Reflections on the 2019 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study

Late in 2018, the powerhouse global communications firm Edelman teamed up with LinkedIn for an in-depth study on the impact thought leadership has on market demand. Here are some key takeaways from the study:

Groundbreaking research starts with a thought-provoking question. Edelman’s research staff had a burning one on their minds: Thought leadership earns attention but does it drive demand?

Quick Takeaways:

  • Thought leadership influences sales more than most marketing teams realize—and its impact is growing.
  • When a company gets thought leadership right, its impact brings a rise in sales. Done poorly, however, it creates risk.
  • Most of today’s B2B marketing teams miss opportunities to leverage thought leadership throughout their sales funnel.

Edelman’s researchers defined thought leadership as “free deliverables that organizations or individuals produce on a topic in their area of expertise when they feel others can benefit from their perspective.” Thought leadership, therefore, is not promotional material that mainly explores the benefits of one’s products or services. Thought leadership pieces can include videos, webinars, presentations, research reports, essays, thought pieces, and more.

To conduct their research, the Edelman team surveyed 1,201 American business decision makers and key influencers to examine the influence thought leadership had on their purchasing decisions. Companies ranged in size, with smaller businesses with 1-200 employees forming 43% of the respondents, while medium-sized and large businesses composed 28% and 20% of the respondents, respectively.

What they discovered was astounding. In only a year’s time, these business leaders increased their consumption of thought leadership material by eight percent. Even more telling, those who spent four or more hours per week reading or watching thought leadership material showed the greatest increase.

Fifty-five percent of these decision members use thought leadership material as a standard by which they evaluate potential partners and vendors. A huge majority of the respondents use these pieces to gauge the caliber of the companies’ goods and services.

It’s even more important, most of the decision makers agreed, for small businesses to put out insightful material. That means that even if a company is a niche manufacturer with a crew of engineers and day laborers, it needs someone skilled in the creative side of the business to create thought leadership pieces.

For businesses without a creative on their team, that might mean either hiring someone to create this in-depth content—or outsourcing their thought leadership pieces to a content marketing agency.

A Huge Disconnect Between Sales Teams and Executives

Forty-seven percent of the C-suite respondents reported that they shared their contact details after they read a thought leadership piece. Yet sales teams haven’t quite gotten the message on the importance of thought leadership. Only 39% of those surveyed said they believed in the power of thought leadership as a source of new contacts that they can call on.

The disconnect gets worse. Although 45% of the executives invited a company whose thought leadership piece impressed them to bid on a project—even though they had never even considered that company before—only 17% of sellers believed that thought leadership content could yield requests for proposals (RFPs).

Even though thought leadership led 58% of corporate decision makers to award a company their business, only 26% of sales teams believed that thought leadership could help them close a deal. In fact, most high-value decision makers are even willing to pay premium prices to work with a visionary company who’s a thought leader in their field, but only 14% of sales teams believed that thought leadership was a factor in charging a customer premium rates.

The “Opportunity Gap” and How to Exploit it to Gain More Business

Not only does thought leadership help a company attract new business, but it also drives their customers’ decision to buy more products and services from them—by 55 percent. Sixty percent of executives even bought a new product or service that they hadn’t considered before—simply from the persuasive power of thought leadership.

The Edelman researchers dubbed this disconnect between sales teams and decision makers the “opportunity gap.” When sales teams and the producers who hire them take these insights seriously, they can exploit it to win more business from both new and existing customers.

But What’s the Catch?

While there is a great opportunity to capitalize on thought leadership pieces, there also is an element of risk involved. The catch, you see, is that high-quality thought leadership pieces are rare. Only 18% of pieces that come across a typical decision maker’s desk are “excellent or very good,” the study found.

Many of the companies who attempt thought leadership pieces, the study showed, don’t realize the huge impact these pieces have on the company’s reputation and its ability to win a potential customer’s trust. When you compare their numbers with that of decision makers, the difference is striking.

In fact, poorly done thought leadership pieces cause many executives to stop following an organization on social media or other platforms. They can even influence a company to not buy products and services from the content producer.

That’s a lot of red ink bleeding out. When you lose 30 percent of your potential revenue because your content isn’t up to standard, it can slash your bottom line.

Instead of dashing off a yawnfest of a post every week, try a thoughtful approach instead.

How to Create Content that Positions You as a Thought Leader

  • Find an innovative angle: Look at your market and discover opportunities for your thought leadership where it could drive change and innovation in your industry.
  • Make your content relevant: No one cares about your opinion—or even your thoughts on a topic that doesn’t interest them. Discover what your customers need—and deliver it through thought-provoking, well-researched content.
  • Be a visionary: Think about what your customers will need in the future. Create content that demonstrates not only your mastery of your industry but also your thoughtfulness in planning for their future needs. Nearly nine out of ten respondents want to see future-focused pieces in their weekly reading list.
  • Build trust through affirmation: Create the kind of authoritative content that will drive industry leaders to share it and recommend it to their colleagues.
  • Be concise: Your customers are busy. They don’t want to hear flowery prose or jargon-filled tomes. Use easy-to-read, jargon-free copy that they can scan easily when they’re short on time.
  • Measure your results: Use analytics on LinkedIn and other social media platforms to measure the impact of your content. Measure shares, comments, e-book downloads, and other actions your readers have taken on each piece of content you put out.

When you use these standards to put out and measure thoughtful, consistent content, you will position yourself as an industry thought leader. If you don’t have the time or the staff to create the kind of content that drives results, though, there’s a solution.

To get more traffic to your site with quality content that’s consistently published, check out our Content Builder Service. Set up a quick consultation, and I’ll send you a free PDF version of my books. Get started today and generate more traffic and leads for your business through thought-provoking, relevant content your customers need.

Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner  is a Top CMO, Content Marketing and Digital Marketing Influencer, an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula" and he is the CEO and Founder of Marketing Insider Group, a leading Content Marketing Agency . He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael helps build successful content marketing programs for leading brands and startups alike. Subscribe here for regular updates.