By Daniel Rosehill, Founder, DSR Ghostwriting
This is the third successive study the PR giant has commissioned investigating the efficacy of thought leadership — and flagging emerging trends in the field.
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An important takeaway from a previous ‘edition’: thought leadership can be amazingly effective, across the entire funnel, and it’s particularly influential with the C-suite and purchasing decision-makers, which explains why it is so widely employed in B2B marketing.
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But, concurrently, the researchers found widespread skepticism about it among almost the very same audience.
In fact, 86% of those surveyed thought that the thought leadership they had consumed was “good, mediocre or poor in quality.”
This was an interesting finding and I was curious to see how — or indeed whether — things had evolved.
Here are my key takeaways from this year’s report.
Who Did This Year’s Sample Consist Of?
Before jumping to takeaways, we need to ask who the researchers were asking questions of.
- The survey queried 1,164 US-based business executives at B2B companies. The survey was conducted online, over LinkedIn, and took 10 to 15 minutes to complete.
- 36% of the respondents held the title of ‘Manager’; 30% were ‘Directors’; and 17% were VPs. 17% were C[X]Os, partners or owners.
- 32% of respondents themselves worked at an organization that engages in producing thought leadership. 13% worked in the “high tech industry” and 15% worked in finance.
And here were this year’s most significant takeaways — at least those that I drew.
Quality Remains A (Persistent) Problem
Sadly, there’s still a lot of bad and ineffective thought leadership being disseminated.
Only a dismal 17% of those surveyed rated the quality of thought leadership they had consumed as “very good” or “excellent.”
And that has to be understood against the backdrop of another damning statistic.
88% of decision-makers affirmed a belief that thought leadership can be an effective means of enhancing an organization’s public reputation.
In other words:
Those disappointed by the thought leadership they are reading are likely not doing so as a result of confirmation bias.
Instead, their expectations and quality standards are simply not being met.
There’s a potential reservoir of interested readers waiting for thought leaders to connect with — if they can deliver them the caliber of information they’re looking for.
But …. Meta-Trends Remain Largely Flat
Edelman provided a helpful summary of trends across key “dimensions” in the three years during which the survey has been running. Although the information is useful, I think it is important to look behind the figures from a wide perspective.
Minor fluctuations aside — and particularly given the relatively small sample size — I thought that many of the trends, such as engagement, looked rather flat.
Of the six trends tabulated, only “value” was presented as a moving index (trending downwards). (“Value” was defined as the percentage of decision-makers who say they gain valuable insights more than half the time they consume thought leadership).
Given that there was only one preceding datapoint, in last year’s study, and 39% to 32% is not a cataclysmic drop, I think it would be hasty to read too much into this figure.
I view the significance of this report more in terms of corroborating previous findings — rather than shedding light on new dynamics.
Thought Leadership Can Build Trust
Coming back to the theme of “meta trends” repeating themselves.
This year, Edelman found that 88% of decision-makers affirmed that thought leadership “can be effective in enhancing their perceptions of an organization.”
To measure that, the PR monolith has come up with a Brand Perception Impact Index. It looks at the percentage of those surveyed who said that (as a result of their exposure to its thought leadership):
- Their respect for the organization increased
- Their perception of the organization increased
- Their trust in an organization increased
This year’s figure was 88%.
Last year’s was 88%.
And the preceding year’s was 86%.
As before, I think that these minor needle shifts are of little import.
Rather, it is the enduring lesson that is both simple and instructive: the large majority of decision-makers can be influenced by the right kind of information. Right now, it’s simply that they’re not getting it.
Thought Leadership Can Leverage Tangible Business Gains
The next headline figure is that, this year, 48% of decision makers agreed that thought leadership can be effective in influencing their purchasing decisions.
Again, Edelman created an index to compute this statistic, which they dubbed the Sales Impact Index.
It assessed whether, as a result of exposure to an organization’s thought leadership:
- They were invited to participate in a RFP opportunity
- They were awarded business
- They won more business from existing clients (“upselling”)
- Their customers’ bought new products/services from them (“cross-selling”)
My takeaway: remember that this is a B2B study and we’re often talking about high ticket transactions.
Given all that, I think that 48% is pretty respectable. Takeaway: almost half the time, effective thought leadership can lead to positive outcomes in B2B sales processes.
The Root of the Problem: Thought Leadership Is (Consistently) Under-Delivering In Terms of Value
Many commentators have pointed out that thought leadership should be understood as a peer-to-peer marketing activity: for instance a CTO writing with another CTO in mind.
Perhaps as a result of misaligned expectations, or marketers thinking that their primary remit is to promote rather than to inform, just 32% of decision makers say that they gain valuable insights from more than half the thought leadership they read.
This number, I venture, has to be inextricably linked to the dismal (headline-grabbing!) 17% of thought leadership readers who rate thought leadership highly.
They think that thought leadership is poor because —like trying to find out the state of international affairs by reading The Onion — it’s neither fulfilling its purpose nor delivering them any value.
Thought leaders, it would seem, need to remain mindful of their audience. At this peer to peer level of marketing, thought leadership needs to cut straight to the (business) case. The problem is that it often doesn’t.
Bad Thought Leadership Damages Brands
Bad thought leadership doesn’t just waste paper or light up pixels for no reason.
To the contrary, far from being innocuous it actually damages brands and turns prospective customers away from making purchasing decisions.
- 38% of decision makers said that, after reading an organization’s thought leadership, their respect and admiration for that company had decreased.
- 25% of decision makers had said that poor quality thought leadership sometimes led them to not award business to an organization.
Understanding that thought leadership can cut both ways, the binary, from a business’s standpoint, is pretty straightforward: the decision should be to put out good thought leadership — or not put it out at all.
Thought Leadership Producers Cannot Quantify Their Value
77% is a big majority.
And it’s the percentage of thought leadership producers that nave no way of linking sales or wins to their thought leadership.
Thought leadership, it seems, is dogged by the same problem that has haunted public relations (PR) almost since its inception: quantifying value.
This is an enormous challenge that calls for better measurement and more creativity.
Be Timely, Brief, and Fresh
Shifting away from the negatives for a moment, the ingredients for success that Edelman identified are not exactly earth-shattering.
- In a world drowning in noise and “content” true thought leaders need to aim to be the signal at all times. And the insights thought leadership delivers, above all, need to be original to be considered worthy of consideration — much less admiration.
- Timeliness and brevity are also essential and highly valued by those consuming the material.
How Does Thought Leadership Find Home?
How do thought leaders reach their audience.
- 47% of the time decision makers simply chance upon it
- In 32% of cases it is recommended by somebody else
- 19% of the time the thought leadership arrived after being “amplified” through paid or earned channels.
Personally, I don’t see anything particularly riveting in this particular insight.
As might be expected for this type of writing, word of mouth is important.
But almost half of consumers are still simply happening upon the thought leadership.
The vital thing, for those producing it, would seem to be to focus on getting it out the door.
Like Wine, Thought Leadership Improves With Age
An important insight contained in the study was the value that a commitment to a culture of thought leadership brings to an organization.
The surveyors found a direct correlation between the number of years an organization had been engaging in putting out thought leadership and how they perceived it.
For those that had been engaging in the activity for more than 21 years, a majority of the company thought the thought leadership to be of “very good” or excellent quality.
Tellingly, among companies that had been engaging in thought leadership for shorter timeframes, thought leadership cheerleaders were consistently in the minority.
Other Suggestions From Edelman
The study report wraps up with some suggestions based on its findings for those seeking to develop effective thought leadership that makes it to be ranked among the less than one in five pieces of thought leadership that is currently well-perceived by the market.
- Challenge customers at a timely opportunity in the market.
- Be contrarian or unexpected and cut through the white noise.
- Develop a vision. I think that those that do stand a better chance of sticking with a structured thought leadership program over the long haul — and, as the research made clear, quality gains tend to accrue when that happens.
The Essential Takeaways
I would summarize this year’s edition as follows:
- Thought leadership still isn’t delivering enough value
- There are, however, potential readers waiting to read something that connects with them
- Thought leadership can yield substantial commercial opportunities for those producing it
- Protracted thought leadership campaigns, within companies that have a long history of engaging in it, seem to yield the best results, at least as measured internally
By David Dodd, Principal, Point Balance:
- “It’s also clear [from the report] that thought leadership can be a double-edged sword.”
- “One of the mistakes is that marketing leaders can take some thought leadership content and make it too glossy and shiny. In many cases technology people are talking to technology people and so if it is too glossy then it loses its authenticity,” (Emma Sinden, Marketing Consultant)
By Emma Wiltshire, Social Media Today: Study: B2B Marketers Underestimate The Power of Thought Leadership
By Michael Brenner, Marketing Insider Group:Reflections on the B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study (previous report)
- “While there is a great opportunity to capitalize on thought leadership pieces, there also is an element of risk involved. The catch, you see, is that high-quality thought leadership pieces are rare. Poorly done thought leadership pieces …. can even influence a company to not buy products and services”
From Edelman itself. Or rather, Joe Kingsbury who is its U.S. Managing Director:
- “The risk in mediocrity is real. More decision makers now believe that most of what they consume is “mediocre to very poor,” compared to 26 percent in 2018.”
- Joe recommends that prospective thought leaders narrow their target audience — and even hone in on a particular function within the buyer committee.