Article | September 30, 2020

What Does Enough Thought Leadership Look Like In Content Marketing?

By Tom Roberts, President, VertMarkets

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“How much content do we need to establish ourselves as a thought leader?” This is a common question we field when helping suppliers reach our readers in the life sciences, environmental, electronics, and IT markets.

Determining how much content is “enough” looks one way to a supplier who is new to content marketing or new to a market. And it is entirely different for a supplier who is a market leader with many years of content marketing experience. Becoming a thought leader and answering this question is a serious challenge for B2B marketers.

Some determine content volume based on resources. They have a set number of writers and subject matter experts and know how much content that team can produce.

Others don’t have a set strategy. Six months might go by without any new content, at which point the team scrambles to create something to fill the void.

And some companies stop creating – or drastically slow the pace of creating – new content once they arbitrarily determine they have “enough.” This might happen after reaching a predetermined content archive size, generating an adequate number of leads from existing content, or achieving a specific size of market share.

Deciding how much content is “enough” is far from an exact science. But creating the right amount of content for the right buyer personas is mandatory if you want to be a thought leader and enjoy success in content marketing. To help you determine the appropriate amount of content, first we’ll walk through the current schools of thought, courtesy of experts and research from around the B2B marketing world. Then we’ll explain our data-driven perspective, backed by 40+ years of B2B publishing experience. And finally, we’ll show you how to evaluate your current content library and future content roadmap to see if you have “enough” content.

Why Existing Advice About Content Frequency Can Mislead B2B Marketers

Advice on how much content to create tends to ignore the reality that the buyer’s journey is mostly complete by the time buyers engage directly with a supplier. That means the content you’ve worked so hard to post on your website isn’t helping your buyers understand current issues, establish objectives, or set vendor criteria. This is why vanity metrics like “web traffic” and “newsletter list size” are becoming irrelevant in today’s B2B sales and marketing environment. The size of your newsletter list does not make you a thought leader. Boosting your web traffic does not guarantee a correlation in sales growth.

The real answer to the “how much content is enough” question is rhetorical: you’ll never have “enough” content since the behaviors and attitudes of your buyers will always evolve. There is not a definitive answer, but there is plenty of misleading advice on the topic.

For example, there are content creation agencies that claim an infinite amount of content is required to reach your marketing goals (and they’ll tell you that before they even understand what, exactly, your marketing goals are). Or they’ll count things like press releases and purely promotional articles as “content.”

If you’re not relying on an agency to guide your content volume strategy, then you might turn to Google to research how their algorithm wants you to answer that “how much content is enough” question. But SEO algorithms are ever-changing, so there’s no sense in trying to shortcut your way to more page views and clicks (which are vanity metrics that won’t lead to more revenue). No search engine can truly understand the real humans who are struggling with the complexity of the buyer’s journey.

Keep all of this in mind as you read the following summary of existing advice about how much content B2B marketers need to create.

Confusing Advice About Content Volume

Marketing Insider Group’s Michael Brenner says, “11+ posts a month is a magic number.” He continues to explain, “For those [B2B companies] blogging 11 or more times, they received 1.75 times the leads versus those blogging six to 10 times a month and around 3.75 times more than those blogging three or fewer times a month.” But what is the minimum quality, length, and format for this “magic number?” And does the “magic number” apply to your overall content production, or to each persona you need to influence in the decision-making group?

Brenner and many others often cite this HubSpot research, which encourages B2B marketers to publish 4 to 5 times per week for “large blogs” and 2 to 3 times per week for “small blogs” to maximize organic traffic. Publishing that often may seem daunting, but HubSpot suggests this brand-building blog content can include anything from an “employee of the month post celebrating your team to an event recap of a recent company outing, or an infographic that explains your core values.” While that might trick Google into liking your website, that’s not exactly the “thought leadership” that drives buyer engagement in B2B content marketing.

Perhaps the most thoughtful commentary on the “how often to publish content” topic comes from marketing guru Neil Patel. He’s one of the few who reminds us, “Obviously, high quality content matters, and you can’t afford to push out tons of low-quality posts every day. You’ll only get lost in the noise of 1.2 million types of content published.” But despite the title of the 4,000+ word post being “5 Simple Steps That’ll Help You Determine How Often You Need to Blog,” there is nothing simple among the many case studies, Google Analytics screenshots, and charts presented here. 

With respect to the expertise of the marketers trying to provide clarity on this topic, we haven’t found any truly helpful guidance to share with our partners. Much of the advice, including the resources cited above, don’t fully consider:

  1. Quality of content (format, length, and substance)
  2. Resources available to marketing teams creating and distributing this content
  3. Buyers’ preferences for engaging with content
  4. The supplier’s brand awareness and position in the market
  5. Differentiating content according to different buyer personas
  6. Differentiating content according to the early, middle, and late stages of the buyer’s journey

Since determining what “enough” looks like to become a thought leader is such a crucial aspect of B2B marketing, we developed our own data-driven framework.

Critical Minimum Volume Of Thought Leadership Content

Before we explain how much thought leadership content you need, let’s first clarify what we mean by the phrase “thought leadership content.” This is a great definition, courtesy of 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.”

Take note: thought leadership content is not about you. Any late-stage, bottom-of-the-funnel, heavily branded content doesn’t count toward your measure of “enough” thought leadership content. You become a thought leader through content that influences the early- and middle-stage of the buyer’s journey. That’s the part of the buyer’s journey where suppliers have the biggest blind spot.

And when we say “content,” we aren’t talking about a paragraph or two disguised as a blog post – the format of your content matters. To us, a substantive piece of early-stage, top-of-funnel content should be a minimum of 1,500 words in a white paper or similar format. It should be meaningful and informative, not a surface-level, regurgitated summary of a topic. For middle-stage, middle-of-the-funnel content, the same minimum word length applies but can take the form of a case study or application note.

So, to us, “thought leadership” means substantive content that focuses on helping your buyers navigate the early- and middle-stage of the buyer’s journey (and not on selling your products or services).

With this definition of “thought leadership content” in mind, the next step is to understand that your volume of content should align with each distinct narrative on which you want to be perceived as a thought leader. A narrative combines two distinct data sets: theme + audience. In other words, a narrative is a specific application of a theme to a specific buyer. A theme can be a topic, a product, or a service. An audience can be defined by a market or a persona.

If you want your subject matter experts to be recognized, if you want your brand to be associated with this narrative, if you want to be a true thought leader, then you need at least four early-stage and four middle-stage pieces of content per narrative. This critical minimum volume is per year, which means producing one early-stage and one-middle stage piece of content per narrative on a quarterly basis.

You can always create more, but these eight total pieces of content are a critical minimum.

Next Steps: Evaluate Your Content Library And Your Creation Strategy

To evaluate your content, first you’ll need to understand the value of each narrative on which you want to be perceived as a thought leader. Start by understanding how the narratives fit into your company’s overall growth goals.

Evaluating content does not involve auditing your competitors’ content. We’re talking about your content library and your content creation strategy. It’s easy to think, “My competitors are creating one piece of thought leadership content every six months. So, if I create two, I’ll get ahead in the share of voice competition.” Don’t fall into this trap. You don’t want to be speeding to overtake them if they were headed for a cliff all along. Depending on your unique situation in the market, your content strategy might require 5 times or 10 times the volume of your competitors.

For example, let’s say you develop a new service offering or you want to enter a new vertical. You might be a thought leader on offering or vertical “A.” But if you want to be a thought leader on offering or vertical “B,” then you need to start from scratch. You can’t use your competitors as a guide in this case because being a thought leader for one narrative doesn’t mean you can shortcut the process for a different narrative. Content for narrative “A” might require a quarterly cadence, but narrative “B” might need fresh content monthly.

Once you determine your narratives, map each piece of existing content to see if you have at least four pieces of early-stage and four pieces of middle-stage content. You can use a simple visual tool like this to identify gaps.

The results of your content audit might surprise you. Maybe narrative #3 in this example is your most significant growth opportunity, but your content roadmap only fills in the gaps for narrative #1 because that is where you have the most subject matter experts willing to pitch in. Or maybe you’ll realize you need to focus on fewer narratives so you can tackle the ones that are most critical to your growth goals. And you might realize you need to skip one trade show this year to reinvest those resources in creating content to cover each narrative.

This exercise will help you spend less time debating how much content to create and how frequently to create it. Instead, you can use this Critical Minimum Volume Of Content approach to focus your energy on creating the right content for the right buyers. You’ll not only be able to determine what “enough” looks like for you, but you’ll also have a better idea of what to create content about.

The best-case scenario in B2B content is to leverage content to surpass your competitors, reach thought leadership status, win market share, and sustainably grow in your market(s). When that happens, you might consider reducing how frequently you publish content on a narrative. The important thing is that you can never stop creating thought leadership content. If you do, your competitors will quickly close the gap.

The answer to the question “how much content do we need to establish ourselves as a thought leader?” will always be “more.” But with this Critical Minimum Volume Of Content framework, you can quickly determine if you need to create more early-stage or middle-stage thought leadership content.