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11 March 2019

The Thought Leadership Gap: Why companies fail to make friends and influence people

Written by: Tim Weber, Editorial Director at Edelman

Consumer Trends & Insight, News, Trust

This article is based on Edelman and LinkedIn’s 2019 Thought Leadership Impact Study. Click here to download the full report.

Companies and organisations have a lot of explaining to do. At a time when public trust in institutions is in crisis, traditional marketing slogans and bland statements just don’t cut it anymore. It’s important to say what you do and how you do it, but your partners, customers and stakeholders want to know more: What do you stand for? Are you and your team clever and visionary enough to do business with?

A few weeks ago, I sat down with the comms team of a potential client and heard a startling confession: Around 90 percent of the “content” produced by their in-house team and multiple agencies was gaining no traction at all. The root of their problem turned out to be not so much a lack of spreading the word (amplification, in PR speak), but that the company’s offerings had fallen into what I would call the “thought leadership gap”.

What this company published did a decent job explaining their products and services, but it also was crushingly boring and – most damaging of all – plain vanilla. If you’d replaced each mention of the company’s name or brands with an “xxx”, any reader would have been hard pressed to guess which business was trying to make its mark.

“Thought leadership” is not my favourite word (that’s the ex-journalist in me), but a company that cannot explain what makes it special and fails to articulate how it sees the future play out for its customers and industry will struggle to establish trust, gain public recognition and secure deals.

It’s not just me saying that. For the second year running, LinkedIn and Edelman joined forces to produce a study looking at the Impact of B2B Thought Leadership; the European data were drawn from a survey of B2B decision makers and sellers from a wide range of industries in Germany, France and the UK.

Their verdict: More than 90 percent of people making buying decisions say that it’s “important” or even “mission critical” for an organisation to produce thought leadership material. Whether it’s a blog post, white paper, research report, video, op-ed, webinar, speech or presentation – they are not vanity projects. Around half of these decision makers told us that they spend at least one hour a week reading thought leadership material; nearly two-thirds use it to vet organisations for their vision and original thinking before even considering to work with them. Thought leadership, these decision makers say, gives them a sense of a potential business partner’s quality of thinking and the calibre of their people.

However, among the sellers who need to reach these decision makers, only a quarter recognised that thought leadership is effective in generating more business. Even worse: the decision makers surveyed reported that a mere 14% of thought leadership material reaching their screens deserved top marks.

And that’s the thought leadership gap: companies are expected to showcase their competence and vision, but too many businesses fail to do so. And that’s why they don’t make friends or influence people.

Obviously, the solution is not to produce yet more poorly written and irrelevant marketing material. Companies can’t demand attention. They have to earn it – by telling great stories that explain their brand, what it stands for and where it wants to go.

There’s a second challenge, however. Many companies that have spotted the thought leadership gap try to solve their communications problem by playing buzzword bingo – hopping onto the latest and greatest trend rocking their industry. Technology companies are most likely to fall into this trap: one year it’s cloud, next year it’s big data, machine learning, digital transformation or artificial intelligence. Whether the label fits or not, it’s used and indiscriminately so. A recent survey of European start-ups claiming to be AI companies showed that 40 percent of them did not use any kind of artificial intelligence technology at all.

A lesser but just as harmful communications crime is to rely on the strength of the buzzword alone as you describe your company’s offering. At best you’ll be ignored, at worst you’ll invite derision. It’s like hoping your snack stands out because it says “salted caramel” on the label; trust me: you’re not special, but one among thousands.

That’s were good thought leadership and editorially-driven storytelling come in. Good thought leadership material prompted nearly half of all decision makers to invite bids for projects from companies that otherwise would never have been considered – and in half of all bids also helped to close the business.

Identifying the vision – and the stories that make it credible – is always the tricky part. To be believable, you have to bring a journalistic approach to your storytelling and underpin it with data and insights. That’s because in more and more industries, the decision makers are not the technical experts all by themselves. Instead it’s the CEOs, CMOs or Line of Business managers that drive the decision. However, to understand your company’s solution, they don’t want abstract technical details, but a business-focused description of how you will solve their problem.

There are tools, like Edelman’s AiMEE, which can help a company understand the tone, personality and context of the audiences they want to speak to.

But it’s just as important for companies to identify the white space in the public debate, so that they can contribute insights and thinking where it’s needed most. Finally, you need great storytellers to discover and relate these stories; that’s why the editorial teams across Edelman are packed with former journalists from a broad range of media.

So to win the trust and business of your audiences, first identify your vision, and then tell it in a way that’s credible and accessible – whether that’s in through a long read or through a series of social media posts. However you do it: just make sure you work on closing your thought leadership gap.

Click here to access the full 2019 Thought Leadership Impact Study.

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