The 2022 LinkedIn-Edelman B2B Thought Leadership Impact Report was released in December.1 It is the 5th annual study and I believe it is one of the most important reports for B2B companies and their marketing and sales leadership. I recently spoke to Kate Cooper, Executive Vice President and Midwest Market Lead in Edelman’s Business Marketing Practice and she shared some key take aways from the report.
If you are unfamiliar with the report, it surveys nearly 3,500 management-level professionals about their buying behaviors and it delivers insights to B2B marketers, communicators and salespeople to better understand the value that thought leadership content can provide.
The ominous cloud hanging over the findings of this year’s study is economic uncertainty, but the report also offers valuable advice from buyers on what B2B solution providers can do to grow their business when the skies clear and optimism returns.
Economic uncertainty and talk of a coming recession has been in the headlines since the summer of 2022. Economic data and the interpretation of it has fluctuated in intensity, but a feeling of uncertainty among business leaders exists. The Edelman and LinkedIn study doesn’t sugar coat this point.
Cooper, states that regardless of how B2B solution providers personally view the chances of a recession, tenuous economic conditions are “front and center in the minds of most business decision makers.” The study found that 64% of C-suite executives have made their procurement processes more rigorous in anticipation of challenging economic conditions ahead and 44% say they are less receptive to sales calls or marketing outreaches targeting the end of the buyer’s journey.
Cooper further states that executives feel that unless you provide an essential product or service, you will find it difficult to get the attention of buyers. This has many solution providers thinking they should pull back on their marketing communications, especially thought leadership, and focus on product and service content. The opposite is true, according to Cooper, and this is when thought leadership content is most effective.
Delivering Value and Proving You’re Essential with Thought Leadership
Cooper states that what Edelman “has seen time and time again over the five years of doing the study, is that B2B buyers are looking for a partner.” And they want to partner with solution providers who know where their industry is going, can see around corners, and understand their pain points. The importance of those things “is heightened during economic downturns” according to Cooper.
The study found that despite bad economic conditions and more rigorous procurement processes, 91% of B2B buyers felt that non-essential providers can still earn a seat at the table by delivering quality, relevant thought leadership marketing content.
According to Cooper it is important for solution providers to acknowledge that buyers are nervous about the economy and offer appropriate advice for challenging economic times. Examples of thought leadership topics include helping your buyers retain their customers who are also feeling nervous about the economy, helping them identify new business opportunities, maintaining profit margins, and exploring new avenues for growth.
While one’s products and services may not be considered essential by buyers, the advice offered by sellers can be essential and facilitate relationships that turn into business. So, it is important for solution providers to project an understanding of their customers’ challenges, they must also understand their customers’ customers. Thought leadership is the best way to communicate that.
High Expectation & Low Confidence in the Impact of Thought Leadership Content
One of the biggest challenges for B2B solution providers, and often a point of contention between executive leadership, marketing and sales, is measuring the results of investment in thought leadership content. Cooper admits that most key performance indicators (KPIs) related to thought leadership content are just too broad and overly simplified. Tracking website traffic, clicks and open rates does little to inform us about the effectiveness of thought leadership content. Perhaps sellers are measuring the results of thought leadership content incorrectly.
She advises solution providers to consider integrating thought leadership into the sales process and use it as a sales enabler. As B2B sellers we are comfortable with building firewalls between marketing and sales. Marketing nurtures prospects and sales closes them. But Cooper challenges us to think about arming sales teams with thought leadership content to deliver value to prospects and position themselves as essential partners during tough economic times.
When using this model, measuring results must go beyond numbers and clicks. Cooper says it is essential to align the way B2B sellers measure results within the context of the entire buyer’s journey. She asserts that buyers don’t differentiate between studies, articles in a publication, website content, or conversations with a salesperson. They see brands in a more holistic way and the brand is either providing something essential to them, or they’re not.
The specific ways that sellers measure the results in this model can vary, but according to Cooper, they must be grounded in a deep, rich understanding of buyers, the journey they undergo in making purchasing decisions, and how thought leadership content is helping them advance.
Cooper concluded our conversation optimistically by saying that challenging economic times are opportunities for brands to focus on the buyers that are most important to their business. This includes taking the time to understand them, operating with more precision, learning how to do more with less effectively, and delivering value that their buyers consider essential for the conditions they face.
Kate Cooper is an Executive Vice President and Midwest Market Lead in Edelman’s Business Marketing Practice focused on driving business impact-focused, content-driven marketing programs for B2B brands.
Kate has eighteen years of experience in journalism, communications and B2B marketing strategy. Joining Edelman in 2013, Kate is responsible for the strategic direction and execution of B2B marketing, lead generation and content marketing programs with a particular focus on content creation, email marketing, marketing automation implementation and use, lead nurturing and scoring as well as sales enablement and integration. In her time at Edelman, she has worked on brands such as Mitsubishi, American Express, Shell, LiftMaster, Humana, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Businessolver and others across a number of different industries, including healthcare, hospitality, real estate, life sciences, data security and manufacturing.
Prior to joining Edelman, Kate worked for seven years as the Creative Manager for emedia, the online B2B marketing arm of Reed Business Information (now Ziff Davis) publishing company, overseeing the development and execution of content-based email marketing lead generation campaigns for clients such as HP, Microsoft, Symantec, SAP, United Healthcare, Apple and others.
Kate received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Cornell University and a Master’s of Science in Journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She has worked as a reporter in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Kate’s work has been published in a variety of local, national and international publications, including The Daily Herald, The Chicago Defender, The Times of Northwest Indiana, The Daily Ireland and on MTV.com.