Home > Marketing > 7 takeaways from a study on B2B thought leadership; why it works or doesn’t

7 takeaways from a study on B2B thought leadership; why it works or doesn’t

Thought leadership benefits B2B marketing in so many ways – awareness, consideration and even customer retention – but it can have adverse effects when it’s under-resourced and turns out to be light on substance

The social media platform LinkedIn and the PR firm Edelman routinely team up to conduct surveys. There’s one in particular they publish on thought leadership that I’ve followed since 2017. The 2024 version is out so I spent some time perusing the report to write about it here.

This year the two companies polled 3,484 business executives globally. Some of them are buyers, which the report refers to as “decision makers” and the others come from sellers, which the report calls “producers.”

Importantly, 6% of the decision-makers hold C-suite titles, and the report segments some answers by this cohort. Mathematically, that works out to about 209 C-suite respondents. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8% but no confidence interval was provided.

Here’s what stood out to me in the report (click images for higher resolution).

1. Thought leadership builds trust

Roughly three-quarters of decision-makers said thought leadership was more trustworthy than other marketing materials. They see this style of content as a better “basis for assessing its capabilities and competencies.” Seven in 10 said they think more of solution providers that “consistently produce high-quality thought leadership.”

Comment: This makes sense because thought leadership is intended to educate rather than sell. Yet buyers also use these materials to evaluate vendors. The takeaway here is that prospects respond better to brands that set out to inform rather than sell.

2. Thought leadership can win a spot on the shortlist

According to the survey, leadership has a direct impact on product consideration. More than half (54%) said a solution provider “that consistently produces high-quality thought-leadership content has prompted them to research the organization’s offers or capabilities.”

Another 60% “said that piece of thought leadership had made them realize their organization was missing out on a significant business opportunity.” In other words, thought leadership helped them to see themselves in the very problem the vendor was solving.

Lastly, thought leadership can be an on-ramp to a buyer’s shortlist when the opportunity is seemingly lost. A majority, (75%) of decision-makers said, “thought leadership has led them to research a product or service they were not previously considering.” Further another 23% began working with the very company they hadn’t previously considered.

Finally, a whopping 90% of “decision-makers and C-suite executives say they are moderately or very likely to be more receptive to sales or marketing outreach from a company that consistently produces high-quality thought leadership.”

Comment: A separate survey, which I covered recently, found that B2B prospects are “69% of the way through a buying cycle” before they ever speak to a sales representative. This means prospects are doing their own research and making a short list all on their own. So, how can you get on a shortlist?  By producing high-quality thought leadership.

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3. Thought leadership brings pricing power

The survey found 60% of decision-makers “say that good thought leadership makes them willing to pay a premium to work with that organization.” In other words, companies that develop genuine thought leadership have more pricing power.

Comment: This finding has shown up in the study in prior years as well. B2B marketers need only look at premium-tier SaaS pricing to see the connection between thought leadership and pricing. Salesforce and HubSpot are two good examples.

4. Thought leadership aids customer marketing and retention

Thought leadership can change the perspective existing customers have of your company. The survey revealed the following:

  • 70% of C-suite leaders said, “thought leadership had at least occasionally led them to question whether they should continue working with an existing supplier.”
  • 54% of decision-makers said, “thought leadership got them to realize there were other suppliers they could work with that had a better understanding of the challenges their organization was facing.”
  • 51% of decision-makers said, “thought leadership got them to realize that other suppliers were smarter or more visionary.”
  • 25% of decision-makers said, “thought leadership had led them to end or significantly reduce their relationship with a current supplier/provider.”

Comment: It’s important to realize these stats could go either way. For example, a company that puts out low-quality content may cause customers to re-evaluate their relationships with that vendor. Similarly, a computer that puts out high-quality thought leadership might create an opportunity to win a new customer from the competition.

5. A big disconnect between buyers and sellers over quality

We know thought leadership can be effective marketing – so why does it fall flat sometimes? The survey boils it down to one important issue: quality.

Less than half of B2B decision-makers surveyed (48%) said the quality of the thought leadership they see is “good.” Further, just 15% say “the quality is very good or excellent.”

For their part, the marketing side, that is those producing thought leadership say the program is not properly resourced. In fact, 50% of producers say, “The main barrier cited to producing more effective thought leadership is that it is under-resourced.”

This isn’t just about budget and writers either. It’s also about access to the big thinkers that vendors have on their team. They are busy too, but it’s on marketing to find a way. More than one in four (27%) “say they’re not engaging the most senior and talented people.”

Another “26% say their organization lacks the skills to produce high-quality content.” [Psst…go hire a consultant!]

Any marketer who’s had a request for a 20-minute phone interview with an internal subject matter expert that goes unanswered knows exactly what this finding is saying.

Comment: This is a problem for senior marketing leaders to fix. Producers need to talk to SMEs and more importantly to customers, to produce high-quality thought leadership.

The business model in B2B tech means sales owns the customer relationship – and they aren’t always so willing to spend a reference-call-chip on thought leadership. So, marketing winds up writing content without talking to a customer!

Of course, it turns out terrible, because thought leadership requires actual thought and actual leadership.

6. What B2B prospects and customers want from thought leadership

This survey did well to articulate what B2B buyers and prospects want from thought leadership. B2B decision makers in this report articulated the following:

  • 55% said good thought leadership “references strong research and data.”
  • 44% said it helps “better understand challenges and opportunities facing my business.”
  • 43% said it “offers concrete guidance and case studies.”

Comment: B2B customers and prospects effectively want to know three things about a prospective solution provider. First, they want to know if you understand their industry (research and data). Second, they want to know if you understand their business (verbatim). Third, they want to know the vendor is capable of solving their problem for them (guidance and case studies).

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7. Measuring thought leadership results

Nearly one in five (19%) of the producers surveyed for this report “said they do not have any process in place for measuring effectiveness.”

Another “42% of producers of thought leadership still seek to measure effectiveness by looking for increased traffic to their website and social pages.”

Lastly, “29% can link sales leads back to specific pieces of thought-leadership content.”

Comment: Measurement is always the Achilles heel of marketing, but some aren’t even trying. Engagement metrics like downloads (whether gated or ungated), reads and time-on-page (for html or dynamic formats) are good interim metrics. Tying it back on the sales pipeline is crucial. It’s not too hard – but you have to either ask that question (onboarding is a good time) or back through your analytics data to see what they touched along the way.

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The 2024 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Report by Edelman and LinkedIn is freely available for download. Here are several other solid takes on this study:

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Image credit: respective report

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