A comprehensive study by Edelman in association with LinkedIn has revealed the importance of thought leadership to B2B demand generation.
The research discovered that it actually has an impact on every stage of the buying process.
Significantly, they also found that creating poor thought leadership content has a negative impact.
The definition of thought leadership
What defines thought leadership content?
It’s generally considered to be writing about the bigger issues facing your audience. It could be forward-looking, or research-based. It looks beyond the day-to-day issues and considers the impact of the longer term, or the wider environment.
The word leadership is key – by writing about these bigger issues, you should be demonstrating knowledge, authority and clear thinking. You are showing the route forward – leading your industry.
What it isn’t, is content about your products or services, or simple case studies, or any content that has to be paid for. It’s freely given, holistic and strategic thinking that will help clients and prospects plan their futures, their business strategy and their purchases.
Michael Brenner defines it as: “becoming an authority on relevant topics by delivering the answers to the biggest questions on the minds of your target audience.”
Why is it so important?
The study found that 9 out of 10 business decision makers considered it important, and half spend more than an hour or more engaging with it. Over 60% said that “Reading thought leadership is one of the best ways to get a sense of the type and calibre of thinking an organisation is likely to deliver” with around 50% saying it’s an important way they vet an organisation.
What’s interesting, is that the study shows that the effect of thought leadership content works across the entire sales funnel – from awareness to purchase.
Getting it right pays dividends
If done well, not only can thought leadership increase a prospect’s respect and admiration for you as a company – almost 90% of business decision makers agreed – but it can increase their trust of you too.
And here are two more key findings from the study:
- 37% of decision-makers said that “After seeing its thought leadership, (I/we) invited an organisation to propose on a project” (where they hadn’t previously been considered).
- 45% said that “It (thought leadership) has directly led me to decide to do business with a company.”
So clearly, this type of content can be a powerful factor influencing buying decisions.
The key to getting it right is delivering original ideas that are relevant to your buyer personas, in a form that is concise and easily absorbed.
Decision makers value facts and insight. If you can identify new trends, potential issues, analyse the forces driving the market or look at the effect the changing external environment will have on your buyer’s industry, then you will have effective content. Backing all this up with data in the form of figures, charts and infographics, makes it even more powerful.
- According to the study, 3-4 page documents, 3-4 minute videos or other media that can be digested in a couple of minutes, are the most likely to be effective.
- As well as all the other benefits, it can also be an important point of differentiation between your business and the rest of the pack.
Getting it wrong will count against you
There is a downside to all this though – whereas doing it well can reap dividends, doing it poorly will have a negative impact on buying decisions.
In the same way, that good thought leadership content will boost respect, poor content will lose you the respect of your audience. Likewise, whilst well-delivered content will influence the buyer in your favour, poor content will have a disastrous effect on your sales, with 30% of business decision makers in the study deciding against awarding business to a company with poor thought leadership content.
Whilst many companies consider thought leadership articles to be important to establish authority and to demonstrate clear thinking, this study has revealed just how important the way a company ‘thinks’ is to the whole sales process.
Perhaps a more interesting point is that around half of the decision makers felt that thought leadership helps companies command a premium for their products and services.
Set against this, is the sobering fact that “Nearly 1 in 2 business decision makers are disappointed in the overall quality of thought leadership and nearly all feel it is a missed opportunity”
This is a clear message that if you can’t do it well, it may be best not to post thought leadership pieces at all!
How to start creating thought leadership content
Given the clear benefits of this type of content, you may want to start creating pieces that establish authority, that outline your informed opinion, that discuss where you think things are going in your industry. But before you leap in, you should consider a couple of factors. Firstly, bear in mind your all-important buyer personas – your target audience – what would be relevant to them? What leadership are they looking for? What route map to the future would they find most useful in taking their businesses forward?
Secondly, what do you want to be known for?
Yes, you want to establish authority – but as what kind of expert? In what kind of field? You should build on the needs of your buyers and pick an area that would be useful to them, but that also relates to your business goals.
It’s not easy to establish authority and become known as a thought leader; it takes time and effort; Fast Company has some useful golden rules.
I’d recommend reading the report for more information and insights, but here are the six key bullet points from the report:
- Thought leadership, done well, can drive tangible business demand
- In B2B, personalisation of content is vital to breaking through the noise
- Customers want high-quality insights, not just product messages
- Customers need information they can quickly absorb
- Referral from trusted sources drives engagement with thought leadership
- Plan for ROI before executing thought leadership
Thought leadership is a powerful form of content marketing that drives sales and enhances your offering. Focus on intelligent, unique view, valuable, strategic insights and expert opinion that is aligned with your buyer’s world and deliver it in ‘snackable’ chunks.