On B2B Thought Leadership as Demand Generation: Phil Gomes of Edelman

Long ago I heard a quip about the articles, white papers and press releases that once passed for thought leadership. “It’s like relieving yourself in a wool suit. You get a nice, warm feeling, but nobody really notices.”

That long-ago sentiment may still be embraced by some hard-nosed B2B leaders – but new research, jointly produced by Edelman and LinkedIn, begs to (vociferously) differ.  I had a chance to sit down with Phil Gomes, Senior Vice President at Edelman and a principal investigator in this research, to find out, per the study’s title “ How Thought Leadership Impacts B2B Demand Generation.


Chuck Kent: First of all, how do you define, for the purposes of this study at least, thought leadership?

Phil Gomes: We define thought leadership as the marketing instruments that a company puts out that satisfy two criteria: Number one, that they are sufficiently divorced from product marketing, so they’re not shilling product. And number two, that they are freely delivered – not paid-for work product.

CK: So it’s not native advertising.

PG: No, it wouldn’t be native advertising, but also it isn’t work product, like a research report you would get from an analyst firm. Writ large, and broadly speaking, thought leadership could be anything from a speech to a white paper. But is must be something that a) shows your vision for the future, and b) is sufficiently divorced from the product marketing aspects of the company.

CK: The finding that jumped out at me most was that 45% of respondents – and, I think, a slightly higher percentage of CEOs — would use thought leadership as a key criterion for including firms in an Requests for Proposals (RFPs).

PG: In terms of RFPs, what we found was that about 17% of the producers of thought leadership said, “Yeah, our thought leadership gets us into RFPs that we wouldn’t ordinarily be invited into – it gives us sharp enough elbows to get into some of these opportunities alongside incumbents.

But what we also found is that more than twice that – depending on whether you’re talking about the master set or the CXOs – said, “I received a company’s thought leadership and I gave that company a shot at the business.”  This is the important part – in a situation where they were not in the consideration set in the first place, [thought leadership created] a net new opportunity.

“This is the important part – thought leadership created a net new opportunity.”

CK: Another key finding is that thought leadership is influential throughout the sales funnel, buyer’s journey, or whatever you choose to call it. Is there one stage of the funnel where thought leadership is more important than another?

PG: No. The study doesn’t really point the finger and say “At this stage it’s do or die.” At a really high level what we found is that, while most people seem to agree that thought leadership is very effective at the awareness level, it also has [a surprising] impact as you go further down the funnel – from consideration to preference, on down to purchase.

What we did look at, in each level of the sales funnel, was the difference between how thought leadership is esteemed by the creators and how it’s esteemed by [its consumers]. We asked “Do you think it inspires your customers to pay a premium for your product or service versus your competitors?” For the cohort of producers of thought leadership, only 10% said yes. But you go to the consumers of thought leadership and the number is five times that – it hovers between 48 and 49%.

CK: Being able to command a price premium has long been seen as a benefit of good branding. Do you consider thought leadership to be an essential brand-building tool?

PG: Absolutely — if people address thought leadership in a way that is the equal to the term.

At the end of the day nobody wants to be sold to. But if the thought leadership that is produced is the equal of that term, then you make your audience smarter, and you make them look like heroes.

As a matter of fact, one of the most interesting findings [came out of asking] what makes for really good, effective thought leadership. Number one was, “It has to be meaningful to what I’m working on right now.” That was almost twice as important as the thought leadership being novel or creative or original. Almost two times.

“It has to be meaningful to what I’m working on right now.”

CK: So in a business environment sometimes described as “short-termism,” the secret is “Help me now!”

PG: Exactly. Make me a hero right now. By saying that, I don’t mean to discount the value of creativity, of novel, original content — but it does elevate the importance of your evergreen content. Just because something is valuable to your customer in the moment doesn’t really mean it has to be brand new. It could be a white paper that you wrote a year ago, and if you know the precise timing at which to put that in front of a prospect, they’ll find it meaningful.

CK:  Well, you’re a guy that’s all about social, too. The need for relevance and timeliness would seem to have great implications for how and when and how long you share your content on social platforms.

PG: Also targeting. And it really does reflect that trend towards account-based marketing. So, again, what was surprising to me was thinking about how much “lean tissue” a creative team burns late into the evening trying to find that one amazing, stellar, novel, original insight… and that’s a worthwhile exercise, but it needs to be put into context.

CK: We’re using the term “content” a good bit. What’s the difference between content marketing and thought leadership? And what’s the intersection?

PG: You’re going to get as many answers as people you ask that question of. I believe you’re talking about the difference between the content itself and the awareness and distribution mechanism of same. So, not all content marketing rises to the level of thought leadership, but thought leadership can certainly be expanded, and people made more aware of it, by way of content marketing.

“Not all content marketing rises to the level of thought leadership.”

CK: And is there a quality issue, particularly a quality of source question? Does an anonymously published, no-particular-author output of knowledge carry the same weight as something that is bylined by one of the CXOs?

PG: The study didn’t look at that. But would you say that the Bitcoin white paper, which was anonymously authored by somebody or a group of somebodies named Satoshi Nakomoto, is any less thought leadership than what would be produced under the imprimatur of a company or one of its executives? It’s an interesting argument. One doesn’t have numbers for the latter, but in terms of the Nakomoto white paper, we’re talking about tens of billions of dollars of market capitalization. So, it depends on value – and for a lot of people it’s “I just want it to be good. I just want it to be meaningful.”

CK: That gets us around to another interesting finding. Could you share with us what happens when it’s not good? When the thought leadership you put out there is neither thoughtful or leading.

PG: This is a key point – and the last thing I would want the audience to come away with is that it’s all a bed of roses – that, if your thought leadership is just brilliant enough, it’s going to unlock all this business value and revenue and riches beyond the dreams of avarice, et cetera, et cetera. But what we did find is that about a third of the audience that polled thought that thought leadership was instrumental in having them decide not to award business to a company.

CK: It got them booted off the consideration list.

PG: Yes, and it could be for any number of reasons. We didn’t ask for the particular reason in this poll, but what we did find interesting was the notion that thought leadership is a double-edged sword.

“Thought leadership is a double-edged sword.”

Now, one might look at that and say, “So are you telling me that thought leadership is little more than a coin toss in terms of its business development power?” And I would say no, because the audience did tell us what makes for that most effective though leadership – and it does happen to be that notion of timeliness, relevance and so on.

CK: I do a lot of thinking about what gets you past the coin-toss stage, and one example in the report stuck out: the PwC CEO survey, and its ability to engender conversation. How important do you see conversation being for thought leadership? And how common?

PG: How common? I don’t have any real science there. How important? When you say “conversation” somebody else might also say amplification, credibility, virality. One of the other findings in the study was, again, how do you get on the other side of that coin toss? Well, the number one quality of thought leadership – at least in terms of how it’s received – [is its ability] to inspire somebody to deem it credible and share it. [It has impact when] it’s forwarded to you by somebody you know and trust. That was a good 16 to 20% [higher level of impact] than the number two factor, which was “forwarded to me by my boss.”

CK: I don’t want to keep you here all day, so is there anything I should have asked about your findings that I haven’t?

PG: One last thing I should point out is that a lot of people ask me, “Hey Phil, did you do a cut of this for healthcare? Did you do it for automotive, technology, financial services?” Whatever vertical they happen to be working in. And that was absolutely part of the plan. And what we found was, in fact, we may have over-weighted about 20% of that 1300 we polled in terms of the technology industry. But when we did industry-by-industry cuts of the data we were hoping to find dramatic differences between each. Not so much.

“We were hoping to find dramatic differences between industries. Not so much.”

We were expecting that, for example, healthcare and technology would be more thought leadership driven than some of the other verticals. And once you divvied it up, accounted for margins of error and that sort of thing, the differences disappeared into the noise level. There was not a meaningful difference between the industries we looked at.

CK: So the net takeaway is that everybody in B2B should be paying attention to thought leadership?

PG:  Absolutely.


Suggestions for further reading:

How thought leadership helps build brands: A conversation with Nicole France of Cisco.

Ryan Reiches on conversation leadership in B2B.


About the Author
Chuck Kent, the Chief Conversation Officer at Lead the Conversation, works with executives to help them more easily create authentic, compelling thought leadership content – and to lead industry conversations. He is a writer, brand strategist, content creator and expert interviewer. Chuck is also a Contributing Editor for Branding Magazine, for which he created the monthly Branding Roundtable.

Lead the Conversation is an executive content creation service that makes it easier for busy top management to develop authentic, compelling thought leadership content, such as videos, bylined articles and blog posts. We also create opportunities for conversation leadership, such as interview series and other forums.

Lead the Conversation provides a practical way to develop authentic thought leadership content for busy executives. We also help the C-Suite create and lead industry conversations, to which they can invite other leaders, turning prospects into relationships.

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