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Is your ‘thought leadership’ leading anywhere useful?

09 December 2019 | Phil Brown


Recent research has shown just how big an impact thought leadership can have on B2B purchase decisions, with 58% of business decision-makers saying that thought leadership has directly led them to award business to an organisation.[1] However, all too often ‘thought leadership’ initiatives miss the mark – failing to deliver any tangible rewards or in some cases even doing damage to a company’s reputation.

So how do you avoid the pitfalls and ensure your thought leadership programmes lead to real value for your business?

A receptive, but demanding, audience

Thought leadership can be a crucial way-in to elusive senior-level contacts, especially in a digital world where executives are networking on LinkedIn or sharing ideas in online interest groups. 58% of decision makers say they spend an hour or more each week reading thought leadership material, with 21% of them spending 4 hours or more![1]

However, they’re not investing this time because they have nothing better to do. Senior execs are looking for content that informs, stimulates, educates and challenges them on issues that they care about. Finding themselves wasting time reading content that does none of those things is only going to annoy them.

Thought leadership content which is poorly produced, without a clear purpose or structure, can do more harm than good. Getting it wrong can turn off potential followers and result in reputational damage.

Where does it fall down?

Good quality thought leadership pieces are in the minority. Only 18% of publications are rated by decision makers as excellent or very good, whereas 30% are rated as mediocre or very poor, with the rest somewhere in the middle.[1]

Some are rehashing commonly held beliefs and don’t contain any new thinking. Some just trot out clichés and statements of the obvious. Others are so off-piste that they have no connection with the business publishing them. And some are obviously just a thinly veiled sales pitch with a thin veneer of supposed insight.

As well as pushing out poor quality content, businesses also fall down because their thought leadership initiatives are treated as isolated activities rather than part of a carefully planned, integrated marketing strategy, and as a result fail to have an impact on sales and revenues.

So how should B2B marketers ensure that their thought leadership gets noticed for the right reasons?

A recipe for thought leadership success

Although the goals of each business will vary, there are some basic principles that should be at the heart of any thought leadership activity.

  • Ensure your strategy and your content is informed by high quality insight. You can’t hope to have credible, relevant, distinctive opinions unless you really understand current market and industry trends, the forces driving change, your customers’ challenges and what your competitors are talking about.
  • Make sure that you can articulate a clear point of view about the challenges and the opportunities that your customers’ face. It’s your point of view that distinguishes thought leadership from ‘thought followship’. Unless you can offer interesting and distinctive opinions and insights, why should anybody be bothered to listen to what you have to say?
  • Be consistent in what you choose to talk about and make sure you publish sufficient content to sustain an ongoing conversation. To associate yourself with a particular issue, you need to talk about it consistently for a period of time. Jumping around from topic to topic trying to talk about everything probably means you’ll be associated with nothing.
  • Make sure you can connect the dots between your insights and points of view and what you actually do. Thought leadership needs to be a starting point for a conversation that ultimately gives you the opportunity to make a sale. Some thought leadership programmes fall down because they don’t draw the customer into an ongoing dialogue that allows you to introduce your proposition at the appropriate point.
  • Having a good idea achieves nothing unless you can turn that idea into engaging content. You’ll probably need different formats and depths of content to attract different personas and to support the different stages of the buying journey. While an infographic or a video might be more likely to attract initial interest, as someone becomes more engaged they’ll want a greater depth of content to keep them interested, such as briefing papers, webinars or ‘how to’ guides.
  • Make sure that your content is easy to find by the people who are looking for it. This doesn’t mean broadcasting it to all and sundry, but disseminating in a well targeted and selective way, giving proper consideration to context, media, timing etc. Depending on your focus and your objectives this may involve a mix of tactics including SEO, PPC, paid media, social, events and PR.
  • Integrate with your demand generation activity. To maximise impact, your thought leadership should be a key part of your demand generation, not simply a high-level positioning exercise. Think about how your content can be used as the focus of campaign activity and what the buyer journeys are that connect your thought leadership with lead generation.
  • Enable the sales channel to “own” these opinions. There is little point in generating interest in your company with stimulating and thought-provoking content if the sales teams don’t understand your insights, can’t articulate your point of view and immediately default to talking product features and benefits. So make sure you spend time educating your sales teams so that they’re equipped to convert interest into sales.

Don’t forget the call to action 

While gaining a reputation as an innovative thought leader might be nice in itself, the ultimate goal is to drive sales and increase revenue. Good thought leadership can be important for lead generation and for getting your company into a decision makers consideration set. 47% of C-level executives have shared their contact details after reading thought leadership content and 45% have invited organisations to bid when they had previously not been considered.[1] 

It is therefore vitally important to include an appropriate “call to action” in your thought leadership, be it a link to download further insight, an invite to a webinar, or the opportunity to speak with one of your experts. The aim is to make it easy at each stage for the prospect to engage further with you, without scaring them off by asking for too much commitment too quickly. 

So where is your thought leadership leading you? 

Is your thought leadership a road to nowhere or is it bringing tangible benefits? With the right content targeted at the right people, thought leadership can lead to an enhanced reputation and a growing pipeline of opportunities for your business.  

If you are not seeing the value, maybe it is time to reassess how you manage your thought leadership programme. 

For more detailed insight on this topic see our “From Thought Leadership to Revenue Guide”, a practical guide to building thought leadership programmes that deliver results. 


[1] Edelman (2018) 2019 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study