Faced with an explosion of content from publishers, brands and agencies, business executives are becoming more selective of their trusted sources, relying on those that can provide insights that are transformative, innovative and credible.

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Still, marketers face significant challenges to becoming trusted advisors through their content, not the least of which are self-made as they continue to pump out more and more content. They struggle with internal alignment, ensuring that they are involving the right people, and meeting increased expectations about substance, speed, targeting, distribution, and measurement.

As a result, the very idea of what it means to be a thought leader – once limited to an elite group of businesses that truly developed proprietary knowledge – has broadened and become devalued, and is increasingly is seen as becoming an overused and self-serving tactic, one that is contributing to the noise rather than cutting through it with original insights and innovative distribution.

“How many truly thought leading pieces are out there? Thought leadership is white space.”
John Rudaizky, EY

In order to better understand the current state of content marketing aimed at business executives, we undertook research to explore the impact of the phenomenal increase in content, particularly as it relates to thought leadership, on both the executives who consume it and the marketers who are trying to reach them.

The study highlights a number of points of discord – between marketers and those they are trying to reach, and between marketers and their own colleagues — that stand in contrast to the conventional wisdom of content marketing today. The data signals a new path to thought leadership, one that raises the bar on substance and acknowledges the diversity of creative formats needed to make put that substance connect and stand work. And, it illuminates a new strategic frameworks that either directly ties a company’s communications approach to a larger corporate purpose . Today’s so-called thought leaders are lauded as much for what they do as what they say. Their broad strategic positions are transformative, innovative and credible – exactly the characteristics business executives look for in the content they value. In this way, “thought leadership” is a natural outgrowth of a company’s actions.

“I think we have to pass from storytelling to story doing today. There is a difference between living your brand’s story and simply talking about it. Our key objective is creating work that matters.”
(C-Suite Marketer)

In short:

  • Three out of five global executives sometimes feel confused or overwhelmed by the volume of content they encounter, with more than half noting that “intrusiveness” has increased.
  • Still, marketers continue to churn out content: 80% plan to increase the amount they produce in the coming 12 months.
  • Both executives and marketers agree, on average, only a quarter of all the thought leadership content seen every day is engaged with, leaving much to go to waste.
  • And, more than 60% of marketers strongly agree or somewhat agree that internal alignment is a barrier to creating effective thought leadership.
  • On a more positive note, the vast majority of executives recognise an improvement in presentation and accessibility.
  • But, 75% have become more selective about the thought leadership they consume, with just over 80% citing the volume of content as the reason.
  • Yet 33% of executives consume thought leadership daily and 20% have increased consumption “a lot” over the past 12 months.
  • And, after consuming compelling thought leadership, seven in ten consume more from that same source; 76% are influenced in their purchasing decisions, 67% would be willing to advocate for that brand, and 83% are influenced in the choice of potential business partner.
  • Marketers see thought leadership as a flexible strategy that can help with a range of goals: differentiation (47%), recognition for company or individuals; (42%) building brand awareness (34%), increase revenue (27%), pave the way for a change of direction or entry into a new market (20%); support the policy agenda (17%). However only 8.8% currently use thought leadership to campaign on societal issues.
  • Compelling thought leadership is “innovative,” “big picture,” “credible,” and “transformative, while unimpressive content is “superficial,” “sales driven,” and “biased.”
  • Credibility is based on the quality of research, not the brand; nearly half of executives would consider a new source of content if it were a “source of hard facts.”

“Organisations need to be more disciplined. They approach thought leadership as a tick box exercise.”
Advisory Board member