Thought Leadership Disrupted

In today’s business environment, the very idea of thought leadership is fraught with contradictions. Global business executives are hungry for substance and willing to put their trust in brands that can show they are rigorous in their methodology, creative in their thinking, and innovative in their distribution. Yet, as more and more marketers shift from traditional advertising to content, the overall quality is being deluded and devalued as the quantity continues to rise.

In order to better understand the current state of B2B content marketing and the impact of its phenomenal increase on both the executives who consume it and the marketers who are trying to reach them, my colleagues at The Economist Group, working in association with Hill+Knowlton Strategies, conducted an online survey among 1,644 executives globally.

We found that, faced with an explosion of content from publishers, brands, and agencies, business executives are shortening their list of trusted sources, relying on those that can provide insights that are transformative, innovative, and credible. And while these executives are becoming ever more discerning, marketers who manage to make the list are being rewarded with increased loyalty, sales, and advocacy.

Still, marketers face significant challenges to becoming trusted advisers through their content, not the least of which are self-made as they continue to pump out more and more content. They struggle with internal alignment, ensuring that they are involving the right people and meeting increased expectations about substance, speed, targeting, distribution, and measurement. As a result, the very idea of what it means to be a thought leader–once limited to an elite group of businesses that truly developed proprietary knowledge–is increasingly seen as an overused and self-serving tactic, one that is contributing to the noise rather than cutting through it.

The full report will be released next month, but some highlights include:

  • Three out of five global executives are confused or overwhelmed by the volume of content they encounter, with more than half noting that “intrusiveness” has increased.

  • Still, marketers continue to churn out content; 80% plan to increase the amount they produce in the coming 12 months.

  • Both executives and marketers agree, on average, that only a quarter of all the thought leadership content seen every day is engaged with, leaving much to go to waste.

  • Seventy-five percent of executives have become more selective about the thought leadership they consume, with just over 80% citing the volume of content as the reason.

  • Yet 33% of executives consume thought leadership daily, and 20% have increased consumption “a lot” over the past 12 months.

  • After consuming compelling thought leadership, seven in 10 share it via email and consume more from that same source; 76% are influenced in their purchasing decisions, 67% would be willing to advocate for that brand, and 83% are influenced in the choice of potential business partner.

  • Compelling thought leadership is “innovative,” “big picture,” “credible,” and “transformative, while unimpressive content is “superficial,” “sales driven,” and “biased.”

  • Credibility is based on the quality of research, not the brand; nearly half of executives would consider a new source of content if it were a “source of hard facts.”

Executives continue to rely on credible, fact-based content; in fact, they are consuming more of it but from fewer sources. For marketers, the challenge will be to reverse the trend of “more is better” in favor of doing less, but more concise and impactful, work–while still appearing relevant and timely.

This is easier said than done. Marketers overwhelmingly said they plan to increase their output even though they acknowledge most of what they put out is not being read, viewed, or otherwise engaged with.

Why? As traditional marketing tactics continue to be rejected by consumers and more brands create more high-profile content programs, marketers are feeling competitive pressure to produce a continuous stream of content to keep up. But that impulse works counter to the characteristics global executives value in business content: content that is original, fact-based, and forward-looking. And as executives rely on a smaller number of trusted sources, breaking through the noise rather than adding to it becomes more difficult.

To succeed, marketers will need to be even more disciplined to be true to themselves and to their readers. They will need to recognize that the old model of handing down “thought leadership” from up high is dead. Today’s thought leaders are not thought leaders at all–they do not claim to have all the answers. They are thought partners, drawing on insight or experience from within the company, convening outside perspectives, and living their values.

Today’s business executives are no longer looking for thought leaders; they are looking for authentic thought partners.

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