Recent research has shown just how big an impact thought leadership can have on B2B purchase decisions, with 89% of business decision-makers saying that thought leadership is effective in enhancing their perceptions of an organisation and 49% saying it directly influences their purchase decisions. 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. According to research conducted by Edelman and LinkedIn 48% of decision makers say they spend an hour or more each week reading thought leadership material, with 17% of them spending 4 hours or more!
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. 69% of decision-makers use thought leadership to understand the thinking of potential suppliers. [i] Finding themselves wasting time on 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. Indeed, 38% of B2B decision-makers say that their respect and admiration for an organisation is sometimes damaged by poor quality thought leadership content. [ii]
Where does it fall down?
Good quality thought leadership pieces are in the minority. Only 15% of thought leadership is rated by decision makers as excellent or very good, whereas 28% is rated as mediocre or very poor, with the rest somewhere in the middle. [iii]
Some supposed thought leadership is just rehashing widely accepted knowledge and doesn’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. This lack of join up is evidenced by the fact that only 28% of thought leadership producers can tie their efforts to sales. [iv]
So how should B2B marketers ensure that their thought leadership gets noticed for the right reasons and has a positive impact on the bottom-line?
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.
Distinctive points of view
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, and ideally gain some ownership of that topic, you need to talk about it consistently for an extended 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. So ask yourself the following questions about your thought leadership:
- Is it influencing our target customer’s thinking so they are more likely to perceive the value of what we do?
- Is it drawing prospective customers into a dialogue that allows us to introduce our proposition at the appropriate point in the conversation?
Having a good idea achieves nothing unless you can turn that idea into engaging content. 63% of B2B Marketers identify content creation as their #1 content marketing challenge.[v] You’ll 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 would get value from 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, email, events and PR. Think about less explored routes that may set you apart. For example, while 89% of B2B marketers use Social Media platforms to distribute content, only 38% use guest posts in 3rd party publications and only 8% use Listening platforms such as Audible and Spotify.[vi]
Integrated demand generation
To maximise tangible impact, your thought leadership should be integrated with your demand generation, not simply a high-level positioning exercise. If your various marketing strategies are aligned then it’ll amplify your voice in the market. Think about how your thought leadership content can be used as the focus of integrated campaigns. Consider how you can build the end-to-end buyer journeys that connect your thought leadership activity with lead generation.
Calls 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. It is therefore vitally important to include appropriate “calls 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.
Ensure that your sales channels are able to “own” the insights and opinions that you’re promoting through your thought leadership. 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.
Track and measure
Doing thought leadership well takes time, effort and budget. To know whether that investment is worthwhile it’s vital you measure impact at each stage of the buyer journey. It’s interesting to know how many people downloaded your research paper, but unless you can then track those people’s subsequent engagements and identify how many ultimately became a customer then you can’t judge whether it’s worthwhile.
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.
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[i] 2020 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Survey, Edelman/ LinkedIn, 2020
[ii] 2020 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Survey, Edelman/ LinkedIn, 2020
[iii] 2020 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Survey, Edelman/ LinkedIn, 2020
[iv] 2020 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Survey, Edelman/ LinkedIn, 2020
[v] B2B Content Marketing: Benchmarks, Budgets & Trends, CMI/ MarketingProfs/ On24, 2021
[vi] B2B Content Marketing: Benchmarks, Budgets & Trends, CMI/ MarketingProfs/ On24, 2021