If you are developing thought leadership to be a door opener for your biz dev team then you are not thinking about thought leadership in a way that aligns with how B2B purchasing-decision makers are using it.

According to the 2021 Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study, only 35% of decision makers say that thought leadership is important in getting them to pay attention to a company’s sales efforts. That compares to the 63% who say that thought leadership is an important way to provide proof to them that an organization genuinely understands or can solve their business challenges.

This notion of thought leadership as proof of ability is important in an environment in which 83% of a typical B2B purchasing decision happens before a buyer engages directly with a provider Gartner, and the in-person, one-to-one sales model is fading away McKinsey. Under these conditions, thought leadership can’t just open the door. It must walk into the buyer’s office, take a seat, and do much of the convincing you may have once relied on your business development teams to do.

That convincing, though, cannot come in the form of a hard sell. Thought leadership is most successful when its content dovetails with what decision-makers use it for:

  • 71% say they use it to keep up-to-date
  • 72% use it to educate themselves on important topics
  • 71% use it to stimulate their thinking

In contrast, only 47% of decision-makers use thought leadership to discover new products and offerings that might help their organization. Most decision-makers are not looking to go shopping when they engage with thought leadership. They are looking for edification. The challenge is supplying that edification without being salesy. In fact, the most prevalent complaint associated with poor quality thought leadership is that it is overly focused on selling products rather than conveying valuable information.

In using thought leadership as a stealthy salesforce surrogate, it is important not to overlook the human aspect of sales interactions. With the in-person sales model in decline, thought leadership also needs to convey how well an organization’s culture is likely to fit with that of the purchasing organization. In this regard, it is important to remember that B2B buyers are people too. When given a choice, they want to work with competent people who also have a personality and convey an approachable humanity. In keeping with this idea of the desirability of competency wrapped in a pleasing package, 88% of decision makers say that thought-leadership content can be both intellectually rigorous and fun to consume.

Thought leadership best conveys personality by actually having one. Along these lines, 64% of decision makers prefer thought leadership to feature the POV of an identifiable author. Thought leadership is an opportunity to make a connection — both intellectual and human. Having an identifiable person on the other side of a thought leadership piece facilitates that.

Our research over the past three years has demonstrated that thought leadership can lead to tangible business results. This year’s results suggest that it must bear a growing proportion of the selling burden as the B2B buying journey goes ever more digital. To produce thought leadership that is up to the task, organizations need to treat it not merely as a sales & marketing tool, but as an extension of their business development team — one with greater and earlier-in-the-buying-process access to key decision-makers than your corporeal sales reps likely have.

David Bersoff is Head of Global Thought Leadership Research.