The most important thought leadership study you’ll see this year

A new study from Edelman and LinkedIn shows the quality of thought leadership content changing buyers’ choices all the way down the funnel

May 7, 2019

A new study from Edelman and LinkedIn shows the quality of thought leadership content changing buyers’ choices all the way down the funnel

It might seem strange to argue that B2B marketers seriously undervalue thought leadership. After all, it has a prominent place in almost every marketing strategy and is a mainstay of B2B content calendars. However, that’s exactly what new thought leadership research in EMEA by Edelman and LinkedIn shows. Marketers may be creating this content at scale, but they seriously underestimate the impact that it has on the bottom line. And they’re often blissfully unaware of the high stakes involved when a new piece of thought leadership goes out of the door.

The definition of thought leadership
Thought leadership can be frustratingly difficult to pin down. Marketers and their colleagues can be guilty of using the term as a catch-all for pretty much any form of branded content. In our study, we defined thought leadership in the way that those consuming it do: free content deliverables that organisations or individuals produce on a topic in their area of expertise, when they feel others can benefit from their perspective. Thought leadership can be delivered through a broad range of different content formats: research reports, videos, blog posts, essays and webinars among them. However, it specifically does not include content that’s primarily focused on describing or promoting products and services. Case studies can be great B2B content assets, but they are not thought leadership under our definition.

B2B marketers know that thought leadership builds awareness. It grabs relevant audiences’ attention by aligning with the issues dominating their agendas. It builds positive perceptions around a business’s expertise and humanises it by putting names and faces to that expertise. It looks a lot like a branding play.

However, our new research, which is the second such study that we have conducted with Edelman, proves emphatically that thought leadership is far more. The decision-makers that we spoke to in the UK, Germany and France regard thought leadership as critically important, and roughly half read an hour of this content every week. That importance is a result of how decision-makers use thought leadership. When they consume it, they aren’t just engaging with new ideas. They are consciously evaluating organisations and the calibre of their thinking in depth. And they are doing so with a view to drawing up shortlists and awarding business.

The underappreciated power of thought leadership to sway buying decisions
In our survey, 54% of decision-makers in Europe said that they use thought leadership as an important way to vet organisations that they are considering working with. And they act on that evaluation, with 46% saying they have asked a previously unconsidered supplier to bid on a project after encountering their thought leadership. What’s more, 49% of decision-makers say that they have awarded business to a supplier as a direct result of their thought-leadership content.

It’s clear that senior buyers and influencers embrace thought-leadership as a value-adding form of content throughout the funnel. The irony is that the B2B marketers themselves don’t recognise this value.

When we asked sales and marketing leaders in supplier businesses about the impact they expect thought-leadership to have at different stages, they consistently undervalued its contribution. In fact, those producing the thought leadership had the lowest expectations of it.

Are marketing and sales missing the point of thought leadership?
Only 25% of sellers expect thought-leadership content to deliver more RFPs and the same proportion expect it to help them close business – roughly half the percentage of buyers who say they have already used thought leadership to select shortlists and choose a supplier. Among producers of thought leadership, these proportions shrink to 20% and 21% respectively. It’s the same story when it comes to thought leadership’s contribution to customer lifetime value. Only 25% of sellers and 24% of though-leadership producers believe that this content can enable them to charge more for products and services. However, 50% of decision-makers say they are willing to pay a premium to a business that sets out a clear vision through thought-leadership and 51% say they’ve increased the amount of business they do with a supplier because of such content.

Both sales teams and those producing thought leadership are significantly more likely to say that it contributes to awareness (58% of sellers and 57% of thought-leadership producers). This firmly anchors thought leadership to the top of the funnel in their planning and strategy. Although even here they seem less aware of the awareness-building potential than the audiences they’re targeting. A large majority (86%) of decision-makers say that they’ve become aware of a supplier business as a result of thought leadership.

The dangers of underestimating thought leadership’s influence
This gap between perception and reality matters – and not just because thought-leadership’s contribution to the lower stages of the funnel often goes unattributed. When B2B organisations don’t appreciate the impact that thought-leadership has on business pipeline they are less motivated to invest time and resource in producing content of real originality and value. Marketers who treat thought leadership solely as a means of driving awareness are likely to worry less about how fulfilled an audience is when reading content – and be more concerned that they notice it and engage with it in the first place. Our research proves that this is a costly mistake.

Decision-makers don’t just add new businesses to their consideration set on the basis of strong thought leadership. They also remove businesses from consideration if that content isn’t up to scratch. And a worrying amount of the thought leadership that they encounter isn’t.

How poor quality thought leadership makes deals go dark
Only 14% rate the thought leadership they encounter as Excellent or Very Good. This is significantly fewer than the 22% of sellers who classify their thought leadership this way. Exactly half of decision-makers say they’ve encountered ‘Good’ thought leadership, but over a third (36%) rate thought-leadership content as ‘Mediocre to Very Poor’. And content of this low standard creates substantial risks for the organisations producing it. Over half of decision-makers say that they’ve stopped following a writer or organisation after reading disappointing thought leadership, 42% say that poor thought leadership has decreased their respect for a business and 28% say they’ve decided against awarding a piece of business to a company because their thought leadership was disappointing.

That last stat should put any B2B content marketer on alert. It’s one thing to have evidence that thought leadership delivers benefits at every stage of the buyer journey. It’s another to know that poor thought leadership has negative impacts all of the way down the funnel too. It doesn’t just get ignored or forgotten. It makes an active contribution to reputation one way or another.

Why this study matters
This is why I would argue that the Edelman and LinkedIn study is the most important piece of research on the role of thought leadership that I’ve seen. It’s an urgent call for B2B organisations to prioritise this area of content marketing – not just by producing more of it, but by thinking deeply about the balance of frequency and quality. A thought leadership strategy needs to be planned carefully around areas of expertise where a business can deliver genuinely bold and original thinking – and do so concisely and with impact. A sub-standard piece of thought-leadership just to get your brand into a conversation can be dangerously counter-productive.

Helpfully, our research includes some key insights on what decision-makers actually look for in quality thought leadership – and where the biggest gaps are in what they encounter. They want genuinely valuable thinking (73% say half of the thought leadership they see lacks valuable insights), relevance (60% say that content relating to what they are working on is a critical factor influencing them to engage), boldness (93% believe it’s important for companies to set out a clear vision for the future) and credible authorship and sharing (83% say they are more likely to respond to content from someone they know and respect). LinkedIn features like the Content Suggestions in Company Pages, Interest Targeting and Account Targeting are designed to align thought leadership strategies with these drivers.

Decision-makers also appreciate content that can deliver these things without making too many demands of their time. Exactly half say they prefer thought leadership in formats that can be digested in a few minutes. When you have original, quality content, break it into formats that can deliver aspects of that value quickly (short videos or blog posts focused on particular insights, or infographics focused on telling concise stories through stats). However, bring length down by being focused rather than diluting or dumbing down. Value and quality are what decision-makers expect more than anything.

The important difference between thought leadership and advertising
This study is a timely reminder that thought leadership is not advertising. The measure of success for an advertising campaign tends to be whether the right metrics moved upwards – and by the necessary amount. Misguided ads can create negative brand perceptions – but it’s far more likely that they will just be ignored, passing by like a ship in the night as David Ogilvy would say. B2B thought leadership is different. Because it’s treated as a proxy and test for a supplier’s expertise, it is perfectly capable of moving metrics either up or down – and does both fairly frequently. It’s a different type of marketing investment with different forms of risk and reward. Our study shows that the opportunities are too great for B2B marketers to ignore – but the risks are too great not to take investing in thought leadership seriously.