Seven Fundamental Characteristics of High-Quality Thought Leadership Marketing Content
B2B companies are sold on content marketing. They roundly recognize that marketing content—especially, content that demonstrates thought leadership—is key to boosting customer or prospect awareness and engagement, contributing to greater differentiation and, ultimately, converting interest into revenue. In fact, 89 percent of B2B companies in a recent Content Marketing Institute survey said they were engaged in content marketing and 70 percent said they expect to produce more content next year. Encouragingly, 62 percent said their content marketing efforts were successful this year—a doubling from the 30 percent who said the same the previous year.
What was the leading factor behind this improvement? Better-quality content, cited by 85 percent.
Indeed, while many factors can contribute to how well content is received in the marketplace—including how effectively a company promotes and distributes it—the most basic determinant of a piece of content’s success is its quality. “Consistent delivery of quality content that engages our audiences begins the process of building trust—a crucial component of [creating customer relationships],” observed Kaan Turnali, global senior director of Enterprise Analytics at SAP, in an article in Forbes.
What makes for quality content can be subjective; quality ultimately is defined by customers and prospects. But still, there are certain standards by which companies can evaluate their content. When it comes to thought leadership content, our experience tells us there are seven such fundamental standards (see figure) that should guide B2B companies’ content development efforts. Adhering to these standards can help companies ensure their white papers, research studies, articles, books, and the like effectively position them as voices of authority in their respective markets and demonstrate their ability to solve clients’ or customers’ most pressing business problems.
Seven standards of high-quality content
#1) Relevant: Addresses a critical need, concern or interest of the target audience
Content that isn’t meaningful to executives will have no impact. That seems obvious, but it’s critical to reinforce because it’s easy to overlook. Companies need to make sure they know what’s important to their customers and prospects and build their content around what customers are thinking. Formal efforts, such as client or customer surveys, can provide helpful input into content development efforts, as can informal polling of business development and other customer-facing professionals on what they hear their customers talking about. Creating different versions of the same content, each tailored to a particular need, concern, or area of interest, also can enhance relevance.
One global consulting firm takes relevance to heart. The company goes to great lengths to ensure its content matches what executives are thinking by aligning its editorial around what it calls “C-suite themes.” These are essentially a short list of the biggest issues each of the company’s target executives—e.g., CFOs, CIOs, CEOs, and CEOs—are grappling with. C-suite themes help keep the company’s content focused on what counts in the eyes of target executives, which makes those executives much more likely to read it when it comes across their screen. Other companies achieve relevance by establishing in-house think-tanks that continually explore the biggest challenges executives are facing, as well as current and emerging trends. By using the output of this research to help inform the content they publish, these companies ensure their white papers, articles, and research studies push executives’ hot buttons.
#2) Credible: Avoids outlandish, unsupported claims and backs up assertions with proof
When a company uses thought leadership content to advance a particular approach to solving a business problem, it has to provide strong evidence of how the solution works and where it has been used. If it can’t, then what it’s proposing is just an interesting theory that is unlikely to make much of an impression on executives.
For instance, in the consulting arena, white papers, research reports, and journals from such giants as McKinsey, Bain and Boston Consulting Group set the standard for how to use high-quality content to engage current and prospective clients. Yet it’s easy for firms to get caught up in writing a white paper on their approach to solving a particular business problem and forget the proof points. To be credible, firms need to provide data and, better yet, examples from their client projects, that show the positive impact their approach and insights have had on their clients’ business. Without data and examples, consulting white papers end up being little more than opinion pieces rather than the credibility-enhancing tools they could (and should) be. The same goes for other B2B companies. No executive is going to place a major bet on a multi-million-dollar product without proof that it works and will solve his business problem.
#3) Unique: Is different from what others are saying in a substantive way
Executives are bombarded by content, most of which covers much of the same ground. That’s why, to truly stand out, thought leadership content must communicate a unique point of view or otherwise break new ground. Unique content makes a company memorable and generates significant executive interest. Being unique means raising an issue—either a specific business problem or a solution to a problem—that few are talking about. It also can mean addressing a topic that others are as well, but in a way that sheds new light on the nature of the problem or solution. A new “label” applied to a previously stated problem or solution, a new case study on an existing issue, or new statistics underscoring an oft-discussed challenge do not make content unique. Companies that fail to ensure they’re communicating a unique idea, approach, or way of thinking about a business problem end up squandering a golden opportunity to differentiate themselves from the pack.
Take, for example, the buzzword du jour: “digital.” Companies of all types—consulting firms, tech companies, banks, retailers, manufacturers—are all talking about how “digital is changing everything” and every company must be “digital.” This certainly makes the task tougher for executives reading this content to sort through it all to figure out which firm has the best perspective on and approach to digitalizing a company’s business. That’s why it’s even more critical for a company to say something truly different about the topic. SAP has taken on that challenge by launching a magazine, The Digitalist, devoted entirely to exploring the rise of digital and its impact on business. The quality and quantity of content in this magazine—backed by substantive research, compelling case studies, and insights from SAP and other experts—leaves little doubt of SAP’s depth of digital expertise.
#4) Persuasive: Influences and moves people to action
Great thought leadership content doesn’t simply keep executives interested. It also excels in motivating executives to do something—i.e., ultimately buying something from the company. After all, a company is in business to make money. Persuasiveness is not the result of any one factor. But in written pieces, words play the dominant role in making an intellectual connection with executives and moving them to action. That means professional and talented writers are key to maximizing a story’s persuasion quotient.
Think about business books. In the past 30 years, hundreds of thousands of them have been published. But the ones that stand out—and have stood the test of time—each had a massive impact on the business world because of their ability to convince people to act. Reengineering the Corporation, The Innovator’s Dilemma, In Search of Excellence, Built to Last—these and a handful of others proved to be so persuasive that they inspired major changes in the ways companies operated. In the case of Reengineering, it also spawned an entirely new—and highly lucrative—line of business for consulting firms.
#5) Timely: Deals with something of current importance to the audience
When it comes to thought leadership, the best content aligns with an executive’s need within the buying cycle. Understanding when executives are considering a purchase, the context in which they are determining whether and what to buy, and the information they need to help them make the purchase decision, is key to creating content that attracts an executive’s attention at the appropriate time and positively influences their actions. For example, many consulting firms and technology companies seek to raise their profile among retailers with their yearly reports on the upcoming holiday shopping season. Such studies are designed to showcase these companies’ insights on leading practices and tools that can retailers can use to boost profitability—at a time when merchants are arguably most keenly focused on sales and margins.
But timeliness can also have a longer-term horizon. Companies that can identify an emerging trend and begin to explore it before others do gain a first-mover advantage in the minds of executives. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon well after a trend has become mainstream and being swept along with the tide, first movers can actually shape the conversation in their favor with appropriate content. GE, for instance, was well ahead of the curve in identifying the impact that Internet of Things could have on industrial operations. The company focused considerable efforts on producing high-quality, informative thought leadership content on the topic early in the game, thus helping to cement its position today as a leader in Industrial Internet of Things solutions.
#6) Understandable: Is well communicated and flows logically
A white paper, research study, book, or case study may have a great underlying message with real potential to inspire and engage prospects and customers. But it will never live up to its promise if the target audience has trouble deciphering what a company is truly trying to get across. Nothing neutralizes content more than a muddled structure, lack of logic, or unclear writing that leaves an audience confused and frustrated. Great thought leadership content tells a coherent story that unfolds logically, making it easy for the audience to “connect the dots” and follow the narrative. And it performs best when crafted by experienced wordsmiths who understand the topic and the audience.
This is especially true for B2B companies that often deal in highly complex business, management or technology topics. The onus is on these companies to sort through all the possible messages they could communicate, identify the most critical ones, and present them clearly and understandably. Cisco, which manufactures and sells a vast portfolio of high-tech networking gear, could easily cause customers’ eyes to gloss over by talking about the nuts and bolts of its routers and switches. That’s why, instead, the company publishes a monthly digital magazine called Focus, which covers key technology and business trends through stories, interviews and case studies on Cisco products in action. Because these pieces are clear and free of jargon, it’s easy for readers to understand how Cisco products can solve business problems.
#7) Informative: Educates the target audience on a topic important to them
Executives don’t like to be sold to. They prefer to learn about something they care about—for instance, how to improve a specific business process or the best way to overcome an obstacle to better business performance. Thus, the most effective thought leadership content educates and informs, and provides important insights on something people value. Such content captures people’s attention, is memorable, and conveys an air of authority or credibility that benefits the companies producing it. And it typically relies on research to get its points across—whether that’s primary research conducted by the company or secondary research that uncovers data relevant to the topic at hand. But in either case, the goal is to tell the audience something they didn’t know (but should) and, in the process, position the company as a place they can turn for help addressing a particular business challenge.
Consulting firms are great examples of companies that use their content to educate and inform. Many of these firms produce research reports that convey important information on business or management issues their executive buyers and their companies are struggling to address. For instance, one global consulting firm uses its annual survey of manufacturing executives around the world to fuel a series of papers that identify the practices leading manufacturers employ to generate market-leading performance. Similarly, another firm conducts an annual survey on internal audit practices at global companies, which serves as a foundation for the firm’s report and white papers that outline their recommendations for how companies can improve the performance and contribution of their internal audit function.
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With content marketing continuing to grow and more companies churning out an ever-greater volume of content, it gets harder for executives to even know what to read, let alone actually absorb what’s being communicated. That’s why B2B companies that want their thought leadership content to have an impact must have a fundamental focus on quality. High-quality content stands out from the avalanche of marketing materials and messages. It breaks through the clutter, more effectively engages target executives, distinguishes a company from its competitors, and establishes the company as a voice of authority of chosen topics. Combined, these benefits translate into a compelling reason for an executive to choose the company over others as a product or service provider.
And helping to win new business, after all, should be the ultimate goal for any piece of content. If it isn’t, why bother creating it?