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The Powerful Sales Element of Social Proof in Thought Leadership Done Well

When a company illustrates in thought leadership that it understands an industry – its strengths, weaknesses, problems and opportunities – buyers stand to reason their products are probably pretty good too.

A car dealership published an advertisement promoting several open sales positions. The message in the copy indicated that sales were booming – the dealership didn’t have enough salespeople to serve the demand.

After the advertisement was published, sales demand increased even more. Why? While the advertisement wasn’t aimed at selling, it included a message that conveyed social proof: “look at all those people buying cars – seems like everyone is doing it.”

That anecdote is included in the social proof section of Dr. Robert Cialdini’s new and expanded edition of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. The story is a good introduction to a post about a thought leadership study because content of this variety isn’t intended to sell directly either.

Being “overly focused on selling or describing products rather than conveying valuable information” (46%) is the top turn-off. That’s according to the 2021 LinkedIn-Edelman B2B Thought Leadership Impact Report, which polled 3,593 B2B executives in six countries including the U.S. and U.K.

1. Thought leadership is more important than ever in B2B.

The findings build upon research by other credible organizations, that thought leadership is more important than ever in B2B marketing. This is because “B2B purchasing does not include direct engagement with the provider.”

For example, the report cites research by Gartner concluding, “83% of a typical B2B purchasing decision – researching solutions, ranking options and benchmarking pricing – happens before a buyer engages directly with a provider.”

This isn’t a new datapoint, but it’s definitely been a consistent one. Forrester Research said back in 2013 “Today’s buyers might be anywhere from two-thirds to 90% of the way through their journey before they reach out to the vendor.”

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2. The C-Suite spend more time with thought leadership today.

The study by Edelman and LinkedIn found “more than half (51%) of C-suite executives say they spend more time-consuming thought leadership than before the pandemic began.”

How much time? Some “54% of decision-makers – and 48% of the C-suite – say they spend more than 1 hour per week reading and reviewing thought leadership.”

3. Why decision-makers consume thought leadership.

Understanding why a decision-maker consumes thought leadership is the key to cutting through the clutter. Just like a product or service aims to fulfill an unmet need – so too does the associated content.

According to the survey, here’s why decision-makers consume thought leadership:

  • 71% “keep up-to-date with the latest thinking in my field or business sector.”
  • 65% “understand the key trends currently affecting my business/organization.”
  • 68% “gain insight into future trends poised to impact my business/organization.”
  • 71% “stimulate my thinking and help me generate new ideas for my organization.”
  • 47% “discover new products and offerings that might help my organization.”

Indeed, thought leadership actually requires thought and leadership.

4. Thought leadership that doesn’t sell – sells.

This point is the hinge in the study: content that helps decision-makers stay current, understand trends and stimulate thinking isn’t designed to sell – but it clearly influences sales.

Respondents to the survey took several sales-oriented actions after consuming quality thought leadership:

  • 42% “invited the organization to bid on a project (when that firm was not in their original consideration set).”
  • 48% “awarded business to the organization responsible for the thought leadership.”
  • 53% “decided to increase the amount of business they did with the organization.”
  • 54% “purchased a new product or service from the organization that they had not previously considered buying.”

5. Thought leadership is perfect for challenger brands.

Thought leadership is a way to disrupt the notion that “Nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM.” Done well, it opens up opportunities to challenger brands:

  • 47% “of buyers say thought leadership led them to discover and ultimately purchase from a company that was not considered to be among the leaders in a particular category.”

6. Tangible marketing upsides to thought leadership.

The study notes thought leadership “significantly influences brand perception and buying behaviors throughout the entire decision process.”

A few examples from the report include:

  • Thought leadership shapes perception. 65% “of buyers say thought leadership significantly changed the perception of a company, for the better, due to a piece of thought leadership.”
  • Thought leadership can fix damaged reputations. 46% “of buyers say that thought leadership can be important in repairing the reputation of a company that is mired in controversy.”
  • Thought leadership builds trust. 64% “of buyers say that an organization’s thought leadership content is a more trustworthy basis for assessing its capabilities and competency than its marketing materials and product sheets.”
  • Thought leadership attracts talent. “50% of buyers say thought leadership can be important in attracting the best talent.”

Feeling pride in belonging has long been key to attracting and retaining talent.

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7. Thought leadership should challenge assumptions.

The top turnoffs in thought leadership are 1) being “overly focused on selling or describing products rather than conveying valuable information” (46%); and 2) “unoriginal thinking, or a lack of new ideas” (40%).  Indeed, leaders welcome big ideas. Thought leadership should offer “provocative ideas that challenge my assumptions regarding a topic” (81%).

Some of the other elements decision-makers desire in thought leadership include:

  • 80% “includes 3rd party data and insights from other trusted organizations or people.”
  • 77% “features deep subject matter experts delving into specialized topics.”
  • 62% “a focus on analyzing current trends that are likely to be affecting my business today.”

I’d add to that, in my experience, thought leadership that helps the market identify a problem and conceptualize a solution tends to resonate.

* * *

When a company illustrates through thought leadership that it understands an industry – its strengths, weaknesses, problems and opportunities – buyers stand to reason their products are probably pretty good too. There’s a powerful sales element of social proof at play– the same one in that car dealership’s recruiting ad.

The entire study is freely available for download: 2021 LinkedIn-Edelman B2B Thought Leadership Impact Report.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
B2B Marketing: When You Finally Achieve Thought Leadership, Don’t Let it Slip Away

Image credits: Unsplash and said study

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