According to new research from Edelman (the world’s largest PR firm) and LinkedIn – presented in a webinar I attended – expectations for thought leadership greatly undershoot their actual impacts on the sales process.
As Edelman’s Phil Gomes, Senior Vice President, U.S. BtoB Digital, said at one point during the research review, “… it appears to me that B2B marketers have sort of revealed themselves to be an awfully self-flagellating bunch.”
More faith is warranted: Thought leadership – as well as promote good will, reputation and the like – in fact leads to tangible demand generation, more RFP opportunities, and increased sales.
Edelman utilized the LinkedIn user base to conduct its investigation. Surveyed were 1,300 business professionals, including 680 producers of thought leadership (Gomes' “self-flagellators”), and on the receiver side, a cohort of 180 corporate executives, and a second cohort of more general business decision-makers. Those surveyed came from a variety of industries, including biopharma.
The researchers narrowly defined (more on this in a moment) thought leadership in terms of tangible products: “Free deliverables that organizations or individuals produce on a topic that they know a lot about, and they feel others can benefit from having their perspective on,” but which does not include content primarily focused on one’s own products or services.
Edelman then cleverly applied this form of non-selling marketing activity to the traditional sales funnel: Awareness (of a service or product); consideration (of the offering); preference (to purchase over other services/products); and purchase (the sales close). This was accomplished by asking a series of questions gauging the perception of the impact of thought leadership on each segment of the funnel.
I’ve selected three of the questions that drew responses of particular note, both because the perception gap between the creators and consumers was so wide, and because for proponents of thought leadership, the results are so surprisingly positive.
When asked whether thought leadership materials actually generate new RFP opportunities, only 17% of the content creators thought so. That number was more than doubled, though, by the receivers of the materials: 37% of the business decision-makers said they had asked a company to provide an RFP after seeing thought leadership material, and – quite amazingly – 41% of C-Suite executives said they had as well.
Another question asked if thought leadership practiced by an organization affects its all-important, end-of-the-sales funnel: Does thought leadership actually help close deals?
The marketers were again cautious. Twenty percent of them said, “It helps us close and win” business. But of the consumers of thought leadership, 45% in the general business decision-maker category answered it “directly led them to decide to give business to a company.” Of the top executives? Forty-eight percent answered affirmatively.
Now, I’d be surprised if practically every reader of Outsourced Pharma didn’t take pause to reread that last paragraph and consider the nearly 50% positive response rate from the C-Suite. But if any of you didn’t, this next result will assuredly provoke a double take.
When asked if thought leadership material “allows us to charge more than our competitors who produce lower quality thought leadership,” only 10% of the creators would go that far in their assessment of the importance of their creations. However, 49% of the business decision-makers and about the same percentage of C-Suite executives admitted, “I am more willing to pay a premium to work with an organization that has publicly articulated a clear vision for the future.”
Leadership In Action
Let’s now return to that narrow definition of thought leadership that guided this new research. The motivation to attend this webinar, and spend time parsing the research for readers, was based primarily on the positive experiences I’ve witnessed as a member of the team that created Outsourced Pharma conferences, and then serving as event chair. These gatherings are specifically meant to facilitate thought leadership – live and in action.
And, thus, the sole beef with the Edelman/LinkedIn study is their confinement of thought leadership to a two-word noun and tangible products, ignoring “live leadership.” I realize this may be somewhat a matter of semantics and it’s certainly understandable how the research needed to stay focused and measurable – a positive.
But think of it this way: If “materials” – be they web-based interfaces or static white papers – can be as effective as this new research seems to prove, then how much more effective is live thought leadership, the kind practiced face-to-face at conferences and other forums?
Our four years of experiences with thought leadership in situ has clearly demonstrated this benefit of “live performance,” via the discussion of best practices, debate on challenges and opportunities, views of trends, content networking and peer-to-peer interaction. A general confirmation of this is the fact we’ve grown to meet the demand for more opportunities, going from one venue in 2014 to adding our fourth in 2018.
In other words, there are many of us who have not underestimated the true value of the practice of the art of thought leadership. We know a format for the exercise of which, applied to our broad arena of drug development and manufacturing outsourcing, leads to stronger relationships, and yes, to business deals within.
I’ve been preaching from the gospel of thought leadership for years, extolling its virtues in the pursuit of improved, tangible outcomes for both biopharma companies and service providers. Has my faith in thought leadership been put to the test by what we learned from this new and important research from Edelman and a cross-section of professionals assembled on LinkedIn?
Just the opposite, of course. And although thought leadership in action wasn’t specifically covered in this research, certainly faith in its importance has been strengthened by the results. Yours should be, too.