Joe Kingsbury, Global Chair of Edelman Business Marketing, leads integrated communications strategies and programming to engage B2B stakeholders, driving thought leadership and competitive differentiation. He spearheads Edelman’s annual B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study, recognized with the 2020 Large B2B Agency of the Year award, in partnership with LinkedIn, analyzing marketing's impact on purchasing behaviors.

For many B2B marketers, times are tough. At any given time, a staggering 95% of a B2B company’s customers are not actively seeking goods or services. Lingering economic uncertainty is extending sales cycles, with nearly 90% of global buyers indicating their purchase process became more drawn-out last year. Moreover, B2B buyers now prefer a self-directed journey of digital discovery over a sales call.

In this environment, getting out-of-market buyers off the sidelines has become imperative to drive growth. Many B2B companies will unsurprisingly react to this challenge by aggressively pushing product messages to customers and prospects.

Our new research, the 2024 Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Study, which surveys 3,500 global B2B decision-makers, suggests another way.

Let’s explore the five key takeaways:

1. B2B companies must prompt out-of-market buyers to rethink their business challenges to stimulate demand. 

Out-of-market buyers who aren’t actively seeking products or services are less likely to notice or be receptive to messages about features and benefits.

Done well, thought leadership does far more than just create a favorable impression of your brand. It sheds new light on an industry trend and teaches buyers something they didn’t know about their pain points. It makes them reexamine their assumptions, potential solutions and existing vendor relationships.

75% of global B2B buyers and C-suite leaders say that a particular piece of thought leadership content has led them to research a product or service they were not previously considering. Among this group, 60% said that the content made them realize their organization was missing out on a significant business opportunity.

2. Effective thought leadership exerts a surprisingly strong influence on sales and pricing.

A striking 73% of B2B buyers consider thought leadership to be a more trustworthy basis for judging a company’s competencies than traditional marketing materials. Earning trust among buyers translates to action, with 54% saying that organizations which consistently produce thought leadership content have prompted them to research their offers and capabilities. 86% said they would be moderately or very likely to invite these organizations to participate in an RFP process.

Among buyers who say a piece of thought leadership content led them to research a product or service they weren’t actively considering, 23% said they ultimately began buying from or working with the organization that published the content.

When it comes to pricing, 60% of global B2B decision-makers and C-suite leaders say they are even willing to pay a premium for organizations that provide valuable thought leadership.

3. Offense is Your Best Defense — Protecting Existing Customers is Crucial

Surprisingly, thought leadership is not just about acquiring new customers but also retaining existing ones.

Approximately 70% of C-suite leaders admitted that a piece of thought leadership content made them question whether they should continue working with a current supplier.

54% of this group said the content made them realize there are other suppliers that had a better understanding of the challenges their organization was facing. 51% said they realized that other suppliers were smarter or more visionary.

Ultimately, of global B2B buyers who questioned their supplier relationships due to a piece of thought leadership content, 25% have ended or significantly reduced their relationship with a current supplier.

Providing strong thought leadership is a vital defensive measure to reassure your customers that working with you means staying ahead with the best insights and solutions.

4. Thought leadership is under-resourced, misused, and not appropriately measured.

Despite the business-generating power of thought leadership, many organizations do not provide sufficient resources for it to be effective. This is largely driven by a lack of measurement.

While most B2B companies aim to positively influence and drive consideration among potential customers, only 29% can link sales leads or business wins back to specific thought leadership efforts.

42% of thought leadership producers still seek to measure effectiveness by looking for increased traffic to their website and social channels — i.e. general metrics that do not uncover the true business effects. In fact, 19% do not have any process in place for measuring effectiveness at all.

Other barriers cited by thought leadership producers include insufficient resources (50%), lack of internal engagement with senior talent such as subject matter experts (27%), and a lack of skills for producing high quality content (26%).

The risk is tangible: while 86% of global B2B buyers say they are likely to invite thought leadership-producing organizations to RFPs, only 38% of thought leadership producers have this same expectation of their content.

5. When it comes to quality, good is no longer good enough.

As more and more B2B companies publish content, a mediocre middle has emerged which makes it increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd.

48% of global buyers say the overall quality of thought leadership they read is good, while only 15% say the quality is very good or excellent.

Buyers say that thought leadership content which is average or above average quality is produced by prominent, well-known experts (62%) and has a unique format or style that looks different than other content they typically see (66%).

The highest quality content, according to buyers, includes strong research and data (55%), helps them better understand their own business challenges and opportunities (44%), and offers concrete guidance and case studies (43%).

In our experience working with B2B clients, we also see the most successful thought leadership characterized by senior executive buy-in, topical timeliness, and actionability by the target audience.

In summary, thought leadership in B2B marketing is a powerful tool for both attracting new customers and retaining existing ones.

Companies can prompt out-of-market buyers to step off the sidelines by demonstrating a fresh take on their challenges and uncovering new business opportunities they previously overlooked.

But remember that thought leadership isn’t just for winning new clients — it’s the shield that keeps current customers by your side, confident in the value that you bring.

To learn more, please check out the full findings of the 2024 Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Study.