B2B decision-makers spend at least an hour consuming thought leadership content per week. This content can offer insights that help them to keep pace with current trends, issues, analysis, and research relevant to their industry.
While high-quality B2B thought leadership content can give decision-makers information they need to make smarter business decisions, poor-quality thought leadership can do the opposite.
If readers don’t immediately recognize the signs of untrustworthy thought leadership, they may inadvertently use some of that information to make misguided business decisions. Therefore, it’s critical that readers are able to quickly assess the credibility of a B2B thought leadership piece.
Signs of Untrustworthy B2B Thought Leadership
Untrustworthy B2B thought leadership content often presents itself through poor research, weak or heavily biased opinions, or just marketing content that’s trying to uplevel to thought leadership (when it shouldn’t).
These are some of the specific red flags you can look out for to check if the thought leadership content you’re reading is trustworthy or not.
Red Flag #1: Poor Research
A B2B thought leadership piece is often centered around a research study that a company has recently commissioned. This research effort is the foundation upon which the truths of many thought leadership studies are based. Here are a few things to check if you want to see if that foundation is cracked.
Is the methodology clear?
First, the methodology of the study that’s being referenced should be clear and accessible. It should not be difficult to find or hiding being a paywall. It should include the date the research was conducted, the sample size, and the general background of the respondents. The study should also be relatively recent.
Is external information cited?
Any external information that is presented throughout the piece should be clearly cited. Statistics should be specific and accurate, including a link leading out to the source.
Trends and industry insights should also be referenced. These types of information should not just rely on the opinion of the company producing the thought leadership piece. Far too often a thought leadership piece makes bold claims about the market, products, or even competitors without much basis in fact – or citations.
Is the research data put into context?
Data should be presented in a way that shows readers the real-world implications of the research findings for their industry, job, or role.
Any failure to do so can imply that the research contained forgettable findings that don’t rise to the level of having any real impact. It could also be a sign that the company producing the research underlying the thought leadership effort does not actually have the expertise that’s needed to be able to put those numbers in context for you.
Red Flag #2: Weak or Heavily Biased Opinions
An opinion or experience-based perspective from a leader in the industry can be a valuable component of any thought leadership piece. However, a weak or heavily biased opinion should never be present in a B2B thought leadership piece. A strong opinion should be able to be clearly substantiated by fact, with a clear delineation between the two.
Does this piece read like a sales pitch?
Sales pitches are typically overflowing with promotion while being light on objective data. These pieces tend to be more about the company than the reader.
Trustworthy thought leadership pieces should be the opposite. Regardless of if the research was commissioned by the company or not, the results should be presented in a way that is objective and balanced. Any other approach signals untrustworthiness.
Is it drawing stronger conclusions than the data supports?
Yes, B2B thought leadership pieces should be able to draw conclusions for you based on the data being presented. However, the conclusions that are being drawn must be truly justifiable.
For example, if the piece claims that the “overwhelming majority” of IT leaders are using a particular solution, a reasonable person might expect that would mean between 80-90% of IT leaders. If in fact, the study showed that only 57% of IT leaders are using that solution, that should raise a red flag that the company is forming a stronger conclusion than what the data actually supports.
Is it full of weasel words?
Companies should be as specific as possible when presenting research findings. The exact number of the statistic should be spelled out whenever possible. It should not rely on general phrases like “most,” “few,” “several”, or “nearly all.”
If the piece is filled with these types of “weasel words” instead of statistics, that is a sign that the research numbers are not as strong as the author would hope you to believe.
Is the POV differentiated?
The point of view being presented in a thought leadership piece should span beyond conventional wisdom within the industry. Just reinforcing something already known is not providing any value.
Undifferentiated POVs can crop up in a few different forms. One example is a company that shares an idea or analysis that once may have been considered trailblazing and original five to ten years ago. In the time since, however, it has become a generally accepted belief.
Another way this could play out is with junior marketers writing about a topic that they have little experience with. What may seem like new information to them could actually be readily accepted information by industry experts.
Red Flag #3: Doesn’t Rise Above Content Marketing
Content marketing and thought leadership are related, but not interchangeable. Content marketing is inherently more biased, as any content marketing effort typically begins by asking the question, “How can we get more prospects to act on X, or Y, or Z?”.
A thought leadership effort, however, typically begins with asking, “What is a market truth that we need to let our customers know about?” Given this, here are a few indicators to help determine if you’re reading thought leadership or content marketing.
Is this anything more than a blog?
Blog posts or articles can be great ways for readers to be informed or entertained by a particular topic. Far more common than thought leadership, blogs are generally shorter, less complex, and don’t typically present any new research.
B2B thought leadership pieces, on the other hand, tend to be longer-form pieces of content that dig deep into a particular topic by presenting new and unique pieces of information. If the thought leadership piece that you are reading does not rise to that level, it likely should have just been a blog post.
Does it only reference sources that agree with them?
A B2B thought leadership piece should be backed by objective data. Any externally linked sources should also be from impartial and unbiased points of view.
If the piece is only referring to parties with a vested interest in promoting a certain stance that aligns with the company, that’s an indication that you’re consuming content marketing.
Is new and compelling information being presented?
Whether it’s presenting findings from a new study, a differentiated POV from an industry expert, or an in-depth analysis of current industry trends, B2B thought leadership should offer readers new and compelling information. If that isn’t clear, it should be an indicator that what you’re reading has not risen past content marketing.
B2B Thought Leadership: Visibility ≠ Credibility
Businessman and author Harvey Mackay once said, “Don’t confuse visibility with credibility”. Just because a thought leadership piece exists does not mean that it’s credible.
So the next time you’re reading a thought leadership piece, try this test. Scan through for any of the red flags described above. If the piece raises a lot of flags, it’s time to close that browser tab.
If the piece contains no red flags, however, dive deep and read it thoroughly. You just might find an insight that will help you find new paths to growth and success.
Cascade Insights is a hybrid market research and marketing firm that specializes in the B2B tech sector. We help companies develop credible and compelling high-quality B2B thought leadership content. For more information on thought leadership, visit What is Thought Leadership?
Special thanks to Cascade Insights Co-Founder & CEO Sean Campbell and Chief of Staff Philippe Boutros for advising on this piece.