We're living in a complex world: Covid-19, economic uncertainty, and political and social conflict dominate our lives right now. The world is very different to what it was just 12 months ago. But the question for the business marketing community is: what does that mean, and what can you do about it?
In a recent podcast with the Business Marketing Club, I talked about these changing client requirements, the importance of thought leadership, and, in an age of digital saturation, how you can cut through the noise and can get your message out there.
Firstly, client requirements
Through our biannual ‘Value of B2B Thought Leadership’ research, which surveys over 500 senior executives at enterprise level firms worldwide, we can see that client requirements are changing.
Back in 2018, well before the pandemic, senior executives were looking for help to give them the edge over competitors and to keep them informed of emerging trends. But at the tail end of 2020, those objectives had hardened to something much more practical and pragmatic: senior executives wanted help making better decisions and understanding best practice.
The attention and focus of the C-suite has now shifted to the near future, defined as the next 3-12 months. It’s not the immediate future. Maybe corporates have moved beyond those pressing sales, cashflow and furlough problems, and have started to look at issues such as what their organisational structure should look like as we come out of the pandemic (or indeed learn to live with it).
Senior executives are also leaning on external support for this help. They do not believe that the expertise they are looking for is in-house, or with their competitors for that matter: they’ve not lived through anything like this before either. This is evidenced by the fact that the views of advisors have replaced the views of peers in the top three sources the C-suite turn to for advice.
This would chime with other surveys such as Grant Thornton’s recent global business pulse, which revealed that more than a fifth of the professional services firms they spoke to believed they had delivered more work, and therefore increased revenues, in 2020. Seven percent even anticipated an increase of ten percent or more. This makes professional services one of the three top-performing sectors during the pandemic, along with TMT and oil & gas.
So what do the C-suite look for when assessing an advisor?
A full 91 percent of the senior executives we surveyed for our research believe that thought leadership is either important or critical to their decision-making when appointing new advisors.
There is a wonderful quote from Jeff Ernst, previously principal analyst at Forrester Research, which backs this up. He says: “Business buyers don’t ‘buy’ your product or service, they ‘buy into’ your perspective and approach to solving their problems.”
Senior executives are also reading more thought leadership now than they did before the pandemic started. Nearly half (45 percent) are reading either a lot more or a little more.
This would tally with broader media trends as we all seek advice on what is going on. Media scoring agency Comscore revealed levels of business media (actually any media) consumption going up by over 50 percent in April 2020, tailing off slightly from August onwards (but still over 30 percent up) and staying that way.
So, not producing thought leadership simply isn’t an option. You need to think about how you can make your thought leadership different and better than the competition.
How do you do this?
Senior executives want thought leadership tailored to their needs and in particular they want it tailored to their sector: given the choice, some 71 percent prefer a sector focus to pan-sector coverage.
But the majority also want it tailored to their job role, company size and/or region. This has massive implications for how we plan and personalise thought leadership.
How senior executives consume thought leadership is also changing in the age of Zoom. Without face-to-face events, the C-suite are looking for personal and engaging formats, such as videos, personal presentations and online events that include a networking element.
We’ve also seen a genuine appetite for interactive maps, benchmarking tools and scrolling stories. But it’s not a simple case of choosing what’s most popular; formats and channels are increasingly blurred. Integrated campaigns that include a variety of these formats will be more successful.
It is also worth noting that podcasts came bottom of the list of preferred formats, which we put down to reduced listening opportunities on the traditional commute.
Finally, four recommendations for your own thought leadership:
ONE: Review your current thought leadership portfolio. Remember that thought leadership that does not address today’s problems may have a more detrimental effect on your brand than no thought leadership at all.
TWO: Focus thought leadership on the areas where you can make a difference, not just in the immediate future but going forward. Focus on your clients more than you ever have and provide them with genuine value.
THREE: Things will change, so plan for an ongoing dialogue. The problems you are helping clients solve are continuous. Use your content programme to work in tandem with your clients to solve them.
FOUR: Focus on formats and channels that genuinely work: we’ve outlined what the C-suite currently want in a recent research report, but this is no substitute for continual testing and refinement.
So when you’re planning a thought leadership campaign, you should understand why each group consumes thought leadership, the qualities they value, the formats they prefer, whose views they seek, the sources they use and the actions they take when thought leadership hits the mark. One-size-fits-all won’t work.