The big lie of thought leadership in B2B
"Build it, and they will come." In thought leadership, this isn't exactly a lie, but it's only half the story. There’s plenty of evidence to show that good thought leadership content builds B2B brands and drives commercial results, especially over time. But good content isn’t enough. Not on its own.
The most intelligent piece of analysis, prediction or opinion won’t do any good if it’s off-topic and sitting on a rarely visited piece of online real estate.
If it’s going to do its job, to build your brand and lead to long-term sales, good thought leadership content needs to answer client needs. It needs to engage in topics that are relevant to the decision-makers you are trying to reach. And it needs to find that audience, wherever they are, and capture their attention.
All this doesn’t happen by accident.
What this means is that before you start, you need to have good audience intelligence. You need to make sure that you're writing about something that your target buyers care about – and not just the specific topic, but in the right language and tone. And once you've created your thought leadership content, it needs to be distributed intelligently. This is where SEO, social media distribution, and performance marketing come in.
All this is what we call the 'infrastructure' of good thought leadership programming. Let’s have a look at each element in turn.
Do you know what is important to the decision makers you’re trying to reach? What issues are taking up space in their thoughts and conversations?
One of the biggest mistakes in thought leadership programming can be to lead from the inside-out – (i.e. based on what you have to say) rather than the outside-in (based on what your prospective clients are already talking and thinking about). To take an outside-in approach, we need to do research.
Often a course of secondary research is a good place to start. This means gathering existing published material, from clients, competitors, and trade press to identify topics and patterns of discussion. Social media posts from prospective clients and competitors can be a rich trove of raw material for intelligence.
In addition, to really drive significant results, at Edelman DXI we usually do a round of primary research. This is usually a survey or set of interviews with clients and prospective clients. This is extremely useful, and surprisingly rare. A recent Edelman and LinkedIn report found that only one in five companies are conducting interviews with customers, and just one in four are doing primary research of some kind.
Finally, search behavior analysis can give invaluable insights here. Often there is a difference between what people publish online, what they’ll say in a survey or interview – and with what they are likely to search for online. Search behavior analysis allows us to uncover the things people are searching for online, connected to various keywords important to the topic. Few things are as revealing of a person’s true interests as what they are searching for frequently.
If you want to find out what people are interested in, these three approaches are complementary and invaluable.
The result of all this intelligence gathering described above is raw material, rather than intelligence itself. We can only gain real advantage once we analyse what we have found.
Secondary research, especially, can result in vast quantities of data.
How do we make sense of it? We can’t possibly read thousands of posts and articles written by hundreds or even thousands of people.
Computational linguistic analysis
One way we can extract meaningful insight is through computational linguistic analysis. In projects of this type, we often use computational techniques to analyse vast bodies of text, uncovering and clustering the topics and subtopics, and revealing the connections between them.
For example, in this analysis of discussions about a technology type (see below), we can see that discussion of the specific user experiences (blue shades) were more fundamental to the overall discussion than discussions of material and cost (green and amber, respectively). This allows us to fine-tune the balance of subjects in our content.
Another type of analysis that can be useful at this stage is psycholinguistic profiling. This type of analysis allows us to determine the emotional content of the conversation, and also to extract insights about the character and motivations of our target audience as they are expressed in text they have written. For example, a client group motivated by concerns of safety may react well to a different tone than a client group motivated by prestige.
For example, in this analysis of online conversation for a healthcare company (see above) we can see that the text analysis of online posts has led us to very specific recommendations for content. In this case, we’ve highlighted that specific detail and a reassuring tone is necessary to land the company’s message and build engagement with the audience. In this case, the audience is a patient group, but the exact same principles and process apply for an audience of prospective buyers.
Audience profiling and stakeholder mapping
So far we’ve been looking at what has been said by the people we’re trying to reach. But what do we know about the people themselves? Who are they, what are their other interests, and, critically, who are they paying attention to already?
Stakeholder mapping can lead to valuable insights about the target audience and who already has influence over them.
In some areas of B2B sales, there are only a few hundred prospective buyers in the whole world. But who are they connected to, who are they listening to already?
At Edelman DXI we use a four dimensional data-driven influencer mapping system to understand the flow of influence on a given topic or in a certain field.
In this thought leadership analysis for an automotive client (see below), we can see the relative influence of thought leaders discussing electric vehicles. Their relevance to the discussion is mapped on the horizontal axis, their authority on the vertical. Their reach, the size of their audience, is given by the size of the bubble. Finally, the hue of the bubble indicates accessibility.
A data-driven, differentiated stakeholder view like this allows us to know who is truly driving discussion on a given topic – and who just looks like they are, because they might have the loudest voice. It also allows us to deep dive on their content, what they are actually saying that is guiding the discussion, and use that to shape our work. Ideally, we can also work with these people as co-authors or consultants on thought leadership content, adding a baked-in layer of social validation.
This allows us to engage intelligently, working with the right influencers to shape and distribute our thought leadership content.
All the intelligence and analysis we’ve described above will help us understand what type of content will really engage the interest of our target audience. But how can we be sure they’re actually going to see it?
This is where intelligent distribution comes in.
Social distribution takes two forms: distributions through actual social connections and established social media network presences.
Actual social connections are an ideal way to distribute thought leadership content. One of the most commonly-cited factors that increase likelihood to buy in a B2B context is recommendation or referral from someone in the client’s professional network. This is where we can really realize the value of working directly with leading topic opinion leaders as co-authors or consultants on thought leadership. They will naturally want to publicize the excellent content they’ve worked on, posting it on their various channels and driving directly to their followers – the prospective customers we are trying to reach.
Established social media presences are another important way of distributing. A core piece of thought leadership content, such as a white paper or report, ought ideally to be reflected in a constellation of derived and supplementary content for social distribution. For example, a report could be extracted into:
- Image-focused infographics explaining some key concepts.
- Stand-alone graphs or figures.
- Key quotes or insights for posting as text.
- Short video interview segments with authors answering key questions on the topic.
- Appearances on relevant podcasts.
When it comes to social media distribution all these formats and more can be launched in addition to a core piece of thought leadership, all driving viewers back to that core piece.
In B2B contexts, thoughts naturally tend towards LinkedIn, but remember that prospective clients are all human, and spend time on other platforms too.
However, with the way that social platforms are configured, paid support will almost certainly be beneficial.
All the intelligence gathering conducted in the first phase of thought leadership research also generates value in the distribution phase.
With this research we understand the business problems of your prospective clients, the digital landscape they inhabit, and their needs in detail. That means that we can identify actionable personas for targeting social and search advertising, build user journeys and develop a paid media plan to reach them.
The constellation of social media-specific content described above is then adapted into paid media creative, appearing in the feeds of our target clients whenever they open their laptops, their mobile devices or type in a search.
One of the most important reasons for paid support is that it extends the reach of your thought leadership content – not just through the audience, but over time. If effectively configured, even relatively modest paid support can ensure that your thought leadership content is being read again and again even long after its publication.
We often hear the phrase ‘content is king’. That’s fine, but it is misleading; it implies that if you get the content right, the rest will take care of itself. That’s the big lie of thought leadership.
Monarchs may command attention, but that’s not because of who they are as an individual. It’s in the context built around them. The throne they sit on. The palace centered around that throne. The crown. The servants, supplicants and courtiers who swirl around them. All this is what makes a king command royal attention.
Good thought leadership content is the same. Without infrastructure, your paper, no matter how thoughtful, is a passing note in the cacophony of the algorithmically-driven, social web experience.
Content may be king, but you need to be thinking about the whole royal treatment – from intelligence, to strategy, to distribution – to make sure it has the impact that will drive results for your business.
Want to learn more about how you can create stand-out B2B content?
Why not check out Propolis, our exclusive community for B2B marketers to share insights, learn from industry leading marketers, and access our best content. Propolis includes a Hive (group) specially dedicated to brand and content strategy.