Three years ago, I wrote an article about what thought leadership is, the perceived value of thought leadership content, and how to give that content more impact by putting the “leader” back in thought leadership.
I also presented a webinar on the topic.
Both were based on the Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Study.
According to the study, nearly nine in 10 decision-makers said thought leadership content builds trust and enhances a brand’s reputation.
More than half chose to do business with an organization, were more willing to pay a premium for their services, and purchased more from an existing partner or vendor because of thought leadership.
Of course, poor thought leadership content has the opposite effect, and fewer than one in five decision-makers rated the content they consumed as excellent or very good.
My article was published in December 2019. The world has gone through some things since then.
Let’s take a look at the key findings and takeaways from the most recent B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study, released in September 2021.
It’s Raining Content
Who among us did not see more webinars, more video conferences, more articles, more podcasts, and more “studies” during the pandemic?
More communication, more selling, more networking, and more everything moved online.
Not surprisingly, two-thirds of B2B decision-makers observed a huge increase in the amount of thought leadership content. 38 percent said the marketplace is oversaturated with it.
The perception of “oversaturation” is never good.
Consumption, Up. Satisfaction, Not.
More than half (51 percent) of executives spend more time consuming thought leadership content than before the pandemic. 54 percent of decision-makers and 48 percent of executives spend more than one hour per week reading and reviewing thought leadership.
That’s great news. Demand for and time spent with thought leadership content is still high.
The not-so-great news is that more than seven in 10 decision-makers said less than half of the thought leadership content they consume delivers meaningful value.
30 percent rate thought leadership as mediocre, poor, or very poor, while just 15 percent say it’s very good or excellent. Most content falls somewhere in the middle, making it difficult to cut through the noise.
Clearly, the perceived value of thought leadership is taking a hit because people are drowning in low-quality content.
Thought Leadership Done Right Is Still a Difference-Maker
Most content is bad, but good content still works. Look at what decision-makers say happens more often because of thought leadership content. Sound familiar?
- 42 percent requested a bid from an organization that was not previously under consideration.
- 48 percent chose to do business with an organization.
- 53 percent did more business with an organization.
- 54 percent bought something that they hadn’t previously considered buying.
This makes sense when you consider why decision-makers consume thought leadership content in the first place.
- Stay updated on new lines of thinking (70 percent)
- Stimulate new ideas (71 percent)
- Gain insight into future trends (68 percent)
- Understand current trends (65 percent)
- Discover new products, services, and capabilities (47 percent)
In the buyer community, where products and services are actually purchased, thought leadership content is especially valuable for small businesses and new and emerging brands.
- 60 percent of buyers said thought leadership builds credibility for brands entering a new category.
- 57 percent said thought leadership builds awareness for new or little-known brands.
- 53 percent said thought leadership content from new and small companies will result in greater consideration from buyers.
Of course, one of the primary goals of developing any kind of content has always been to build trust and credibility, which still rings true with buyers.
- 64 percent trust thought leadership content more than traditional marketing materials and sell sheets when assessing capabilities and competency.
- 63 percent said thought leadership plays a key role in proving a company understands business challenges and can solve them.
- Conversely, 47 percent said most thought leadership content doesn’t address their specific needs.
Buyers also believe thought leadership can have a direct impact on brand perception and reputation.
- 65 percent said thought leadership significantly improved a company’s reputation.
- 46 percent said thought leadership can help repair the reputation of a company dealing with controversy or bad publicity.
- 50 percent said thought leadership can attract top talent.
That last point is eye-opening. Thought leadership can provide a window into your company culture and who you are as an individual.
Given the number of people who have left jobs, switched jobs, or are considering changes in their career, thought leadership can help you emerge in a stronger position than your competition.
What Real Thought Leadership Does and Does Not Look Like
You have one minute to grab their interest, according to 55 percent of buyers.
I think they’re being generous. Whether I’m reading, watching, or listening to content, I’m not sticking around that long if it’s not doing it for me.
Remember, headlines still matter. The job of the headline is to get people to read the first sentence. The job of the first sentence is to get people to read the next sentence. And so on.
Audiences seem to be responding to the deluge of garbage content by setting higher standards. 87 percent of buyers believe thought leadership content can have real substance and still be enjoyable to consume.
That doesn’t mean every thought leadership piece needs to be an episode of Seinfeld. But it does need to be authentic, natural, and personal.
64 percent of buyers prefer a more human, less formal tone over an intellectual tone. 67 percent want the point of view of an individual author rather than content from “the company.”
This creates opportunities for anyone to become thought leaders, not just executives, which benefits both the individual and the organization as a whole.
Salespeople can and should produce thought leadership content to overcome the “they just want to sell me something” stigma.
Engineers, scientists, analysts, developers, and other professionals who typically operate behind the scenes can and should produce thought leadership content that showcases their wealth of knowledge.
Respondents to this study want thought leadership content that:
- Challenges assumptions, not validates them.
- Digs deep into specific subject matter, not high-level issues.
- Includes third-party data and insights, not just internal perspectives.
- Focuses on current trends, not speculation about the future (although this seems to conflict with an earlier data point).
On the other end of the spectrum, the five deadly sins of poor leadership content seem to be:
- Overt selling and product descriptions.
- Unoriginal thinking that rehashes the same old stuff.
- Content from people who aren’t subject matter experts.
- Stiff, “corporate” tone.
- Weak arguments supported by questionable evidence and data.
Buyers and decision-makers engage with live humans later in the purchase process than ever. They rely more on the information they find through their own research more than ever. They’re more open to self-service purchasing options than ever.
If you don’t feed their hunger for valuable insights and perspectives that are interesting or even entertaining, you risk losing their attention to your competition.
Here are a few ways to keep that from happening.
- Develop a strategy with input from multiple stakeholders that includes goals, an editorial calendar, and a publishing and distribution plan instead of throwing “thought leadership” against a wall and seeing if it sticks.
- Focus on helping, not selling. Don’t ask, “How can I get them to buy?” Ask, “How can I help them solve a problem, fill a need, or make their lives better?”
- Spoiler: This will help you close more sales.
- Bring something different to the table. You don’t have to introduce people to a new or unfamiliar concept, but at least offer your own unique take based on real-world observations and experiences.
- Be consistent. Create an expectation with your audience that they’ll see something of value from you on a regular basis.
- Be yourself. Establish your own voice. Work with a writer who can capture not only what you know but who you are, using the same language, the same phrasing, the same sense of humor, the same figures of speech, and the same metaphors.
- Make sure there’s no disconnect between how you write and how you talk. Ideally, your thought leadership content will lead to actual conversations.
By the way, these basic marketing fundamentals were true 10, 20, and 50 years ago. What I said three years ago still applies.
Good thought leadership content has value if you get it in front of the right people. Bad thought leadership content does not.
If you commit to delivering value in a way that’s interesting and engaging, your thought leadership content will be a brand-enhancing, trust-building, lead-generating, revenue-producing machine.
If you’re interested in developing a thought leadership strategy that positions you as a go-to resource of knowledge and supports your business goals, let’s talk.