Joseph Chaney | March 20th, 2024

Those of us who make a living from “conceptual” labour are often unnerved when reality reminds us that most endeavours – even those that supposedly transcend the transactional concerns of commerce – are in some way beholden to the profit motive.

While the thought leadership advisory services we offer at N/N aren’t conceptual in the same way as traditional art forms, our work still primarily trades in ideas, rather than utilitarian products. But just like the movie producers who financed Dune: Part One wanted a return on that film before they agreed to finance Dune: Part Two, corporate buyers of thought leadership services want a return on the campaigns they undertake before they plan – and pay for – a sequel.

Some organisations consider an elevated reputation as a form of return on their thought leadership efforts, while others measure the return in click rates and client engagement. However, many companies ultimately measure the return in revenue terms and/or the outcomes of new capital-raising efforts.

(I understand, dear reader. Maybe you wish corporations published quality insights simply because it’s a nice thing to do. I’m afraid that’s a discussion for another day).

The good news is that publishing thought leadership is closely linked with sales, and its role in sales efforts is expanding. According to N/N’s AI-driven iN/Ntelligence platform – which identifies trends by trawling thousands of news sources – mentions of thought leadership as a sales enablement strategy increased the most in 2023, compared to concepts like marketing automation, and learning and upskilling. ABM – or, account-based marketing – came in a close second.

Thought Leadership, meet Sales (There’s no reason to be afraid…)

Source: iN/Ntelligence. Comparative search for “Sales Enablement”, total dataset of 10,000 results.

If you need further evidence, check out the 2024 Thought Leadership Impact study conducted by Edelman-LinkedIn – which surveyed nearly 3,500 management-level professionals in December 2023. The findings are clear: thought leadership and sales success are directly correlated.

Here are two other key takeaways from the report:

• Nearly three quarters of B2B decision-makers say that “an organisation’s thought leadership content is a more trustworthy basis for assessing its capabilities and competencies than its marketing materials and product sheets.”

• Ninety percent of decision makers say “they are moderately or very likely to be more receptive to sales or marketing outreach from a company that consistently produces high-quality thought leadership.”

Let’s drill down a bit deeper, shall we? To me, these results suggest the following:

Thought leadership positions companies to compete on the basis of ideas, rather than price
Competing on price alone is rarely a path to greatness. Sure, Walmart and other discount chains can claim success on the back of a corporate identity that elevates low prices above all. But they are in the minority. For most businesses, whether consultancies, restaurants, or airlines, elevating price above all else is a proverbial race to the bottom. It’s the fastest way to destroy value. Much better to compete on vision, ideas and insights. That is where thought leadership comes in.

Thought leadership cements trust between buyers and sellers
Taking it a bit further, quality thought leadership engenders trust – and trust leads to sales. To create this trust, however, publishers of thought leadership must comment on pressing issues from a point of view that transcends their own interests. In other words, they must earn trust by acknowledging uncomfortable realities. If you’re trying to make the case for more investment in mainland China, you must also acknowledge China’s current economic woes – from its housing market crisis to its demographic challenges. Doing so, paradoxically, will make your sales pitch for more investment all the more credible.

Thought leadership unifies your sales team
Finally, thought leadership can foster more cohesive sales efforts for your organisation. When all members of the sales team are familiar with how their employer is expressing its values, and understand its position on crucial issues, they are able to approach buyers with a cohesive story and act with a unified purpose – rather than as an army of disconnected product pushers.

Of course, there are many other ways thought leadership either directly or indirectly drives sales. These are just a few concepts that are top of mind.

At the end of the day, thought leadership advisory as a billable service is built on the idea – and the data – that the truth sells, in literal real-dollar terms.

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