There's no longer any doubt that thought leadership content is having a major impact on B2B buying decisions. Research studies have confirmed that business buyers are consuming more thought leadership content, and that it affects decisions at every stage of the buying process. Research also shows, however, that business decision makers have become more selective about the thought leadership content they will give their attention to.
Today, thought leadership has become a classic double-edged sword. When it's done well, thought leadership has major positive impact on business buyers. Poor thought leadership, on the other hand, can actually be detrimental. In a recent survey by Edelman and LinkedIn, about a third of C-level respondents said that a company's poor thought leadership content had led them not to do business with the company.
The explosive proliferation of content has made it difficult for marketers to develop content that will cut through the noise. Thought leadership content has the potential to do just that, but only if the content constitutes true thought leadership. Therefore, thought leadership is now of those things that marketers really need to "get right" in 2019.
Unfortunately, the term "thought leadership" is now used so loosely that it's no longer clear to some marketers what real thought leadership is. We do know what business decision makers are looking for in thought leadership content. In a survey by The Economist Group, business executives described compelling thought leadership content as innovative, big picture, transformative, and credible.
The problem is, these adjectives don't identify the specific attributes that make content true thought leadership. And the same can be said for many of the other terms we use to describe content. For example:
- All real thought leadership content is relevant and insightful, but not all content that is relevant and insightful qualifies as real thought leadership.
- All real thought leadership content is useful and valuable, but not all content that is useful and valuable qualifies and real thought leadership.
There are two attributes that define true thought leadership and distinguish it from other types of marketing content. When used together, these two attributes provide and effective guide for developing thought leadership content that will cut through the content noise and earn the attention and interest of potential buyers.
Thought Leadership Content is Novel
Real thought leadership content provides information and insights that are genuinely novel. Merriam-Webster defines novel as "new and not resembling something formerly known or used." Therefore, to qualify as thought leadership, content must provide information or insight that adds something new and meaningful to the body of knowledge about a topic. Content that discusses established principles or information can be useful and valuable, but it doesn't constitute true thought leadership.
Thought Leadership Content is Research-Based
Research plays two distinct roles in the development of thought leadership content. First, original research is usually required to capture or develop the new information that makes thought leadership content novel. For example, surveys are often used to capture data that provides the foundation for thought leadership content.
Original research is also critical for thought leadership content because it provides the evidence that makes the content authoritative and persuasive. It's important, of course, for all types of content to be credible, but thought leadership content must meet a higher standard. Because thought leadership content advocates new and novel ideas, it's essential for content developers to support those ideas with sound and thorough research.
Thought Leadership and Third-Party Content
Some B2B companies - particularly technology companies - regularly use content produced by third-party experts in their content marketing program. This often includes content produced by analyst and consulting firms, and by research organizations. Third-party expert content can be a valuable part of your content marketing program because business decision makers tend to view such content as credible. In fact, I've been advocating the use of third-party expert content for more than four years.
It's important to recognize, however, that distributing thought leadership developed by others will not cause your company to be perceived as a thought leader. To earn thought leader status, you will need to create your own thought leadership content. This doesn't mean that you can't work with external research firms and/or content developers to produce thought leadership content. In fact, working with an experienced researcher and/or content developer is the right approach if your company doesn't have internal expertise in these areas. But the finished content should be published under your company's brand.
Image courtesy of Affen Ajlfe (www.modup.net) via Flickr CC.