Take a sneak peek at 6 high-level insights from our 2022 research with client decision-makers on how they use thought leadership to inform their most critical business decisions.
Last week, Bob Buday of Buday Thought Leadership Partners and I shared a small portion of the findings from our 2022 thought leadership research produced in partnership with Binayak Choudhury of Phronesis Partners. The webinar, hosted live, shared 6 key insights from our 32 question survey of executive decision-makers that use thought leadership to solve their most pressing business problems:
- On average, executives across all industries see thought leadership as very important.
- They use thought leadership most to identify early warning signs and determine how to solve major business problems.
- That said, they’re not using it to make purchase decisions as frequently as you might think.
- It appears they don’t because they don’t believe the thought leadership they receive is valuable enough.
- When it comes to the content you publish, executives crave evidence, depth, and feasibility.
- As it relates to the content experience, they continue to prefer a more digital, “lean back” one.
You can download the full presentation slides or watch the recording here. Let’s look at each of these 6 insights in a bit more detail.
#1 – Clients See Thought Leadership as Very Important
Managing partners in consulting and other professional services firms often ask me to validate their investment in thought leadership. Do clients really use it? How does it help us? Frequently, it’s one of the bigger line items on the marketing budget so they’re perfectly valid questions.
Based on our latest thought leadership research, the answer appears to be a resounding yes. In fact, on average, corporate decision-makers from across a range of industries said it was “very important” in helping them solve their most pressing business problems — rating it 3.90 on a scale of 1 to 5. Importance varied very little from industry to industry with a low of 3.74 in the transportation industry and a high of 4.01 in industrial manufacturing.
Why is this the case? To us, the answer is clear. Effective thought leadership helps clients create coherence out of complexity. It helps them make sense of the chaos surrounding them. And, they’re increasingly looking to consulting, IT services, and other B2B organizations to provide that clarity and direction.
#2 – When in the Buying Process do Clients Use Thought Leadership Most?
In my experience, professional service firm leaders and other B2B marketers make a lot of assumptions about how prospective clients use thought leadership in their buying process. The most frequent assumption is that clients primarily use thought leadership to better understand a problem they face. As it turns out, this is only partially true.
In fact, we found that clients use thought leadership most in the earliest stage and in the later stage of their buying motion. They lean heavily on thought leadership to identify potential warning signs on the horizon that could negatively affect their business. And, they come back to it again most frequently when they’re looking for the best way to solve a major business problem.
My take is this — clients “survey” content from a wide range of trusted sources all the time to keep them “in the know” about what’s happening in the world and to identify potential business disruptions on the horizon. They’re essentially scanning for outliers. Simultaneously, they search frequently for thought leadership that can help them solve their most pressing current business challenges. It’s this magic combination of scanning, surveying, and searching that describes clients’ behavior.
#3 – What Types of Business Decisions do Executives Use Thought Leadership Most?
Despite the fact that decision-makers lean heavily on thought leadership to find solutions to their most pressing business problems, they’re using it to inform some types of purchase decisions more than others.
In fact, we found that clients leverage thought leadership most to inform technology-related decisions. We believe this is due largely to the rapid pace of technology change, the inherent complexity associated with those decisions, and the propensity for technology-related decisions to include non-technical people in the decision-making process.
That said, clients use thought leadership, at least somewhat, to inform virtually all of their major business decisions. And, 74% of them said that it has become more important over the last 5 years. In fact, only 3% said it was less important.
#4 — Many Clients Say the Thought Leadership They Consume Isn’t Valuable Enough
Let’s start with the good news — 23% of the people we surveyed said that thought leadership has been of extremely high value in helping them choose a firm to work with. That said, 39% told us the thought leadership they consume really wasn’t all that valuable to them.
In short, a lot of decision-makers are telling us the thought leadership they see coming from professional services firms and other B2B marketers simply isn’t that good. It’s not performing the job it was intended to do. It’s not creating separation between one firm and another. In essence, it’s not creating brand preference for the organizations producing it.
If professional services firms and other B2B marketers believe they need to compete on thought leadership (and, given its importance to clients it appears they do), many need to drastically improve the quality of their content. In fact, that’s the #1 reason we created our annual thought leadership marketing conference, Profiting from Thought Leadership, in the first place — to create a space for B2B marketers and editorial leaders to hear best practices, learn from their peers, improve their firms’ thought leadership programs, and enable their careers.
#5 — What do Clients Value Most in Thought Leadership?
We believe the reason executives state much of the thought leadership they consume isn’t of value to them is because much of the content produced by firms simply isn’t good enough. But, what does good look like? What do clients really crave?
As it turns out, our findings tell us what they value most is evidence, depth, and feasibility. Evidence that a proposed solution to a major business problem has worked in other organizations like theirs. Depth of knowledge shown by the firm that demonstrates a robust understanding of a problem and its best solution. For years, I’ve described this as developing “a body of work” to potential clients around an issue you’d like to own. Finally, clients crave feasibility. They want to see a set of explicitly communicated steps on how to solve a problem in the best way possible.
#6 – Executives Prefer Thought Leadership to be Digital
While clients tell us that thought leadership is “very important” in helping them make strategic business decisions, they’d prefer not to have to work so hard to get at those insights. In fact, our research finds that executives much prefer to consume content online than off. And, they’d rather consume content passively (via a webinar or a podcast) than actively (through a written article or report).
That said, I wouldn’t throw away your digital editors’ pen just yet. In fact, clients still largely value written digital content (both long-form and short-form). In short, that voice in your head saying, “no one will read this; it’s too long” may be doing you more of a disservice than you realize.
Dive Deeper in August and November
These 6 high-level insights offer just a small peak into our latest thought leadership research.
Join us on August 17 for our next webinar in the series. In How B2B Companies Compete on Thought Leadership, we’ll share a similar sneak peek into the other half of our research. In that session we’ll share high-level insights from your peers; other professional services and B2B marketers. Specifically, we’ll cover:
- How important thought leadership is across various functions of the business.
- How effective B2B marketing teams see themselves across 8 core disciplines of the thought leadership development process.
- The impact of thought leadership on a variety of critical business success indicators including leads, revenue, and profitability.
- How much other B2B companies and professional services firms are spending on their thought leadership programs.
Of course, we hope you’ll also join us November 2-4 for this year’s conference where we’ll share all our latest research findings on How the Best B2B Companies Compete on Thought Leadership including:
- How they develop strategy
- How they approach research
- How they develop content
- How they market that content and leverage it in the sale
- How they allocate their marketing spend
About the Research
Over April and May 2022 we surveyed 152 executives across a variety of industries on how they use thought leadership to solve their most pressing business problems. Five of the 32 questions we asked were boosted through other panels to receive 3,500+ responses. Executives represented senior decision-makers primarily from large companies headquartered in North America.
The survey was conducted in partnership with Bob Buday of Buday Thought Leadership Partners, LLC and Binayak Choudhury of Phronesis Partners on behalf of Profiting from Thought Leadership. In total, we asked 32 questions to build a deeper understanding of how executive decision-makers use thought leadership in their daily business lives.
On July 21, Bob and I shared 6 key insights from the research in a live webinar (watch the recording and download the slides here). The balance of the findings, including learnings from deep-dive qualitative discussions with decision-makers, will be shared at our November conference — register to attend in-person or online by 8/1 to secure early-bird pricing.