How B2B Brands Succeed With Thought Leadership

Chris WrenDecember 10, 20184554 min

B2B brands have long used thought leadership as a way for customers to gain access to the brand’s specialized expertise. When done well, thought leadership content can strengthen a brand’s reputation and ignite meaningful conversations that deliver tangible business outcomes. Conversely, when thought leadership is done poorly, it can negatively impact reputation and sales.

Edelman has released a joint study with LinkedIn around B2B Thought Leadership Impact. The survey touched 1,200 US business decision-makers, content creators and salespeople to understand shifts in perception around thought leadership as well as the impact it has on the customer journey. Their top findings are interesting:

  • Thought leadership has more influence on sales than marketers realize, and it’s growing.
  • Done right, thought leadership has tangible business impact. Done poorly, it creates risk.
  • Most B2B marketers miss the opportunity to capitalize on the full funnel potential of thought leadership.

This type of content does not focus on describing a brand’s products or services. Instead, thought leadership content are free deliverables that brands (or individuals representing the brand) produce on a topic that aligns to their area of specific expertise; but only when they feel others can benefit from hearing their perspective.

In a piece titled ‘Every Great Brand Reveals a Human Side’ I detailed how a Microsoft corporate vice-president is using LinkedIn Pulse to stimulate and create conversations around the topics central to his line of business. And he’s doing so in a way that is proving to be more effective than taking a traditional advertising-focused approach. Since writing that piece, I have noticed more brands taking this approach that is referred to as Executive Social.

It shouldn’t be surprising that consumption of thought leadership content is growing. The Edelman study has tracked an 8% increase versus 2017 in those that spend 4 hours or more per week reading thought leadership. And with trust in the media and advertising continuing to decline, it makes sense that more decision makers are using thought leadership content to evaluate potential vendors and partners. The thinking and perspectives in this type of content can provide a window into the workings of an organization that allow prospects to find value alignment…very important given the scale of many B2B transactions, both in deal size and time required to evaluate vendors.

What was surprising about the study is the delta between the opportunity created by thought leadership externally, and how internal sales teams perceive the value. 47% of C-suite executives shared their contact information after reading thought leadership, but only 39% of sellers believed it “helps with lead generation and getting new contacts we can call on.” Only 17% of sellers believed thought leadership was effective in generating RFPs, while 45% of decision makers invited organization they weren’t previously considering because of some thought leadership content they consumed.

B2B Thought Leadership Strategy

Smart marketers are cashing in on the full funnel potential of thought leadership to build the brand and accelerate business momentum. Here’s six steps outlined in Edelman’s “Thought Leadership” flywheel that will position you for success:

  1. Analyze the market. Decision makers want to be inspired with new ways to foster innovation, but half of thought leadership content is not providing valuable insights. Locating the “white space” will reveal opportunities where your brand can own and lead the right conversations.
  2. Put customers’ needs first. There are a variety of techniques you can apply to ensure you are building content to match customer needs. Defining buyer stages and articulating what those unique pain points are at each stage helps to ensure you are surrounding your customer with relevance.
  3. Define the future. 88% of decision makers believe it is important for companies to lay out a clear vision for the future. Brands can inspire confidence by capturing the imagination of what’s possible.
  4. Build trust and establish credibility. Leverage your internal resources with executives and subject matter experts to validate your brand. Most decision makers are drawn to thought leadership content that is shared by people they know and respect.
  5. Think smart but small. Attention is at a premium and most decision makers prefer formats that can be consumed in a few minutes.
  6. Measure success. Not many brands have a good way to attribute business wins to specific pieces of thought leadership. Work with your analytics teams or agencies to ensure you will be able to prove the value of this type of content.

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