3 Questions For B2B Leaders to Ask to Improve Thought Leadership

Can we be more effective at scale? Guest writer Michael Sherrill offers advice to B2B leaders on how they can provide more effective thought leadership—and become better communicators.

B2B leaders need to ask themselves questions to improve thought leadership.

Are B2B leaders having a failure to communicate? It would seem so.

In a recent weekly newsletter, McKinsey curated a collection of interviews about the need for better, more purposeful conversations, especially in the era of hybrid work. Moments later, a few clicks down an Internet wormhole led to a piece in Forbes asking if B2B thought leadership was dead.

Perhaps this was inevitable. B2B leaders are communicating more—but that doesn’t mean we’re communicating well. Last fall, Edelman and LinkedIn released a survey stating that global business leaders across industries admit that they do not find value in most of the B2B thought leadership they read or view. 

The risk is greater than a little lost time scanning a sales brochure masquerading as a white paper or a corporate blog comparing their software to the invention of the wheel. More volume, more posts, more shares: all make it harder for relevant and interesting B2B communications and key messages to stand out. 

If all we see in our feeds and inboxes is mediocre, cookie-cutter content, B2B leaders will become numb to “thought leadership” and stop making time for it. Already more than half of us admit to saving articles for later only to never look at them again, according to the same survey. At a certain point, there’s only so much time for content

So how do we stem the tide, if we as B2B leaders aren’t getting value from the thought leadership that we are creating and sharing with each other? The short answer is simple: be more interesting. The question is: how?

There are powerful best practices that improve the quality and relevance of a company’s thought leadership, and which marketing and communications teams can implement and drive. 

However, it’s the B2B executives and company thought leaders who need to ask themselves three simple questions before anyone’s fingers ever hit the keys. 

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Does this serve the audience? 

This might sound anecdotal, but companies sometimes focus too closely on their own message to the detriment of the reader. Too frequently, B2B thought leadership can be distilled to, “My widget solves your problem. Here’s how…” 

The irony is that, as readers or viewers, we’ll ignore content with an overt sales-oriented message and yet spend days or weeks producing the same type of content for our own companies. There is nothing inherently wrong with a sales message. It’s why we’re all in business. But there are more appropriate formats for a sales pitch than 2,000 words posing as a think piece. 

Leaders instead need to lean into their areas of expertise. The opportunities and challenges within their clients’ businesses or industries are where great ideas can take shape. What problems are really keeping them up all night; why does a company or industry struggle to solve them; what approaches work or don’t and why? 

Next, B2B thought leaders need to focus on adding value by telling readers or viewers something they don’t know and can use to become more informed—even without buying anything. 

Consider Swiftly, a digital CX solutions provider for retail—an industry in the midst of a huge pandemic-induced push to make shopping more seamless and intuitive online. Instead of simply outlining solutions to address these problems, Swiftly populates its thought leadership blog with actionable information like key industry data and checklists or steps to help the industry navigate the latest issue or uncertainty. 

Is this issue really important to me

Once B2B leaders shift their attention to the myriad problems faced by their audience, they need to focus thought leadership efforts on areas within these topics that resonate personally. 

This might run counter to well-organized key message matrices, but the reality is:

  1. B2B clients/prospects typically have multiple problem areas inhibiting their ability to drive change and improve key results. (For example, digital transformation can be impacted by process constraints, data silos, tech migration, talent and culture, among other things—often at the same time). This means the whitespace for thought leadership extends beyond what’s captured in neat and tidy marketing personas or what ladders directly to a feature in your capability suite. 
  2. Thought leadership requires time investment and leaders will be more apt to follow through with this commitment if the topic itself motivates them, as opposed to everything else on the to-do list that could also move the needle. 

The idea is similar to political candidates. Each might have a set of beliefs that are common across their political party, but each champions their take on a specific issue (education, taxes, immigration) to stand out.

This doesn’t mean infusing every thought leadership article with an autobiography or litany of struggles. However, leaders need to audit themselves enough to understand the intersection between what the market really needs to know and what they have a passion to share

In practice, this could look like different leaders gravitating towards issues like change management, corporate culture or integration challenges, all of which likely fit into the larger tapestry of key corporate messages and the complicated B2B sales process.  

For example, consider this article from the CEO of EXL, an AI solutions provider. It discusses how leaders at the company view data and how it can create value, an extremely tangible problem across the C-Suite. One can also see how important the topic is by how the same message is communicated to different stakeholders, in different mediums, and explored through multiple angles.

Since there are a lot of ways to accomplish business goals, thought leadership works best when thought leaders are deeply interested in the topic at hand. The insights are typically richer, and spokespeople will stick with it long enough for it to resonate in the market.  

Without personal investment, content can end up under-baked and fail to connect.

Will this be interesting enough for people to share? 

We consume and share information all day. 

You’re going to forward an email today. You’re also going to share, like or otherwise comment on an article or post, even if it’s just water cooler chatter. You’ll scroll either a social media feed, headlines on a website, or both.

Think about what makes you decide to click or not. Think about how quickly you make those choices. Your audience will choose to click at the same speed. 

Marketing and communications professionals increasingly know how to bait those clicks. Once thought leadership is released, its reach, and the degree to which it was able to bring in leads relative to other campaign initiatives, are instantly analyzable through data. 

However, just as B2B leaders must audit themselves about whether a topic resonates personally, they also need to ask, “Is this interesting enough that the executives I’m writing for will want to share it with their peers?” 

Consider this: chances are you’ve seen an article, blog or slide about new tech companies disrupting and dominating legacy arenas (e.g. AirBNB has no hotels and a $75B market cap, higher than Marriott and Hilton). Maybe you’ve used similar messaging to make your case in sales pursuits or thought leadership? 

I don’t know for sure that VC firm Andreessen Horowitz did it first (and well) but I do know I was sent this article by multiple people at different firms, even years after it was published. This piece checks the box in a lot of ways (e.g. tone, level of detail, use of examples), but what it does really well is package clear trends and synthesize them in a way that really clicks. Readers responded, shared and maybe even leveraged the idea in their own pursuits. 

It’s a simple ask for leaders: Would you share this if you saw it from someone else? 

If the answer is yes, plow ahead. If the answer is no, then you might consider another way besides thought leadership to share the message. 

Or perhaps just look at the problem another way and ask: What would get people to share this? 

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Not all B2B leaders are writers and speakers 

Sometimes it seems like today’s B2B executive needs to be a multi-channel brand ambassador—hosting TED talks and posting blogs on top of an endless stream of meetings, presentations, and so, so many emails. This is before we consider B2B communications across platforms like TEAMs or Slack. 

If anyone feels overwhelmed, you are not alone.  

Thankfully, as corporate thought leadership programs mature, companies are increasing their investment in support and resources through in-house and third-party writers, designers, communication pros and messaging gurus. They’re in business to help executive thought leaders articulate their insights across whatever platforms are needed. They can infuse content with best practices and probably find a fancy turn of phrase. 

The B2B executive, the thought leader—they need to bring the insights. Then, as ideas start to align with business goals and target markets, thought leaders within the company can do a simple pulse check with three simple questions: 

  1. Does my audience need this? 
  2. Do I have a stake in this? 
  3. Will my audience want others to know? 

If more and more thought leaders find themselves saying “Yes,” maybe we’ll be happier with B2B communications the next time we click on a link—and, better still, more inclined to pass it along.

Struggling to articulate your ideas?  

It can seem like today’s B2B executives need to be authors, speakers and social media influencers in addition to their day job. The best first step is to try to keep your text simple and authentic so the message can come through clearly. 

If you are still struggling to create thought leadership that showcases the power of your ideas, or are looking for great writers who can speak your language to help your executives scale, the team at MarketSmiths can jump in to add immediate value.

Michael Sherrill

Michael Sherrill

Michael Sherrill has more than 20 years in journalism, media relations and corporate marketing. He has launched thought leadership, branding and marketing programs that have created value at public and private B2B companies. He lives and works in the Chicagoland area.

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