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How Can We Connect Thought Leadership to Revenue?

Show me the money

Is the bottom line the primary motivator for the C-Suite? That’s a question that may not lead to an honest answer, but the potential return on investment (ROI) is widely regarded as crucial for pretty much any internal business project. In this panel, we delved into the connections between sustainable revenue models and thought leadership and asked our expert panelists about the ways they drove revenue through their strategies.

Rachael Kinsella, Editorial and Content Director at iResearch Services, began the session by asking the panelists how they related thought leadership to revenue.

First to speak was Cindy Anderson, Global Executive of Thought Leadership Engagement and Eminence at the IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV)

She told the audience how her team turned the research lens onto their own practice of thought leadership. They interviewed around 4,000 executives, half of whom were CEOs. The primary topic was data-informed ROI.

The numbers on thought-leadership-driven revenue

Interviewees were asked about the amount of thought leadership that drove them to purchase: “Does thought leadership drive actual purchasing decisions and spend decisions?” Answers were affirmative, in two ways. One was direct spend, which Cindy described as “substantial”. The other way was indirect spending, attributed to thought leadership by the executives.

Cindy cited statistics from her ‘double-blind’ research:

  • The average executive consumes thought leadership from around five organizations
  • 87% of executives said they made a purchasing decision from consuming thought leadership in the last 90 days
  • The amount of opportunities for thought leadership producers is “somewhere north of a hundred billion dollars”
  • The thought leadership ROI is calculated as 156%

Cindy was proud of this percentage, citing that a typical marketing campaign delivers 9% and therefore the return on thought leadership is sixteen times that. She referred to the traditional ‘7 Ps of Marketing’ and announced thought leadership to be “the eighth P – it’s the Platform!” She spoke of how the return is so high and that it builds internal credibility.

Her colleague, Anthony Marshall, Senior Research Director of Thought Leadership at the IBM Institute for Business Value, emphasized two factors as important – trust and independence.

“This is based on data,” stated Anthony. “We surveyed against specific thought leadership organizations, including ours. I’m sure including many of yours! And we found there was an independence premium. The most independent organization – and it varied across countries – had a revenue premium of 164% in the data.”

He went on to point out the revenue potential can be truly massive if you combine trust and independence in the right way.

Original research vital to thought leadership success

Then we turned to James Redgrave, the Vice President of Global Thought Leadership & Editorial at State Street. The best thought leadership, in his opinion, should have original research at its core. With this vital ingredient, he said you end up with these three positive actions:

  • Take the information to your clients
  • Demonstrate, internally, that you understand your client
  • Repurpose parts of your client’s thought leadership as your thought leadership

A dissenting voice

Finally, we turned to Samad Masood, European Head and Content Strategy Lead for the Infosys Knowledge Institute, who warned us that his views would contrast with the rest of the panel.

“Trying to connect thought leadership with revenue is probably a non-starter”, stated Samad. “If anyone understands how salespeople work, they’re not going to be sharing their revenue number with you.”

He backed this up by telling us to ask ourselves: ‘How much of this presentation, booklet, etc., played a part in the sale?’, pointing out we’d be in a long queue, behind people “with very sharp elbows”, waiting for your attribution.

Making your organization famous

Samad stated that the ‘moonshot’ is that you have to invest in some big things that make you famous and said these investment exercises will be like rolling the dice. He outlined the possibilities of what you could find:

  • Something that everybody already knew
  • Something so contradictory that you will question your own research
  • Something really cool

Raising quite a few eyebrows, Samad was critical of thought leadership for feeling like a mission to be famous.

He concluded his view by stating thought leadership was the tip of the iceberg for transforming an organization and that he thought in the eyes of many organizations, it was nowhere near being connected to business value.

From there, Rachael referred to the interactive poll on ‘the most crucial aspect in turning thought leadership content into revenue’. She pointed out that the most popular answer was ‘establishing credibility’ and acknowledged that it could tie in with Samad’s ‘wanting to be famous’ conclusion.

Internal champions

Rachael believes that engaged stakeholders can become your ‘internal champions’, where a meaningful conversation could make a connection with revenue.

James was on board with this point, adding his own tips:

  • Talk to senior people
  • Demonstrate value on calls
  • Do presentations to internal staff as if they were clients

He stressed that we should expand the ‘universe of people’ we can be useful to, using whatever means we have.

Cindy liked that approach and talked about how vital it is to convince Marketing by letting them use thought leadership as a component of a marketing campaign. “They help you get your organization to be more famous on the basis of the thought leadership.”

She held a lot of faith in collaborating with marketing staff to make assets for them, all derived from thought leadership campaigns. Some of the assets she helped build at IBM included:

  • A data story used in a social program
  • A client experience
  • A checklist
  • A physical event experience

Anthony returned to the poll results and acknowledged that ‘establishing credibility’ deserved its top placing, but pointed out ‘call to action’ for being interesting, potentially being the ‘bridge’ between thought leadership and sales.

Instigating thought leadership campaigns

Turning to the audience, the panel was asked if they have access to content activation pipelines or whether they have to negotiate with their marketing teams to get content out there.

“We have both,” replied Cindy. “I have a small marketing team within the Institute for Business Value (IBV).” She stated that the IBV has its own website and social channels, which echoed the important factor of ‘independence’ raised by her colleague Anthony.

“But we don’t have any ability to spend,” she admitted, ruling out paid social and advertising campaigns. Getting their thought leadership on the IBV website was easy, but she stated she had to work with IBM’s corporate teams in Marketing and Communications to get it on the corporate website and instigate campaigns.

For Samad, the activation of major survey research reports sits with Marketing, to be combined with marketing campaigns. However, for his team, the vast majority of their content is in their control to be directly published.

“I have access to the pipes,” said James, “but I’m neither a talented nor an enthusiastic plumber!” He stated that he works with Marketing to produce research-based assets and decide on timelines but acknowledged they are more skilled in distribution and targeting.

Making the case through ROI

An audience member asked if ROI stats are crucial to internal reassurance, or should a thought leader who is already increasing market share think less of them?

Cindy believed both options were valid. According to her, an ROI calculation can be really valuable during budget negotiations.

Samad believed the issue centered on expectations. “Generally, people get it,” he responded. “When it comes down to nuts and bolts, you need to have the evidence.”

Thought leadership and Sales

The next audience member asked the panel about their efforts to support one-to-one customer relationships.

“Quite a lot of what we do involves taking materials based on research we’ve done and thought leadership we’ve constructed,” responded James. “Stories out to clients who’ve been identified to us by their relationship managers and talking them through a series of data points and themes and weaving a narrative around something we know they’re interested in talking about.”

“For me, it’s an operating model question”, said Samad. He felt a company’s level of available resources would be a factor and wondered if a thought leader could be available to a sales team, to be pulled into their meetings.

“We think of it in three ‘buckets’”, stated Cindy. She described these options:

  • One-to-one. Some of her thought leadership SMEs will go out and support client visits.
  • One-to-few. Such as a client webinar or a roundtable that IBV would bring clients or prospects into a discussion around a particular topic.
  • One-to-many. Wide digital promotions, such as a focus on their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) work, which is usually placed on social media.

“In terms of content,” clarified Anthony, “Thought leadership for us is about producing analysis on a topic that is of general interest or concern. It’s not about doing something specific for a client, that is a consulting engagement. We absolutely would not do that.”

There was a brief discussion between the panelists on the possibility of Generative AI being able to ‘hyper-personalize’ content, although ultimately, they generally agreed that is currently the job of a salesperson.

The session hit its time limit, having achieved its tricky goal of showcasing methods of tracking thought leadership to revenue and ROI. Rachael had helmed an hour packed with insights and advice for our audience, enabling them to demonstrate the lucrative value of thought leadership to senior stakeholders. She thanked the panelists for delivering the fruits of their working knowledge and the audience for their questions.

Interested in watching the Show Me The Money! Relating Thought Leadership to Revenue session on-demand? Click here

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