The 2019 Edelman-LinkedIn Thought Leadership Impact Study reveals that a significant proportion of B2B purchase-decision makers (aka the people who determine whether you win a contract) are issuing RFP’s (45%) and awarding business (58%) based on thought leadership. Yet, less than a quarter of the people responsible for producing their organization’s thought leadership report having seen this sort of ROI.
Given that on average one in two decision-makers admits to being influenced at least on occasion by thought leadership in their choice of vendors and consultants, I would argue that almost every organization with a robust thought leadership program should be seeing sales impact.
So why aren’t they?
Our research suggests three reasons.
Most organizations are not equipped to measure sales impact: Only 21% of those involved in sales at companies that produce thought leadership say their organization has a way to link business wins back to specific pieces of thought leadership. Without the ability to objectively measure its impact, the tendency is to underestimate the influence of thought leadership because the exposure to it is often significantly removed in time from the final decision-making moment. This makes the potential connection difficult to see, especially among sellers who are apt to attribute a sale to their own actions.
The quality in general is not good enough: Organizations can produce thought leadership on topics of their own choosing, and yet, only 25% of the people responsible for their organization’s thought leadership consider it overall to be very good or excellent. To put a finer point on it, an appalling 60% of purchase-decision makers say that they often walk away from a piece of thought leadership having gleaned nothing of value. There is no excuse for this level of quality in a deliverable that fully allows an organization to play to its strengths.
While 44% of producers do rate their thought leadership as generally ‘good’, I would suggest that it takes “very good” or even “excellent” thought leadership to motivate a buyer to add an organization into an established consideration set or to be dispositive in the awarding of a contract.
Meanwhile, as a result of lackluster thought leadership, 29% of purchase-decision makers have given their business to someone else and 46% have downgraded in their estimation the organization that produced it. These worst-case scenarios aside, every piece of mediocre thought leadership is a lost opportunity to impress, win business and build relationships.
Most thought leadership is not designed to stimulate bottom of the funnel activity: When the producers of thought leadership think about its role in their organization and what it does well, three things tend to be top of mind: Brand building (63%), broaden perceptions of an organization’s capabilities (61%) and keeping an organization top of mind between purchases (46%). As a result, they are likely to create thought leadership with those goals in mind.
This, though, does not fully capture how decision-makers think about thought leadership. Over half (55%) use it to vet organizations they are considering working with, and 69% use it as a way to get a sense of the caliber of the thinking that an organization delivers to clients. A deliverable suitable for brand-perception building is not necessarily the best demonstration of an organization’s intellectual superiority or the uniqueness of its approach to client issues.
In the end, thought leadership is not just a calling card or intellectual amuse bouche in the minds of decision-makers. It is often treated as an exemplar of an organization’s thinking and a testament to the quality of work it does for their customers and clients. As a consequence, thought-leadership development should be approached with the attitude that new business opportunities hang in the balance. Because more often than you think, they do.
David M. Bersoff, Ph.D. is the Head of Global Thought Leadership Research, based in our New York office.