Picture the ideal reader, viewer or listener in the target audience for your thought leadership, and their ideal reaction to it. Perhaps they are leaning back to give it the thinking time it deserves. Perhaps they are stroking their chin or nodding – and then picking up the phone to your sales team or a relationship manager to do more business with you.
Getting such a reaction requires credible content. Among the many interesting insights in Edelman’s 2020 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study, based on a survey of over 3,000 executives, is that 73% of those who produced successful thought leadership credited “deep thinking and intellectual rigour” as an important driver of success. And getting it wrong might cost you: nearly one-third of executives said consuming poorly done content had sometimes led them not to award business to the organisation that published it.
Of course, most companies can talk credibly about their own narrow fields, but few manage it consistently, and fewer still can truly call themselves “thought leaders”. (It’s debatable whether you can ever call yourself a thought-leader without instantly losing credibility. I suspect you can’t.) A handful of consultants and tech companies spring to mind as exemplars. So what makes them different, and what factors connote credibility in content?
I think they can be itemised in terms of dos and don’ts. You won’t be able to do all the former all the time, but you should try to avoid the latter whenever you publish.
- Use a direct, active style
You have important news to impart, an opinion to share or a point to make – or why are you bothering? State your message clearly, whether it’s written down, declaimed or presented visually.
- Focus on your strengths
Journalists build credibility by covering a beat, since deep knowledge takes time to accrue. If your company makes roofing felt and you start publishing articles about blockchain simply because everyone else seems to be talking about it, it’s going to take much, much longer to win your target audience over – and most won’t take the trouble to find out whether what you say has any merit.
- Use third-party insights
No one likes hearing about the author all the time. Actually, no one likes hearing about the author most of the time (unless they have the wit of Dorothy Parker or Clive James, perhaps). Talk to other experts, report their insights, and judiciously weave their views into case studies that illustrate your point, providing credit where it’s due. The credibility of your content will rise to match theirs.
- Use hard numbers and data, where available
Each of your arguments need supporting evidence. While anecdotes and case studies can do the job sometimes, business readers will expect evidence to be in the form of data. If it’s a unique, proprietary dataset, like a survey or index you’ve created, all the better. If not, be careful in sourcing third party numbers: get it wrong, and you risk looking foolish.
- Publish regularly, and personally
You can’t hope to build credibility if your readers only hear from you once a year, or if what you say always comes from behind a bland, corporate façade. Use and promote your internal experts. But be judicious: over-exposure is also sure to damage the credibility of what you say, in part because you might end up publishing for the sake of it.
- Sell your stuff – or hide your biases
Credibility, a close cousin of trustworthiness, resides in part in the perception of impartiality, or at least in telling it like it is. This is getting harder and harder to find in news sources nowadays, let alone in content produced by companies. B2B audiences will quickly discount anything that is either overtly self-serving or strives too hard to disguise the commercial nature of its origins (why readers don’t trust native advertising). It’s a delicate balance, but the core principle is that thought leadership isn’t pure marketing: it’s about reinforcing the perception of expertise, and thereby implying that the source of the insight can solve the audience’s problems. Blatant pitching always undermines credibility.
- Water down bold opinions and whitewash hard truths
Have you ever noticed how the most-shared content (outside paparazzi photos and cat videos) says something surprising or bold, or even liable to offend? As my colleague Joseph Chaney has explained before, B2B campaigns often suffer from an excess of caution, often at the behest of timid marketing functions (or legal teams). They needn’t. We regularly poll front-line sales staff at financial services firms to gauge whether the content that their own companies publish is making the right impact. They frequently say that none of their clients would jump ship if their firm published strong opinions, even if they subsequently turned out to be wrong. Bland, say-nothing content, though, is often seen as damaging. Boldness, properly argued, reinforces credibility, while publishing pablum or ignoring hard truths always undermines it.
- Over-use jargon or cliché
I won’t hammer this point home – suffice to say that if you’ve heard a buzzword before, the chances are that millions of others have too and are getting sick of it. Know when to drop it in (for SEO, maybe) and when to ditch it. Similarly, you might be tempted to sprinkle your content with jargon (or TLAs like “SEO”, come to think of it) unexplained, in the hope this makes you appear au courant. But doing so risks irritating a proportion of the audience, while writing for maximum clarity will never annoy anyone.
We’ll be doing more research on what makes content credible later this year – based on our own hard data and, hopefully, thought-provoking analysis. Watch this space: I can picture you leaning back and nodding already…