Thought leadership content has long been considered a difference maker in business-to-business marketing. Now there's data to back that up. A new Edelman survey of decision-makers powered by LinkedIn shows such efforts, when done well, can positively impact every stage of the buying process.

The near-term future of thought leadership is grounded in companies delivering empathy, even more so than knowledge. It's in revealing not just what people see but, more importantly, how they feel about their passions, their ideas and their customer’s needs.

It also takes a great amount of empathy to know your prospect well enough to determine precisely when thought leadership content will be at its most effective. This is alluded in the finding that a majority of business decision-makers and CXOs surveyed (63 percent of each) place a premium on relevance and timeliness, even more so than originality or brevity.

Purchasing decisions of all kinds are not just grounded in logic. They have long been emotional too. Remember the catchphrase "You don't get fired for buying IBM?" That played to a feeling of safety.

Today, however, the proliferation of social media technologies across every facet of society has created an environment where our personal and professional lives blend; where wisdom packed with emotional intelligence can travel far more than ideas alone ever could. Social network algorithms favor the individual messenger over the institutional one. It's about personality more so than publishing.

What's more, it’s accelerating a quiet movement underway to create more empathetic workplaces. It’s fueling a wave of transparency where feelings and even raw emotions are welcomed.

In the new book Option B, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School, reveal how sharing personal setbacks and vulnerabilities can lead to a more empathetic, resilient and productive workplace. Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, started to encourage these behaviors even more after Sandberg’s husband, David Goldberg, suddenly died in 2015. And it is changing Facebook.

Technology is continuing to evolve as well. It is creating a much more visually oriented culture. "The camera is the new keyboard" is a tech industry ethos that Snapchat first popularized and Facebook has since standardized with a new "stories" feature that now sits across several products.

All of this creates an environment where customers will not just admire their partners for not just saying how they think but for also showing how they act and live. Nothing conveys like images and videos can. And as they become more ephemeral through the "stories" feature this creates new opportunities to lead.

Beth Comstock, GE’s* vice chair of Business Innovations, for example, is building up a following on Instagram by visually sharing her passion and insatiable quest for knowledge and her latest discoveries. She shares a mix of videos, photos and stories almost every day.

Timely, relevant thinking that addresses customer problems still remains key. Insights like the identification of new trends are powerful.

However, how these insights are delivered must change.

In business, relationships rule. The future of thought leadership, therefore, will be far more emotional and empathetic.

It will use social technologies and in particular imagery, to form bonds.

It will break down the barriers between buyers and sellers so that the latter feels like "a person like me" — which, according to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, is the most trusted source of authority.

It will show who your thought leaders are, not just what they think.

Steve Rubel is chief content strategist.

*Edelman client