Thought Leadership Content: Standing Out in A Sea of Noise

August 10, 2016

This article is included in these additional categories:

B2B | Brand Loyalty & Purchase Habits | Brand Metrics | Content Marketing | Customer Engagement

HillKnowltonEconomist-Factors-Necessary-Trust-Thought-Leadership-Aug2016Three in 5 executives around the world are at the point where they’re at least sometimes confused or overwhelmed by the amount of content they encounter, finds the Economist Group in new research. But the vast majority of marketers are continuing full steam ahead with the amount of content they’re planning to produce.

Faced with increasing time spent consuming thought leadership content – a daily affair for 40% of the C-suite – executives are having to become more selective about what they consume today. The unending array of content also means that much of goes by the wayside: executives estimate that they engage with only about one-quarter of the thought leadership content that they see every day. The inverse relationship between content volume and engagement was quantified earlier this year by TrackMaven, as seen here.

On a positive note, most executives responding to the Economist Group survey said that the quality of content produced by companies and brands has improved over the past year. But only a minority could say that content’s value or relevance had grown. And the ever-growing volume of content out there makes it more difficult for content to break through, according to almost two-thirds of the executives who make up its audience.

So what does motivate thought leadership content consumption? Here the study presents an interesting discrepancy between what marketers think and what their audience feels. As it turns out, marketers are significantly more likely than executives to point to business attributes of content (84% vs. 76%), while content consumers are more apt to identify personal attributes (89% vs. 76%) such as intellectual curiosity.

Marketers and their audience share more agreement when considering the qualities that constitute compelling thought leadership. For both parties, “innovative” content is most compelling, with “big picture,” “transformative,” and “credible” also in the top 4 for both groups.

To establish thought leadership as being trustworthy, the most important factors identified by content consumers are the quality or nature of research analysis and the presence of credible data. These are far more important catalysts to executives’ trust than the profile of the brand itself.

Still, familiarity breeds trust in this case, it appears, with a majority of executives not giving credence to thought leadership content if they’re not familiar with the source. When they are confronted with an unfamiliar source, their primary motivation for considering it is that it’s a source of hard facts. The opinions expressed and the extent to which the organization or individual is respected are also important attributes.


For organizations able to break through the clutter, there are important benefits, per the survey. More than 7 in 10 executives are more inclined to do business with organizations that are thought leaders, and 2 in 3 would be positively influenced to act as an advocate externally for an engaging organization or brand. Further, about three-quarters report that thought leadership influences purchasing decisions with the individual or brand.

However, marketers should be careful not to overdo it – and they may not be too aware of this point. When both marketers and content consumers were asked to choose which 3 (of 11) terms they associate with the least impressive thought leadership, content consumers (31%) were far more likely than marketers (19%) to point to “sales-driven” content. The idea that marketers should be wary of making their content to sales-y has been argued before in Economist Group research, but research contained in a MarketingCharts report has found B2B marketers more apt to say their content is company-focused than customer-focused.

In putting forth recommendations for today’s marketer, the analysts at The Economist Group suggest that marketers first stop and think before putting out content, making sure to put their audiences’ interests front and center. Second, they recommend stop trying to be a thought leader by choosing substance over volume and considered authority over “look at me” shouting. All in all, they say, marketers should approach content striving to be “authentic thought partners,” rather than thought leaders.

(But don’t expect any reduction in the amount of content…!)

About the Data: The report notes the following as part of its methodology:

“Drawing on The Economist Intelligence Unit’s global panel of executives, The Economist Group conducted an online survey in association with Hill+Knowlton Strategies in April 2016 among 1,644 executives globally who either produce or consume thought leadership content. The sub-groups evaluated included important representations across company size, seniority and region.”


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