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Is your thought leadership really thought-leading?

13 July 2017

Is your thought leadership really thought leading?

As a B2B marketer, a big part of your role will be producing content designed to engage your clients and prospects, but it is increasingly difficult to achieve cut-through. Our latest blog looks at what makes your content stand out – and what doesn’t.

Thought leadership is a phrase that’s used to cover a multitude of sins, and means different things to different people. So what actually constitutes thought leadership?

Well, the clue’s in the name. Thought leadership is marketing content based on ideas that lead.

Properly executed, thought leadership is the ultimate expression of a B2B firm’s authority. It can cement your reputation as a trusted advisor, by underlining your expertise. It can generate sales leads, and help to close deals.

And the good news is, business leaders want it. Some 84% of FTSE 350 executives surveyed by Grist believe that strong thought leadership content adds value to their role.

Almost as many emphasise its importance in keeping them abreast of important business issues (79%); informing their decision-making (76%); and helping them to take a view on the future (76%).

Encouragingly, two in five leaders will contact the firm behind a piece of thought leadership if they feel it hits the mark.

Leadership means leadership

But the reality is that not much of it manages to hit the mark.

Despite their enthusiasm for thought leadership, these senior executives only read 31% of the material that comes across their desk, assuming it reaches there in the first place. And just 28% of that actually influences their decisions.

So why does the vast majority fall by the wayside?

Asked why it fails to grab their attention, the C-Suite’s top three complaints were:

  • it’s too generic (cited by 63%)
  • it lacks original insight or ideas (58%)
  • it promotes the firm that produced it, rather than addressing their needs (53%)

The audience test

Strong original ideas – leading ideas – resonate with clients, prospects, the business and the media.  

These audiences are a barometer of how incisive your thought leadership is. If it fails to gain traction with them, you’ll need to rethink how you go about generating your ideas.  

Clients

Good thought leadership cuts to the heart of what keeps your clients awake at night. If your content provokes little interest from them, it may be focusing too much on your firm’s offering, and not enough on your clients’ problems.

And it’s not just about today’s problems. Your content also needs to help clients make sense of the future. Keeping on top of emerging trends is executives’ number one reason for reading thought leadership (identified by 66% of our survey respondents).

Prospects

B2B brands regularly find that their content isn’t generating conversations with their target clients.

Often, this is because it lacks originality: it’s the umpteenth report, article or blog they’ve read on the same topic. It’s not thought leadership, it’s thought followership.

You need to be first to find the ‘white space’: the emerging themes not being discussed elsewhere. Or you need a unique take on existing themes. What insights can you bring to the table that nobody else has?

This is a particular problem for B2B firms, which can be inherently risk-averse. The business often wants to push marketing content into the safe ground that everybody else is covering.

The business

Your content also needs to be subtly aligned with the expertise you offer. You must avoid an explicit sales pitch, but there’s little point producing and researching startlingly original ideas if they don’t actually align with your proposition.

If you are having to crowbar your expert commentary into your research findings, then you’ve got the wrong idea. It is not going to fulfil its purpose – no matter how great an idea it was.

Think about your firm’s capabilities when choosing your content themes. And get your client-facing teams involved early on in the development process: something a surprisingly low 42% of B2B firms currently do, according to our latest research.

The media

Journalists are a real acid test of the strength of your output. If there’s no new angle or insight, and nothing that furthers the debate, they won’t write about it.

The key is to think big. Explore the major, macro-economic issues that affect markets and create headaches for your target audience. Work backwards from the headlines you want to create, and design research that will elicit them.

You might even try your ideas out with a friendly journalist or two while developing them. Will they generate the sort of stories the media want?

Find out more

Producing thought leadership is an opportunity to get under the skin of your target audience, and address the concerns that are high on their agenda.

Getting this right involves a collaborative planning process, which includes your subject matter experts, client-facing teams, marketing departments and not forgetting your target audience. We’ll cover that process in more detail in our next blog.

The B2B Marketer's Guide to Effective Thought Leadership
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Author: Andrew Rogerson

Andy is a co-founder of Grist, and account director for many of our professional services clients. His recent projects span the full range of marketing communications, including integrated content marketing programmes, web development, thought leadership and video. Prior to founding Grist, Andy was marketing director at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London and New York.

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