The big lie about thought leadership in B2B

“Build it and they will follow.” This is not a complete lie in thought leadership. But it’s just half of the story. There is lots of evidence that thought leadership content can build B2B brands and drive commercial results, especially when it’s done well over time. Good content alone is not enough. It’s not enough.

Even the most insightful piece of analysis, prediction, or opinion will not be of any value if it is off-topic and resides on an infrequently visited section of online real estate.

Good thought leadership content must answer clients’ needs if it is to be successful. It must engage with topics that are relevant for the decision-makers it is trying to reach. It must find the audience and grab their attention, no matter where they may be.

This is not an accident.

This means that you must have good audience intelligence before you can start. It is important to ensure that your content is relevant to the target audience. This includes not only the topic but also the language and tone. Once you have created thought leadership content, you need to make sure it is distributed well. This is where performance marketing, SEO, social media distribution and social media distribution come in.

This is what we refer to as the “infrastructure” of good thought leadership programming. Let’s take a closer look at each component.

Audience Intelligence

Intelligence gathering

Are you able to identify the most important issues to decision-makers you are trying to reach? What are the most pressing issues that they’re addressing?

The biggest mistake in thought leadership programming is to lead from the outside-in. You base your leadership on what you have to offer, rather than on what your potential clients already know and are thinking about. We need to research in order to take an outside-in perspective.

A course of secondary research can often be a good place for a start. To identify the topics and patterns of conversation, you will need to gather existing published material from competitors, clients, and trade media. Potential clients’ and competitor’s social media posts can provide rich sources of intelligence.

Edelman DXI also conducts primary research to drive real results. This usually involves a survey or a series of interviews with potential clients. This is extremely valuable and rare. An recent Edelman and LinkedIn report showed that only one fifth of companies conduct interviews with customers and one in four do primary research.

Search behavior analysis is another valuable tool that can provide invaluable insight. There is often a gap between what people post online and what they say in interviews or surveys – as well as what they search online for. We can use search behavior analysis to find out what people are looking for online. This is done by linking various keywords relevant to the topic. What people are searching for most often is a better indicator of their true interests than what they search for.

These three methods are invaluable for finding out what people are most interested in.

Intelligence analysis

All the intelligence gathering discussed above results in raw material rather than intelligence. Only by analysing what we find, can we gain true advantage.

Particularly secondary research can yield huge amounts of data.

It is difficult to make sense of all this. It is impossible to read thousands upon thousands of articles and posts written by hundreds, or even thousands, of people.

Computational Linguistic Analysis

Computational linguistic analysis is one way to gain meaningful insight. This type of project requires us to use computational techniques to analyze large amounts of text. We can then uncover and cluster the topics and subtopics and reveal the connections between them.

This analysis shows that discussions about technology types (see below) are more important than discussions of cost and material (green and amber). This allows us fine-tune our content’s balance.


Psycholinguistic profiling

Psycholinguistic profiling is another type of analysis that could be helpful at this stage. This analysis can help us determine the emotional content of the conversation and extract insight about the motivations and character of our target audience through the text they have written. A client group that is motivated by safety concerns may respond well to a different tone than one who is motivated by prestige.


This analysis of online conversations for a healthcare company (see below) shows that our text analysis has given us very specific recommendations for content. We have highlighted the details and used a reassuring tone in this instance to help the company communicate its message and gain engagement. Although the patient audience in this instance is a patient group; the same principles and processes apply to prospective buyers.

Stakeholder mapping and audience profiling

We’ve only looked at the words of those we are trying to reach so far. What do we really know about these people? What are their interests? Who are they? And, most importantly, to whom are they paying attention already?

Stakeholder mapping is a valuable tool for identifying the target audience and determining who has influence over them.

There are only a handful of potential buyers for some B2B areas. But, who are these potential buyers connected to? Who are they listening to?

To understand the influence of a topic or field on Edelman DXI, we use a four-dimensional data-driven influencer map system.

This thought leadership analysis (see below) shows the relative influence of thought-leaders discussing electric cars. Their importance to the discussion is shown on the horizontal axis and their authority on vertical. The size of the bubble determines their reach and the size of their audience. The bubble’s hue indicates accessibility.


This data-driven, differentiated stakeholder perspective allows us to identify who is really driving discussion on a topic. And who looks like they are because they have the loudest voice. This allows us to dig into their content and see what is driving the discussion. We can then use this information to guide our work. We can work together as consultants or co-authors on thought leadership content. This adds a layer of social validation.

This allows us to communicate intelligently and to work with the right people to distribute our thought leadership content.

Intelligent distribution

All of the intelligence and analysis that we have described will allow us to understand which type of content is most likely to engage our target audience. How can we make sure they actually see it?

Intelligent distribution is key to this.

Social distribution

Distributions via social networks can take two forms: those made through existing social connections or established social media networks.

It is possible to share thought leadership content through real social connections. Referrals or recommendations from clients are one of the most frequently cited factors which increase the likelihood to buy in B2B situations. Here is where we really see the value in working with thought leaders and co-authors. They will want to make the content public, post it on their channels and drive traffic to their followers – potential customers that they are trying to reach.

Another important method of distribution is to have a social media presence. The core content of thought leadership content such as a whitepaper or report should be included in a series of derived and supplementary content that can be distributed socially. A report could, for example, be extracted into:

  • Infographics that focus on images to explain key concepts
  • Figures and graphs that can be used alone.
  • For posting as text, key quotes or insights
  • Video interviews with the authors that answer key questions about the topic.
  • Podcast appearances

These formats, and many more, can be used for social media distribution.

Though LinkedIn is the most popular platform in B2B, many people think of it as the best. But, remember that potential clients are human and will also use other platforms.

Paid support is almost certain to be beneficial, however, due to the way social platforms are set up.

Distribution paid

All intelligence gathered in the initial phase of thought leadership research is also valuable in the distribution phase.

This research helps us understand your potential clients’ business needs, their digital landscape, and the challenges they face. This allows us to identify personas that can be targeted by search and social advertising, create user journeys, and then develop a paid media strategy to reach them.

This social media-specific content is then transformed into paid media creative. It appears in the feeds and search results of our target clients every time they open their phones, laptops, or type in a query.

Paid support has one of the greatest benefits – it increases the reach of your thought leader content, not only through the audience but also over time. Even a small amount of paid support can make sure that your thought leadership content continues to be read long after it has been published.


The phrase “content is king” is often used. It’s a fine phrase, but it can be misleading. It implies that content is the king and the rest will follow. This is the biggest lie in thought leadership.

Monarchs might be the focus of attention but it’s not because they are unique. It is in the context they live in. They sit on the throne. This throne is the center of the palace. The crown. They are surrounded by servants, supplicants, and courtiers. This is what makes a King command royal attention.

It is essential to have good thought leadership content. Without infrastructure, your paper, no matter how thoughtful, is a passing note in the cacophony of the algorithmically-driven, social web experience.

While content may be the king of the business, you must also consider the entire royal treatment, from strategy to intelligence to distribution, in order to ensure that it has the desired impact to drive results.