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Is Your Thought Leadership Stuck in ‘Mutually Assured Irrelevance’?

How is your thought leadership program going?

Is it more thought than leadership? 

Or are the thoughts more like what everybody else is saying?

New research from Edelman and LinkedIn says most thought leadership apparently doesn’t encourage or inspire much thought. It’s also mostly under-resourced and misused. Yet, if done well, it can strongly influence sales and pricing.

What gives? Are B2B marketers failing to use thought leadership at the right part of the customer’s journey? Are you gating too much of it? Are you not talking with the right influencers and subject matter experts in your organization?

Or are you failing to challenge your audience with true thought-leading thinking?

We took those questions to CMI’s chief strategy advisor, Robert Rose, for his take. Watch this video or read on:

In B2B marketing, thought leadership has forever stood front and center of content strategies. Back when B2B marketing was called “industrial marketing,” sales teams developed personal relationships with customers. When buyers needed a new widget or service, they would usually call their most trusted salesperson, who would recommend additional or other solutions from their company.

In those days, sales teams acted consultatively. They knew their industry backward and forward. They invited other subject matter experts in the business to accompany them on customer calls.

When digital came along in the early 2000s, all that changed, and buyers began their research on the internet. In response, businesses launched research programs, using academics to write white papers and articles for business journals. Instead of looking at thought leadership as a key product offering for customers, marketers saw it as a shortcut to get more eyeballs on other marketing content. They got wrapped around the axle of optimizing their websites for search to organically answer the customers’ most frequently asked questions in the most keyword-enriched ways.

In many ways, the last twenty years saw a rinse-and-repeat of that strategy. An inherent tension developed. You want to ensure your B2B brand organically appears at the top of the list for all the most common questions potential customers have about an approach, toolset, industry outlook, etc. Yet, you also want to differentiate yourself from all your B2B competitors who are trying to do the exact same thing.

The net result?

Thought leadership becomes an ocean of different ways to say the best and most common practices. You build content to feel familiar and align with current thinking rather than answering the critical questions no one knows to ask — aka thought leadership.

I call it “mutually assured irrelevance.” Everyone in the industry says the correct thing, but no one helps the customer do a different thing.

Edelman and LinkedIn’s Reaching Beyond The Ready report (registration required) encompasses a survey of 3,500 B2B management-level professionals in December of 2023. They sought to gain insights into the state of thought leadership and how it might do more than increase brand awareness.

Not unsurprisingly, the research found people consume a lot of thought leadership. Over half of decision-makers and C-Suite leaders spend more than an hour weekly with it. Seventy-three percent say an organization’s thought leadership creates a more trustworthy basis for assessing its capabilities and competencies than its marketing materials and product sheets. Both those things are good.

And yet, only 15% of those surveyed think the thought leadership is very good or excellent.

That’s not so good.

The researchers point out that what seems to be missing is the leadership part of thought leadership:

“When done right, it makes buyers look at their business and the challenges it is facing in new ways and protects you from competitors producing their own thought leadership.”

I’ll say it another way. Thought leadership is not about answering frequently asked questions. Thought leadership provides the rarely given answers (RGAs).

The research report indicates businesses don’t understand the measurement of thought leadership and see too few resources as the main barrier to producing more effective thought leadership. About 50% of thought leadership producers say their programs are under-resourced.

But I think the lack of sufficient resources is only a symptom. After all, no marketer has ever said, “I have too many resources and too much money.”

The real challenge is that most B2B businesses still view their thought leadership program as a short-term marketing campaign to generate demand or leads into the top of their funnel. Or they see it as a brand-building effort to attract more attention.

They fail to see thought leadership as a product or service that’s as (or more) important than the products or services they sell in the marketplace.

A great thought leadership program deserves the same level of attention as your best product or service offering. It deserves a PR strategy. It deserves a paid media strategy. It deserves internal comms support.

That doesn’t necessarily mean more money or more resources. (Well, maybe it ultimately does, but that’s not the key.) It means taking the time to make your thought leadership a business strategy, not another market tactic to attract more attention at the top of the buyer’s journey.

As the research points out, an effective thought leadership approach has three key attributes:

  • Shares strong research and data
  • Help buyers understand their business challenges
  • Offers concrete guidance.

That type of thought leadership is based on the intricate understanding of what your customers need, not what they’re asking for. It provides immediate value and is differentiated based on your brand’s take on the world.

In other words, thought leadership is one of your core products. Treat it that way.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute