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Forget what you think you know about thought leadership

Treating thought leadership as a branding play could be costing your business, argues Tom Pepper, LinkedIn’s head of marketing solutions, UK. He outlines why marketers must wake up to the true role this content plays in the B2B buying process.

It might seem strange to argue that B2B marketers seriously undervalue thought leadership. After all, it has a prominent place in almost every marketing strategy and is a mainstay of B2B content calendars.

However, that’s exactly what new thought leadership research from Edelman and LinkedIn shows.

Marketers may be creating this content at scale, but they seriously underestimate the impact that it has on the company bottom line. And they’re often blissfully unaware of the high stakes involved when a new piece of thought leadership goes out of the door.

As a result, many organisations prioritise the wrong things when it comes to thought leadership. And as you’re about to see, these misconceptions can have a serious impact on a company’s sales pipeline.

It’s not just about brand awareness

Thought leadership can be frustratingly difficult to pin down. Marketers and their colleagues can be guilty of using the term as a catch‐all for pretty much any form of branded content.

On the whole, B2B marketers know that thought leadership builds awareness. It grabs relevant audiences’ attention by aligning with the issues dominating their agendas. It builds positive perceptions around a business’ expertise and humanises it by putting names and faces to that expertise.

It looks a lot like a branding play.

However, this new research proves emphatically that thought leadership is far more than an awareness raising tool. Decision‐makers in the UK, Germany and France see thought leadership as critically important – and roughly half read an hour of this content every week.

They aren’t just engaging with new ideas, either. These decision‐makers are consciously evaluating organisations and the calibre of the producing brand’s thinking in depth. And they are doing so with a view to drawing up shortlists and awarding business.

Nearly half of decision‐makers say they have awarded business to a supplier as a direct result of their content.

B2B brands undervalue thought leadership

It’s clear that senior buyers and influencers embrace thought leadership as a value‐adding form of content throughout the funnel. The irony is that the B2B marketers themselves don’t recognise this value.

A full 54 per cent of decision‐makers in Europe said they use thought leadership as an important way to vet organisations they are considering working with.

They also act on that evaluation, with 46 per cent saying they have asked a previously unconsidered supplier to bid on a project after encountering their thought leadership.

Yet, when sales and marketing leaders in supplier businesses were asked about the impact of thought leadership throughout the customer journey, they consistently undervalued its contribution. In fact, those producing the content had the lowest expectations of it.

Only 25 per cent of sellers expect thought leadership content to deliver more RFPs, and the same proportion expect it to help them close business.

It’s the same story when it comes to thought leadership’s contribution to customer lifetime value.

Just 25 per cent of sellers and 24 per cent of thought leadership producers believe that this content can enable them to charge more for products and services. Yet, half of decision‐makers say they are willing to pay a premium to a business that sets out a clear vision.

So, while we all know that thought leadership matters, we consistently underestimate its importance at every level of the decision‐making process.

Marketers can’t afford to think like this

This gap between perception and reality matters – and not just because thought leadership’s contribution to the lower stages of the marketing funnel often goes unattributed.

When B2B organisations don’t appreciate the impact that thought leadership has on their business pipeline, they are less motivated to invest time and resources producing content of real originality and value.

Marketers who treat thought leadership solely as a means of driving awareness are likely to worry less about how fulfilled an audience is when reading content – and be more concerned that they notice it and engage with it in the first place. This is a costly mistake.

Decision‐makers don’t just add new businesses to their consideration set on the basis of strong thought leadership. They also remove businesses from consideration if that content isn’t up to scratch. And a worrying amount of the thought leadership that they encounter isn’t.

More than a quarter of decision‐makers say they’ve decided against awarding a piece of business to a company because their thought leadership was disappointing. Meanwhile, more than half say they’ve stopped following a writer or organisation after reading disappointing thought leadership.

These figures should put any B2B content marketer on alert.

It’s one thing to have evidence that thought leadership delivers benefits at every stage of the buyer journey. It’s another to know that poor thought leadership has negative impacts all the way down the funnel too. It doesn’t just get ignored or forgotten. It makes an active contribution to reputation one way or another.

A new way of thinking about thought leadership

This is a timely reminder that thought leadership is not advertising.

The measure of success for an advertising campaign tends to be whether the right metrics moved upwards – and by the necessary amount. B2B thought leadership is different.

Because it’s treated as a proxy and test for a supplier’s expertise, it is perfectly capable of moving metrics either up or down – and does both frequently. But, it’s a different type of marketing investment with different forms of risk and reward – and it directly impacts a business’s performance and growth.

B2B organisations therefore need to prioritise this area of content marketing – not just by producing more of it, but by thinking deeply about the balance of frequency and quality.

Your thought leadership strategy needs to be planned carefully around areas of expertise where a business can deliver genuinely bold and original thinking – and do so concisely and with impact.

Publishing substandard thought leadership content just to get your brand into a conversation can be dangerously counterproductive.

So, what do decision‐makers actually look for in quality thought leadership – and where are the biggest gaps in what they encounter?

Well, 60 per cent say that content relating to what they are working on is a critical factor influencing them to engage and 73 per cent say half of the thought leadership they see lacks valuable insights.

Meanwhile, 93 per cent believe it’s important for companies to set out a clear vision for the future and 83 per cent say they are more likely to respond to content from someone they know and respect.

In short, they want genuinely valuable thinking, relevance, boldness and credible authorship and sharing.

Decision‐makers also appreciate content that can deliver these things without making too many demands of their time. Exactly half say they prefer thought leadership in formats that can be digested in a few minutes.

So, when you have original, quality content, break it into formats that can deliver aspects of that value quickly – such as short videos or blog posts focused on particular insights or infographics telling concise stories through stats.

Above all else, remember that value and quality are what decision‐makers expect more than anything. That is what B2B marketers must deliver if they are to unlock the true potential of their thought leadership programme.

Key takeaways

  • Thought leadership is more than just an awareness raising tool. Decision‐makers are using your thought leadership to consciously evaluate your organisation and the calibre of your thinking in depth.
  • Don’t treat thought leadership like advertising. It’s a different type of marketing investment with different forms of risk and reward. So, B2B brands should think deeply about the balance of frequency and quality.
  • Build thought leadership into your content strategy. Identify relevant themes you can speak about with authority and develop a plan that empowers you to publish regular, quality content around them.

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