It's now abundantly clear that compelling thought leadership content is a vital component of effective marketing for many B2B companies. Numerous studies have shown that business buyers are increasingly relying on thought leadership content and that it has a significant impact on purchase decisions.
Recent research has also revealed that many companies need to improve the quality of their thought leadership content. For example, in the 2021 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study by Edelman and LinkedIn, 71% of the survey respondents said that less than half of the thought leadership content they consume provides valuable insights.
Thought leadership content must meet three core requirements to be compelling for business decision makers.
- It must address topics and provide insights that are relevant for its target audience. The best thought leadership content addresses topics that can have a major impact on the business or professional success of the target audience.
- It must be authoritative. To be compelling, the information and insights provided by thought leadership content must be supported by sound and persuasive evidence.
- It must be novel. Merriam-Webster defines novel as "new and not resembling something formerly known or used." Therefore, good thought leadership content will provide information and insights that add something new to the body of knowledge about a topic and that the audience cannot find elsewhere.
These three requirements are equally essential for compelling thought leadership content. Effective thought leadership content is like a three-legged stool, and we know what happens if you remove or break one leg of a three-legged stool.
Understanding the Importance of Novelty
Most marketing pundits that talk or write about the development of thought leadership content emphasize the need to create content that is relevant for its audience, and many also stress the importance of making content credible and authoritative.
The need to make thought leadership content novel is not discussed as frequently, which is unfortunate because novelty (or the lack thereof) is often what separates compelling from mediocre (or poor) thought leadership content.
To fully grasp the importance of novelty, it's revealing to see how it is viewed by organizations whose primary product is thought leadership content.
Academic, scientific and business journals usually provide "guidelines" for authors who want the journal to publish their work. Among other things, these guidelines usually describe the criteria the editors use to decide what material to publish.
Here are excerpts from the author guidelines used by three highly-regarded business publications.
"Guidelines for Contributors" (Harvard Business Review) - "Originality: New ideas in management are rare and precious - and one of the primary reasons readers turn to HBR. If you're writing about a well-worn topic, we'll be looking for a unique argument or insight."
"Author Guidelines" (MIT Sloan Management Review) - "We're looking for great new ideas that have the potential to transform management thinking and practices. Authors should clearly articulate what's new about their idea, placing it in the context of any previous work in the field and explaining how they are advancing the discussion." (Emphasis in original)
"Submission Guidelines" (California Management Review) - "CMR typically publishes articles that extend our knowledge of a given topic either by contesting or building upon existing theories or by presenting new empirical work."
The thought leadership content produced by companies for marketing purposes will obviously differ in several ways from the content published in journals like the Harvard Business Review, the MIT Sloan Management Review and the California Management Review. What isn't substantially different is the need for novelty.
Original Research Is Vital
Developing novel thought leadership content almost always requires some form of original research. Such research actually plays two essential roles in creating compelling thought leadership content. First, it is usually required to uncover the new insights that will make thought leadership content novel. And second, original research provides the evidence that makes thought leadership content authoritative.
Once marketers have identified potential topics for thought leadership content, they will need to conduct sufficient research to determine where the "white space," if any, exists regarding those topics. Marketers can't decide what topics are attractive for thought leadership content until they know whether, or to what extent, those topics have already been addressed.
To develop novel thought leadership content, marketers will usually want to avoid topics that have already been discussed by others. There are, however, three notable exceptions to this rule.
- First, a broad topic may have already been discussed, but specific aspects of the topic may not have been thoroughly covered. These particular aspects can be good subjects for thought leadership content if they are relevant and important for the target audience.
- Second, if a topic has not been addressed for a considerable period of time, it can be appropriate to take a fresh look at that topic.
- And third, if a topic has already been addressed but the existing treatments are flawed or incomplete, that can be an appropriate subject for thought leadership content - provided, of course, that you can provide authoritative evidence for your alternative point of view.
Business buyers have a strong desire for thought leadership content that is relevant, authoritative and novel. All three of these attributes are necessary to make thought leadership content compelling for business decision makers.
Given the explosive proliferation of marketing content, producing thought leadership content that is truly novel can be particularly challenging, but the effort is worthwhile because novelty is often what separates thought leadership winners from thought leadership also-ran's.
Image courtesy of Jernej Furman via Flickr (CC).