B2B marketers and salespeople significantly underestimate the value of thought leadership content. Besides missing business opportunities, that underappreciation risks damaging company reputations, reveals new research from Edelman and LinkedIn.
“The decision makers that we spoke to in the UK, Germany and France regard thought leadership as critically important,” states Tom Pepper, a senior director at LinkedIn. Executives consuming the content “are consciously evaluating organizations and the caliber of their thinking in depth. And they are doing so with a view to drawing up shortlists and awarding business.”
Some findings from the survey of more than 1,200 business leaders:
- Almost two-thirds (61%) of C-suite executives are willing to pay a premium to work with an organization with quality thought leadership.
- Yet only 14% of sellers believe thought leadership helps them charge more than competitors.
- More than half (55%) of decision makers say they use thought leadership to vet vendors and partners. Most say quality thought leadership prompts them to choose new vendors or purchase more from current suppliers.
- Only 26% of salespeople believe thought leadership contributes to closing sales.
- Decision makers are spending more time consuming thought leadership. Most do so for at least an hour per week.
- 42% of executives say poor thought leadership has decreased their respect for a business; 28% say they’ve decided against awarding business to a company because their disappointing content.
The Risks of Poor Thought Leadership
That last statistic underscores the high stakes involved in the PR and marketing strategy. Poor thought leadership is worse than bad advertising, which is more likely to simply be ignored rather than harm the brand’s reputation, Pepper notes.
Marketers generally consider thought leadership mainly an awareness-building tool. They’re more concerned that customers notice and engage with the content, not so much about if the content drives sales and other outcomes in the lower section of the sales funnels. The research shows that outlook is a mistake, he says. In many cases, thought leadership drives or clinches B2B sales – especially consultative sales made to the executive level.
“From as much as we hear marketers talk about “thought leadership,” it is shocking (and ironic) to discover how little value content creators actually see in this practice,” comments Emma Wiltshire, community manager at Social Media Today. “Brands seem to be radically unaware of the true impact their thought leadership efforts have on their business.”
How to Create Thought Leadership Content that Impresses
PR and marketing professionals can follow these recommendations to create high-quality thought leadership content that drives sales.
Focus on quality. The key is to provide valuable insights on relevant topics – ideally topics related to issues decision makers are addressing. Try to deliver genuinely bold and original thinking. Executives rate just 18% of pieces as excellent or very good.
Understand customers. Closely monitor customer needs. Media monitoring and measurement can help understand customers’ top issues and pain points.
Create concise content. Most executives say they prefer “snackable content” they can consume in a few minutes. Consider short videos or blog posts focused on particular insights, or infographics that relay concise stories through stats. However, decrease length by being focused rather than diluting or dumbing down the central ideas.
Consider deeper content. Longer and deeper pieces can make a bigger impact than concise content, but usually on fewer people. Those people, however, are often leaders whose support of the thesis or approach is crucial.
Build trust. Executives say content that’s shared by someone they know and respect is a critical factor. Harness the power of your executives, subject matter experts and employees to validate your brand.
Find Appropriate Platforms. Thought leadership can be expressed and distributed in multiple venues. More venues work better. The most obvious is op-ed columns for a major news outlet. Executive speeches – especially those that reporters cover – are also effective in producing media placements. Executive appearances on business talk programs – TV, radio, cable, even podcasts – can also enhance thought leadership. Owned media such as the corporate website and the newsletter distributed to customers, prospects and community leaders can also spread the word. All of the media placements can be redistributed for greater reach.
Measure progress. Relatively few vendors can link specific content pieces to business wins. To establish if a thought leadership program is working, it may be necessary to conduct before and after surveys to establish changes in perception of the company. Monitoring social media for feedback also helps measure progress.
The Role of PR
To implement an effective thought leadership strategy, it’s crucial to first win commitment from top leadership. Get the CEO to support thought leadership initiatives so that company experts cooperate, advises Ken Gaebler, CEO of Walker Sands Communications. Otherwise, calls and meetings may be missed and deadlines ignored.
Establish the PR and marketing strategy and the organization’s key messages first. Then mull how content can support the message, Gaebler urges. A common mistake is to interview thought leaders and write about whatever they talk about, but their favorite topic may not support a company goal.
Train the corporate experts who make the appearances in presentation techniques, methods of handling tough questions, and staying on the corporate message.
Bottom Line: A new survey shows that decision makers view thought leadership as a critical tool for selecting vendors and partners. Oddly, few marketers and salespeople consider the content key for closing sales. That gap presents a substantial opportunity — and responsibility — for PR teams to create thought leadership strategies and high-quality content to establish their organizations as leaders in their industry.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.