REPORT: How B2B Thought Leadership Influences Out-of-Market Buyers

Posted on by Kaylee Hultgren

A report from Edelman and LinkedIn on the impact B2B thought leadership has shed new light on how to approach out-of-market buyers. Ninety percent of decision-makers and C-suite executives surveyed said they would be moderately or very likely more receptive to sales or marketing outreach from an organization that consistently produces high-quality thought leadership.

Moreover, 70% of respondents said that a piece of thought leadership had at one point led them to question whether to continue working with an existing supplier. Factor in lingering economic uncertainty, an extended buy cycle and shifting purchasing behaviors, and the B2B space gets even more competitive.

“B2B companies need to be finding growth wherever they can find it. And part of that involves finding ways to get out-of-market buyers off the sideline and rethinking their potential providers,” said Joe Kingsbury, Global Chair of Edelman Business Marketing and the study’s architect. “If you can successfully get a buyer to rethink their pain points, that’s the critical first step toward actually stimulating demand where it may not have been before.”

We spoke to Kingsbury about the study’s key takeaways and surprises, the growth of executive thought leadership, barriers to high-quality content, B2B attribution and measurement challenges, and communicating the value of thought leadership to CEOs.

Chief Marketer: What was the impetus behind the research?

Joe Kingsbury, Global Chair of Edelman Business Marketing

Joe Kingsbury, Global Chair of Edelman Business Marketing: The theme this year, which is out-of-market buyers, is built on some interesting research that was done by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute not that long ago, which says that for a given B2B company, potentially 95% of their addressable market—the potential buyers—are not actively seeking goods and services. It ties back to very long sales cycles, higher deal values, and less switching that you might see with products on the consumer side. We got intrigued by this idea that potentially 95% of your potential buyers are actually not in market.

Combine that with some research by Forrester last year where 90% of global B2B buyers said that their buying process had become much more drawn out, involves more decision-makers and has become more difficult for suppliers, and [add in] lingering economic uncertainty. It’s been an uneven economy, to say the least. And in our view, it adds up to this: B2B companies need to be finding growth wherever they can find it. And part of that involves finding ways to get out-of-market buyers off the sideline and rethinking their potential providers.

CM: What is new and different this year?

JK: This notion that to get out-of-market buyers off the sideline, there’s a critical first step to doing that. And it doesn’t have to do with educating on the product or the features and the benefits. You have to first get the buyer to rethink the nature of their challenges and business opportunities. And you can do that by shedding new light. You can maybe challenge their assumptions if you want to be a little bit more provocative, but it’s at the topical level and not the product level. And if you can successfully get a buyer to rethink their pain points, that’s the critical first step toward actually stimulating demand where it may not have been before.

The second thing that jumped out at me was this idea that offense is your best defense. And there is a clear downside risk in not doing thought leadership well, and in some cases, there’s some companies that don’t do it at all. The reality is that their competitors are gunning for their customers. And they’re out there sharing insights, sharing education—everything that I just talked about. It’s causing buyers to question the nature of their relationship with their existing providers.

CM: What were some of the report’s key data points?

JK: We surveyed 3,500 business decision-makers globally, but of the C-suite cohort, 70% said that they saw a piece of thought leadership that made them question their relationship with an existing supplier. And about half of those executives said that the piece of thought leadership made them realize that there were other suppliers they could work with that had a better understanding of the challenges that their organization is facing. And 51% also said the piece of content made them realize that other suppliers were smarter or more visionary on the topics that are important to them.

So, what does that add up to? Among that same group, 25% said that as a result, they ended up ending or significantly reducing a relationship with the current supplier. So, if your customers see a competitor offering thought-provoking ideas, it may cause them to rethink their relationship with you and ultimately end their relationship with you.

CM: Was there anything that surprised you in the report?

JK: This idea of the mediocre middle—which is pretty big. Roughly 40% of the executives that we surveyed believe that most of the content that they’re seeing is good. We have done this study in the past and looked at this [issue], and on the whole, the quality of the content was generally viewed as “not great.” And there was a very small segment that was considered to be very good or excellent.

But this year, if most content is [considered] “pretty good,” then that means that the bar is getting higher. Our hunch on why that is has something to do with the pandemic and the fact that when everybody was forced into a digital and content publishing mode, there was a surge of content that came into the marketplace. Companies are investing in it; they continue to invest in it. On the whole, the content is pretty good. It’s harder to stand out now.

CM: How do you recommend that B2B companies battle saturation?

JK: In past studies, the majority of B2B buyers said that a lot of the content that they’re seeing doesn’t seem to be designed with their specific needs in mind. And even anecdotally, for the clients that we work with, it’s a challenge that we often run into. When publishing, companies are often trying to be a lot to a lot of people. These trends point to the need for a highly specific understanding of timely issues that are on the minds of the particular B2B buyers that you want to get in front of.

And if you think about a buyer committee and different people feeding into a big complex B2B purchase, then you also have to factor in their different wants and needs and how to communicate with, say, procurement versus the business unit leader versus marketing, or whatever function might be contributing to a big purchase.

The other thing is speaking the language of the buyer, drilling into the pain points, showing up in some new and appealing ways that really do stand out. We work with companies in all kinds of sectors, but in industrials or manufacturing, the inclination often is [to say], what we do is very technical, so let’s do white papers. There’s absolutely a role for that at certain stages of the customer journey. But we’re all human beings, too. We spend a lot of time on phones. We’re competing with literally everything. You’re competing with Netflix when it comes to grabbing mindshare. Companies still need to show up in appealing ways that make the intended audience feel like it’s time well spent.

CM: In your research and work, have you noticed more thought leadership departments in organizations?

JK: Anecdotally, I think there is a rise in the specific role of thought leadership. You’re seeing it show up in marketing-related titles. Oftentimes the job of that leader is essentially integrated communications and marketing, because thought leadership—and I know that means a lot of different things to different people—is usually going to involve a timely topic that’s very important to the customer that then needs to be brought to life. That involves creative and technology from a digital content standpoint, paid media to execute on things like targeting, and account-based marketing. It’s orchestrating across a lot of different functions.

You can make an argument that it points to the future of marketing as a whole, as opposed to rigid silos, where you have people who are doing PR, people who are doing traditional marketing, people who are more focused marketing tech and the paid media piece of it. Because the value comes to life when you can make all those things work in concert.

CM: The report suggests that the main barrier to producing more effective thought leadership is that it’s under-resourced. But improper measurement is also cited. How can marketers overcome the latter?

JK: The long sales cycles and many different touchpoints in B2B attribution is really difficult. We see a lot of leading companies working hard to figure out how to connect leads—high-quality business opportunities that advance through the customer journey, however that’s defined by a given company—and then ultimately attribution of customer wins back to specific thought leadership campaigns, or in some cases even specific pieces. It’s less about coming up with entirely net-new ways of measuring thought leadership and more about figuring out how to integrate the measurement of thought leadership into the existing regimen in a logical way.

Put another way, marketers need to focus on the existing metrics that are prioritized and highly-valued by the business, and not put as much emphasis on very deep marketing KPIs—because C-level leaders, business-unit leaders, don’t understand things like impressions and click-through rates and time spent. (Maybe, maybe not.) What they want to know is, is there not just a correlation, but is there a causation when all of the marketing KPIs are healthy? Is there a correlation with what we see on the business side? Because we’re getting graded on the business metrics.

CM: Any final takeaways for marketers?

JK: We’re inspired by some really interesting research out there in the market. The Ehrenberg-Bass data, the Forrester study. And then other firms like Gartner and Forrester have research that says in 2023/2024, buyers do not want to take a sales call. So, in that environment, how do you compete? It means that what is out there and available to your potential customers has to do a lot of heavy lifting. It’s got to drive the awareness, the brand recognition, the preference or the consideration, and then potentially even some preference before you can even get into a commercial dialogue with a potential customer. Those are really high expectations of thought leadership content, so it’s a big job for the people within companies that are leading it.


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