5 keys for crafting category-leading B2B thought leadership

09/15/2020 - Will Seaton

True at any time, but especially during periods like today, B2B companies need guidance from lucid thinkers to chart clear paths forward for the industry. As such, upstart leaders with uniquely insightful or powerful views — be they about new approaches to an old problem, the evolution of the industry, defining a product category or even how to run a company — always have the chance to break through the noise, define or redefine their category and gain significant traction with potential buyers, media and analysts. Thought leadership is the vehicle by which they communicate those ideas, and, in so doing, become thought leaders of their own.

While thought leadership can seem like a nebulous concept, its value is hard to understate. According to a survey from LinkedIn and Edelman, 88% of decision makers agree that thought leadership helps to enhance their perceptions of an organization, and astoundingly, 59% believe thought leadership is more trustworthy than marketing materials and product sheets, when it comes to assessing a company’s capabilities and competence. All in all, 61% of decision makers willing to pay a premium say that it was because of thought leadership that they were willing to pay more. Thought leadership can impact not only reputation, but pricing, RFP invitations, wins, cross-selling after a win and more. 

Thought leadership is so powerful because it lets your customers understand your approach to problem solving and see the thinking that guides product development. More potent than any single win, this gives your audience the chance to ascribe to your way of viewing the world — making you a key point of reference in the trajectory of your industry. 

Yet, companies mostly fail to capture this opportunity: only 17% of decision-makers feel that most of the thought leadership they read is very good or excellent. So, what makes for category-leading thought leadership? In general, there are 5 keys to success. 

But before we dive in, let’s define what thought leadership is. 

The makings of great thought leadership

Thought leadership can take many forms. Typically, though, it is a written document from an C-level executive or industry expert — often a bylined article in a major outlet or top-tier industry publication. As media becomes more fragmented and polarized, trusted industry outlets have even more critical sources of truth for B2B buyers. But thought leadership could also take the form of a webinar, a podcast, a corporate blog post or a post on your personal LinkedIn — any public platform. 

In terms of substance, thought leadership usually takes three forms

  • Industry thought leadership, which includes your perspective on trends or news
  • Product thought leadership, which highlights your approach to solving a particular problem (note: a vendor-neutral approach is almost always more persuasive than talking about your actual product)
  • Organizational thought leadership, which says something about the values and vision of your company

These aren’t hard and fast rules. But there is one universal rule: every piece of thought leadership must educate — offering a new, unique perspective on a topic, challenge, or industry category that provides genuine value and usefulness to your audience. Your readers (and competitors) should want to download and save your piece on their desktop, refer to it later, email it to colleagues, and use it as a reference point in their own company strategy. It educates the world about who you are, and forces your competitors to define themselves through you. 

What makes for highly effective thought leadership?

You can’t fake a visionary perspective. And it’s up to your audience, not you, to determine if your vision passes muster. What is under your control, however, is ensuring that your arguments are of an unassailable and unalloyed intellectual purity — tightly argued, data-backed, awash with charm, undeniable. Towards that, there are a few best practices:

1. Craft a clear, resonant message

A strong message may be simple or it may be complex; it must always be understandable.

1a. Bring clarity and context to your company and category 

Too often, thought leaders (and organizations in general) focus exclusively on the specific features or merits of their product, service or company. As a result, buyers, reporters and analysts lack greater clarity and context. They may say, “Sounds great, but where do you fit?” What they’re saying is, ”I don’t have enough context to understand the problem and solution, so I don’t care.” You’ve provided the trees, but not the forest.

Great thought leadership answers those questions. It locates you and your company in a landscape of companies. It charts the clear evolution of your category. It articulates a problem better than anyone ever has. Reading your thought leadership, buyers, competitors, media and analysts understand you and what you do — they see your category clearly, in other words — and are forced to take you seriously as the category leader

2. Focus on the customer, not your company

While great thought leadership can absolutely talk about your company strategy (at least obliquely), the focus must always be squarely on your customer and solving their problems. They’re the ones reading. 

3. Target the right audience, from the right expert

Remember that your goal isn’t necessarily to go viral; it’s to gain the confidence of key target audiences. Sometimes, that target might be CTOs or CISOs from medium-to-large enterprises. Other times, your audience might be mid-seniority developers or engineers, who tend to be the chief evangelists of your product and drive buying decisions. The first case might call for a CEO perspective, whereas, in the second case, thought leadership from a technical expert who was born and raised in the stack might resonate more deeply. 

4. Deliver real value

What is your personal definition of “usefulness?” One helpful definition is, “Causes energy and matter to move with greater efficiency.” This should describe your thought leadership literally: it is a tool that has a material impact on your readers and impels them to better and more efficient action. If your thought leadership meets this level of usefulness for your readers, you will gain their attention and trust. If it doesn’t meet this description, it isn’t thought leadership. 

5. Write as a process

In a world flush with data, artfulness matters. Many brilliant leaders have brilliant ideas that fail to resonate on paper only because they are unprocessed, much in the same way as version 1.0 of a product. They are interesting, but unpolished. Or incisive, but impenetrably dry and technical. Often they’re simply confusing (as much as we hate to admit it). Great thought leadership takes balanced writing, which is why it’s critical for visionary leaders to find a process and a team that can take their ideas from fuzzy inception to stark, powerful reality. 

Because of its business value, thought leadership is everywhere. Yet, great thought leadership is a surprising rarity. Follow (and achieve) these five best practices, and your writing will naturally rise above the rest, like oil on water — and you will begin to magnify your impact on the industry.