B2B customer engagement is entering a new era. The Covid-19 pandemic rapidly accelerated digital selling, driving a permanent shift in how brands reach high value, business-to-business audiences. Against that backdrop, Edelman and LinkedIn collaborated on the fourth annual B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study to examine how thought leadership influences perception and buying behaviors among B2B decision-makers.
This year’s study reveals a tidal wave of content marketing that is making it harder for companies to connect with B2B customers and prospects. We’ve gathered insights from nearly 3,600 management-level professionals who consume thought leadership to help marketers, communicators and salespeople better understand what’s behind this trend and how to break through the noise — including when to use thought leadership and what attributes B2B audiences want to see from companies.
We hope the findings shed light on how your own organization shows up in the marketplace — and helps to spark new thinking and ideas that you can use in your thought leadership efforts.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
- A pandemic-induced glut of low-quality content is diluting the perceived value of thought leadership among B2B decision-makers.
- Thought leadership remains critical to customer engagement but breaking through the noise is harder than ever.
- Earning trust and credibility with decision-makers requires strong thought leadership — especially if you are not an established market leader.
- High-performing thought leadership strikes a balance between being authoritative and provocative yet human in tone and even fun.
- With increased competition for attention and rapidly shifting buyer preferences, now is a good time to re-evaluate whether your thought leadership strategy is meeting your customers' needs.
A pandemic-induced glut of low-quality content is diluting the perceived value of thought leadership among B2B decision-makers.
Unsurprisingly, there is more B2B thought-leadership content being created than ever before. Who among us did not feel the flurry of virtual conferences, webinars, and pandemic-focused studies pouring into our already-inundated inboxes and social feeds? B2B decision-makers feel it too: 66% of global decision-makers say the pandemic spawned a huge increase in the amount of thought leadership in the marketplace. And nearly four in ten (38%) final decision-makers say there is more thought-leadership content than they can manage or keep up with, and that the market is oversaturated.
That said, decision-makers are still consuming: 54% say they spend more than one hour per week reading and reviewing thought-leadership content, and more than half, or 51% of C-level executives say they spend more time doing so than before the pandemic began.
But while consumption is up, satisfaction is not. The majority (71%) of decision-makers say that half or less than half of the thought-leadership content they read or watch gives them any sort of valuable insights.
Thought leadership remains critical to customer engagement but breaking through the noise is harder than ever.
Self-education among B2B buyers, a trend well underway pre-pandemic, continues to gain steam. Research from Gartner shows that 83% of a typical B2B purchasing decision — researching solutions, ranking options and benchmarking pricing — happens before a buyer engages directly with a provider. The in-person, one-to-one sales model is fading away: B2B sales reps have roughly 5% of a customer’s time during their entire B2B buying journey. More decisions are being made digitally, and according to McKinsey, 70% – 80% of B2B decision-makers prefer it that way.
83% of a typical B2B purchasing decision — researching solutions, ranking options and benchmarking pricing — happens before a buyer engages directly with a provider.
Against this backdrop, thought leadership content has become a critical vehicle to reach and influence the C-suite and other decision-makers early and throughout their consideration process. Our research over the past three years has demonstrated that thought leadership, when done well, can strengthen a business’s reputation and spark meaningful interactions that lead to tangible business results. This year’s results underscore that thought leadership has a unique ability to influence the C-suite, who are concerned with generating new ideas to help their business stay ahead of industry trends
But capturing their attention is getting harder.
Earning trust and credibility with decision-makers requires strong thought leadership — especially if you are not an established market leader.
Thought leadership can help B2B brands strategically reposition themselves in the marketplace, and there are a number of scenarios in which thought leadership can be of critical importance to a brand:
Challenger brands trying to disrupt the status quo should turn to thought leadership to earn the attention of senior decision-makers. 60% of buyers say thought leadership builds credibility when entering a category in which the brand is not already known. And 57% of buyers say that thought leadership builds awareness for a new or little-known brand.
- The ROI is real: 47% of buyers say thought leadership led them to discover and ultimately purchase from a company that was not considered to be among the leaders in a particular category.
Thought leadership can influence your audience’s understanding of your capabilities and potential — 65% of buyers say a piece of thought-leadership content significantly improved their perception of a company.
It’s no longer enough to rely on business performance to build a good reputation. Top companies should also have a point of view on key industry and even social issues. 64% of buyers say that an organization's thought-leadership content is a more trustworthy basis for assessing its capabilities and competency than its marketing materials and product sheets.
- Thought leadership can also position you as a valued partner instead of a vendor: 63% of buyers also say that thought leadership provides proof that an organization genuinely understands or can solve your specific business challenges.
Not only are newsrooms shrinking, but trust in media is declining overall. 54% of buyers say that thought leadership is important in drawing attention to topics that the news media rarely cover but are important within your industry.
In today’s volatile job market, thought leadership is emerging as a keyway to reach prospective employees. 50% of buyers say thought leadership can be effective in attracting the best talent.
High-performing thought leadership strikes a balance between being authoritative and provocative yet human in tone and even fun.
B2B buyers are people too. They want content that’s useful but also interesting. The vast majority — or 87% — say that thought-leadership content can be both intellectually rigorous and fun to consume.
Some notable preferences that emerged in our survey include:
- 81% want provocative insights that challenge their assumptions rather than validation on their current thinking
- 80% of decision-makers want thought leadership that includes 3rd party data from trusted sources rather than only proprietary insights from the company publishing
- 77% are interested in hearing from deep subject matter experts delving into specialized topics over senior executives speaking to high-level business issues
- 64% of decision-makers favor a more human, less formal tone of voice rather than an even-toned intellectual voice
- 67% prefer thought leadership to prominently feature the POV of an identifiable author, instead of being published by a faceless brand
Also, it’s not enough to simply reach your audience; you must resonate with them. Understanding your audience is key. Alarmingly, our research shows that almost half, or 47% of decision-makers feel that most thought leadership does not seem to be created with their specific needs in mind. Gartner reports that the buyer journey is more complex than ever: today’s typical purchase committee includes “six to 10 decision makers‚ each armed with four or five pieces of information they have gathered independently and must de-conflict with the group. At the same time, the set of options and solutions buying groups can consider is expanding as new technologies, products, suppliers and services emerge.” Thought leadership can play a critical role in influencing this group, but only if you’re able to successfully address a variety of needs.
With increased competition for attention and rapidly shifting buyer preferences, now is a good time to re-evaluate whether your thought leadership strategy is meeting your customers' needs.
In today’s digital-first B2B environment, thought-leadership content is more important than ever, and also harder than ever to do well. Design your content plan to achieve specific strategic business objectives like changing brand perceptions, earning trust, filling in media blind spots, and recruiting talent. To break through the noise, be approachable and fun as well as informative and educational. Doing so can help you grab the precious attention of key decision-makers when it matters — both early and throughout the buying process.