Why Clients Love Thought Leadership, But B2B Firms Do Not: A Marketing Mystery

How is it that 90% of executives love exceptional, thought-leading content, but only 60% of the firms that create educational content say it boosts their brand?

Why do four out of five C-suite executives (81%) say publishing good thought leadership increases their trust in the organizations that provide it, and yet only 49% of the providers think their content builds client trust?

Why do clients want great content from their B2B vendors, yet those vendors aren’t sure it matters?

These questions are raised by a new survey report on thought leadership marketing, conducted by the PR firm Edelman and LinkedIn. They surveyed 1,329 U.S. LinkedIn members who play a role in purchasing B2B services and products. The companies they represent were all sizes, and 44% had over 1,000 employees.

The most interesting finding to me was that companies producing thought leadership don’t see it to be nearly as important as do the companies they send it to. How can that be? What’s happening here?

My hypothesis is this: Most of the time, most thought leadership research directors and CMOs at B2B firms produce only marginally interesting content (if that). And after they publish that marginal content, it gets little reaction from their target audience. Their tree falls in a content forest and no one hears it. So, they wonder, does thought leadership really work?

Is it therefore a surprise that when they see the dollars they spend on creating content generating little or no ROI, they’re consumed by doubt and fear? Will their budgets be slashed? Will their heads roll? Are they doing the right things?

Apparently, their suffering is widespread. Of the recipients of thought leadership, only 1% rated the content they get as “excellent,” and only 13% said it was “very good.” The majority rated the content they see as merely good or mediocre. Over the years, our own surveys have echoed these results. Nothing new here.

Nonetheless, nearly half (48%) the C-suite executives surveyed by Edelman/LinkedIn said a vendor’s thought leadership resulted in giving that firm their business. However, when the firms that create thought leadership were asked whether it helps them close deals, only 20% said yes. Similarly, 47% of C-suite buyers said they’d pay a premium for firms that exhibited thought leadership. Yet only 10% of the thought leadership creators said doing so allowed them to command a premium.

That’s a big disconnect. 

My suggestion: If you’re a thought leadership research director or CMO, and there’s skepticism in your firm (which, perhaps, you share) about the importance of thought leadership, you must prove to yourself and your colleagues that it can open doors and generate revenue. And you should do that very soon, not “manana.”

One way to do it is to work with two or three of your firm’s smartest people on a substantive paper that shows off their expertise on a narrow but important industry issue (so they can go deep rather than broad). Find real client examples that show your firm’s solution works, and convince these clients to let you tell their stories in the paper. (Here’s one way to do that.) Do this in a short but reasonable period of time – two or three months.

Then, publish the paper in a graphically attractive document and mail it to a couple hundred clients and prospects. But don’t stop there. Carve off two or three 1,000-word-or-so opinion articles from that paper that and tie them to a big, recent and relevent market event, and pitch the submissions to top-tier management journals. If they run your opinion articles, their sites should generate lots of traffic back to the longer version of the paper on your website.

If your content is exceptional and properly marketed, potential clients will emerge, knocking on your door. When that happens, your author-experts will start to get religion about thought leadership. And when they get it, they’ll tell their colleagues.

At some point, if you keep producing and marketing stellar content, its ROI will become obvious. The disconnect the Edelman-LinkedIn survey identified will disappear, and consumers and creators will come together over thought leadership, faster than you might imagine.

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