latest work, The Intention Economy, is the blueprint for making the web even more customer focused and promises to redefine marketing as we know it today. Read his recent WSJ article here:¬†

  5. Lizz Clarke says

    This is a great article thank you Рwe are looking for a leading SEM to help us with a global learning programme for a client and will check these out. 

  6. says

    Honestly Neal this is one of the most humbling messages for me.  I get placed on a lot of lists, but to have this come from you, who I really look up to, is truly moving for me and extremely special I am so grateful to be on this list of wonderful leaders. Thank you!

    • says

      Hi Mark, thanks for your message, and I am humbled by your comment as well. Like I said in a response to a different comment, this post was in no ways an attempt to get you to comment or RT this – it was a snapshot of an organic social media conversation. Appreciate your understanding – and keep being you!

  7. Pat Ferdinandi says

    ReelSEO by Mark Robertson. He keeps everyone informed on what works on YouTube and ways to improve your own videos. Always great posts.

  8. says

    How do we identify real thought leaders in social media? Do we go by the number of followers, books written or speaking engagements? What metrics do we use?

    I am not trying to be adversarial but I am curious what people think about how to figure it out. 

    We could be looking at those who are most adept at marketing themselves and their services. Again, this isn’t directed at any one person it is just a question/comment.

    • says

      Hi Joshua,

      Thanks for chiming in and excellent points!

      Everyone will have a different interpretation of what it means to be a thought leader and who have influenced them, which is why the only way to create such a list is not to base it on one person’s opinion but on many, including those that have come up in the comments!

  9. Beth M. Wood says

    Seth, Jeff, Mark, Michael and Jason would all be on my list.  But, see? My list only had 5 or 6.  So, thank you for giving me additional names to check into!

  10. says

    The best-known influencers are often observers more than innovators. The real innovators aren’t in the public eye yet. You know the phrase “a musician’s musician”? Or “a comedian’s comedian”? The real innovators aren’t famous. The most truly influential people often don’t get credit for their influence, because they’re not the one who takes it to the masses. They’re 2, 3, 4 years ahead of the curve. ¬†And by the time the wave of mainstream popularity hits, they’ve already moved on because they’re bored with it.

    If you want to see who real innovators are in social media, look to see who has a history of being ahead of the curve, e.g.,¬†Doc Searls, Stowe Boyd, danah boyd, Chris Pirillo (OK, I suppose he’s “geek famous”, but also very much a social media innovator/influencer), David Wood (anyone not paying attention to what Empower Network is doing ought to be), Valeria Maltoni, Lynn Terry, Michael Q. Todd, et al.

    • says

      Hey Scott, thanks for chiming in and very good points.

      It’s fascinating how we all have different definitions of who influence us and who “thought leaders” are, and I think that is the main conclusion of this post: Thought leadership will always be subjective based on how we define influence. However, getting back to the purpose of writing the post, I am glad that you and others have mentioned names worth considering for others to read if they want to learn about who others have considered “thought leaders.”

  11. says

    Great list and amazing influencers on social media and certainly I would also like to chrisbrogan, he is a great influencer with his innovative ideas in social media channel. I love reading his blog. I also like Seth Godin he is also a great writer. 

  12. says

    Neil, if you want to keep catering to the same clique of 15-20 social media blogger/speakers in the hopes that they will pull traffic to your site, go right ahead. You keep publishing the same list over and over again, and it’s tiring. You want my take? Here it is:

    Who actually belongs on that list:

    Solis: Yes.
    Owyang: Yes.
    Li: Yes.
    Kanter: Yes.
    Falls: Okay. 

    Your wild card: Bullas: If writing Top 50 lists of obvious bullet points makes you a thought leader, then okay. Top 15 though? Not really.

    Who doesn’t belong on that list:

    Godin: No. Thought leader, but wrong field. 
    Oden: No. Again, thought leader, but wrong field.

    Stelzner,¬†Mari Smith, Schaefer: Are you serious? “Thought leaders” how?

    Vaynerchuk: I like Gary, but please stop dragging him into your linkbait posts. Way to be original. What happened? It wasn’t Chris Brogan or Guy Kawasaki’s turn this month?

    You know what names could have been on the list if you bothered to look past the same 15 people you think will pull the most traffic to your site? Here are a few:

    David Armano
    Michael Brito
    Valeria Maltoni
    Christopher Barger
    Maddie Grant
    Geoff Livingston
    Danny Brown
    Sam Decker
    Frank Eliason
    Neville Hobson
    Dave Fleet
    Keith Burtis
    Francois Gossieaux
    Scott friggin’ Monty
    Gavin Heaton
    Richard Binhammer
    Andy Sernovitz

    Should I continue?

    You could have started there. And as a bonus, some of them aren’t American. Gavin’s Australian if you were looking for another Ozzie. How about that. (Oh my God, they have more than one blogger?)

    You know what would be nice? If you took this “thought leader” list business a little more seriously. What are you doing here, man? Trying to pull traffic to your site? Looking for validation? Trying to get invited to the rock stars social media speaker club?¬†

    Do what you want. It’s your blog. But you asked and I’m telling you. Next time you publish a list like this, at least put a little effort into it.



    • says

      Hey Olivier,

      Appreciate the commentary and the brutal honesty that I expect from you – I would have expected nothing less!

      As I explained in the blog post, this came from an organic conversation, and I thought it was a decent enough list to share which had a variety of perspectives. This is not MY list but an organic snapshot of who myself and others considered to be “thought leaders.” If you had read the blog post, I think you would have understood that, as I clearly went into detail about how the list was created.

      This blog post is also not an attempt to get your comment or blog traffic – you weren’t even on the list! It is responding to a question that I get asked a lot: Who should I follow in social media that you consider a “thought leader?”

      In all honesty, it is nothing more and nothing less than that, Olivier. My blogging started by responding to questions, and I often get blog post ideas from questions I get when I am speaking or consulting.

      So what am I doing here, Olivier? I’m not trying to babble without objective but trying to give advice and direction to others. This post was not targeted at the people that are listed but at the people that have never heard of the people listed. And by the looks of the comments and conversations I have received in social media, a lot of people are thankful for me publishing this list and exposing them to new people to follow.

      Finally, Olivier, I will say that I try to focus on the positive in social media. I don’t see the value of negative commentary in blog post comments like these because, for the most part, it is merely seen as a personal attack from one person on another. Sure, we are all open to criticism and debate, but when you frame your comment as a personal attack questioning my objective in blogging, I would be tempted to say that it makes you look like a negative person. I do appreciate your giving your opinion on who you think should be included in the list, but why do you have to go above and beyond that with a personal attack?

      So, instead of complaining on everyone else’s blog posts about pre-conceived notions about why others blog (which in this case, Olivier, you are clearly wrong), why don’t you spend that time into doing more positive things for your own blog and community of readers?

      Life is too short to do otherwise, Olivier.


    • says

      Olivier – Lead by example.¬† Rather than pissing and moaning about other people’s opinions, go make your own list.¬† In fact, why don’t you make a nice big blog post about how other people suck.¬† Oh wait, but you’ve already done that.¬† Need I say more.

  13. StephenAndrews says

    Godin may be a mass market guru; what he is not is anything remotely resembling a social media expert. Godin is a classic example of hierarchical or top-down marketing, he speaks and people listen.  Social media is about engagement and conversations, Godin does not engage with his followers and does not participate in conversations, he lectures.  

    • says

      Thanks for chiming in Stephen. You bring up a point that Michael Todd brought up on his Facebook conversation of this post, which is: If social media is about being social, how can someone who doesn’t engage in social media be considered a thought leader? It’s an interesting concept to ponder…

  14. says

    I read all Seth Godin’s books, Charlene Li’s Groundswell, Brian Solis’ Engage!,Mark Schaefer’s The Tao of Twitter and Return on Influence (just talked to him thru’ Facebook), and you Neal’s Windmill Neworking andMaximizing Linkedin for Sales and Social Media Marketing. :) Your 3rd book about Twitter is coming, am I right?

  15. says

    Hi Beth, thanks for your comment. To be honest with you, my personal list would only have a few as well, which is why I liked the idea of exposing that conversation for others to find new voices to follow.

  16. says

    Hi Neal Рthank you for your kind words and the inclusion on this stellar list of many of my own favorite leaders. You are the real deal, my friend, always adding value to your community.  

    Lists such as these are very helpful to guide your tribe where else to seek expertise. There are SO many sources out there; people get overwhelmed‚ÄĒespecially those businesses fairly new to social media/online marketing‚ÄĒand they’re not sure where to turn. So, in a world where trust can be shaky, it’s a breath of fresh air for such folks when leaders they trust, like you, publicly recommend and endorse fellow professionals. I know your readers appreciate it!

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