What Is Thought Leadership and Why Should You Bother with It?
We write about thought leadership a lot on this blog. But we’ve never come right out and said what it is.
So that’s what this post is all about: what is thought leadership? And why should you, a startup founder or leader, be doing it?
The short answer to that second question: it will help you grow.
How? On what timeline? According to what data? Let’s get into it.
What Is Thought Leadership? Preaching to the Choir (in a Good Way)
For the most part, the phrase “preaching to the choir” has a negative connotation. Why would you focus your messaging on the folks who already agree with you and will attend services (or buy what you’re selling) either way?
But when we apply the concept to B2B marketing and sales, preaching to the choir can be a good thing: B2B marketers aren’t trying to convert the masses. We’re not trying to fill the pews and save souls. We’re selling highly specialized solutions to people with discerning tastes and deep knowledge.
Thought leadership may have a relatively small audience, but this audience cares deeply about what the thought leaders in their space have to say.
How deeply, you ask? Edelman does research every year to answer that question. The 2021 survey found that…
- 54 percent of business leaders and B2B decision makers spend one hour or more consuming thought leadership content every week.
- More than three-quarters want to hear from SMEs with deep expertise rather than senior executives writing about big-picture business issues. If this isn’t the definition of preaching to the choir, I don’t know what is.
So what are these B2B decision makers doing with all this thought leadership content? Is it actually impacting all these decisions they’re making (and, more to the point, all the money they’re spending)?
Briefly, yes. Let’s take a look at why.
Good Thought Leadership Makes Your Audience Better at Their Jobs
If you’re reading this post, there's a good chance you’re trying to decide whether to invest in thought leadership content for your organization. My goal is that when you click away, you’ll feel more confident about your decision than you did when you got here.
You may have noticed that I linked above to data from Edelman, a global PR and marketing firm that is decidedly not the PR and marketing firm I am currently blogging for and that could certainly provide you with the kind of thought leadership content and PR services we offer.
Am I out of my mind?
Propllr and Edelman aren’t competing for the same clients. Pretending we are would be silly. And anyway, that data is too good not to share.
What's more, per Edelman’s research, 80 percent of decision makers prefer thought leadership that includes third-party data – as they should! Without data, thought leadership is just opinion.
Finally, I don’t expect anyone to read this post and click the “buy now” button on our site (heck, we don’t even have one). That’s not how thought leadership content works. It’s a much longer game.
What I do hope, though, is that you click away thinking, “Hm. Those Propllr folks know what they’re talking about.”
Good Thought Leadership Is Enjoyable
You don’t have to be boring to be taken seriously.
In fact, if you’re boring, you likely won’t be taken anywhere.
Again, per Edelman: 87 percent of B2B buyers want thought leadership content that’s both intellectually rigorous and enjoyable.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the author is cracking jokes every few lines. But it does mean the ideas are presented clearly and succinctly – ideally with some visual aids and a little bit of voice.
Edelman’s report points out that all B2B buyers are, in fact, people.
This is why I like to approach B2B writing with what I call a “B2C2B” mindset: even if you represent a business selling to other businesses, you have to first catch the attention of an actual human working at that business who will then mention your brand to other decision makers.
And there will be other decision makers.
Good Thought Leadership Drives Conversions… in the Long Term
Thought leadership shines in B2B content marketing in part because conversion paths tend to be long. We’re not selling things that our audience can impulse buy – there are likely six to 10 decision makers involved, and they all have preferences and insights.
The goal of thought leadership content is to get your name in the conversation as a potential provider.
If, say, three of those six decision makers get your weekly newsletter and agree that you know what you’re talking about, there's a good chance you’ll get at least an initial call out of it.
What's more, with a solid foundation of thought leadership content paving the path for your sales team, they don’t have to sell as hard. You’ve already established your bona fides in the space, so sales conversations can focus more on whether you’re the right partner for a potential client’s specific needs.
That’s a great position to be in.
But it’s not just good for your organization: if your thought leadership is really stellar, it makes your readers look good when they have the opportunity to tell others about it.
Think how much fun it is to turn someone on to a great new TV series or podcast. You look savvy and knowledgeable. You become a trusted source of media recommendations. That same thing happens professionally: when you’re putting out useful, enjoyable thought leadership content, your audience members will relish being the one who tells their colleagues about it.
This, of course, expands your audience.
Good Thought Leadership Drives Referrals
Let’s return to the preaching to the choir analogy.
Inevitably, if you’re putting out great thought leadership content, some of your biggest fans will be other practitioners of the work you do – possibly at competing firms. And that’s a good thing!
Inevitably, those folks will interact with a potential client they aren’t a fit for. And they’ll still want to be useful to that client. So they’ll try to refer the client to a provider who can meet their needs.
And guess what: your name just may come up.
For example, if we had a prospect who wanted more technical SEO-focused services than we at Propllr could provide, I would not hesitate in pointing them toward Animalz, a content marketing shop whose thought leadership is among the best in the business. I don’t know the people there personally, but I can tell they know what they’re doing.
Then there are the less direct referral routes: another of my favorites in the content marketing space is a guy named Jimmy Daly, who publishes a weekly newsletter I’ve loved for years.
He launched his own venture, Superpath, a little over a year ago. It includes a Slack group for content marketers, a job board, and paid membership options. I regularly refer people to the Slack group, which is full of incredibly valuable information. And just like that, Jimmy Daly has an ever-growing choir full of members of his exact target audience who have been introduced to him as a leading expert in the space.
How to Get Started with Thought Leadership
It’s never too early (or late!) to get started with thought leadership. If you aren’t the blogging type, try capturing your thoughts on the social media platform where you’re most comfortable. See what resonates. If you have a small following, all the better – you’ll be able to try and fail and learn what works without too many eyes on the process.
If you’re not comfortable on social, try sharing ideas in a dedicated Slack channel. Get feedback from your team on what resonates.
And if you’re ready to plunge in, I’d love to talk with you about your vision and how to bring it about. Get in touch!