Going Beyond Their Four Walls to Comb the World for Best Practices
The best thought leadership marketers know compelling content is at the center of successful campaigns. From research we conducted in 2015 and 2016 with more than 1,000 buyers of consulting services on the attributes of truly thought-leading content, they pointed to a number of critical common qualities: it must offer a new way to solve their problems; provide case studies, anecdotes and other real proof of organizations that benefited from solving it in a new way; address a key problem they face while detailing practical steps to solving it; reflect an irrefutable argument; and communicate clearly, among others. The best marketers have a deep appreciation for these expectations. Hence, we call them the Truth Seekers.
As more and more companies try to position themselves as thought leaders, and Google makes anyone’s ideas easier to find, the ante is raised for everyone who’s trying to get attention for their expertise. The issue becomes this — How do you create the best insights on how to solve some problem in the world, be it a legal, accounting, management, technology, investment or other?
Embracing Original Primary Research
Our survey sheds considerable light on this. The best path to breakthrough insights is through primary research. Our experience in helping B2B companies conduct thought leadership research confirms this. We have found the most compelling insights on how to solve any business problem come from studying companies that have addressed the issue – some successfully and others not – to determine what the best do differently from the worst.
That kind of primary research, along with the from-the-field expertise that B2B firms gain from working with their clients, can be a powerful combination. It can lead to breakthrough insights on how to address a business problem – insights that (when turned into formal methodologies) form the basis of truly differentiated and superior services.
Truth Seekers share this deep appreciation for primary research. In many cases, this type of research can force a B2B firm to rethink its current expertise and develop whole new ways of operating. When we asked about the most important source of content for their most successful thought leadership campaign over the last three years (2015 to 2017), the most frequent source that Truth Seekers chose was primary research: either a survey or interviews with companies to collect best practices. In fact, half the leaders told us this. By comparison, the least proficient thought leadership marketers, the followers, view their most important source of content as their professionals’ field experience, chosen by slightly more than half of that group. Only about one in 10 pointed to primary research.
Truth Seekers rely on primary research to shed new light on critical business problems.
Percent of respondents identifying each approach as the most important source of content for their most successful thought leadership marketing campaign between 2015 and 2017.
These differences are striking in the way the best and the worst thought leadership marketers regard primary research as a source of content. The Truth Seekers seem to emphasize weaving original research with the expertise of their field professionals. The worst seem to regard their field professionals’ expertise as the end-all, be-all source of breakthrough insights.
In a world in which digital technologies and other forces are profoundly changing the way business is practiced, B2B companies that bring to market old thinking leave themselves open to being leapfrogged by companies that create new insights on the back of primary research-fueled thought leadership.
Driving Deeper Insights Through the Research Process
But it’s not just their affinity for primary research that sets Truth Seekers apart. It’s also the way they approach the research process – how they design their research methodologies, collect data, and create and present their insights. When asked to rate the importance of several research techniques, the Truth Seekers placed far greater value on five practices:
Writing the research questionnaires: The questions they used in their surveys, case study interview guides, secondary research guides, etc. From our experience, Truth Seekers are more in tune with what insights already exist in the marketplace on a business issue and what kinds of questions their target audience would like to have answered. Truth Seekers do this preliminary research upfront before deciding on their angle for primary research. They formulate initial hypotheses about a topic, and then use those hypotheses to probe issues that others haven’t probed before at all or well.
Collecting secondary research: It is so easy today (vs. even five or ten years ago) to find information online that can be crucial to generating breakthrough insights on a topic. This includes identifying companies to interview (because of public statements they’ve said on the topic at hand – through their own channels, press articles, conference speeches, etc.) and other once-hard-to-find data. Many more companies today are publicly revealing their internal practices by what they’re putting online. The Truth Seekers recognize the wealth of information online that’s there for the taking – especially company best practices.
Determining which study findings to present: Given that any study can generate a treasure trove of data to present, one of the biggest challenges with thought leadership research is deciding which insights and data to present. The Truth Seekers place much more importance on this than do followers.
Getting the firm’s subject experts to help analyze the data: When marketers outsource all the insights to an internal or external research group, they greatly reduce the internal appeal of the insights to the firm’s in-the-field professionals. These people make a living advising companies about the issue, and from our experience believe they know far more about the topic than their firm’s marketers and research group do. The only way we know to get the professionals of a firm to buy into research findings is to get them gainfully involved in designing the study and analyzing the data when it comes in. Otherwise, the “not invented here” syndrome is likely to dominate.
Securing case study interviews: A much higher percent of Truth Seekers value case study interviews as a source of new insights relative to followers. This is not a surprise given that followers see less value in primary research in general as a tool to generate thought-leading insights on a topic.
Truth Seekers bring more rigor to the research process itself.
Percent of respondents stating each factor is “extremely important” or “very important” in conducting thought leadership research studies.
In short, the Truth Seekers capture the knowledge of their firm’s experts but also enlist their help in going beyond their worldview. They believe the “truth” about the best way to solve a business problem is a moving, not fixed, target, and their firm must use best-practice research (both quantitative and qualitative) to discover it. In this way, they put primary research on a pedestal.
4. Argument Shapers
Developing Essential Yet Uncommon Skills in Creating Exceptional Content
The best firms at thought leadership marketing look at the skills to codify and publish their experts’ expertise quite differently. These firms value the skill of helping experts shape their argument more highly than they do the skill of turning an argument into prose. What’s more, the best companies place far greater value on content developers who possess knowledge about the topic at hand. Hence, we call them the Argument Shapers.
These findings came from two questions we asked thought leadership marketers about how their people help the firm’s subject experts codify and communicate their expertise. The first question asked our research participants to rate the importance of six capabilities in content development. Argument Shapers differ greatly from followers in the value they placed on subject matter knowledge, interpersonal skills in working with subject matter experts, and the ability to structure a subject matter expert’s thinking into a persuasive argument.
Shaping the Story
The ability to structure a strong argument — i.e., shaping the idea — was rated as highly important by both Argument Shapers and followers. 82% of the leaders say they have strong skills in this area. But, that wasn’t the case in the followers where only 39% could say the same. When it comes to actually writing prose, Argument Shapers are far more likely than followers to have strong skills here as well. Nearly all said they were strong in writing prose, while only slightly more than half the followers possessed that same skill.
Argument Shapers possess unique and rare skills within their teams.
Percent of respondents stating they already possess these skills to an “extremely high degree” or “high degree.”
Working with Subject Matter Experts
Argument Shapers recognize that their subject matter experts (“SMEs”) have domain expertise, but they expect their marketing teams to be experts at helping those SMEs develop and communicate compelling arguments. Put another way, Argument Shapers see the job of thought leadership marketers as helping the firm’s SMEs make compelling arguments.
Doing this requires not only logic. It requires persuasion and other interpersonal skills in working with SMEs. Argument Shapers place more priority on their content developer’s interpersonal skills and subject knowledge than do followers. That helps their content developers work more effectively with SMEs to help them construct a persuasive argument than followers’ content developers. We believe the reason is that Argument Shapers are more respected by SMEs for having some knowledge of the topic, and the interpersonal skills (courtesy, ability to ask tactful questions, etc.) necessary to deal with ego problems that can happen when content developers appear to challenge an expert’s authority.
5. Audience Builders
Connecting With Clients Where, When and How They Learn.
How clients learn and the media landscape they use to learn is in a constant state of change. Yet, the best firms are not deterred by this. Like everyone, they look at the media marketplace and see a plethora of options to choose from. Unlike everyone, they recognize that all roads can, and should, lead back to their website. To accomplish this, they make targeted choices about which levers to pull hard, and which to hardly pull at all. Ultimately, they’re expert Audience Builders.
Increasing Investments in Lean-Back Content
For B2C marketers, the pivotal role of video and audio content was clear years ago. So much so that 89% of all digital marketers are leveraging video in their work and Cisco predicts that video will represent 80% of all Internet traffic in 2019. For most B2B marketers, this phenomenon is just now coming into picture. In fact, only 39% of all the respondents in our study leveraged video in their most successful campaign between 2015-2017. That said, the Audience Builders are already out in front of this. They’re shifting their publishing mix to include more lean-back content (short videos, interactive content, and podcasts) and less lean-in content (long-form white papers and research reports). Yet, they’re astute in how these different content formats fit together. To translate ownership of a topic into a client relationship, the client must transition from passively consuming an idea to actively working a problem in their minds. Audience Builders recognize this. And, they use lean-back content as a means to guide potential clients into longer form lean-in content. By contrast, followers still lean quite heavily on long-form content — generally white papers — as their critical means of communication.
Audience Builders Use Lean-Back Content to Guide Clients to Lean-In Experiences
The thought leadership marketing content continuum
Strategically Leveraging All Channels
Audience Builders recognize they can’t rely exclusively on their own channels to achieve the results they want. Yet, they can’t afford to invest in everything either. As a result, they’re thoughtful about where and why they invest. They use all the channels together to accomplish a broader purpose. By contrast, followers are much more likely to over-emphasize delivering thought leadership predominantly through their own channels.
Owned Media: Establish Depth
The critical role and importance of Google simply cannot be overstated. Google functions as the central node in the world’s information network. Clients turn to Google every day to seek answers to questions they have, to explore issues they’re thinking about, and to find ways to solve pressing problems in their business. The best firms understand this, and recognize the pivotal role their website plays in enabling clients to find those answers, through Google, within their thought leadership. They have a clear understanding of the fundamentals of search engine optimization, they’re operating with a well-documented keyword strategy, and they consistently maintain the volume and quality of content necessary to get found online. Also, Audience Builders are more likely to leverage video as part of their most critical thought leadership campaigns than followers, which is critical to the future success of a firm’s search strategy.
Simultaneously, the best firms recognize that clients look to a firm’s owned channels to gauge the depth of their thinking. For a client to truly believe a firm has deep expertise in a topical area, they must find a deep body of work on that topic within the firm’s owned thought leadership channels.
Social Media: Humanize Ideas
All that said, a firm’s website is certainly not the only place, and rarely the first place a client will go to learn. And, while Google is a great tool to actively seek learning, much of the learning clients do in their daily lives begins passively. And, it often begins through relationships — what peers are reading and sharing. Of course, much of this occurs on social channels.
However, Audience Builders don’t approach social media the same way many of their peers do. Audience Builders see social platforms as publishing venues. By contrast, followers use social platforms solely as marketing channels. They’re much more likely to publish full-length articles on LinkedIn or Medium, custom presentations on SlideShare, and interview-style videos on YouTube. And, they’re more likely to leverage podcasts to connect with clients while they’re multi-tasking.
In their most successful campaigns, Audience Builders used social media predominantly as publishing platforms rather than marketing channels.
Percent of respondents stating each social media approach was used during their most successful campaign of 2015-2017:
Earned Media: Establish Credibility
One of those things that isn’t changing in the world of thought leadership is the role of trusted third parties. In a world where anyone can publish, many clients still seek the comfort of a trusted third party arbiter of quality. If HBR or McGraw Hill says this thinking is worth publishing, it’s worth reading.
Audience Builders place more importance than followers on getting their thinking published in prestigious publications like HBR, Fast Company, Forbes and other trade publications their clients respect. Also, they recognize that most people who occupy the C-suite are avid book readers. And, they’re much more likely to make strategic personal investments of time in truly long-form content such as books. In the end, Audience Builders recognize that earned channels act as an implicit recommendation of a firm’s thinking and have the ability to put that thinking in the hands of thousands, or millions, of readers a firm could otherwise not reach.
Audience Builders are 2x as likely to leverage a published book and 1.5x as likely to leverage an article in a prestigious publication in their most successful campaign between 2015-2017
Audience Builders more regularly leverage prestigious external publications in their most successful campaigns.
Percent of respondents stating each asset was part of their most successful thought leadership campaign between 2015-2017.
Paid Media: Amplify Ideas
One of the big surprises in our study was the critical role firms see for paid media in promotion of their thought leadership marketing campaigns. This surprised us only because our previous studies in the consulting industry in 2015 and 2016 indicated low sentiment from marketers as to the effectiveness of advertising in promoting thought leadership. Audience Builders are much more likely to leverage digital advertising — SEM, rich media, and paid social — to promote their thinking to audiences they cannot otherwise reach through other means.
Audience Builders are more likely to leverage paid media in their most successful campaigns.
Percent of respondents stating they used each marketing tactic to promote their content during their most successful campaign of 2015-2017.
6. Digital Enlighteners
Bringing a Digital First Mindset to Everything They Do
Unfortunately, a similar reality is playing out in the world of thought leadership marketing. The separation between leaders and followers in their approach to digital marketing — mindsets, investments and behaviors — is simply startling.
The best of the best see the web as the central medium that drives everything else. In fact, 86% of these Digital Enlighteners see their website as their company’s most valuable marketing asset. Not just their most valuable thought leadership marketing asset. But, their most valuable marketing asset period. By contrast, only 38% of followers can say the same.
For these firms, this digital first mindset shapes everything that follows. It shapes how they approach the medium, how they invest resources, how teams behave on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, and how they leverage marketing technologies.
Creating Compelling Digital Content Experiences That Guide the Buying Process
First and foremost, Digital Enlighteners recognize the power of persuasively communicating ideas goes well beyond the written word. At its core, the web enables immersive experiences in ways no other form of traditional media can. Digital Enlighteners make targeted investments in video, multimedia, and interactive content to meet clients where, when and how they learn.
Digital Enlighteners use interactive content to engage prospects with their thinking.
Percent of respondents who use these forms of interactive content in their thought leadership programs “always” or “most of the time.”
Simultaneously, the most successful firms recognize that the corporate website can do more than just serve up a compelling content experience. Digital Enlighteners recognize that the website plays the first pivotal role in shaping a client’s buying process. Unlike any other thought leadership channel, the website has the ability to progress clients through their journey. It can literally guide clients from learning about how to solve a problem to seeing how your company can actually solve it for them — all without leaving one place. Digital Enlighteners are much more likely to make targeted strategic investments in their web properties and other connected marketing technologies to make this happen. By contrast, followers are much less likely to make the investments necessary to enable clients through their buying journey in this way.
Digital Enlighteners guide clients’ through their buying process.
Percent of respondents who “strongly agree” or “agree” with these statements.
But, it’s not just the investments that matter. Digital Enlighteners recognize that a digital marketing system is only as good as the behaviors applied to its use. They are much more diligent than followers in ensuring they get the most out of their investments in marketing technology. They leverage marketing automation as a tool to both identify high-potential, qualified prospects and proactively pursue business relationships with them.
Digital Enlighteners take control of the buying process.
Percent of respondents who “strongly agree” or “agree” with these statements.
Bringing a Continuous Improvement Mindset to the Thought Leadership Marketing Task
One of the greatest aspects of the web as a marketing medium is its ability to test things. When a book is printed, you simply cannot easily test 3-4 different book titles or jacket designs with readers through a limited run. But, with the web you can do just that. In fact, you can test 1000s of messages and designs simultaneously if you’re so inclined. You can go back and rework whole sections of your thinking as new information comes to light. You can easily connect new thinking with old thinking on the fly. The web enables you to combine information together in ways no other medium can.
Digital Enlighteners do all these things at scale. They see the web for the truly pliable medium that it is. They perform lots of tiny experiments on anything and everything they can. And, they feed these learnings right back into their model so their next article, their next video, their next campaign can be that much better. On the other hand, followers appear to bring a “print mindset” to the task. They rarely, if ever, test the things they do.
Digital Enlighteners bring a “continuous improvement” mentality to their work.
Percent of respondents who A/B test each aspect of their digital marketing efforts “always” or “most of the time.”
Finally, Digital Enlighteners see this process of continuous improvement not just as a way to improve the performance of an email or an article. They see it as a microcosm of the much bigger picture. They see their investments in digital marketing and supporting technologies as a way to close the gap between marketing and selling. They reject the typical perceived roadblocks to measurement, and leverage marketing automation and CRM to truly measure the outcomes from their work. 86% of them can prove ROI from their thought leadership marketing efforts. Only 31% of followers can say the same.
7. Sales Accelerators
Enabling a Better Experience for Both Buyers and Sellers
Thought leadership cannot exist within a marketing bubble. Leaders understand this better than anyone. They work diligently to engage the people in the firm that have the most ability to make or break the success of an initiative — the sales team. Most importantly, they recognize that the relationship between thought leadership and sales is both multi-directional and multi-dimensional. Sales Accelerators engage the sales team early and often. And, they make targeted investments to ensure that customers have a seamless experience as they move from learning, to vetting and into conversations with the sales force.
Engaging Sales Early and Often
Sales Accelerators engage the sales team at many points along the arc of developing an idea. They partner early to understand the perspective of sales leaders on what they see as the big challenges facing customers and the limitations to how they’re currently solving them. And, they engage late to ensure the sales team is fully versed in the point-of-view the firm is taking to market. Much to our surprise, Sales Accelerators see sales enablement as the most critical factor of success for a thought leadership campaign — even more critical than the efficacy of the thinking itself and the marketing program used to take it to market. By comparison, followers see the content itself as king.
Sales Accelerators see salesforce engagement as the most critical factor for success.
Percent of respondents who ranked each factor as the #1 most important one in the success of their most successful thought leadership marketing campaign between 2015-2017.
When it comes to sales enablement, Sales Accelerators leave little to chance. Almost 50% of them extensively train their sales teams on the thinking found in their thought leadership content and provide specific recommendations on how to use it with prospects. In fact, the very best go one step further than that. They work with sales leaders to develop sales-specific content — from talking points to client discussion guides and needs assessments tools — that business development managers can use to activate meaningful discussion within the sale. Over 50% of followers, on the other hand, do little more than make their sales teams aware that the content exists.
Sales Accelerators do everything possible to enable their sales teams to sell from their thought leadership content. The majority of followers hardly even inform sales the content exists.
Percent of respondents who agreed with each statement.
Enabling a Seamless Customer Experience that Leads Clients From Ideas to Conversations
Simultaneously, Sales Accelerators recognize that the gap between marketing and sales isn’t just an internal one. A poor marketing to sales handoff creates broken promises and disconnected customer experiences. As a result, Sales Accelerators work diligently to create a seamless buying experience that extends from offline interactions (speeches, books and publications) to digital ones (social, blog, interactive, multimedia and other web content).
They build digital experiences that guide clients from learning through their thought leadership to custom solutions built around the insights themselves. From there they use interactive tools to get clients working before they even initiate a conversation with the firm. And, they leverage digital technology and behavioral data so that sales teams have useful intelligence when a conversation does emerge. A seamless customer experience enables the success of both the buyer and the seller by enabling both to have a better conversation about needs and solutions when the time is right. By contrast, followers simply don’t have the processes in place to make these things happen on a regular basis.
Sales Accelerators use interactive tools to enable customers to “begin” the sales conversation before it actually begins.
Percent of respondents who leverage interactive tools “always” or “most of the time” when publishing thought leadership.
Walking the Path from Follower to Leader
At the conclusion of our study, we’re left with a few big questions — How do these seven capabilities fit together? Does a firm need to be firing on all cylinders simultaneously in all seven areas in order to be successful in thought leadership marketing? And, maybe most importantly, for a firm interested in progressing from a position of follower to a position of leader, where should they start?
While the data itself does not provide conclusive answers to most of these questions, our collective experience tells us a few things.
First, a firm can’t move on all seven capabilities simultaneously. Any firm that’s already investing in thought leadership marketing has built some of these capabilities so it’s important to frame your destination based on your point of origin.
That said, given the cluttered media landscape of 2019 and the incredible demands on executives’ attention, logically a firm needs to have a compelling and unique point-of-view tied to anything they publish. In essence, everything starts with a persuasive argument that is grounded in substantial truth. Therefore, before going any further firms would be wise to ensure they have developed the capabilities required of an Argument Shaper coupled with the mindsets of a Truth Seeker in the early stages of their journey.
From there, firms need to do everything they can to ensure the success of their sales teams. Especially in the early stages of a thought leadership marketing journey, the sales function will make or break the long-term success of the initiative. A highly engaged sales force will make it much easier to earn the patience, commitment and authority necessary from senior leaders to keep the firm on-task and committed to quality over the long haul. Put another way, firms’ next steps should be to build the capabilities of a Sales Accelerator in order to develop the mindsets of Patient Champions within the organization and bring the rigor of a Disciplined Navigator to the task.
Finally, firms simply need to scale what they’re doing. They need to bring digital technologies and digital media front-and-center into everything they do. And, they need to build a wide following across a variety of media (both owned and non-owned). To get over the hump from just being good to actually being exceptional at this craft, firms need to make the targeted investments in marketing technologies and skills of a Digital Enlightener and open up additional budget in order to make the critical investments in earned and paid media indicative of an Audience Builder.
To learn how to transition your thought leadership marketing efforts from being just good to becoming exceptional request a holistic assessment of your firm’s thought leadership program.
As co-founder of Bloom Group, Bob has helped clients across a range of B2B sectors publish their thinking in the right places (including numerous books, 20+ Harvard Business Review articles and opinion pieces in the Financial Times, Business Week, Forbes, CIO magazine and other leading publications)
As Principal of Rattleback, Jason helps professional services firms from all over the world turn their thought leadership marketing efforts into demand generation programs.
Survey Methodology and Demographics:
The 35 question survey was developed in January and February 2018. It was fielded online between March and August of 2018 using SurveyMonkey and Phronesis Partners’ proprietary survey platform. Respondents were recruited via Bloom Group and Rattleback’s newsletter subscribers, via social media (largely Twitter and LinkedIn), and with the assistance of research firm Phronesis Partners. Respondents were compensated with a discount for attendance at our third annual conference. Read the Research Methodology and Respondent Demographics for more detail.
Copyright 2019. Rattleback, Inc. and Bloom Group, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Research Design: Bob Buday and Jason Mlicki Research Sponsor: Phronesis Partners Authors: Bob Buday and Jason Mlicki Creative Director: John Randle Designer: Kaitlin Lewis