Thought leadership is the practice of expressing new ideas or ways of thinking that can benefit others. Thought leaders share their expertise, knowledge and insight with relevant audiences; in the process, they position themselves as a go-to resource on a certain subject.
As opposed to traditional marketing content, thought leadership will typically lead with an objective truth that’s backed by data. This truth can be used to build the case for an opinion or perspective that they hold. Conventional marketing, on the other hand, will generally begin with sharing an opinion, and then get to the truth later on (if at all). For this reason, thought leadership is generally regarded as more trustworthy than traditional marketing.
Thought leaders will often appear as guides that help people to navigate the different issues that surround an industry. Or, they may also appear as teachers that illustrate how to do something through more educational-based content.
Companies can produce thought leadership content to help establish credibility, elevate brand awareness, improve their overall perception, and boost their sales.
Research has shown that 88% of business decision-makers report that thought leadership can be effective in enhancing their perceptions of an organization. At the same time, however, only 17% rate the quality of most thought leadership as very good or excellent. This discrepancy creates an opportunity for companies to become trusted experts in their field by consistently sharing high-quality thought leadership content.
Developing a thought leadership strategy is a long-term effort that takes significant time to successfully establish. Once it’s set in place, however, companies can begin to see substantial business benefits.
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What Are The Different Types of Thought Leadership Content?
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.”
Thought leadership content can come in the following forms:
- Whitepapers reporting data from original research and findings (e.g., The Results are in: COVID-19 has Ushered in a New Era of Digital Transformation in the B2B World)
- Blog posts or articles on industry news or current trends (e.g., Top Technology Trends for 2022)
- Podcasts and interviews (e.g., Future Commerce Podcast)
- Videos (e.g., Buzzfeed’s “Tasty” food channel)
- Website landing pages (e.g., Connection Retail Technology)
- Conference or webinar decks (e.g., Research Matters: Why GSIs Should Engage Boomi)
- Social media campaigns (e.g., Neil Patel)
- Infographics (e.g., Spanning’s cybersecurity Infographic)
- Ebooks (e.g., Gogo’s Charter Organization’s Guide to Inflight Wi-Fi)
- Training resources (e.g., Hubspot Free Educational Services)
Companies should consider their goals, audience, and intended message when determining the type of thought leadership content that would work best for them. Certain mediums work best to relay different kinds of information to different people.
How Does B2B Thought Leadership Content Differ From B2C?
There are a number of other differences in how B2B vs. B2C products are sold, purchased, and developed.
B2B products and solutions tend to be complex, expensive, and involve a number of different people throughout the purchasing process. B2C products tend to be simpler, cheaper, and typically involve just one buyer as the decision maker.
As a result of these inherent differences, the thought leadership efforts of B2B vs. B2C companies tend to present themselves in different ways.
B2B Thought Leadership Content: Logical, Credible, and Knowledgeable
B2B thought leadership typically focuses more on logic, education, and sharing information that can help with decision-making processes.
It’s critical that B2B thought leadership presents itself in a way that is credible and trustworthy. Because the solutions that B2B buyers purchase are complex and expensive, these buyers are often risk-averse. Because they have a lot at stake in their purchasing decisions, they need to feel confident that they are gathering information from a reputable and knowledgeable source that they can trust.
Addressing Core Values
When considering potential vendors, B2B buyers will first look to meet key needs, such as cost reduction, improved productivity, how well a product or service integrates with existing technology, etc. These elements are all at the bottom of the hierarchy of B2B values.
After that foundation is set, however, buyers will then consider all that they have personally at stake as well. For example, will this potential purchase reduce anxiety, boost their reputation amongst their colleagues, or help them to execute on a vision? These elements are all areas in which thought leadership is well-suited to help.
Compelling and Comprehensive
B2B thought leadership content tends to be longer-form pieces of content that allows for the space needed to thoroughly explore complex topics that are typically associated with B2B products and services. Oftentimes, B2B thought leadership will be centered around a research study that a company recently commissioned. The resulting piece will feature compelling data points that will educate and share knowledge to help inform the decisions of B2B buyers.
For example, Veritas recently commissioned Cascade Insights to produce the Truth in Cloud Report. The report asked 1,645 cloud architects and administrators across 15 countries to share their assumptions and insights on backup infrastructure as well as their ideas about the future of cloud data protection.
Reporting on the results of this study helped Veritas to share with its customers how today’s cloud architects perceived the landscape and what their backup and recovery concerns were. Uncovering these truths and sharing with other IT leaders helped provide them with the information they needed for to make educated future decisions.
Targeting the Personas and Job Titles of a Decision-Making Team
The content of a B2B thought leadership piece will vary quite a bit depending on the persona that it’s targeting. Thought leadership may aim to target the C-level, an implementer, influencer, or another persona that will be most impacted by the information being presented.
For example, a thought leadership piece that focuses on how to implement a new technology would be geared mainly toward a technical audience. It would include details and terminology that only those personas would understand; others would consider it jargon. On the other hand, a thought leadership piece that focuses on the business benefits of cloud adoption would be targeting mainly the C-suite or LoB leaders. It would be less about the tactical implementation and more about business implications.
Different personas require a different approach to how the information within a thought leadership effort is presented. Highly contextual thought leadership content that speaks directly to a specific persona will help them to make the most informed decisions.
B2C Thought Leadership Content: Appealing To Emotions and Aligning Beliefs
B2C thought leadership will typically appeal more to the emotions and feelings of consumers, and less on their logic and reasoning. Consumers that are passionate about a company will be more likely to remember a product or brand and, as a result, purchase from them. In fact, 95% of purchasing decisions are driven by the subconscious mind, so appealing to consumers’ emotions and aligning with their beliefs will drive their purchasing behaviors.
B2C thought leadership will try to align itself with a consumer’s values and beliefs by promoting work that they believe their customers will care about. To resonate, the thought leadership should represent the brand’s core values and purpose.
The content tends to come in shorter, more visual pieces of content that can instantly capture an audience’s attention and draw them in to learn more.
For example, Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign showed consumers a more genuine view into beauty product advertising. Dove formulated this campaign with the realization that many women were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with how they looked, and were craving beauty products that delivered products that spoke more authentically to them.
It successfully started a conversation, garnered national attention, and led to increased sales. In the campaign’s first 10 years, sales jumped from $2.5 to $4 billion.
Targeting Audiences Based on Demographics and Psychological Profiles
B2C thought leadership will typically target larger audiences of people based on demographic information like age, income, and education. Additionally, it may target basic psychological profiles like values, lifestyle choices, and social and political opinions.
Ben and Jerry’s is an example of a consumer brand that targets its thought leadership toward people that share their values on social issues. Since their inception, they’ve continuously tackled such issues as sustainable sourcing, environmental impacts, fair wage pay and benefits for employees, and more. With webpages focused on campaign finance reform, climate justice, and dismantling white supremacy, they make a point to provide their constituents with content that will align deeply with their beliefs. In turn, consumers feel a stronger affinity and connection with the brand.
What Are The Benefits of Producing Thought Leadership Content?
Producing high-quality thought leadership content has a variety of benefits for companies. It can help to establish trust and credibility, raise brand awareness and improve public perception, and subsequently boost sales.
Establish Credibility and Trust
Many people are skeptical of traditional marketing, which is inherently more biased than thought leadership. Conventional marketing 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 by asking, “What is a market truth that we need to let our customers know about?”.
Additionally, thought leadership typically starts with a truth that’s backed by data that may lead to an opinion. Content marketing is the opposite. It will generally lead with an opinion, and may never get to a truth. As a result, people tend to consume thought leadership with less skepticism than typical marketing.
This is particularly true for B2B brands. In fact, 59% of decision-makers at B2B businesses agree an organization’s thought leadership is a more trustworthy basis for assessing its capabilities and competencies than its marketing materials and product sheets. That makes it even more critical that the thought leadership content being presented is telling an objective truth, not an opinion. Sharing a data-backed truth is the key factor in establishing credibility and trust with decision-makers.
On the B2C side, thought leadership helps to build authenticity, which is one of the top qualities that attracts consumers to a brand. Consumers that feel their brand is authentic are more likely to become advocates for that brand.
Raise Brand Awareness and Improve Perception
Thought leaders will often be the ones to appear when someone is searching for how to operate, perform, or implement something within a certain field. They may also pop up as the ones helping to navigate the different issues going on in an industry.
By continuously appearing as a resource that can help in these situations, companies can boost their visibility with potential customers and other industry contacts. That in turn increases mindshare, so that when customers are ready to engage with a salesperson, the company is top of mind. It also helps influencers in the industry to name your product first when buyers are looking for recommendations.
In addition to raising brand awareness, high quality thought leadership can also improve brand perception. Routinely appearing as the leader to address different issues or demonstrate how to perform critical tasks within an industry positions companies as experts in the field.
Thought leadership is essential to sales success. However, the inherent costs and resources that are associated with creating thought leadership content may deter some companies from producing it in the first place. This would be a missed opportunity; nearly half of decision-makers say that thought leadership can be effective in influencing their purchasing decisions. Additionally, 41% agree they are more willing to pay a premium to work with an organization that produces thought leadership versus those that do not.
Becoming a thought leader can also shorten the buying process for customers. When a prospect already has some knowledge about your company, they’ll feel more comfortable with your brand and will begin the buying process further down the funnel than someone who has never heard of a brand before.
Thought leadership also helps to build a longer-term relationship with customers that can provide even more value and ROI over time. Being the expert that helps to educate customers along their buying journey helps companies to establish themselves as a resource that can go beyond an initial sale.
This is especially relevant to companies that offer more service-based offerings, like a SaaS service with a monthly fee or providing professional services like IT consulting. The relationship and cadence being developed in these cases is different from a company who sells a single product like a laptop in a single purchase. Thought leadership can help to deepen these connections and continue the relationship moving forward.
How Do I Produce Effective Thought Leadership Content?
In order to reap the benefits that thought leadership provides, companies first need to be sure that the content they produce is of the highest quality.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for the majority of thought leadership content that is currently being released. As we noted above, only 17% of decision makers at businesses 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 people to remove a potential vendor or partner from consideration.
With that in mind, here are some essential steps to producing highly effective thought leadership that will allow your company to capture its benefits.
First, Set Your Goals
To help ensure your thought leadership effort is targeted and focused, you first must establish what your goals with the piece are. Is it to help inform organizations of how to troubleshoot issues with a certain technology? Is it to help teach people how to download a certain kind of software? Are you trying to change a certain narrative? Is it more about just raising general awareness for your brand?
The goal of your piece should shape your approach. For example, if awareness is your goal, putting the study behind a paywall or a long contact form is counterproductive. Instead, you should focus more on making sure your piece gets as many eyes on it as possible, whether that’s through SEO initiatives, a social media strategy, paid ads, or an additional measure.
Know Who You’re Targeting
Who is the primary audience or persona for your thought leadership piece? What information would be most useful to them? Knowing and defining this ahead of time will help to shape the messaging and which medium that you choose to deliver that message.
If you are a SaaS service that sells mainly to IT leaders, then an effective thought leadership effort might include developing a whitepaper that includes research findings that would directly impact the decisions they make.
If you are a hardware company that sells construction products, then your thought leadership initiative might be geared more toward sharing how-to videos or quick blogs to potential customers and teach them how to use their products to achieve the results they’re looking for.
A professional services company that provides IT consulting could benefit from producing training resources that help its clients to troubleshoot common issues or to implement an emerging technology.
In short, knowing who your audience is and what matters to them will help you to formulate a targeted approach toward your thought leadership effort.
Captivate Your Audience
In order for thought leadership to be effective, it must first be able to capture the audience’s attention. A bored, uninterested reader or listener won’t engage with your piece for more than a couple of seconds.
One of the best ways to do this is through sharing a compelling data point that is backed in fact and has real ramifications for them. Then, you must be able to wrap a story around the data. It’s not enough to dump out data and make the reader work hard to figure out what that means for them.
You’ve got to give them a story that helps them make sense of the data and how that impacts them. What decisions will this new information help them to make? How should it influence their actions moving forward?
For example, imagine that new research shows that the vast majority of enterprises are in the process of migrating to the cloud, but only a small percentage of those companies have actually completed their cloud migration. It’s not enough for a thought leadership piece to simply show share those statistics without explaining what those data points mean.
The thought leadership piece should go on to explain the implications of these statistics. In this particular case, that data could mean that organizations don’t necessarily need any convincing to migrate to the cloud, but rather that they need the tools and support to actually complete that migration.
Providing visuals is another way to help keep the audience’s interst. Effective visuals are easier for many people to interpret and digest. So, including photos, charts, graphs, and other visuals is often a more compelling way to enhance a point.
If the data leads you to form a strongly-held belief, don’t waver in your approach. Being willing to take a stand and clearly state what you believe will help to keep your audience engaged and invested.
Finally, don’t distract from the story by using sales-oriented language. Objective and unbiased language is the best way to maintain the audience’s attention and trust throughout the entirety of the piece.
A key component of any thought leadership initiative is that it provides value to its audience. What will they gain from reading, listening, or watching your piece?
The point of view being presented in a thought leadership piece needs to go beyond conventional wisdom within the industry. Just reinforcing something already known is not providing any value. The point of view you are trying to convey should be truly differentiated and unique in order to establish yourself as a thought leader in your space.
Another way to provide value through a thought leadership piece is by publishing research that will help people to justify and feel more confident in their decision-making. Customers who feel confident in their decision making will, in turn, proceed to increase their spending.
Gartner recently found that the strongest driver of account growth was the confidence that customers had in themselves and their ability to make good buying decisions. When customers felt confident that they could anticipate necessary changes, determine the right questions to consider, and make the right choice, they were 2.6 times more likely to grow their relationship with an existing supplier.
Finally, ensure that value-adds continue to run throughout the piece. Regularly highlight what stands out in research findings. Draw intriguing conclusions. Note what is surprising, or spells doom, or throws up a giant red flag that someone should start paying attention to. These are the types of things that are useful to your target buyer personas.
Remain Ethical, Transparent, and Credible
Perhaps the most important part of any thought leadership piece is its credibility. An otherwise effective thought leadership piece can fall apart quickly if it presents itself as untrustworthy and riddled with credibility issues.
Thought leadership that displays red flags such as poor research, weak or heavily biased opinions, or a piece that just does not rise above the level of content marketing, immediately signals untrustworthiness to readers.
Poor research can show itself through missing or inaccessible methodology, external information not being cited, or failing to put the data into context for the reader. These mistakes could signal to the reader that the company producing the thought leadership effort is biased, trying to conceal certain information, or simply does not have the expertise that’s needed to present a credible research study.
Authors of thought leadership efforts also need to take care when they are talking about statistics. For example, weasel words are something to be avoided. You can easily spot them if a piece constantly uses phrases like “most organizations feel,” “many people say,” “customers regularly say,” etc. Instead of using weasel words or phrases, organizations should use the actual %’s and numbers that a research study generated.
For example, saying “many” people agree with a point of view, when the data shows only 45% of a population agree with a point of view, or saying “some” disagree when 51% do, only leads to credibility concerns in a reader’s mind.
Or, organizations may try to shorten the research portion of their thought leadership piece by conducting surveys or interviews with only a limited number of respondents. A small sample size will immediately send up a red flag to any readers who discover it. This may lead readers to question not only the credibility of the report, but also the credibility of the company producing the report.
Finally, content marketing that tries to uplevel to thought leadership (when it shouldn’t) is a red flag for readers. Although content marketing and thought leadership are related, they are not interchangeable. Thought leadership should rise above by offering new and compelling information that helps an audience to make future decisions. Anything less may be seen as just another piece of content marketing
Who are the Stakeholders of a Thought Leadership Content Effort?
Common stakeholders of thought leadership include marketing leaders, sales and business development teams, product managers, market researchers, customer support and customer success teams, or even the C-suite.
Each department within an organization brings unique knowledge, experience, and a point of view. Companies that implement programs to highlight and support employees from different departments to share their expertise will be able to capitalize on sharing their industry knowledge from a variety of different perspectives.
For example, AWS’ News Blog features writers by real employees across all segments of the company, including Architecture, Game Tech, Robotics and more. The diversity and variety of perspectives contributes to the well-roundedness and authenticity of the content being shared.
Marketers are perhaps the most common stakeholder in a thought leadership effort. As the primary people responsible for producing a company’s externally-facing collateral, most will have a hand in the production of thought leadership content.
Marketing leaders are experts in knowing the types of information, messaging, CTAs, and mediums that will resonate most deeply with their audience. Companies can use this expertise to help package thought leadership content in a format that will make the biggest impact on their consumers.
Sales and Business Development Teams
Sales and business development teams are another important stakeholder in a thought leadership piece. Thought leadership can help boost sales for companies, but only if their sales teams are able to relay the information of the piece to consumers in an effective way.
For that to happen, sales and business development teams first need to deeply believe in and value the information that a company presents in their thought leadership piece. Once they feel confident in the data-backed truths that are being shared, they can go on to become an advocate for the organization’s thought leadership efforts.
Sales teams are also a good source of ideas for what thought leadership will resonate with their customers. With so much interaction, they are able to glean a variety insights into their customers’ concerns, interests, decision-making processes, and more. This wealth of information can be used as a basis to form a thought leadership piece that will connect with its target audience.
Product managers are experts on how to ship great products. They can provide insight on product lifecycle, any issues surrounding the product, the market landscape, customer behavior and competitor analysis.
This expertise is what’s crucial to providing value in a thought leadership effort. Product managers who can share these insights with an audience can help their companies to establish themselves as thought leaders in the industry.
Some organizations have internal market research teams. Essentially, this is a professional services firm embedded within a larger firm that sells products and services. These teams are perfect for proving the research and data that can make up a compelling thought leadership piece.
Customer Support and Customer Success Teams
Customer success managers work directly with customers to ensure they’re receiving the tools and support needed for success. Customer support teams also work directly with customers, providing them help with any challenges they may be experiencing with the product.
Because these teams communicate personally with customers, they have firsthand knowledge of the issues that concern them, as well as areas they may be interested in learning more. These are the types of insights that can help to build a compelling thought leadership piece that engages the right people.
Although the C-level suite wouldn’t typically be the ones producing the thought leadership content, their support of the initiative is imperative to its success. In fact, 64% of thought leadership producers credited support from leadership among the most important drivers of their last exceptional thought leadership success.
Cascade Insights & Thought Leadership Content
Cascade Insights is a market research and marketing agency that works exclusively in the B2B tech sector. We specialize in producing B2B market research and B2B marketing, including thought leadership services. Visit our thought leadership page to learn more on how to build your reputation with custom market research and market assets.
“The decision to partner with Cascade Insights on recent B2B research projects has worked out very well. Their ability to quickly understand our industry and specific business challenges, combined with their strong project execution skills has quickly made them our preferred partner for B2B work. Specifically, I appreciate their collaborative approach in being open to conceptual research discussions, making field adjustments on the fly, and in making recommendations of their own during execution of the project. It truly is a pleasure to work with the team at Cascade!”
— Phil Panuela, Dir. Global Insights, Gogo