Thought Leadership

More Thoughts than Leadership?

Written by
Sebastian Jespersen
More Thoughts than Leadership?

Most leading B2B brands are spending resources on thought leadership, but few succeed in cutting through the content clutter. The opportunity is clear: differentiate and position the brand, while creating a closer, ongoing entangled relationship with clients between the buying cycles. In fact, 54% of decision-makers spend over an hour every week consuming “thought leadership,” yet a huge 71% state in a recent B2B Thought Leader Study by Edelman and LinkedIn that less than half of this content provides any valuable insights.

While the COVID-19 pandemic engendered an enormous increase in thought leadership content as we accelerated our virtual lives, it also corresponded with a massive change in the relationships between buyers and sellers. Gartner research finds that 83% of a typical B2B purchasing decision occurs before a buyer even talks to a supplier, and during that entire buying journey, sales representatives only comprise a mere 5% of a customer’s time. This trend is confirmed by a McKinsey study which concludes that more than three-quarters of B2B buyers and sellers say they prefer today’s digital reality over the frequent face-to-face interactions of the past.  

Are you a Thought Leader?

Before we call someone a “thought leader,” we assume that the individual or organization is recognized as an authority in a field or exceptionally experienced and successful within a given market. This signifies real-world understanding, proven actions, and genuine authenticity.

According to Oxford’s dictionary:

thought lead·er: one whose views on a subject are taken to be authoritative and influential.

Jake Dunlap, Founder and CEO of Skaled, a sales-consulting firm that helps startups and established companies scale more efficiently, recently said that “modern thought leaders draw on the past, analyze the present, and illuminate the future to create a comprehensive, unique, and impactful view of their area of expertise.” His point is well made.

Whether thought leadership content offers best practices, lessons from hard-won experiences, rousing success stories, advocacy for social responsibility, specific expertise, or relevant perspectives on current events, its goal is always to create a richer and more meaningful relationship with your customers and stakeholders. Yet, brands have difficulties earning credibility and breaking through when that content is complex.

A Vertic study

A Vertic study shows that many leading brands have created thought leadership sites; however, most content is adding to the existing massive sea of sameness. The platforms are not integrated into the buyer’s journey, nor does the content rank for buyer-specific intent terms. Therefore, these organizations have established an organizational setup that allows for ongoing content creation, but without being able to demonstrate a ROI from that content.

A quick glance at some of the study observations

Vertic's study analyzed search performance and rankings for 10 popular thought leadership topics1 to understand A) who are the brands and solution providers that are ranking and therefore gaining the most traffic and awareness for those topics, and B) whether their content is aligned with a typical buying journey providing unique and relevant insights for those individuals.

Figure 1 Example of solution providers ranking for 'digital transformation' theme

  • Observation 1: The study found that large service providers are focused on producing content that is volume driven (quantity) instead of relevancy-driven (quality), therefore investing in generic content to educate more immature audiences rather than thinking what a potential customer would be searching for throughout their buying journey (business focused intent terms rather than educational ones).
  • Observation 2: In addition to not aligning content to the buyer journey, the content itself generally lacks unique and valuable insights and fails to demonstrate how the brand can play a role in that topic (e.g. digital transformation). Instead, they offer basic content with “what is” definitions instead of in-depth content that more mature searchers are looking for.
  • Observation 3: Interestingly, large solution providers primarily rank for simpler (educational) search terms with large search volume, while smaller solution providers rank for more buyer-specific search queries with smaller search volume. This indicates a smarter strategy that smaller solution providers are leveraging to penetrate the market.
  • Observation 4: For thought leadership content to perform, it requires the SEO and thought leadership/ content teams to work in tandem. Together, they must develop a joint strategy to streamline their efforts around their prospects' most pressing topics and search queries. The thought leadership team must ensure the creation of unique, high-quality content that is the foundation for every successful SEO. At the same time, the SEO team must empower their thought leadership colleagues with trend data and search insights to ensure they focus on topics most relevant to their target audience.
Generic vs. buyer specific search terms

Content marketing vs. Thought leadership marketing

There is a fundamental misunderstanding between thought-leadership and what is content marketing.

  • Content marketing: The content appearing on the search results page for generic terms, (for which the large providers rank), is patronizing in nature and aimed at a very broad audience. All content displayed on the first page of the search results focuses on defining the corresponding search term and does not differ from each other, showing a further “sea of sameness”. These generic terms are not what mature buyers are looking for, so the glossary type content can be patronizing to more mature audiences looking for actual thought leadership. This is content marketing.
  • Thought leadership: The content appearing on the search results page for buyer-specific intent terms is more unique and provides more business-relevant content (roadmaps, frameworks, best practices). This content is seemingly less focused on gaining clicks, instead genuinely trying to be helpful and interesting to mature audiences. This is thought leadership.

A ‘License to Talk’

At Vertic, we have created a unique methodology to ensure that brands are granted “a license to talk.” We’ve found that many companies are both good and comfortable communicating their product leadership, but this does not necessarily translate to “thought leadership” when addressing key audience groups. Brands must first understand how they can meaningfully be part of a key conversation by being clear about the unique insights they can add. Plus, they need to realize that their thought leadership content not only positions them alongside their usual category competitors, but also among true topic owners—in many cases professional services companies like McKinsey, Bain, Deloitte, and others who now use the power of their well-researched and trendsetting thought leadership content every day to build their position within the minds of decision makers.  

What keeps your audiences up at night?

To be relevant to your stakeholders, and earn the license to talk, we use an outside in approach – one that focuses on what keeps stakeholders up at night, and connects those concerns to unique insights, suggestions, and possible solutions.

Many brands will argue that they are already developing their thought leadership outside in, but the research tells a different story: Nearly half (47%) of B2B buyers say that most thought leadership does not seem to be created with their specific needs in mind, according to the Edelman/LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study.  

Through data driven methods, Vertic sheds light on the concerns of stakeholders and then provides insights or recommendations for solutions. Vertic’s topic identification model considers digital behavior as more than 90% of our journeys start with a search and then understands competition (from both an awareness and direct product perspective), helping to further differentiate a whitespace for a brand to authentically communicate its unique value proposition. These findings grant the brand a license to talk because they provide a perspective to something that matters to the audience. It’s not about the brand, it’s about the topic.

Now the brand is ready to act and communicate and this to done through an operating model that integrates thought-leadership into the marketing and communications function and then throughout the rest of the organization’s functions. In this way thought leadership will resonate better with the customer audience as they experience the brand through multiple touchpoints.  

Why invest in Thought leadership?

So why should you invest in thought leadership? Because it drives your business success.

Thought Leadership helps to move people beyond an initial transaction. The B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study demonstrates that decision-makers react in the following ways after engaging with a stimulating and authentic piece of 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 as all the people who buy from them.

Thought starters as you are evaluating your thought leadership strategy

So, where to begin? There are a few fundamental questions you should be asking as your start evaluating the thought leadership strategy.

  • What will be authentic for your brand to discuss?
  • Are you providing unique insights to the market?
  • What keeps your customers up at night?
  • Have you connected your current thought leadership to your offerings/solutions?
  • Is your SEO team and content team working together?

Thought leadership can be an impactful method for providing value to B2B decision makers and enabling a brand to cut through the noise in an overcrowded world of content. However, if you or your organization is not dedicated to consistently doing it right, your efforts will be more random thought than true leadership.

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