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The 3 Characteristics of Effective Thought Leadership in B2B Marketing

A study by Edelman and LinkedIn connects B2B thought leadership to trust and sales; and what it takes to be effective

Effective thought leadership content is a staple of B2B marketing. And it should be – because thought leadership builds a company’s reputation, drives sales, and could well improve profitability.

That’s my analysis of the 2020 B2B Thought Leader Impact Study by Edelman and LinkedIn. The two businesses teamed up to field the survey for the third year in a row and polled 3,275 business executives around the world.

The data is solid: all the statistics have a margin of error of 2.9% or less and detailed demographics are in the report.

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How thought leadership impacts trust

Some of the high-level findings are both compelling and consistent with those from previous years. Here are a few of the statistics that stood out for me:

  • 48% of decision-makers spend an hour or more reading thought leadership content each week;
  • 89% of decision-makers say thought leadership “can be effective in enhancing their perceptions of an organization.” Perception, in this study, is comprised of respect (90%), trust (88%) and perception of their capabilities (88%);
  • 69% of decision-makers agree reading thought leadership is “one of the best ways to get a sense of the type and caliber of an organization’s thinking”;
  • 59% of decision-makers agree thought leadership is “a more trustworthy basis for assessing its capabilities and competencies than its marketing materials”;

It’s pretty clear from the data that businesses can conclude, thought leadership is a way to earn the attention of decision-makers, and influences how decision-makers view a company.

How thought leadership impacts sales

If the effects of thought leadership on trust and reputation are interesting, then sales statistics are even more impressive.

  • 49% of decision-makers say that thought leadership “can be effective in influencing their purchasing decisions”; and
  • 42% of decision-makers “agree they are more willing to pay a premium to work with an organization that produces thought leadership versus those that do not.”

Those decision-makers that were polled also suggest that thought leadership is effective at all the major stages of the sales cycle:

  • 42% said it influenced consideration – just getting invited to the table;
  • 48% said it influenced purchases – an award of business;
  • 53% said it influenced an upsell – more business from existing customers; and
  • 54% said it influenced a cross-sell – buying additional products or services.

While you’re soaking those statistics in, think about this: besides thought leadership, what are the other levers marketing has available to pull that bears this sort of influence on sales?

Pricing? Product? Relationships? None of those answers can be nearly as compelling as thought leadership.

There is of course risk because if decision-makers think the content put forward misses the mark of what constitutes thought leadership it can have the opposite effect.

  • 28% of decision-makers rate the quality of thought leadership content they’ve read as “mediocre to very poor”;
  • 38% of decision-makers say that sometimes [low quality] thought leadership resulted in “their respect and admiration for an organization has decreased”; [emphasis mine] and
  • 27% of decision-makers say that sometimes [low quality] thought leadership has resulted in not awarding business [emphasis mine].

What constitutes low-quality content? The top attributes identified – by decision-makers – in the report is content that:

  • Merely repeat what’s already been said;
  • Basic or elementary concepts; and
  • Content that is too sales-y or promotional.

This is a new illustration of the classic example of how high-quality marketing is far less expensive than the cheap stuff.

3 characteristics of effective B2B thought leadership

This is the section of the report that really got my attention – the characteristics of effective thought leadership content. Notably, while the source of the statistics above has been “decision-makers” this section is derived from the “producers” of thought leadership.

1. Apply “Deep thinking and intellectual rigor”

Deep thinking – isn’t that the definition of thought leadership. A full 73% of producers “credited deep thinking and intellectual rigor among the most important drivers of thought leadership success.”

What does that mean?

  • Subject matter had “a lot of emerging interest” (35%);
  • Based on “high-quality research” (34%) which surely includes objectivity;
  • Truly novel – “we said something new” (33%); and
  • Laid out concrete actions readers could take (31%).

2. Build support from “leadership and across the organization”

The second characteristic of effective thought leadership was support – “63% of producers “credited support from leadership and across the organization.”

This includes:

  • Championing the content (32%);
  • Being directly involved in producing it (32%);
  • Ensuring the production was coordinated across the organization (27%); and
  • Leadership and sales were effectively trained to “communicate big ideas presented in the piece” (21%).

While it wasn’t identified in the report, sometimes support requires leadership to get out of the way and let the smart marketers you hired to get the job done. If you feel you must micromanage content – and touch everything – then it’s worth thinking about whether the problem is with you or your team. You’ll never get scale that way and something has to give.

3. Plan for promotion and “support for distribution”

There’s a lot of thought and budget that goes into the creation of content – and distribution tends to be an afterthought. In this study, 58% of producers “credited promotional follow through and support for distribution” as the third most important characteristic of effective thought leadership.

Distribution means:

  • “broadly and effectively” (40%);
  • engaged employees in amplification (31%)  and
  • paid for some promotion (11%).

Distribution is a skill onto itself. It’s not just ensuring the piece goes out over every channel, but it’s also finding ways to slice up reported, tie it to new trends and breathe new life into the investment in content you’ve already made.

For example, if you run a survey, chances are a dedicated blog post can be created around almost every question. You get more swings in that way – and sooner or later you’re going to knock one out of the park. Keep in mind reusing content doesn’t mean regurgitate – add value with every new use.

Never a better time for thought leadership than now

As I write these words, the Coronavirus pandemic has place constraints on many marketing activities. There’s a lot of sensitivity around messaging and promotion, but you don’t have those problems if you focus on high-quality thought leadership development – in the way this study prescribes. There’s never been a better time to experiment with big ideas and try new things than right now.

>>> Looking for a B2B tech PR with expertise and execution? Give our services a try.

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Image credit: Unsplash and the above named report

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