Comprehensive thought leadership consulting for B2B & professional services firms

The Uncommon Methods of the Best Thought Leadership Marketers

Our study explored what the best thought leadership marketers are doing, why great content is more important than great marketing, and how it is paying off for their companies.

Download  PDFs of this article and Part 1 of our Profiting from Thought Leadership survey below:

2020 PTL TLM Study Report_Part 2

2020 PTL TLM Study Report_Part 1

Part 2 of our Profiting from Thought Leadership Survey

This is the second in our series of reports from a survey that our two firms conducted in the fall of 2020 with 314 thought leadership professionals in North America, the UK and Europe, and Asia-Pacific business-to-business companies. The first report, which can be read here and above as a download,  presented the findings across regions and industries. The industries with the largest number of respondents were management consulting, IT services, technology, financial services, healthcare/pharma, and accounting.

In this report, we provide insights on what the most effective thought leadership marketers (deemed “leaders”) are doing differently than the least effective (the “followers”):

  • We categorized as “leaders” 58 of the 314 survey respondents (or 18% of the base) who said their thought leadership marketing was extremely effective at generating strong market awareness of their expertise and leads for their business.
  • We categorized as “followers” 78 survey respondents (25% of the base) who said their thought leadership marketing activities were somewhat or extremely ineffective at generating awareness and leads for their companies.

From those comparisons, we suggest practices from our work over the years with B2B companies – approaches that have helped thought leadership professionals up their game.

Key Findings

 No. 1: Bigger companies are more likely to believe they’re great at thought leadership marketing. Consultants are more likely to feel that way too.

No. 2: Experience counts a lot. B2B firms that have been longer at the game tend to be more effective at it.

No. 3: Firms that are more effective at thought leadership marketing have higher revenue growth and command larger price premiums.

No. 4: The best at thought leadership marketing can prove it generates business — leads, RFPs and wins.

No. 5: The leaders are more likely to know where they need to be seen as deep experts (and where they don’t).

No. 6: Leaders take a content-centric (not marketing-centric) approach to thought leadership.

No. 7: Thought leadership research needs to be re-focused: examining best practices (including client projects) has become as or more important than surveys.

No. 8: Marketing at the best companies goes far beyond their own channels and the written word; they are escaping the print mindset.

No. 9: Data visualization is starting to become a crucial thought leadership presentation tool.

No. 10: Leaders bring thought leadership to the front lines by training the salesforce.

Who’s Best at Thought Leadership Marketing?

Larger companies were more likely to say their thought leadership marketing is extremely effective than were small companies. (See Exhibit 1.)

If you work in a bigger company, you are likely to have more resources for thought leadership marketing. But does that mean you’ll do more with it? According to the people we surveyed, the answer is likely to be yes.

Of the firms we surveyed whose revenue was $500 million or more, 25% said their thought leadership marketing activities were extremely effective. In contrast, only 15% of firms with revenue less than $500 million said the same thing. This trend also bears out in the average revenue of the firms we deemed as “leaders”: $1.4 billion. The average revenue of the “followers” was $461 million.

Exhibit 1: Bigger Appears to be Better

We found some differences by sector as well. In the six sectors where we had at least 20 respondents, management consulting and IT services firms were more likely to say their thought leadership marketing is highly effective than were other sectors. The financial services, technology and accounting sectors gave themselves the worst marks – i.e., they had the lowest percentage of companies in their industry whose thought leadership marketing activities were extremely effective. (See Exhibit 2.)

Exhibit 2: Consultants Rule

Experience Matters

More to the point, how long a firm has been doing thought leadership marketing can govern how good it is at it.

We believe that experience at thought leadership is behind some of our most notable findings about proficiency at thought leadership marketing: The longer you’ve been at it, the more likely you are to be better at it. As Exhibit 3 shows, leaders have been at this game much longer on average than have followers. In fact, leaders have an average of 7.6 years’ experience doing thought leadership marketing, or more than 70% longer on average than the followers (4.4 years).

Exhibit 3: Experience Counts

We asked this question in our 2018 survey on thought leadership marketers in North America. We had a similar finding: success correlates with longevity. Of course, that begs the question of how to accelerate excellence. We’ll shed light on that later in this report.

But What Does Thought Leadership Actually Get a Firm? 

The leading firms at thought leadership marketing said it generated more leads and market awareness of their expertise. But is that it? What about revenue? Profit? In short, does being recognized as an expert mean more money?

That, of course, is the holy grail question for thought leadership marketers, one that has dogged many — but certainly not all – B2B firms since at least 1964. (That was the year that consultancies McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group began ramping up their printing presses. They have been publishing huge volumes of thought leadership content ever since, so we presume their management no longer questions the value of thought leadership.)

In our research, we did find a correlation between thought leadership effectiveness and revenue and pricing power. And while it may not sway the most ardent skeptic – the CEO or CFO who says, in effect, “How much revenue did our $XX million spend on thought leadership generate?”—our data is worth a look.

We asked survey respondents to tell us how their companies’ revenue changed between 2016 and 2019. Did it grow in that period? Recede? And by how much? The average revenue gain during that period for our leaders’ group was 46.2%. The followers’ revenue, on average, grew too, but at a slower pace: 39.5%. So the leaders’ revenue growth was 17% greater.

We also asked what kind of price premium, if any, the leaders and followers felt their thought leadership marketing gave them. The difference here was much more pronounced: Leaders’ average price premium was 14.6%, while followers enjoyed an 8.9% premium. That’s a 64% difference between leaders and followers.

The message: If your firm becomes highly proficient at thought leadership marketing, that could drive faster growth and higher prices.

The next question, then, is this: How do firms become more proficient at thought leadership marketing? We believe our comparison of the surveys of leaders and followers at this game sheds important light on that, as do our previous surveys and client work.

We believe thought leadership marketers can have the greatest impact if they start at the top of their company – and make sure top management truly values it.

The Best Thought Leadership Marketers Have Buy-In

From a collective 40+ years of watching thought leadership marketers operate in professional services and other B2B firms, we have known many who felt they were fighting an uphill battle. The people whom they served and the people who run their companies, from the CEO to heads of practices, often have looked at thought leadership grudgingly as a necessary expense (and sometimes not even that) to be minimized.

Before we explain why we believe this occurs, we must state that this skepticism did not prevail in the companies that said their thought leadership marketing was extremely effective. In fact, the opposite is the case: In the vast majority of these companies (93%), senior management views thought leadership marketing as very or extremely important to revenue growth. (Exhibit 4.) That was nearly twice the percentage (50%) of companies that told us their thought leadership marketing was ineffective.

Exhibit 4: Leaders Have Wind Behind Their Sails

We think it’s heartening that half of the followers say their senior management sees thought leadership as very or extremely important. Only about a fifth of the followers appear to be working in unfriendly-to-thought-leadership conditions (where top management views it as not so important or not at all important). This indicates that many marketers in companies where thought leadership hasn’t had much impact do have a leadership team that views thought leadership as valuable and are hopeful that the company can make it work.

Those followers are still far ahead of other firms that see thought leadership marketers as no more important than, say, the travel or brochure-writing staff (not to diminish those functions!). However, they have a long way to go if they are to be in the same league as firms whose management teams want, and expect, great thought leadership marketing.

In fact, the pandemic appears to have made leading companies’ top management want to be seen as thought leaders even more. Nearly three-quarters of the thought leadership marketers whom we surveyed in the leaders group told us that their senior managements see thought leadership marketing as even more important in this pandemic. Only about a third of the followers felt this way. (Exhibit 5.)

Exhibit 5: The Pandemic Has Turned Leaders into Even Stronger Advocates

What Leads to Buy-In? Monetary Metrics Help A Lot

What earns such allegiance to thought leadership marketing at the top of the company? We don’t believe that it’s merely because their marketers have strong skills in persuasion (although this is a core skill of great thought leadership marketers.) Instead, our survey indicates that money does the best talking – i.e., being able to measure thought leadership marketing’s impact on new business and revenue.

Nearly two-thirds of the leaders use three monetary metrics to assess their programs:

  • Inbound inquiries generated by thought leadership content
  • Requests for proposals that result (at least in part) from those inquiries
  • Proposal wins

What’s more, three times more leaders than followers are tracking the dollar value of the work that thought leadership marketing generates (or, at least, they can stake a claim in generating).

We call these monetary metrics because they’re very closely or directly tied to money – to clients indicating they’re considering paying for your advice. A request for a proposal is typically a serious show of interest in spending. Inbound inquiries signify that a prospect was moved enough to find out more about your services. And, of course, a proposal that wins new business is the real proof that thought leadership has led to something good.

Those metrics stand in stark contrast to other metrics that only suggest that someone is stimulated by a firm’s content: content views and downloads. You might think of those as interest metrics. That content might generate interest in viewers who are moved to read it, but doesn’t inspire them to find out much more.

As you can see in Exhibit 6, only a minority of the least-effective thought leadership marketers use monetary metrics.

It would seem to follow that the leaders in thought leadership marketing are much more likely to come armed to budget meetings with data to back their requests. They’re speaking the language of practice leaders, the CEO and the CFO: “Based on our last three years, we need X budget to generate XX number of leads with Y dollar value if they are converted to business, based on our historical conversion rate.” That’s a much different conversation than those in which marketers point to downloads, website views, and social media “likes” and then say, “Trust us, we know it works.”

At the companies with the best practitioners of thought leadership, senior executives are much more likely to know its monetary value because their marketers show it to them in dollars and cents. That makes it easy for top management to become big proponents of thought leadership.

Exhibit 6: Leaders Know Money Talks

Does It Translate to Bigger Budgets? Absolutely (If You Do It Well)

It might not surprise you that our leaders at thought leadership marketing, having better proven their monetary value to the firm, also get bigger budgets. But how much bigger?

The leaders’ average budget for thought leadership marketing in 2020 (all expenses in, including research, marketing events, editorial, etc.) was 6.5% of revenue. That was two percentage points (or 44%) higher than the followers’ budget (4.5%), and it was one percentage point higher than the average for all 314 surveys. (Exhibit 7.)

Exhibit 7: Getting What They Prove They Deserve

To be sure, the pandemic dampened overall spending on thought leadership last year across all the companies we surveyed. A higher percentage (43%) said they decreased their spending than increased it (31%). However, most of the leaders survived the budget cuts.

In fact, the majority of the leaders (55%) were given bigger budgets. That was the case in only 11% of the followers. (See Exhibit 8.)

Exhibit 8: Escaping the Budget Axe

Yet all this still doesn’t shed light on why the best thought leadership marketers are better at their craft. The rest of this research report provides our insights from our comparisons of the best vs. the worst, and from our deep experience.

The Advantages of the Best Thought Leadership Marketers

On the surface, the first competitive edge of the most effective thought leadership marketers may sound basic, even banal: they are much better at helping top management decide where to funnel thought leadership resources in the organization – i.e., to the places where the organization needs them the most (especially in large firms).

This is about having a solid thought leadership strategy. The majority of leaders have what we see as the key elements of such a strategy (especially, agreement on the client pain points they need to “own” and how to allocate investments across the firm). The followers usually did not.

In our experience, B2B firms use their thought leadership resources most wisely when they allocate them in proportion to the revenue contribution and growth potential of their service offerings. If Practice A (the biggest practice) represents 40% of total revenue and four smaller practices account for the remainder, shouldn’t Practice A get somewhere around 40% of the total thought leadership budget? The answer would be yes – unless those other practices (or a new service offering) can make a strong case that they have greater growth potential than Practice A does, and that thought leadership is a key factor in achieving that growth.

All to say that companies need to get thought leadership spending in line with their overall service line spending, adjusted for the growth potential of other existing or new services. The best thought leadership marketers that we surveyed think this way – or at least 60% of them do. (See Exhibit 9.) In stark contrast, only one in six of the least effective thought leadership marketers think along these lines.

With that in mind, it may not be surprising that more than three times more leaders than followers believe their firms allocate their investments in the proper amounts.

Exhibit 9: Leaders are More Surgical in Their Spending

We know that making such wise allocations is much easier said than done. On countless occasions, we have seen that companies’ service line or regional budgets for thought leadership marketing have no rhyme or reason. One service line gets twice the budget as another service line, even it has half the revenue and small growth potential.

This typically happens when a) thought leadership strategy is not tied to offering (services and products) strategy, and b) thought leadership budget authority is buried in services and practices to a greater extent.

But it can also happen at companies whose centralized thought leadership marketing groups opt to work with people and practices that are easier-to-work-with – e.g., those who have more time to devote to creating compelling content (and sometimes better writing skills).

Still, that doesn’t necessarily result in the right allocation of thought leadership resources. If Practice A (which represents 40% of the firm’s revenue and has great upside potential) is only getting 10% of the firm’s total thought leadership budget, Practice A doesn’t have command of the resources it needs to grow. And what if a new practice – Practice X in our hypothetical example – has great opportunity but, of course, zero revenue to begin. It may need primary thought leadership research based on best practices in the marketplace to be able to get an intellectual toehold in the market for mindshare.

In short, the best thought leadership marketers help senior management get a better handle on how the firm’s thought leadership dollars should be allocated, and (as important) why they should be allocated that way.

Putting Content and Marketing on Equal Pedestals

Ask a marketer to explain the key factor behind their company’s success in thought leadership marketing, and you may get an answer that touts the great campaigns they planned and executed. Ask a thought leadership researcher or editor what they thought was the key to success, and they’ll likely say it was great content: a study or article with a breakthrough concept. Ask the thought leaders themselves – the company’s experts who author the content – and they’ll naturally think it was their ideas that carried the day. Not surprising. As John F. Kennedy once said, “Victory has a thousand fathers.” (He concluded that statement with, “but defeat is an orphan.”)

It’s only human to take pride in one’s work, so it’s not surprising that marketers might believe their work was the key to thought leadership success. Our research confirmed that this happens in thought leadership. When we asked our 314 respondents – three-quarters of them marketers — to rate the most important among four factors behind their best campaign since 2018, one stood out above all the others: marketing programs that attracted viewers to their firms’ website content. Nearly twice as many (51%) chose that over the second-ranking factor: exceptional content. Only 28% said great content ruled the day.

The disparity in views between the most and least effective thought leadership marketers was substantial. Marketing programs were top-rated factor for the “followers” in thought leadership marketing. More than twice as many followers pointed to that (59%) than pointed to exceptional content (27%), their second-ranked choice.

Now contrast that with what our survey “leaders” felt was most important. A roughly equal number cited marketing (40%) as cited content (38%). Had we polled an equivalent number of editorial people as marketers (and thought leaders themselves), we believe that the majority would have ranked content as tops. (Of the 314 survey takers, 20% were in editorial jobs and 5% had other roles.) (See Exhibit 10.)

Exhibit 10: The Content vs. Marketing Debate

At this point you might well be asking, “Why does this matter? Who cares whether marketing, editors or our thought leaders take the bulk of the credit?” Actually, we think it does matter – greatly. For years, we have seen that when B2B firms value the sizzle more than the steak – in short, when they prioritize the marketing of thought leadership content rather than the content itself – they unwittingly create conditions that make it difficult to compete on thought leadership.

Why do we believe this? We see three primary reasons why a marketing-centric view of thought leadership can result in too-often inferior content:

  • What makes for great content often is not widely understood. Firms aren’t likely to apply exacting quality standards to their content. Their standards are low. And if they have high standards, they don’t enforce them.
  • Content development can get a superficial treatment: Content tends to be viewed, more or less, as just “stuff” to pump through marketing campaigns, which means they don’t devote time and skills to turning “OK” content into compelling content.
  • Internal experts are more likely to resist marketing’s help to make their content better. Aspiring thought leaders can come to believe that the firm’s marketers will publish virtually anything they send to them (with a little editing “polish”). Or internal thought leaders may feel marketing can’t help them much, and thus will resist marketing’s suggestions on how to make their content better (especially requests for substantial revisions).

The most effective thought leadership marketing happens in companies that take what we call a content-centric approach to thought leadership. In these firms, exceptional content is their true north, their holy grail, their guiding light. They put profound and inarguable arguments on their pedestal. And they know what’s required to make those arguments, especially best-practice case study examples (learned first-hand) that prove the efficacy of their solution, among several factors. In other words, these firms know the tests of high-quality content – of clear and unassailable arguments. And their content regularly passes those tests.

One of the biggest differences that we found between leaders and followers was the self-assessed quality of their firm’s content. More than 2½ times as many leaders as followers felt their thought leadership content was of high quality (which we defined simply in the survey as providing new insights to the marketplace). (See Exhibit 11.)

Exhibit 11: The Leaders’ Content Advantage

This is not to say that the best thought leadership marketers minimize the value of good marketing. On the contrary: They know that building the right audience for their content is critical, and very difficult. But they also know that without compelling content, even extensive marketing is likely to disappoint. Let’s look at how these leaders operate.

How Leaders Take a Content-Centric Approach to Thought Leadership

After a B2B firm has a clear thought leadership strategy – i.e., most of all, defining which clients and client pain points its content should address – the two most important elements of a content-centric approach are a) setting and enforcing quality standards and b) establishing a rigorous content development process.

Both leaders and followers are likely to have content quality standards (every leader had one; 85% of followers did too). But more than four times as many leaders than followers empowered thought leadership editorial or marketing professionals to enforce those standards. In other words, when a company expert’s paper didn’t meet the firm’s standards, thought leadership marketing pros could reject it without consequences. Nearly a third of followers had quality standards that weren’t enforced. That suggests lots of subpar content is getting published in these firms. (See Exhibit 12.)

Exhibit 12: Examining the Content Quality Screen

With explicit standards in place, the next key piece to helping their firm’s current and aspiring thought leaders should be helping them meet those standards. In the best thought leadership functions that we know, marketing and editorial people behave much differently than their counterparts in less-effective thought leadership groups. The best firms give their thought leadership professionals more freedom to use a strong hand in shaping the arguments that their firm’s experts are trying to make in their articles, speaking presentations, blog posts and other content.

In leading practitioners of thought leadership marketing, argument-shaping is a more prevalent and more developed skill. We’ve seen this behavior through conducting surveys of thought leadership professionals for more than 10 years. We saw it again in this survey: the top marketing and editorial people work with subject experts to create outlines, a rigorous process that builds the central argument, before anyone pens prose. And it’s marketing/editorial people who create the outline – not the subject experts whose names will go on the final product as authors. Some 51% of leaders produce article content this way vs. 41% of followers.

That may not seem like a huge difference, and it’s not. But where leaders stood out was in using structured outlines. These follow a familiar logic path (e.g., problem > solution, or situation > complication > resolution, or some other way of introducing tighter logic and flow to an argument in the making). Three times as many leaders (25% in all) use such structured outlines to guide the argument. (See Exhibit 13.)

Exhibit 13: Leaders Play a Stronger Role in Shaping Arguments

The fact that only about half the leaders use outlines in shaping articles, and only half of those leaders use structuredoutlines, tells us more companies need to improve on this front. We’ve helped clients develop and place dozens of opinion articles in the most prestigious publications in the world (Harvard Business Review, Financial Times, MIT Sloan Management Review, BusinessWeek and many more), and have found a structured outline is the genesis of nearly all of the articles that have been accepted.

It helps marketers and editorial people take control of the content development process without telling their company’s experts what to say. It gives them a way to turn too many unstructured and unproductive conversations into highly structured and productive ones. Without a structured outline template, it can be very difficult to get very smart people to focus their thoughts in ways that help an audience understand them. Unlike clients and prospects – who during meetings or phone calls can ask the experts to explain unclear items — readers of published content don’t have that opportunity. The writing must express persuasive, logical, fact-based and clear arguments.

Thought Leadership Research as Content Turbocharger

What are the core elements of highly successful thought leadership campaigns? Do you need primary research? Or would a deep white paper be enough? Or how about an article in a prestigious journal, one that signals “you’ve arrived”? Or maybe it’s a book?

We compared how leaders and followers answered this question: What were the key content assets of their most successful thought leadership campaign of the last three years? We had them choose from four options, with the ability to choose any or all of them, or to indicate “other.” Here we saw that at least 49% of the leaders had utilized three of the four options (research studies, white papers and op-eds in top-tier journals). But less than half the followers used any of the four, and a minority (47%) used the leaders’ top pick for content: primary research. (Exhibit 14.)

Exhibit 14: The Leaders’ Passion for Primary Research

Primary research is vital to producing groundbreaking ideas. But not all such research yields that. What does? The leaders gave us one clue: designing research to learn entirely new things vs. designing it to confirm what a firm already believes. Those two are very different approaches to research design. The majority of the leaders (56%) said they design their studies to create brand new insights and approaches to solving an issue; only 47% of the followers said the same.

Companies that are serious at competing on thought leadership know that primary research is a prerequisite for producing bold new ideas, approaches to delivering their services and even whole new services. But how did the leaders and followers compare in their approach to such research? In a word, the leaders valued primary research as much as field experience with clients. In other words, they viewed their client projects as more research data points. When asked to select the one most important type of research behind their most successful thought leadership campaign since 2018, 44% of leaders said it was surveys or best-practice interviews. Another 40% said it was capturing the client experiences of their people. (See Exhibit 15.)

In contrast, only 23% of the followers said their client experience was the most important type of research for creating thought leadership content. Some 70% said surveys or interviews with best-practice companies were their best type of research.

What does this mean? In our view, it means that B2B firms should design thought leadership research studies that include their clients and the projects they do with them, along with studying other organizations. Using both client experiences and best-practice interviews with other organizations gives a firm deep qualitative research. Such qualitative research makes it easier to understand which factors on any topic separate the best at solving the problem from the rest. Structured surveys can also provide statistical data on these differences as well (if they’re structured well to separate “leaders” from “laggards” on the topic).

However, only one in eight leaders said such quantitative surveys were their most important type of thought leadership research. In our view, it’s time to reckon with the limitations of such surveys.

Exhibit 15: Expanding What Counts as Thought Leadership Research

Drawing on a firm’s field experience as a source of best practices not only enriches the research data pool; it’s also likely to engage a firm’s experts more deeply in the research process. When company experts help marketers design and analyze the findings, they are more likely to take the content to clients and prospects because they truly see the advice as their own.

Marketing Goes Far Beyond the Written Word  

With more than 20 years of Web experience and a more than a decade of social media marketing in attracting audiences to their content, many B2B companies have mastered online tools. But the leaders of our survey use more of them, and they also are more likely to supplement their written content with audio (podcasts), live video and other spinoffs.

Such audio and video content makes their experts more “real” – they can be heard and seen, not just read. At least 40% of the most effective thought leadership marketers’ best campaigns used five tools to build their audience:

  • Op-ed articles in external publications
  • Website blogs
  • LinkedIn articles
  • White papers/e-books published on their websites
  • Web or live-streamed videos

In contrast, the only marketing tool used by at least 40% of the followers was op-ed articles. In short, leaders use more of these tools in their campaigns, and they are much more likely to go beyond the written word. (See Exhibit 16.)

We believe that viewing thought leadership marketing activities as, more or less, publishing activities comes from having a print mindset. (We once had that mindset, too.) This way of thinking believes prose is the best way to communicate highly complex ideas; that clients largely buy logic and not emotion or chemistry.

Our findings show the leaders among our survey respondents take a much broader view in their marketing campaigns. Their toolkit focuses not only on highly persuasive articles and research reports, but also on letting others see and hear the passion of the company’s thought leaders.

Especially during this pandemic, when it’s impossible for many B2B company experts to meet with clients and prospects, it’s important for a firm to utilize tools that convey its personality and passion, not just its expertise. The top firms are showcasing their experts in webinars, videos and podcasts as well as in the written word.

Exhibit 16: Breaking the Print Mindset and Relying Less on Prose                  

Note a very important content tool in the marketing mix shown in the above chart: op-eds in external publications. This was the most frequently used format of leaders at thought leadership marketing – nearly two thirds of them. The question is why. The way we see it, in a world of proliferating content, “earned” media has become a crucial tool in the thought leadership professional’s toolbox. (Earned media signifies that a publication editor approved it as worthy to run as an editorial. That is quite different from “paid” media such as advertorials, where publications will run just about anything as long as an advertiser pays for it).

Getting prestigious publications to run a thought leader’s opinion articles brings the credibility: the endorsement of an esteemed publication. Those such as Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, and The New York Timesop-ed page publish a tiny percent of the articles they receive. The leaders in our survey were far more likely to recognize the value of such earned media. (See Exhibit 17.)

Exhibit 17:

Not only are leaders at thought leadership more video and audio-oriented; they are also more data visualization-oriented.

If you haven’t heard that term, what does data visualization mean? Perhaps you’ve seen the elegant COVID graphs on The New York Times or Washington Post websites. Maybe you’ve been drawn into those interactive “scrollytelling” stories, in which pictures, videos and/or graphs and charts appear and disappear as you peruse an article online. These are early examples of the data visualization revolution that is just beginning to re-shape how thought leadership marketers present online content.

Our study found, perhaps not too surprisingly, that the leaders at thought leadership marketing are way ahead on this front. Nearly twice as many leaders as followers have interactive surveys that let users compare their results against others. More than half of leaders, and only a third of followers, have interactive charts that allow viewers to filter the results. And more leaders are using scrollytelling to bring their stories to life. (Exhibit 18.)

You can lump all of this – and more to come – under the umbrella term “data viz.” We believe it will be one of the most exciting places to compete on thought leadership this decade, given the complexity of the topics and the need to simplify the complexity with more than words.

Exhibit 18: Data Viz Is Has Entered the Virtual Building

How do thought leadership marketers get viewers to their websites? Few B2B firms enjoy the luxury of being destination sites that people visit regularly and without any prompting. How do thought leaders get the right people to view the thought leadership content on their sites?

We asked survey respondents to tell us what promotional tools they used in their best campaigns over the last three years, offering eight choices. Leaders are much more likely to use seven of the eight tools. And the majority of them used four tools to drive website traffic in their most successful campaign: email newsletters, advertorials, social media posts, and press mentions of their content (from good-old-fashioned PR outreach). And nearly half use social media advertising. (See Exhibit 19.)

In stark contrast, the majority of followers did not use any of the eight promotional tools.

What to make of this? Don’t expect huge numbers of the right people to view even exceptional content on your site. “Build it and they will come” is not likely to happen with thought leadership – at least, not quickly. Like a great new restaurant in an out-of-the-way location, thought leadership content that’s not promoted well is content that only your firm and its clients are likely to know about.

Exhibit 19: Build It and They Won’t Come Soon

Thought Leadership Comes to the Point of Sale

The last point of differentiation that we wish to make between leaders and followers involves their sales forces. In short, is the sales staff prepared when clients or prospects are intrigued by something they read, saw or heard from a B2B firm and reach out for more information? Are the salespeople highly knowledgeable about offerings that the firm can bring to bear on a client’s problem?

If not, that’s a clear miss. A piece of thought leadership content has enticed a prospect to a salesperson, who may not have even read it. Thankfully, according to our research, salespeople were kept in the dark about thought leadership insights at only 11% of all companies surveyed. Even among the least effective thought leadership marketers, only 15% of them made this blunder.

Still, among the followers in thought leadership marketing, only 17% bothered to train salespeople on how to use a substantial piece of content when prospects show up. (See Exhibit 20.) We believe they must embrace this training to make thought leadership a key factor in cinching the deal.

Nearly half of the leaders in our survey say they do such extensive training – nearly three times the percentage of followers. The leaders see their content and the marketing campaigns that generate prospects as a crucial tool for the sales force to have richer and more productive conversations with potential customers. As the head of brand marketing at Accenture, Jill Kramer, put it in our November 2020 conference on thought leadership: “[Thought leadership] is not a journey to a PDF; it’s a journey to a conversation. Our goal is to bring content to life and have conversations with clients about it.”

Exhibit 20: Training the Sales Force How to Sell with Insights

The Way Forward

As with any study that a company undertakes to improve its eminence as experts in the marketplace, in this research report (our second on this data) we found big differences between the companies that are most effective at thought leadership and those that are least effective. But the key to getting better at thought leadership – to making it core to how a company competes in its marketplace – is adopting those best practices and turning them into core practices.

Our websites have numerous articles that explain more about how to make this happen:

About the Researchers

This research was conducted by Profiting from Thought Leadership, a joint venture of Buday Thought Leadership Partners and Rattleback. Bob Buday and Jason Mlicki designed, analyzed and wrote this report.

Our research partner, Phronesis Partners, fielded the survey to a broader set of thought leadership marketing professionals in North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific.

For more information on this research, contact:

  • Bob Buday, CEO, Buday Thought Leadership Partners (email:
  • Jason Mlicki, Principal, Rattleback (email:

Profiting from Thought Leadership is a conference, training and research provider that since 2016 has helped hundreds of thought leadership professionals from around the world to up their game. It is a joint venture of Rattleback and Buday Thought Leadership Partners.


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