Thought leadership is one of the most effective types of content that a B2B marketer can deliver. When done right, B2B thought leadership content offers readers new and relevant information and helps them to make smarter decisions.
Successfully creating an effective thought leadership piece is no easy feat, however. Data and research findings need to be presented in a way that is transparent, credible, and trustworthy. The data then needs to be woven into an engaging narrative. Finally, this narrative has to drive the prospect to take action.
What is B2B Thought Leadership Content?
As the term “thought leadership” has grown in prevalence and popularity over the years, marketers have gradually taken on their own interpretations of what it means and how it can work for them. Worse yet, many marketers have started to call any content thought leadership, regardless of whether it includes an independent and data-backed viewpoint.
Given the existing confusion about thought leadership efforts, it’s important to take a second to formally define what thought leadership content is.
The 2020 Annual Report on B2B Thought Leadership describes thought leadership content as “free deliverables that organizations can produce on a topic they know a lot about and feel that others can benefit from having their perspective on.” Such deliverables can include:
- Blog posts.
- Website copy.
- Conference or webinar decks.
Creating this type of content allows companies to position themselves as the go-to resource on a particular subject. It elevates their brand awareness and improves the overall perception of the company.
Developing thought leadership content is a long-term strategy that takes significant time and effort to successfully establish. Once it’s set in place, however, companies can begin to see substantial business benefits.
B2B Thought Leadership Creates Big Business Benefits – But Only If Done Well
B2B buyers love to be educated. Because the solutions B2B buyers purchase are complex and expensive, these buyers are also risk-averse. These same characteristics lead these buyers to distrust typical marketing and instead turn to thought leadership content, which is inherently less biased (when done correctly).
For example, almost half of B2B decision-makers spend at least an hour consuming thought leadership content per week, according to the 2020 Annual Report on B2B Thought Leadership.
Additionally, about half of B2B decision-makers say thought leadership content influences their purchasing decisions. These decision-makers say that strong thought leadership content not only strengthens a company’s reputation, but also “positively impacts RFP invitations, wins, pricing and cross-selling that occurs post-sale.”
These same decision-makers report that there is very little high-quality thought leadership content that is actually being produced. In fact, only 17% of B2B decision-makers rate the quality of most of the thought leadership they read as very good or excellent. This poorly-executed thought leadership content can actually lead decision-makers to remove a potential vendor or partner from consideration.
Clearly, there is a substantial discrepancy between the amount of time that B2B buyers spend consuming thought leadership content vs. the amount of high-quality thought leadership content they feel is available. This discrepancy creates an opportunity for companies to become truth tellers simply by producing thought leadership content that is centered on real-world research.
5 Ways to Boost Your B2B Thought Leadership Content Credibility
Creating high-quality thought leadership content that is both compelling and credible can be a delicate balancing act. First, you must be able to share your opinion in an engaging way that captures people’s attention.
At the same time, you must also present any research findings in a way that is ethical, transparent, and credible. Maintaining such credibility is critical to establishing your company as a legitimate thought leader within any industry.
Here are five suggestions to help maintain this balance throughout a thought leadership piece:
1. Clearly delineate between your opinion and a market fact.
Your opinion and actual truths about the market are different. Readers always know when you are trying to turn an opinion into a fact. It signals to them you may have ulterior motives: to simply convince them to agree with your opinion, rather than to be presented with interesting and relevant research. Your attempt to twist an opinion into a fact undermines your trustworthiness, negating any benefit that could come from publishing thought leadership.
For example, you may believe that product managers would benefit from utilizing a particular software tool. Stating that opinion as a fact, without any data to support it, can come across as untrustworthy.
Obviously, opinions aren’t a bad thing to have. You may have a unique perspective on the market that is experience-based. Just don’t confuse that opinion with a fact. If you do, readers will make you pay for that mistake with fewer clicks, conversions, and leads.
2. Only draw conclusions from numbers that are significant.
Readers understand which percentages are significant and which are not. They can tell if you are drawing strong conclusions based on a number that really just doesn’t justify your claims.
For example, if 19% of people indicate that they’d like to see a particular solution come to market, that’s not a substantial enough percentage to state that there is a need to bring such a solution to market.
Additionally, it is important to draw conclusions only from an audience that is actually relevant to the findings. For example, if 80% of people want a solution to come to market, but none of those surveyed are buyers with purchasing power, then that would not be a reliable indicator of a solution that the market is demanding.
Although you may be looking for certain data to back your opinion or hypothesis, don’t try to force it if the data simply isn’t showing it. Hiding behind a weak number or the wrong audience, and hoping the reader won’t notice, will only result in lost credibility.
One other way that this plays out is when companies use what some call “weasel words.” These are words that seem to imply that something is true, when it might not be.
Here are just a few examples to look out for in your own content:
- Many organizations feel that a CRM platform is crucial to their sales team’s success.
What is “many” in this context? Is it 50.5%, 75%, or 90%?
- A number of buyers told us that an easy to use API is important to them.
How many is a “a number of buyers?” Was it the majority?
- Relatively few organizations look for alternatives to XYZ after the 1st year.
What does “relatively” mean? Does it imply a specific percentage, the majority, the minority, or something else entirely?
3. Opinions from customers > Opinions from you.
Letting the world see real customer insights is one of the most captivating parts of a B2B thought leadership study. The thoughts of your leadership team are simply not as intriguing to readers as the thoughts of your customers, prospects, and competitor customers. For that reason, including quotes from prospective, current customers, and competitor customers are some of the most valuable pieces of insight you can include in a thought leadership study.
For example, a client of ours recently had a hypothesis that workers would prefer a hybrid model (working partially from home and partially in the office). Our research confirmed this hypothesis. Specifically, we found 79% of respondents reported a hybrid work model was important to them.
Since we conducted a number of in-depth interviews in addition to our survey, we were also able to include powerful quotes to reinforce the statistic. Interviewees not only shared that they would prefer this type of work model, but also why they liked it, how it benefited them personally, and other opinions on hybrid models. These quotes gave life to the paper, resulting in a more engaging final piece.
4. Keep the respondent’s intent in mind.
When creating and asking questions, never twist those questions around in a certain way to get the responses that you want. Questions should be asked fairly with minimal bias or leading on your part. Similarly, when participants answer the questions, their responses should never be taken out of context so that it is no longer an accurate reflection of what the person actually meant.
Understand your respondent’s intent and where they are coming from when they are making a point. Their claim should never be skewed to the point of no longer conveying their true intention.
5. Does your opinion span beyond conventional wisdom?
Oftentimes, we hear clients deliver what they believe to be a differentiated opinion. In actuality, this opinion is somewhat of a generally accepted belief. As such, it wouldn’t be worthwhile to build a thought leadership piece around a concept that potential readers would already consider to be common knowledge.
For example, AWS isn’t delivering thought leadership pieces about how the cloud is replacing on-premises. That’s something that’s been known for over a decade now. This problem can affect startups as well. Startups often broadcast that they are doing something “no one has ever done before,” sometimes screamed in all caps on their site. Yet, that usually isn’t true.
In sum, the point of view you are trying to convey in a B2B thought leadership piece should be truly differentiated and unique in order to establish yourself as a thought leader in your space.
Find the Right Guide for Your B2B Thought Leadership Effort
Sometimes you need to consult an expert outside of your organization to guide your thought leadership effort. This guide should be able to ground your thought leadership in research, providing credibility and relevance with real-world insights. Additionally, they should know how to mobilize it in an effective marketing campaign to engage your target buyers.
An ideal guide can help you:
- Understand upfront which topics would be most relevant and beneficial to research for your thought leadership piece, based on what is trending in your industry.
- Design research questions around specific pain points that your company’s solution is well-positioned to help solve. Additionally, the right guide can focus questions around key takeaways that can produce headline-grabbing research findings.
- Deliver a final thought leadership piece that reports on the research findings in a compelling and engaging way, while integrating your company’s point of view throughout.
Facts are Stubborn Things
John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
Your buyers want you to be stubborn in the pursuit of the truth. They want you to be stubborn in the pursuit of the facts. And they want you to be clear about what is opinion and what is fact in everything you write.
So, here’s a homework assignment: take a look at the B2B thought leadership content on your site. How much is opinion, and how much is fact? Is it full of weasel words like “possibly” or “more”? How often is an insight bent so far that it no longer quite resembles the truth anymore?
Once you’re done, give yourself an honest grade. And if it isn’t passing, give us a call. We can help get you an A.
Cascade Insights is a hybrid market research and marketing firm that specializes in the B2B tech sector. Interested in powerful research that can be used to develop compelling thought leadership content? Learn more about our B2B thought leadership services here.
Special thanks to Cascade Insights Co-Founder & CEO Sean Campbell and Chief of Staff Philippe Boutros for advising on this piece.