From The Editor | September 30, 2020

The Risk Of Confusing Thought Leadership With Selling

Abby Sorensen July 2017 Headshot

By Abby Sorensen, Chief Editor

Leading The Fleet


Most B2B marketers claim to have a basic understanding of the buyer’s journey and a sales funnel. We can all agree that prospects don’t wake up one day with a sudden urge to call up your sales team. Marketers use phrases like “customer-centric” and “educational” to describe the thought leadership content created to build awareness in the early stages of the buyer’s journey.

Yet, the content that suppliers often produce in the name of thought leadership is just talk – that is, lots of talk about how great the supplier’s products and services are. That piece of “customer-centric educational content” ends up mentioning the supplier’s name four dozen times. It turns into 1,500 words or 30 minutes of product propaganda. By the time it's published, it looks more like a telemarketing sales script. And as a result, buyers dismiss it (or worse, they dock you points because of it).

It’s no surprise the “2020 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study” finds, “Many companies focus on chasing down leads for product purchases. Fewer invest the effort to earn credibility in the minds of customers and create an environment that stimulates demand.”

When it comes to content marketing, suppliers want to run the Boston marathon before they can crawl. They want more sales without putting in the hard work that is thought leadership. It’s time to take a stand: either do content marketing the helpful way – with plenty of nonpromotional content to help in the early stage of the buyer’s journey – or don’t do content marketing at all.

What Is Effective Thought Leadership?

The early stage of the buyer’s journey involves understanding current issues, establishing objectives, and setting strategy. Buyers navigate these steps without a supplier’s input. That’s why your content for this part of the buyer’s journey should have no overt vendor branding. If you read/watch/listen to your content and it “sounds like marketing,” then it isn’t true thought leadership. If content tries to sell, then it isn’t true thought leadership. Period.

“Thought leadership” is an overused and abused term in the world of content marketing. We like this definition, from the “2020 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study:”

“Free deliverables organizations or individuals produce on a topic they know a lot about and feel others can benefit from having their perspective on. Thought Leadership, in this context, does not include content primarily focused on describing an organization’s products or services.”

This study from LinkedIn and Edelman, of course, explains how thought leadership can “strengthen a company’s relationship” with CXOs and “positively impacts RFP invitations, wins, pricing, and cross-selling.” Nothing new there. What B2B marketers need to understand is this finding: “Poorly executed thought leadership, however, can have an equal and opposite effect, leading decision-makers to remove a potential vendor or partner from consideration altogether.”

We’ve heard B2B marketers worry aloud that nonbranded thought leadership content makes it hard to track ROI and risks leading a buyer to a competitor. We know of executives and sales teams who insist all content be promotional in some way, shape, or form. We’ve seen marketers struggle to articulate the value of purely educational content to those same executives and sales team members. That’s why all B2B suppliers need to hear this radical finding loud and clear: Bad thought leadership content – the kind that is promotional, sales-y, and product-centric – can actually harm your brand.

Next Steps: Reframe Your Understanding Of Thought Leadership

Content will only influence the beginning of the buyer’s journey if it doesn’t have an ulterior motive to sell. That’s easier said than done.

You’ll need to take an honest, objective look at your content library. If the name of your brand, products, or services are plastered all over a piece of “thought leadership” content, then it’s time to tone that down. And if your content for the early stage of the buyer’s journey isn’t at least half of your overall amount of content, then it’s time to ramp up production.

To do this, marketers will need to train your SMEs and content creators to focus solely on the buyer. And for some SMEs, that might feel like asking them to take their Ph.D.-level expertise and translate it for a class of middle schoolers. Effective thought leadership content isn’t about how smart you are. It’s about helping buyers get smart about something they are struggling with or an opportunity they are presented with.

Marketers also need to train sales and executive teams on how thought leadership content works. Explain how much runway is needed. Show how you plan to nurture and convert the buyers early in their purchasing process so that they become warm leads at the end of the journey. Map out your MQL and SQL definitions and conversion rates so you can forecast the impact of filling your funnel with thought leadership engagement. Lead with research we mention from resources like Gartner and Selling To The C-Suite to demonstrate how B2B buying works. Remind your team that this kind of content doesn’t shorten the buyer’s journey; rather, it gets your foot in the door to participate in a buyer’s journey.

Thought leadership content isn’t meant to convert leads to signed contracts. It’s meant to start a conversation with buyers, to build trust, to get your brand on the map. Only then can you convert leads.

Content marketing only works if you create and properly distribute relevant content that truly helps buyers throughout the entire buyer’s journey. The word “entire” doesn’t mean “the part of the buyer’s journey where sales can close the most leads.” Nor does it mean “the part of the buyer’s journey where it is easiest to show ROI.” It means your thought leadership content for the early stage of the buyer’s journey is every bit as important as your promotional content.

Thought leadership content designed to help instead of to sell does work. It will eventually lead to an uptick in qualified sales opportunities. It’s the kind of content your buyers crave. But creating effective thought leadership content takes real discipline. There is a time and place to talk about your products and services. A thought leadership article is not that time or place.

Data Dive: Early Buyer’s Journey Content On Water Online

First, some background. The following is based on data from Water Online, which launched in 1995 as (literally) the first B2B web publication. Even if you are not in the water/wastewater treatment market, keep in mind this was the backbone of a B2B publishing platform that scaled to encompass life sciences, IT, and electronics audiences over the next 20+ years. This data is applicable to any B2B marketer in an industry with a long sales cycle or a complex decision-making group.

The Water Online business development team noticed that one of its partners had a 15 percent increase in average monthly content engagements in 2018. That’s a surface-level win considering that over the same period, analyzed average engagements on Water Online increased by 55 percent.

We looked closely at the data to understand why this supplier’s engagement numbers were trending behind the overall audience engagement rate. Here’s what we found:

  • Even though this supplier syndicated more content on Water Online than almost any other supplier, most of their content was positioned for the late stage of the buyer’s journey.
  • Three articles combined for more than 80 percent of this supplier’s total engagements. Each of those articles was thought leadership content positioned for the early stage of the buyer’s journey.
  • Of the top 25 best-performing articles (i.e., the content with the most reader engagement), all but one of them was for the early or middle stages of the buyer’s journey.

The data is clear: Buyers want educational, insightful content. The more helpful your content, the more engagement it will get. And the more buyer engagement to fill the top of your funnel, the more high-quality leads your sales team will have to work with at the bottom of your funnel. But this supplier was trying to force promotional, heavily branded content instead.

These trends are consistent across each of the verticals our publications serve. For example, when analyzing content engagement rates for nine suppliers in three different vertical markets, we saw 10x higher average engagements for the early buyer’s journey content compared with late buyer’s journey content. This supports LinkedIn and Edelman’s finding that “… producing thought leadership is an excellent way to gain the attention of the people who make B2B decisions, but if your organization is not committed to doing it well over the long term, your efforts can move the needle in the wrong direction.”

This isn’t merely the opinion of a publisher or a ploy to get you to write more content. There is real data to show that thought leadership content for the early buyer’s journey truly does help your buyers. And the data tells us that our readers – your buyers – are more willing to engage with true thought leadership content than with highly promotional content.