On June 1, Edelman released a LinkedIn-powered study that shed light on the business-development power of thought leadership, defined as the forward-looking materials that a company produces to articulate its viewpoint on topics relevant to its industry or sector. Most interestingly, the study identified a persistent gap in how producers of thought leadership esteem their work product versus how their audiences do. It turns out, despite a desire for greater insight and quality, that thought leadership appears to do a much better job of helping a company sell its products and services than they might think.
From the standpoint of business development, here are five of the most interesting findings from the study.
Thought Leadership Helps Companies Compete Against Incumbents and Established Players
For a smaller or emerging company, getting an invite to pitch a prospect alongside established or incumbent firms is an important milestone. Our research showed that while 17 percent of thought leadership producers ("producers" hereafter) felt that their efforts resulted in more RFPs, 37 percent of business decision makers ("BDMs") and 41 percent of C-level executives ("CXOs") issued an RFP to a company based on its thought leadership — a significant attribution gap of more than double. Worth noting: These were opportunities for which the company with a product or service to sell was not previously in contention.
It Helps Close and Win Business
Many feel that thought leadership is only effective in generating awareness or publicity, with little value in converting those impressions to dollars. However, we found that 20 percent of producers felt that their thought leadership helped them close and win, but the 45 percent of BDMs and 48 percent of CXOs indicated that a company's thought leadership directly led to them awarding business—a nearly 2.5x gap.
It Helps Command a Premium
Most dramatically, while only 10 percent of producers thought that their thought leadership helped them charge a premium for their services, 49 percent of BDMs and 47 percent of CXOs indicated that thought leadership made them more willing to pay that premium — a nearly five-fold difference. This would indicate that not only does thought leadership open up opportunities and help win business, but the quality of that win is potentially higher.
But It Could Cost You Business If Done Poorly
At the Preference and Purchase stages of the classic sales funnel, we discovered that thought leadership isn't necessarily a guaranteed ticket to business-development success. 45 percent and 53 percent of BDMs and CXOs, respectively, said that their respect and admiration for a company decreased after reviewing its thought leadership. When it came time to close the deal, a much smaller but still significant percentage (30 percent of BDMs, 35 percent of CXOs) indicated that a company's thought leadership informed the decision to not give them the win.
To Maximize Effectiveness, It's More Important to Be Timely and Relevant Than Original
So, how do you ensure that your thought leadership will be more effective than a coin flip? While it would be unwise to discount the value of introducing novel and breakthrough thinking into the marketplace, we found that this was only the third-most valued consideration for effective thought leadership. Most important for the B2B audience: "The topic is something that I'm currently working on." This means that B2B marketers should include paid amplification and account-based marketing (ABM) concepts in their demand generation strategies to increase the odds that it reaches the right people at the right time. Also, this finding points to the importance of extending the shelf-life of "evergreen" content.
Phil Gomes is a senior vice president, Digital, Edelman Chicago.