Is your thought leadership really building your brand?

It can be one of B2B marketers’ biggest brand assets – but only if it’s planned and executed that way

January 15, 2020

Is your thought leadership really building your brand?

Ask a group of B2B marketers what thought leadership is for, and you’ll get any number of answers. There will be lots of mentions of generating leads, of inbound marketing, of setting the agenda for your sector, of demonstrating leadership, of the value exchange with your customers or potential customers. Some of your companions might mention product marketing, thinking of the blog series they’ve just finished planning, which aligns ever-so-nicely with the new platform feature or solution they launched last week. If you’ve got a savvy SEO marketer in your group they’ll probably chime in with something about backlinks or that mysterious correlation between shares and SERP rankings. The social media marketer might mention building communities, earning organic reach or trying to go viral.

I should add that I’ll be nodding along with all of these. That’s because I know the value of thought leadership for these different objectives – and also because the imaginary conversation I started in the last paragraph feels like it’s going really well at this point. I’m owning this networking event!

Somewhere along the line, one of these marketers will mention thought leadership building brands – but they will probably mention it in passing before getting onto some of the more detailed, specific, bottom-of-the-funnel objectives that I listed above. It’s very, very easy to take the brand-building elements of thought leadership for granted. We assume it’s got to be happening in the background somehow, almost by default; that because people are watching or reading our stuff, it must automatically be generating some brand equity for us. It’s seen as a beneficial side-effect – and it’s very rarely the objective that we sit down and plan our approach to thought leadership around.

The missed opportunity for B2B brands and thought leadership

This is a real pity, because thought leadership can and should be one of the most powerful brand strategies that B2B businesses adopt. It’s capable of building famous brands; brands that people aren’t just aware of but which they think about instantly and instinctively whenever they ponder a given topic; brands that deliver very real bottom-line benefits in terms of sustained profitability. However, thought leadership won’t build these types of brands by chance. It requires a strategy that intentionally focuses on producing the type of emotional response and influential memories that brands depend on. A lot of the evidence that we have on the current state of B2B thought leadership suggests too few businesses are doing this.

LinkedIn’s B2B Institute has just published one of the most in-depth studies ever into how different marketing strategies drive growth for B2B businesses. The researchers Les Binet and Peter Field analysed the contents of the IPA database to understand the different roles played by activation marketing, which is designed to generate an immediate response, and brand marketing, which is designed to build influential memories that increase a brand’s salience (how likely it is to come to people’s minds when it matters) over time.

One of the clearest findings in Binet and Field’s research is that, although investing in brand will increase the effectiveness of activation marketing over time, activation marketing doesn’t repay this by contributing to building a brand. Activity that’s focused on generating an immediate response doesn’t build long-term brand equity. It isn’t designed to appeal on an emotional level or be memorable – and therefore it can’t have any brand impact.

Something very similar applies with thought leadership strategies: if your thought leadership strategy isn’t designed to be memorable then people won’t remember it, and if they don’t remember it, it can’t build your brand.

What memorable thought leadership looks like

The best thought leadership passes this memory test with flying colours – and builds powerfully salient brands in the process. It’s hard to imagine a discussion of trust that doesn’t make reference to the Edelman Trust Barometer, which has been tracking levels of trust in brands and institutions for almost two decades. When C-suite members discuss the importance of diversity, it’s hard for them not to think of McKinsey, the management consultancy that published a groundbreaking report Why Diversity Matters, into how more diverse boards outperform their peer companies financially. When SEO marketers ponder how to move their page into the top three spots on Google, their minds often visualise the Whiteboard Fridays that search agency Moz has made famous. The venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins, owed a great deal of its brand profile to one very famous piece of thought leadership: The Internet Trends report released each year by its one-time partner, Mary Meeker. Now that Meeker has founded her own VC firm, Bond Capital, that brand equity is likely to follow her.

And then there’s Binet and Field themselves. I know that if I’d asked these two researchers into my hypothetical conversation back in the first paragraph, they’d have brought the whole discussion to a very swift conclusion. As far as they are concerned, thought leadership is brand marketing – and the best evidence they have is themselves. When Binet and Field started work on The Long and the Short of It, their seminal study of the role of brand and activation in B2C marketing, they were just two researchers. Now they are two of the most sought-after consultants for businesses interested in balancing their marketing mix. Impactful, memorable thought leadership on an issue that marketers really care about hasn’t just made them famous – it’s taken care of most of their future lead generation for them.

Where B2B thought leadership falls short

So how much B2B thought leadership falls into the category of memorable, impactful and famous? The answer, I’m afraid, is not that much. Edelman and LinkedIn just released the latest edition of their annual study of B2B thought leadership. It confirms the immensely positive brand impact that thought leadership can have – but warns that the majority of thought leadership isn’t having it.

B2B marketers’ most important audiences are eager consumers of thought leadership. Almost half (48%) of purchase decision-makers spend at least an hour every week consuming it – and many spend much longer than that. And these decision-makers are primed for thought leadership to change their perception of brands. In fact, 89% say that it enhances their respect, trust and perception of the capabilities of an organisation; 42% say they are willing to pay a premium to work with proven thought leaders. It’s harder to imagine a better audience to create brand-building content for. And yet, this opportunity is being largely wasted. The audiences in the Edelman and LinkedIn study describe only 15% of the thought leadership they encounter as ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’. Only 29% say they reliably gain value from the time they spend consuming it.

This is more than just a missed opportunity. Unlike most mediocre ads, which end up swiftly forgotten, the evidence suggests that poor-quality thought leadership has an ongoing negative effect for B2B brands. In fact, 38% of decision-makers say that poor thought leadership has decreased their respect and admiration for an organisation. The current standard of thought leadership could well be undermining as many B2B brands as it benefits.

Mixing up activation and brand in thought leadership

Why are consumers of thought leadership disappointed? It’s not that the content they’re served is wrong or inaccurate; the problem is that the content is disposable. Analyse the answers in the survey we carry out with Edelman, and time and time again thought leadership seems to fail because it’s not designed or delivered in a way that’s memorable. Audiences want the type of thought leadership that’s planned, prioritised and invested in as part of a brand strategy. What they tend to get is thought leadership that’s delivered as part of an activation strategy. That’s the cause of the disconnect – and the reason that so much thought leadership is currently a missed opportunity for B2B brands.

What distinguishes brand-building thought leadership from activation thought leadership? Here are the five things to look for – and the five questions to ask of your content strategy if you want it to deliver long-term business value:

Brand-building thought leadership deals in original ideas

Ideas have emotional impact the first time you hear them. That’s the moment in which they surprise you, challenge you, play with your preconceptions, and build memories. It’s these kinds of original ideas that thought leadership audiences crave – and brand-building relies on. The ability to provide a new perspective is the top characteristic of high-value thought leadership, according to decision-makers. The top characteristic of low-quality thought leadership is that it merely repeats what everyone else is saying.

One of the most powerful, original ideas in thought leadership was the one presented by Fred Reichheld of Bain & Company, in a 2003 Harvard Business Review article entitled The One Number You Need to Grow. His idea was that somebody’s likelihood to recommend a company, product or service can tell you so much more about the health of your brand. It was so striking and original that it’s dominated thinking on brand measurement (in the form of NPS) ever since.

An original idea doesn’t have to relate directly to a new product or solution, though. It can simply be a viewpoint on your area of expertise that stands out from the received wisdom – and resonates. Velocity Partners achieved huge fame in B2B marketing circles with its 2013 SlideShare: Crap! At the precise moment when content was turning into the biggest gold-rush in marketing, it planted the thought that this could actually be bad for marketing. Similarly, one of the most influential posts ever published on our LinkedIn Marketing Solutions blog achieved its fame by pointing out that something everyone believed to be true was really nonsense. Exploding the myth that human beings have the attention span of a goldfish didn’t require vast amounts of new study – all it needed was a desire to look at the available evidence and question whether people were interpreting it correctly.

Brand-building thought leadership invests in authority

When brands invest in generating a substantive insight through credible research, they make their ideas difficult to ignore. Weight of evidence increases emotional impact.

McKinsey’s Why Diversity Matters research fits into this category. Before this research, lots of people had argued that more diverse companies were more effective – but nobody had quantified it in a way that was succinct, impactful and memorable. Mapping the relationship between financial performance and the diverse make-up of boards took a matter of opinion and made it a fact. This approach helps to make the thought leadership itself more salient – the useful fact is the memory that first comes to mind when thinking about the issue. This in turn, increases salience for the brand behind the research.

Brand-building thought leadership invests for the long term

Brand marketing is a longer-term investment than activation marketing: it takes longer to build the memories that make a brand salient, but the flipside to this is that those memories then persist for a long time in return. Something similar happens with thought leadership. In our survey with Edelman, we found that businesses that had invested in thought leadership over a longer period were significantly more likely to describe their output as ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’. Only 9% of companies producing thought leadership for less than a year rate their content this highly; this rises to 29% for those doing so for six to ten years, and 35% for those producing content over a 21-year period.

Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report, which she has published every year since 1995, is a great example of the power of longevity in thought leadership. Its publication each June has become a major event in itself, generating global media coverage and ensuring that her brand and that of her employers gets value from the original ideas in it. Edelman’s Trust Barometer similarly creates news with its publication each year.

Brand-building thought leadership consciously aims for fame

Successful thought leadership doesn’t just come up with original ideas and build authority around those ideas over time. It consciously aims for fame by focusing its thinking on the issues that will resonate with its target audiences – and then distilling those ideas into content formats that communicate them with impact. Moz’s Whiteboard Fridays are a great example of simple, distinctive, visual presentation of thought leadership that makes ideas more memorable. EY’s gender parity countdown clock, which it launched in 2014, provided a memorable idea and image that promoted a broad range of thinking on gender equality. Just as importantly, these brands have designed their thought leadership strategies around subjects they know their audiences are motivated by. They satisfy the most common request that audiences make of thought leadership in the Edelman and LinkedIn survey: 87% say thought leadership is compelling if it addresses a topic they’re currently working on.

Brand-building thought leadership invests in fame

The way that most thought leadership content is promoted and distributed is the biggest indicator that it’s being treated as an activation asset rather than a brand asset. It’s pushed out quickly, often to a narrow target audience, and then left to slowly sink into the background pages of a corporate blog. It probably sits behind a data capture form, signaling that its real priority is to generate leads rather than to reach as many people as possible. There’ no follow-up, no sustained campaign, and no intent to secure an influential share of voice around the topic in question.

Such narrow targeting and time-limited distribution suits activation objectives, which depend on delivering a persuasive argument to a specific person at just the right moment. There’s no harm in using thought leadership as a targeted lead generation asset, if that’s the objective you had in mind when you produced it. However, these types of thought leadership distribution strategies won’t make your original ideas part of the culture and conversation for your sector. Just as with brand and activation advertising, you have to be clear which type of impact you’re aiming for and make sure your creative approach, your targeting and your media budget align with that objective.

For thought leadership content to fulfil its true potential as a powerful brand asset, it needs a campaign that’s designed to make its ideas famous. If you believe in the depth, originality and value of what you’ve created, that’s often an investment worth making.

This article was also published on Raconteur.