The major insight in Edelman’s LinkedIn-powered research on thought leadership's impact on B2B demand generation is that it is more effective, and more influential further down the purchase funnel, than most thought-leadership producers give it credit for.

But as the lead researcher on the project, what amazed me was that thought leadership manifested this greater-than-expected level of effectiveness despite what I would consider to be lackluster perceptions of its quality and insight value.

Getting by with a "Gentleman’s C"

When I think about the kind of thought leadership that would directly lead to RFPs, secured business and a license to charge a premium (all demonstrated benefits of thought leadership within this research), I envision deep insights supported by astute observations and incisive analysis. In contrast, the reality is that 85 percent of respondents characterized the quality of thought leadership overall as merely good or mediocre. Only 1 percent considered it to be excellent, with another 13 percent rating it as very good.

Given these ratings, it is not surprising that our respondents reported that in six out of every 10 interactions they have with thought leadership, they walk away empty handed in terms of insights that help them do their job better or move their business forward. Another somewhat surprising finding, at least in my mind, is that only about half of the people in the study expressed disappointment in that wheat-to-chaff ratio. Perhaps the fact that thought leadership is free, as we defined it in the study, made a sub-50 percent hit rate palatable.

Performance Despite Problems

Despite its current quality issues, thought leadership works. It burnishes brand image, garners RFPs, and helps win business at levels beyond what its producers assume. Even so, that finding should not be construed as permission to rest on one’s laurels. Mediocre thought leadership may be free to the public, but the organization that produces it will pay a price in the form of lost respect and even lost business. Thought leadership is not all upside potential.

Without sufficient care, focus on quality, and a thoughtful distribution strategy, a company’s thought leadership represents a significant interaction point with potential clients that can set relationship development back nearly as far as good thought leadership can help move it forward. That said, just imagine how much more effective a business development tool thought leadership could be if the overall quality improved.

A Path Forward: Prioritize Timeliness and Relevance

When it comes to developing strategies for improving thought leadership, it is important to remember that the people who are consuming this material are not necessarily looking to have their world view upended. In fact, timeliness and relevance are more important than unique ideas and new thinking when it comes to making thought leadership more engaging. What people get the most value from is a timely analysis of new trends and issues that are directly related to a topic or issue they are currently working on. They are not looking for a disruptive paradigm shift, especially in emergent situations. What they want is to avoid being blindsided by something that could derail their planning and strategies.

Great thought leadership is not necessarily something that rocks an executive’s world. More often, it is something that addresses their current concerns in a meaningful way — a deceptively simple sounding goal, but one that organizations are capable of meeting on a regular basis with the proper investment. It’s an investment that we believe this research makes it much easier to justify.

David M. Bersoff, Ph.D., is head of Thought Leadership Research, Edelman Intelligence.