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Does Your B2B Thought Leadership Really Work?

This is the first of two articles originally published on Follow Your Buyer exploring thought leadership content and the B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study by Edelman and LinkedIn.

Content marketing that employs thought leadership has been around for a long time, but it has become a common staple of B2B marketing strategies only in the past decade. Its widespread use has been fueled by the convenient availability of information and a desire among buyers to better inform their decision-making.

However, B2B companies that have embraced content marketing inevitably wonder if it really makes a difference for their businesses. According to Joseph Kingsbury, U.S. Managing Director of Edelman Business Marketing, it was that inquiry that inspired the annual B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study done in partnership with LinkedIn.1

About five years ago, says Kingsbury, “we had a lot of clients who were increasingly investing in content marketing and publishing, it had become an accepted practice, especially in highly competitive markets offering complex solutions with long sales cycles.”

As Kingsbury describes, Edelman’s clients accepted that there must be a benefit to having an interesting, compelling view and elevating the profiles of executives and subject matter experts. Clients also understood that content marketing helped build and support their reputations. However, they weren’t sure what it was doing for their businesses or how to measure it. What is the return on investment (ROI)?

Initially, the Edelman team looked for existing research that would help their clients but didn’t find any. Setting out to solve a problem is often the catalyst for creating valuable solutions, and so it was for Edelman. Spurred by the motivation to help their clients sent Kingsbury and his team along a path to becoming today’s pre-eminent authority on how content marketing, specifically thought leadership, can impact business outcomes.

Asking the Right Questions of the Right People

Great research begins with great questions, and Edelman has a talented team of questioners. They understood that if their work was to be valuable, they needed answers for the chorus of inquiries concerning the ROI of thought leadership content. According to Kingsbury, their first study focused on answering “does thought leadership tangibly generate demand and opportunities for B2B products and services?”

However, they did not want to only confirm what they already believed: that thought leadership content generated awareness of a company. So the team further developed a series of exploratory questions to fully understand the relationship between thought leadership content and the B2B buying process. For example, Kingsbury said they wanted to know if thought leadership content attracted inbound requests for proposal (RFPs), but more specifically, was it responsible for placing the company in the buyer’s consideration set? Additionally, Edelman wanted to understand if thought leadership content burnished a company’s capabilities and caused buyers to view organizations as potential long-term partners?

“The ability to ask questions is the greatest resource in learning the truth.” – Carl Jung

The second feature of this study that makes it so valuable to B2B companies and their marketing teams is that it gathered, in partnership with LinkedIn, the opinions of buyers. Kingsbury feels strongly that Edelman’s opinion means nothing; the only thing that matters is what buyers had to say.

An internet search to learn about the value of content marketing delivers an overwhelming number of glowing reviews attributed to content marketers who create the content. But hearing the opinions of the buyers who the content is intended to attract is extremely valuable.

What did the buyers say?

The first B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study done in 2017 found compelling evidence that not only does thought leadership generate awareness and have a positive effect on a company’s reputation, but it also influences buying decisions. “Based on what buyers told us,” says Kingsbury, “B2B thought leadership content, when done well, was directly responsible for influencing their decisions throughout the buying journey or process.” 

Additionally, Kingsbury’s team found that quality thought leadership content had a post-purchase positive effect on cross selling and upselling efforts. Buyers said that thought leadership content helped them become aware of a company’s capabilities, and because they already had a level of trust with the seller, they were more open to further investment.

For those companies that had invested significantly in B2B thought leadership content, this was welcome news!

Results of the 2021 Report

Let’s fast-forward to the current report, which comes on the heels of the great COVID-19 disruption of business and life in general. If you are a regular consumer of B2B thought leadership, you likely sensed that there was more of it in the past year. Edelman’s report describes it as a “tidal wave of content marketing, making it harder for companies to connect with B2B customers.”

Key Learnings from the 2021 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study

  • Pandemic-induced glut of low-quality content is diluting the perceived value of thought leadership among B2B decision-makers.
  • Thought leadership remains critical to customer engagement but breaking through the noise is harder than ever.
  • Earning trust and credibility with decision-makers requires strong thought leadership, especially if you are not an established market leader.
  • High-performing thought leadership strikes a balance between being authoritative and provocative yet human in tone and even fun.
  • With increased competition for attention and rapidly shifting buyer preferences, now is a good time to re-evaluate whether your thought leadership strategy is meeting your customers' needs.

B2B thought leadership remains impactful in influencing buying decisions. Among the 3,600 management-level professionals surveyed by Edelman and LinkedIn, approximately half of the C-suite executives say they consume more thought leadership content than before the pandemic. Additionally, 54% of decision makers say they spend at least 1 hour per week reviewing thought leadership content, and 47% of buyers stated that thought leadership content led them to discover and ultimately purchase from a company.

However, in my opinion, the latest report also contains a bit of tough love for content marketers. Whether it can be contributed to trade show cancellations or simply fewer in-person meetings, the report describes a glut of low-quality content that is diluting the perceived value of thought leadership among B2B decision makers. According to the report, 71% of surveyed decision makers stated that less than half the thought leadership they consume delivers valuable insights.

While B2B thought leadership content remains important to influencing buyer decision-making throughout their buyer’s journey, the increased quantity and low-quality of content is making it more challenging for B2B marketers to capture the attention of their target audiences.

In the next article, we will explore more findings of the 2021 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study and discuss what B2B marketers can do to develop effective content marketing strategies and win business.

  1. 2021 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study, Edelmen and LinkedIn, 2021 LinkedIn-Edelman B2B Thought Leadership Impact Report | Edelman

Joe Kingsbury is U.S. managing director of Edelman Business Marketing, where he leads the unit within Edelman focused on creating modern integrated marketing to drive demand and revenue growth for B2B clients. Edelman Business Marketing brings together earned media, editorial, and content marketing capabilities, including audience development, enterprise branding, channel planning, creative, account-based marketing (ABM), marketing automation, sales enablement, experience design, and customer relationship management (CRM) to help B2B companies deliver material business results.

With expertise in corporate and B2B communications, content marketing, marketing technology, and demand generation, Kingsbury leads Edelman’s network of B2B marketers to help clients generate thought leadership, create competitive differentiation, and drive targeted audience engagement that supports business outcomes. Kingsbury has led client engagements for a wide range of brands across enterprise technology, energy, banking, and professional services sectors, including IBM, Shell, Citi, PwC, Samsung Group, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

In partnership with LinkedIn, he leads the development of Edelman’s annual B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study, a global research report analyzing how communications impacts B2B purchasing behaviors throughout the customer journey.

Kingsbury previously led Edelman's Corporate and B2B Digital practice based in New York. Prior to Edelman, he was head of Text 100’s North America social media practice. He holds a bachelor of arts degree in government from Colby College.

Originally published on Follow Your Buyer on 11/9/21

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