Sunday, May 22, 2022

Where to Find Topics for Thought Leadership Content

Consistently producing content that connects with potential buyers remains one of the greatest challenges facing B2B marketers. The need to create content that is relevant for individual business decision makers at every stage of their buying process, to publish content in multiple formats across multiple channels, and to publish new content frequently have combined to strain the creativity and resources of B2B marketers.

This challenge applies to all types of content, but it is magnified for thought leadership content because of the higher standards that effective thought leadership content must meet.

Numerous studies have identified the characteristics that make thought leadership content persuasive. While the descriptions used in these studies vary somewhat, the research consistently shows that three attributes define real thought leadership and distinguish it from other types of marketing content.

Relevant - Real thought leadership content addresses topics and provides insights that are highly relevant for the target audience. Of course, all good marketing content will be relevant for its audience, but what sets real thought leadership apart is that it addresses issues that can have a major impact on the business or professional success of the target audience.

Novel - Real thought leadership content provides information and insights that are genuinely novel. Therefore, to qualify as real thought leadership, a content resource must provide information or insights that add something new to the body of knowledge about a topic. In other words, real thought leadership provides the audience something they cannot find elsewhere.

Authoritative - All types of marketing content must be credible, but thought leadership content needs to be particularly authoritative. Because thought leadership content introduces new and novel ideas, it's essential for content developers to support those ideas with sound evidence.

These higher standards make it more difficult for marketers to find topics that can be used for thought leadership content. They must identify issues that are having or will have a significant impact on their target buyers. They must find topics about which they can offer new information or insights. And, they must be able to develop sound evidence to support their new insights.

Four Sources of Thought Leadership Topics

To address these challenges, marketers need to take a broad view of the topics or categories of topics that can be appropriate for thought leadership. From a subject matter perspective, there are four basic types of content (shown in the following diagram).

Product/Service Content - This is just what it sounds like - content that describes the capabilities, features and functionality of a product or group of related products. For a service, it would describe the nature and features of the service.

Having good product/service content is essential for marketing success, but this category is not usually a fertile source of thought leadership content.

Category Content - This type of content discusses issues or needs that a type of product or service can address. When a provider of account-based marketing software creates content that explains why ABM is a more effective approach to marketing or describes the capabilities prospective buyers should look for in an ABM solution, that's category content. Good category content doesn't promote a specific company's product or service, but it often will "evangelize" the product/service category. 

Most of the thought leadership content created by B2B companies is category-based content, and this is the content category that most B2B marketers will focus on first. This is a valid approach, but category content will provide only a finite number of appropriate topics for thought leadership content.

There are, however, two additional types of content that can be good sources of topics for thought leadership content.

Job Function Content - This content category includes topics that address issues relating to the job responsibilities of the individuals who will make or influence the decision to buy a company's product or service - i.e. the members of the buying group. 

For example, if the buying group for your company's product or service includes senior marketing and sales leaders working for companies that manufacture industrial equipment, your thought leadership content could address topics such as:

  • The communication preferences and buying behaviors of industrial buyers
  • The growth of online third-party marketplaces for industrial equipment
Industry-Related Content - This type of content addresses topics that relate to the industry or industries in which a company's prospective customers operate. For example, thought leadership content based on this category could discuss how new or pending environment laws or regulations will impact the target industry or industries.
Cast a Wide Net for Thought Leadership Topics
Some marketers may question the value of creating thought leadership content that isn't closely related to their company's product or service. One of the primary reasons to produce thought leadership content is to demonstrate awareness and understanding of the issues and challenges prospective customers - and the individual members of their buying groups - are facing.
From a marketing perspective, the objective of thought leadership is to engender feelings of trust and confidence in your company by potential buyers. High-quality thought leadership content from any of these content categories can help you achieve this objective.
Developing a sufficient volume of great thought leadership content will always be challenging, but you can make the task a little easier by expanding where you look for thought leadership topics.

Top image courtesy of Grand Teton via Flickr (Public Domain).

Sunday, May 15, 2022

[Research Round-Up] B2B Highlights From "The CMO Survey"

Source:  The CMO Survey

(This month's Research Round-Up is devoted entirely to the most recent edition of The CMO Survey, which was published in late February. The CMO Survey has been conducted semi-annually since 2008, and it consistently provides a wealth of valuable information about marketing spending, trends and practices.)

The findings of the latest edition of The CMO Survey were published in February. The CMO Survey is directed by Dr. Christine Moorman and sponsored by Deloitte LLP, Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, the Coach K Center for Leadership and Ethics and the American Marketing Association.

The February 2022 survey results are based on responses from 320 senior marketing leaders at for-profit companies based in the United States. Over two-thirds (71.0%) of the respondents were affiliated with B2B companies, and 96.6% were VP level or above. The survey was in the field January 11 - February 7. 2022.

The CMO Survey is conducted semi-annually, and it provides a wealth of valuable information. Dr. Moorman and her colleagues typically produce three reports for each edition of the survey.

  • "The Highlights and Insights Report" - This is a relatively brief and graphically-rich report that provides mostly overall results, along with an analysis of those results and major marketing trends.
  • "The Topline Report" - This report provides response data at the aggregate level for all survey questions.
  • "The Firm and Industry Breakout Report" - This report provides response data by four primary economic sectors (B2B product companies, B2B services companies, B2C product companies and B2C services companies), fifteen industry sectors, company size and volume of internet sales. This report is quite lengthy, but it provides the most detailed view of the survey data.
In this post, I'll be discussing the responses of B2B marketers exclusively, unless otherwise indicated. The percentages and other numerical values in this post are the mean of survey responses, also unless otherwise indicated.
Marketer Optimism Moderates
For the past several years, The CMO Survey has asked participants about their level of optimism relating to the overall economic environment. The August 2021 edition of the survey found that the optimism of B2B marketers had returned to pre-pandemic levels. The February 2022 survey revealed that marketer optimism had moderated.
The survey asked participants to rate their level of optimism regarding the overall U.S. economy on a 100-point scale, with "0" being least optimistic and "100" being most optimistic. The following chart shows how B2B marketers rated their optimism in the five surveys conducted since February 2020.

The February 2022 survey also asked participants if they were more or less optimistic about the overall U.S. economy compared to the previous quarter. The following table shows how B2B marketers responded.

In the August 2021 survey, 31.7% of respondents from B2B product companies and 36.5% of those with B2B services companies said they were more optimistic about the U.S. economy compared to the preceding quarter.
This slight decline in marketer optimism may be connected to the state of the pandemic. The February survey was in the field January 11th through February 7th. For most of that period, many parts of the U.S were dealing with a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant of the virus, and this may have worked to temper marketer optimism.
The Continuing Commitment to Digital
The February survey confirmed that B2B marketers remain strongly committed to digital marketing. For example, respondents with B2B product companies said they are currently spending 53.2% of their total marketing budget on digital marketing activities. And respondents with B2B services companies reported devoting 60.1% of their budget to digital marketing.
The survey also showed that the growth in spending on digital marketing is still outpacing the growth of overall marketing spending. The following chart shows how overall marketing spending and spending on digital marketing changed in the twelve months preceding the survey in B2B companies.

B2B marketers expect their investment in digital marketing to continue growing. The CMO Survey asked participants to estimate how their spending on digital marketing will change in the twelve months following the survey, compared to the twelve months preceding the survey. Respondents with B2B product companies said they expect their spending on digital marketing to increase 13.6%, while respondents with B2B services companies expect an increase of 18.3%.
Ambivalence on Climate Change
For several years, marketers have been inundated by research studies purporting to prove that customers and potential buyers want and expect the companies they do business with to take actions to address environmental and social issues. I discussed a few of the more recent studies in my post about purpose marketing from earlier this year.
The February 2022 edition of The CMO Survey included several questions relating to climate change, and the responses are likely to be disappointing to those who believe business organizations should play a more active role in protecting the environment.
Among other things, the survey participants were asked about marketing's responsibilities relating to climate change, whether their company has specific goals relating to climate change, and whether they believe customers and prospects will reward their company for taking actions to reduce its impact on the environment.
The following table shows how B2B marketers responded to some of the climate change questions included in the February survey.

The survey did find that, in general, larger enterprises are more attuned to environmental issues. For example, survey respondents (B2B and B2C) with companies having $10 billion or more in annual revenue were more likely to say that:
  • Reducing climate change is part of marketing's responsibility in their company (40.0% vs. 24.0% of all respondents)
  • Their company has explicit goals related to its impact on climate change (75.0% vs. 33.7% of all respondents)
  • They have incorporated climate change issues into their brand strategy (63.2% vs. 33.0% of all respondents)

Sunday, May 8, 2022

[Book Review] "How Brands Grow Part 2 (Revised Edition)"

Source:  Oxford University Press

Every business or professional discipline has a few books that are widely regarded as seminal works. In marketing, one such book is How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp. Published in 2010, How Brands Grow quickly became one of the most influential books in the field of marketing.

I read How Brands Grow several years ago, and I found it to be both insightful and provocative. So, I looked forward to reading the recently-published sequel - How Brands Grow Part 2 (Revised Edition) (Oxford University Press, 2022). The new book was written by Jenni Romaniuk and Byron Sharp (with contributions by two other writers also affiliated with the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science).

To avoid confusion, I'll refer to the new book in this review as Part 2 Revised Edition.

Byron Sharp and his colleagues at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute have long espoused a set of marketing principles that differ significantly from those advocated by many marketing academics, consultants and practitioners. For example, most marketers have been taught that differentiating their brand/product in the marketplace is vital for marketing success.

Sharp made his position on differentiation clear in How Brands Grow when he wrote, "Rather than striving for meaningful, perceived differentiation, marketers should seek meaningless distinctiveness. Branding lasts, differentiation doesn't."

In How Brands Grow, Sharp also discussed eleven "law-like patterns" of consumer behavior and brand competition, and he described "the most important knowledge" in the book as follows:

  • "Growth in market share comes by increasing popularity; that is, by gaining many more buyers (of all types), most of which are light customers buying the brand only occasionally."
  • "Brands, even though they are slightly differentiated, mainly compete as if they are near lookalikes, but they vary in popularity (and hence market share)."
  • "Brand competition and growth is largely about building two market-based assets:  physical availability and mental availability. Brands that are easier to buy - for more people in more situations - have more market share. Innovation and differentiation (when they work) build market-based assets, which last after competitors copy the innovation."
In Part 2 Revised Edition, Jenni Romaniuk and Byron Sharp seek to show that the principles spelled out in the first book apply in a wider range of product/service categories and in a broader array of markets than were discussed in the first book. For example, Part 2 Revised Edition contains a significant amount of data from emerging markets.
The Application to B2B
One of the major questions I've had about the approach to marketing advanced by Sharp and his colleagues at Ehrenberg-Bass is whether or to what extent it is effective in B2B marketing. Therefore, I was particularly excited that Romaniuk and Sharp devoted a chapter in Part 2 Revised Edition to B2B.
It will be tempting for many B2B marketers to immediately dismiss the principles advocated by Romaniuk and Sharp because they stand in stark contrast to so many widely-accepted B2B marketing practices, such as account-based marketing, targeted marketing and personalization. However, I would argue that B2B marketers should at least give the ideas of Romaniuk and Sharp thoughtful consideration.
The B2B marketing practices that are currently popular are primarily designed for "high consideration" purchases that involve expensive and/or complex products or services, multiple decision makers and long buying cycles. But such high consideration purchases have never represented all or even most B2B commerce. Romaniuk and Sharp make a similar point when they write:
"The term 'B2B marketing' is often used as if it describes a single homogenous category. However, there is no single B2B market . . . The businesses on both sides of the B2B can come in many shapes and sizes . . . B2B businesses can sell consumables, durables or services. B2B categories can vary in price from discounted to luxury, and in whether the relationship with the buyer is subscription or repertoire in nature . . ."
The diversity of B2B commerce means that some B2B markets will exhibit the same buying behaviors and competitive attributes that characterize many B2C markets. In those markets, the principles advanced by Romaniuk and Sharp may well be relevant for marketers. In their chapter on B2B, the authors discuss how those principles apply in various B2B markets, including business insurance, business banking and concrete.
For me, the bottom line is that B2B marketers should give thoughtful consideration to the ideas contained in Part 2 Revised Edition. In fact, if your haven't read How Brands Grow, I suggest you read that book first because it does a slightly better job at explaining some aspects of the Ehrenberg-Bass approach to marketing.
Both of these books contain provocative ideas, and they are worthwhile reads even if you ultimately decide that many of the ideas don't apply to your market.