B2B Thought Leadership Research is a tried and tested go-to for marketers who want to increase their brand’s reputation and authority in the B2B technology sector. But, in all honesty, B2B Thought Leadership is very hard to get right. Too often, thought leadership initiatives either fail to capture interest, trust, or both.
While we agree that leveraging research to create powerful marketing assets is a smart move, we often see the marketing angle overpowering the quality of the research. Or, good research presented poorly.
With unfortunate frequency, data is leveraged sloppily or unethically to make an obviously biased claim or thinly-veiled sales pitch. This undermines credibility and the thought leadership initiative.
Even the more ethically-minded can struggle with effective thought leadership when they fail to synthesize a compelling storyline out of a pile of data.
From a firm that specializes in market research and messaging for B2B tech marketers, here are some guidelines to make sure your next B2B thought leadership initiative is successful.
Make Sure It’s Targeted
Having a clear sense of your goals will help focus the research and marketing efforts.
Is it all about raising awareness for your brand? Then you should put extra effort into making sure your whitepaper, blog posts, etc. are following SEO best practices and are highly visible on search engines, relevant industry platforms and publications, and on your website.
If awareness is your goal, putting the study behind a paywall or an obscenely long contact form is counterproductive. If your audience isn’t already bought into what you have to say, they’re not going to work too hard to give you a chance to say it.
Is your goal lead gen? Well, then you’ve got a tricky line to walk. You’re going to have to share enough interesting data to get them to want to know more, but, in order for that data to come across as credible, you can’t make your thought leadership study too much of a sales pitch.
Share interesting findings, yes, but also share who conducted the research and when, the sample size, etc. In other words, don’t put your methodology behind a paywall or the visitor has no reason to trust the flashy stats you’re teasing before the contact form. (For this marketing director at least, I never give out my already positively flooded email address for dubious sounding data.)
Know Your Audience
Who is the primary audience for this research? What findings are most useful to them?
Say you’re a cloud IaaS provider commissioning a study and developing marketing assets around enterprise MarTech trends in an effort to generate interest and recognition for your brand. Philippe Boutros, director of systems design at Cascade Insights, explains how differently you’d need to frame this thought leadership initiative depending on your intended audience:
“If you’re a CMO, you’re thinking, “What’s the new massive platform I need to buy?” If you’re a partner who does Adobe Experience Cloud implementations, you think “Shoot, I need to figure out what’s happening so I can leverage it.” An IT person would think: “Oh great, what new platform do I have to manage now?” A MarTech leader would think, “I hope we’re well-positioned for this.”
Depending on which persona you’re targeting, you’d need to design the study differently to best address their concerns and get the data they would find most relevant.
Knowing which persona you need to woo is also key to crafting effective messaging around your B2B thought leadership research. Imagine trying to write a headline, a meta description, or an executive summary without knowing your audience or what they care about. How would you know what data visualizations to include or quotes to highlight? It’s the messaging equivalent to a shot in the dark.
Knowing your audience also helps you to determine which thought leadership marketing assets and sales collateral you should build. Whitepapers? Blog posts? Guest articles for an industry publication? Conference presentations? Knowing your audience will help you decide.
Use Research Methodologies That Will Allow You To Put the Numbers In Context
For thought leadership to be successful, it needs to provide value to your audience.
You need to put the data in a narrative context that empowers your readers in some way. What decisions will this data help your audience make? What should they be keeping in mind from this study as they set strategy, budgets, and direction?
The design of the thought leadership study itself can help with this. For instance, consider conducting a series of interviews with key personas in order to add some color to survey results.
“Sometimes a picture or a chart leads to a thousand questions. Some insightful quotes from qualitative research can clear the fog around a puzzling chart.” -Scott Swigart, co-founder and chief research officer, Cascade Insights
For example, a survey revealed that many target customers of an education tech company were completely unaware of one of their solution lines. Why? In part, because their marketing collateral used terminology that left customers with the impression that it performed a different function than what it actually did. The survey alone simply showed that a large percentage of the company’s customers weren’t aware of these products. It was only because we also conducted in-depth interviews with target customers that we learned that it was the solution name that was responsible for this lack of awareness and interest.
In-depth interviews, focus groups, etc., can clue you in to the reasons behind the survey results. We highly recommend including qualitative methodologies along with surveys in your B2B thought leadership initiatives. That way, you can include respondent quotes along with your data visualizations to maximize value for your readers.
Find The Story
A pile of data is only so much fun to look at. Odds are, your audience does not want to work too hard to figure out the meaning behind the numbers. Unless they see something they like early on, they’re going to skim and close out as soon as they lose interest.
So how do you get them engaged enough to read through to the end? You’ve got to give them a story that helps them make sense of the data.
This is a tall order. You’ve got to present the key takeaways, situate them in the context of the marketplace and competitive landscape, and explain the larger implications of the findings in a meaningful and memorable way. That is- meaningful and memorable for your target audience.
In other words, the way you write about the data needs a lot of care and attention.
Just like with all good writing, there are some basics you should keep in mind. Here’s a quick overview.
Have a thesis.
Be clear on what you want your thought leadership asset to communicate.
What is the No. 1 most important takeaway from this research? Make sure your headline, title tag, meta description, executive summary, and intro all reflect the most important takeaway.
Caveat: make sure your thesis speaks to the priorities of your intended audience.
Have a narrative that strengthens and streamlines the thought leadership asset.
The piece needs to tie together and build on its findings in order to convince readers of your thesis. To do this, make sure everything connects back to and supports your thesis. When you look at your table of contents or skim through reading only the headers, you should be able to get a good sense of the story you’re trying to tell.
Make it structurally easy to follow.
A lot of people are going to skim before deciding whether it’s worth the time of actually reading. To make it easy on them, make your piece skim-friendly with strong, attention-grabbing headers, a table of contents that tells a story in itself, relevant data visualizations, pull quotes, bullet points, etc.
Make it easy to read.
Reading thought leadership should not feel like a chore.
Resist the urge to overuse technical jargon or go all academic, lofty, and wordy. (We promise, you don’t need to in order to sound smart!)
As the famous quote often attributed to Einstein goes: “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” So: use simple, clear language. Try to avoid run-on sentences.
Stay relevant, but be interesting.
Another aspect of readability is the entertainment factor. Bored readers drop like flies.
Remember, you are allowed to have fun while writing about data. Generally, the more fun it is to write, the more fun it is to read. Highlight what stands out. Draw intriguing connections. Note what is surprising, or spells doom, or throws up a giant red flag that the industry should start paying attention to.
Balance style with substance.
Yes, graphs, charts, and other data visualizations- where appropriate- are your friends. But! Data does not just speak for itself.
You do need to put data in context and connect it back to a story. Don’t miss the opportunity to actually demonstrate your thought leadership alongside your thought leadership research.
Also, be careful not to over-brand with your founders’ pictures or quotes on every other page, links/images of your products, etc. Remember, you want your audience to trust the findings of the research. They won’t do that if it visually resembles a sales deck more than it does serious analysis.
Be Ethical, Because Credibility is a Necessity
Reputation building is good, but only if you’re building a good reputation. At each stage of the thought leadership study design, research, messaging, and marketing, it’s important to keep credibility in mind.
“Today, everyone reads a piece of research asking, “Where is this wrong? How is this spun?” etc. Being credible 100% of the time is the only way to defeat that suspicion and stand out.” – Sean Campbell, CEO & co-founder, Cascade Insights
Customers who are aware of you but don’t find you trustworthy ultimately won’t help your bottom line. Grabbing a bunch of email addresses who won’t find the study useful or even believable probably won’t lead to fruitful sales conversations.
Thought leadership initiatives should make it easy for the audience to verify and see for themselves. Unfortunately, many B2B thought leadership initiatives struggle with credibility. Here are some of the most common mistakes we see:
- Missing or hidden-behind-a-paywall methodology sections.
- Stretching the data to make a biased claim.
- Clouding the research with too much of a sales pitch.
- Failing to cite sources for supporting assumptions, statistics, etc.
Missing methodology: why should we trust your findings?
The tech sector is well aware that it’s common practice for companies to pay for research to gather data that supports favorable impressions of their products, industry standing, and future success. This does not set the tone for tech audiences to consider sponsored research findings “unbiased.”
Hence, thought leadership research vendors need to go above and beyond to demonstrate the soundness and credibility of their methodology.
A savvy analyst, influencer, journalist, or buyer knows to check the methodology section for things like:
- Date the research was conducted. Insights from 2 years ago could be irrelevant today.
- Sample size. Does the research draw lofty conclusions from survey results from an inappropriately small sample? “90 percent of product marketers” has a much different impact if it’s 90 percent of 25 product marketers surveyed vs. 90 percent of 500 product marketers surveyed.
- Geography. Are we talking global conclusions or only about the U.S.? Are we saying global conclusions when it’s actually 45 U.S. product marketers, 2 from China, 1 from India, 1 from the U.K, and 1 from Brazil?
The methodology needs to be spelled out and accessible for all the reasonably skeptical skeptics out there. Especially if you’re hoping to gather backlinks and references in reputable publications, you need to show where your data comes from.
Unfortunately, hiding your methodology behind a paywall or skipping over it altogether may not deter those in search of a quick stat to support their own agendas. It does undermine the credibility of the research industry in general and your individual thought leadership effort though.
It’s important to show, upfront, why readers should trust your data.
Drawing stronger conclusions than the data supports: why should we trust your analysis?
Too many times, we see headlines like “most data scientists rely on X” when a closer look at the data shows that it’s something like “52 percent of data scientists rely on X.” That means 48 percent of data scientists contradict the claim that “most data scientists rely on X.” That’s not an insignificant percentage. Claiming “most data scientists” in cases like this is misleading.
Yes, it’s important to highlight interesting findings and draw big picture conclusions. But, your claims can’t strain credulity or you’ll give the impression of bias, incompetence, or both.
Overt sales pitches: why wouldn’t we write the data off as skewed?
True, it’s a given that a lot of research is sponsored. But sponsored findings indicate inherent bias in the data and analysis. The more objective you can make your thought leadership effort sound, the more trust you are likely to build with your audience.
Avoid over-branding with your logos, colors, gushing testimonials from your happy customers, and links to your product pages.
According to Campbell and Swigart, the right way to do thought leadership is to benefit a particular buyer persona or industry. In other words, it should be about them (target customers), not you.
So, lay your methodology out clearly. Keep the focus on the findings that bring value to your target audience. Save the sales pitch until after they’re so impressed by your thought leadership, they reach out.
Absent citations: why should we take your word for it?
In an effort to put findings in context of larger industry trends, thought leadership initiatives often weave in supporting facts, narratives, and assumptions into their analysis.
Unfortunately, they sometimes fail to reference where they are drawing this information from. Every statistic you use should make clear where you got it from. Your own research? Another study? From when? Conducted by whom?
Mentioning trends, industry insights, or history? Strengthen this analysis by referencing where you got this information. Link articles, cite books, explain that this was from the keynote at such and such conference, or is based on a quote from so and so big tech CEO.
This may seem like overkill to some, but wouldn’t you want to leave the impression that you’re trustworthy, responsible, and will go above and beyond to be transparent?
Effective B2B Thought Leadership is Relevant, Memorable & Credible
Effective thought leadership always puts the goal of providing value to the target audience first and foremost. From study design, to research and analysis, to messaging and marketing, everything should be tailored to the needs of that audience.
Pro tip: skewed data is not useful to your audience. Out of context data is not useful to your audience. Forgettable findings are not useful to your audience. Data with no way to make sense of it is not useful to your audience.
So. Set clear goals. Tailor your thought leadership to your intended audience. Keep your research and analysis ethical and transparent. Find a compelling, data-backed storyline to help your audience understand the impact and implications of your findings. Emphasize your messaging according to their concerns and priorities. That’s how to wield data effectively for B2B thought leadership.
Cascade Insights is a hybrid market research and marketing firm that specializes in messaging and positioning for the B2B tech sector. Interested in powerful research that can be used to develop compelling marketing assets and/or seller, partner, and customer education? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special thanks to Cascade Insights Co-Founder & CRO Scott Swigart and Director of Systems Design Philippe Boutros for advising on this piece.