Increasingly, standing out in the 2021 digital environment requires creating thought leadership content. B2B companies that are thought leaders can drive conversations and effect real change within their industries.

But what exactly does thought leadership mean?

According to Edelman’s 2020 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study, it means the “ability to produce timely, thought-provoking” content that captures “customers’ attention and [turns] that attention into positive results.” Essentially, it means developing a reputation for novel thinking and expertise that begins conversations, moves existing conversations in new directions, or shapes industry narratives in ways competitors cannot match.

But there is a big difference between talking about thought leadership and doing it. And doing thought leadership wrong can backfire against an organisation.

Room to Improve

Thought leadership has become a bit of a buzzword, but genuine innovation in the space is still rare. Edelman partnered with LinkedIn to survey 3,275 decision-makers in business around the globe. 88% said that thought leadership made a serious difference in their perception of an organization. But only 17% rated the quality of what they saw as excellent or very good.

The upside of this statistic is that there is room for improvement. And improvement could have a real impact on bottom lines.

Audiences Want Thought Leadership

Even in the world of sports, audiences are hungry for leadership that addresses societal impact. Deloitte, in their 2021 Outlook for the U.S. Sports Industry, identified social justice and the larger role leagues play in society as 1 of the top 3 issues facing the industry. Kantar Sports MONITOR’s 2021 Fan Engagement Study identified social justice issues and female empowerment as big opportunities for engagement with sports audiences, 88% of whom reported wanting female athletes to be role models for young women.

It’s not just sports. Younger demographics increasingly want to know that brands understand their impact on the world. They want companies to speak frankly about serious issues.

But there’s a fine line.

Brands need to tread carefully to balance the competing desires of their audience. They do not want to risk alienating anyone. Saying nothing could offend some people. Making a stand could offend others.

The best course for most B2B businesses is staying in their lane. When you speak about topics outside your experience, you are more likely to make mistakes. Thought leadership can and should focus on what matters to your industry. Phillips creates innovative content about improving healthcare outcomes at lower costs. GE paints an optimistic future powered by technological innovation.

You can say something important without offending people. When an issue does touch your industry, you should address it forthrightly. Communicate what you stand for, rather than what you stand against, and make sure you understand the risks and gains that come with your message.

Know Your Audience

But how do you know when your audience wants to hear from you and when they don’t? How do you know if your audience wants you to take a strong stand on a topic or avoid it entirely? How do you know what messages your audience will receive well?

Market research.

Just like in an email or social media marketing, you need to understand your audience. Beyond buyer personas, you want to have engagement personas. These require research into your target market to find out what they want to see.

Maybe they want you to speak about your company’s diversity. Or maybe they want new insights into the way you are driving technological change. Maybe they want you to talk about the future of work.

Test and Track

The best way to know your audience is to constantly test and track the responses to any thought leadership content you produce. Research and content creation are cyclical. Every message you send out is an opportunity to test and gather more data.

To that end, you need to carefully develop metrics to measure the performance of thought leadership content. This goes beyond stats on engagement. What people are saying about your company?

Are you driving new conversations? Are reactions positive or negative? Have you changed the way your industry talks about a subject?

If your thought leadership falls flat, you’ll want to know. As soon as possible. In 2021, every company needs the ability to rapidly adapt to changing circumstances.

How do you pivot rapidly? The first step is to test and track your content with actionable metrics.

Substance and Data

But audience data and testable metrics alone are not enough. You need to make sure your thought leadership content is real. You need to say something important. Buzzword-heavy, substance-free content doesn’t change conversations. You need to put real work into the thought leadership content you create.

Utilise a variety of formats. Videos. Podcasts. White papers. Long-form articles.

Use facts, numbers, and data. Not only do these strengthen your content and your arguments, but data also makes your thought leadership more engaging. Also, this is a good reality check. If your content has facts and figures, it’s valuable. If it doesn’t, there’s a good chance you’re not providing the level of original thinking demanded of true thought leadership.

Thought Leadership Means Leading

It all comes down to one thing: you have to have something to say. Something insightful and original. Research to know what your audience cares about. But don’t just follow your audience. Lead them.

Maybe your new product or idea is so far ahead of the curve that you need to tell your audience why they need it. To sell an unfamiliar product, you need to be like Autodesk. With inspirational blog posts about the future of drafting and possibilities for digital design, Autodesk created the market for their breakthrough Redshift software.

Genuine thought leadership entails providing solutions to challenges in your industry, demonstrating your expertise, and communicating your knowledge in innovative ways.

It’s not enough to say you “stand with marginalised groups,” if you cannot demonstrate that. Modern audiences do their research and they can see through half-hearted statements. It’s not enough to deploy innovative technological thinking. You need to be able to apply that thinking in ways that change your industry.

Thought leadership starts with the same tools as any thought-provoking content marketing: audience research, testable and trackable metrics, and data.

What sets it apart is originality.