Andrew Mildren is Managing Director, Edelman Business Marketing EMEA.

Geopolitical uncertainty and a cautious economic outlook mean business buying cycles remain lengthy. More people are involved in making purchasing decisions, meaning that marketing and communications programmes need to engage broader groups of buyers, work harder to demonstrate value, and sustain conversations with customers for longer. Yet, during challenging times, businesses are often hungrier for fresh insights, guidance from people they trust and provocative opinions that challenge existing assumptions.

That is what a new joint study the 2024 B2B Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact study, surveying 3,500 business decision-makers, has found, proving that thought leadership can be a powerful part of the marketing mix for companies looking to share actionable advice, new perspectives, and insightful data. Why? Because business decision makers are increasingly seeking new opportunities or trends stemming from an economic downturn (48%); recommendations on how their organisation can do well despite tough conditions (44%); and advice on how they can be more effective and successful in their job (44%).

Despite the power of thought leadership to drive business value, our analysis reveals that most marketing and communications professionals feel it is under-resourced, misused and not measured appropriately. So, how can they prove the impact within their company?

Reclaiming Thought Leadership     
Thought leadership is perhaps one of the most widely used and misunderstood phrases in business. How many times has someone in your company (often a person not involved in marketing) said “Ah, we could get some great thought leadership on that” or “The CEO wants to talk about this, so can you just write a thought leadership article?”

Thought leadership often becomes a catch all for thinly disguised product marketing or overt company promotion swayed by the views of a few senior executives. Diplomatically steering clients and colleagues toward its true meaning and usage is something that most marketing and communications professionals are likely to continue having to do. Which is why our study provides useful data to help make the case for better, more impactful thought leadership, so you can prioritise what matters for business leaders:

  • Robust research and fresh supporting data: There is a risk during uncertain times that companies focus on proprietary insights from within their own organisation, reusing existing data or trying to cover too many areas within one campaign. But with more than half (55%) of respondents in our study highlighting strong, original data and research as a key characteristic of the highest quality thought leadership, it’s vital that you find ways to source new research – even when budgets are tight. Thankfully, there are flexible ways of doing so. For example: analysing existing data within your own organisation; using existing customer satisfaction or frequently asked questions to your sales and technical team; running small focus groups; or convening an advisory panel of experts, third parties and partners to share their views.
  • Trusted third-party voices: The best ‘thoughts’ come through diverse perspectives and discussion between respected experts, with more than three quarters (80%) of respondents preferring thought leadership that brings in third-party data and insights from trusted organisations and people. Meanwhile, 44% believe the highest quality thought leadership helps bring a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing a business. Collaborating with experts can also add credibility and authority for your organisation, if you are seen to be convening some of the best brains to share learnings and advance an industry issue.
  • Concrete guidance: The term ‘thought leadership’ can encourage companies to focus on blue-sky thinking, future scenarios, or executive presence. While these can be all valuable, in challenging times, business decision makers are often seeking practical advice and real-world examples. In fact, three quarters (77%) of respondents prefer to hear from deep subject matter experts delving into specialised topics, rather than senior executives talking about high-level business issues. Likewise, 62% prefer analysis of current trends affecting their business today, rather than more speculative future trends.

Resourcing Effective Thought Leadership     
Half (50%) of thought leadership producers cite resourcing as the main barrier to producing more effective content. Respondents also highlight struggles in engaging the most senior and talented people to support thought leadership (27%) and a lack of relevant skills to produce high-quality content (26%). A look at business media reflects these issues, with many organisations tightening operational costs and restructuring their business. Ultimately, it is a challenging environment for marketing and communications leaders to make the case for expanding their teams.

One way of encouraging more investment in thought leadership, and the right skills to deliver it, is by thinking differently about how to quantify the commercial impact. This is a key area, which deserves to be more fully explored later in this article. But in the meantime, there are ways for companies to be more effective – in both the content produced and in the way it is created.

The Content Marketing Institute reports that, alarmingly, up to 70% of B2B content is never used. One way of overcoming the barrier of insufficient resource is to spend the available resource only on content that will have the greatest impact and, therefore, is most likely to be used. During extended buying cycles and in times of limited budget, assumptions are often made about what prospects most want to hear. Finding ways to regularly get first-hand input from customers not only produces better content but can also help prioritise topics and themes at the early stages of planning thought leadership.

Staying close to sales, customer support and teams out working in the field alongside customers is also important for being able to accurately identify the most commercially valuable activity. For instance, organisations with tightly aligned sales and marketing teams report 36% higher customer retention and 27% faster profit growth according to the What, Why, How Of Sales Enablement report by LXA. This is likely to be because if each activity is timely and relevant, there is less wastage, and the focus is on what matters for the buyer.

For under-resourced teams, artificial intelligence (AI) tools can also boost efficiency when it comes to thought leadership. The Content Marketing Institute reports that over half of marketers (51%) see AI as beneficial for brainstorming and identifying new topics, while 45% believe it is useful for researching headlines and keywords, citing its ability to generate assignments for marketing teams and quality control for content as potential gains. Other interesting areas include the ability to: quickly aggregate and analyse customer research and feedback; create virtual focus groups and personas to inform campaigns; and quickly concept ideas to help secure internal or client buy-in.

Quantifying the Value of Thought Leadership     
Nearly a third (30%) of producers of thought leadership say that their organisation does not really know how to use thought leadership as a sales or marketing tool. Alarmingly, 1 in 5 respondents also say that their company does not have any process in place for measuring effectiveness, while nearly half (42%) of state that their primary measure of effectiveness is looking for increased web and social traffic. Without these elements in place, no wonder thought leadership is often misunderstood and under-resourced.

The first step in resolving this is to recognise that thought leadership can have a positive impact through every aspect of the buying process. Our study shows that thought leadership plays a role in ensuring you get invited to tender more often; improving the chance of being awarded a contract; and making it easier to cross, up-sell and get the next sale. We have already heard how 60% of business decision makers are willing to pay a premium to companies which demonstrate good thought leadership, so there is a direct impact on margin too.

Ultimately, organisations should set metrics for thought leadership which span the top, middle and bottom of the funnel. From its impact on awareness, trust, and perception through to helping educate and demonstrate value to customers. From reaching new and different decision makers to how it can help close deals. And, finally, from strengthening price premiums to boosting customer acquisition and retention.

Thought leadership can encompass so many aspects of a company’s marketing and communications that it risks becoming misunderstood and intangible. However, our research shows that senior business leaders recognise and value smart thinking and fresh perspectives, suggesting there is an opportunity to recast the role of thought leadership as a powerful tool that can drive positive impact throughout the business buying cycle.