Each year, we make our thought leadership predictions to help brand, marketing and content teams place their bets for the year ahead.
After a year like no other, B2B companies are taking stock and adjusting their business strategies to address new challenges and communicate a sense of purpose. Marketers, meanwhile, are seeking to shore up investment in brand campaigns and content programmes that will support those new objectives.
Watch on demand our 2021 trends webinar, where our team of experts discuss in more depth what impact these trends will have on B2B thought leadership next year.
From embracing empathy and borrowing from newsrooms to halo-effect content and influencing with authenticity, here are the trends in thought leadership that we expect to see in 2021.
1. As the global economy recovers, companies will need to determine the optimal blend of digital and human delivery
2020 has been a year of extraordinary disruption to normal business practice. The face-to-face meetings, events and conferences that were once the bedrock of commercial relationships have gone, replaced by webinars, digital events and Zoom calls.
How much of this migration to digital is going to be permanent? That is what businesses will need to start considering. Thought leadership promotion has traditionally relied on face-to-face interaction such as events or one-on-one conversations with clients and prospects. As the pandemic hopefully recedes and meetings become possible once again, we expect that companies will think about a hybrid model that uses digital delivery where it has been proven to be more effective (e.g. in terms of scale) while at the same time bringing back the human element when and where possible.
2. Marketers will be under pressure to create more impact with the same (or fewer) resources
Savvy marketers know that it is a mistake to dial down marketing investment during a downturn, but it seems inevitable that their budgets will come under pressure as companies seek a way out of the crisis. With marketing spend facing greater scrutiny, CMOs and their teams will, more than ever, have to demonstrate the value of every investment they make. They will also need to find creative ways to extract more value from their spend.
In a thought leadership context, this means greater slicing and dicing of content, making more use of lower-cost (but still effective) research approaches, cutting back the ‘long tail’ of content, and stopping the vanity projects that cost money and massage egos but deliver little value. It can also mean looking to the back catalogue to repurpose content where budget constraints have left gaps in the portfolio.
3. Brand-based content will be stretched in new directions to focus on purpose and the halo effect
Stakeholder capitalism and brand purpose are here to stay and if anything have strengthened as business trends during the pandemic. As a result, many companies are growing more vocal about their wider purpose and expressing this through their content and thought leadership.
This is stretching the notion of brand-building as a thought leadership objective. In the past, brand-building usually referred to building awareness or priming for a future commercial opportunity. Today, brand has a wider meaning in a thought leadership context and also encompasses the ‘halo effect’ of aligning messaging with the business’s purpose.
We expect to see this trend become more widespread next year, but we do urge caution. Thought leadership can be a great way to communicate your purpose, but don’t forget the needs of the audience. Is this really what they want to hear from you?
Good examples of purpose-based thought leadership include ING’s Circular Economy series and Smurfit Kappa’s Balancing sustainability and profitability. It is not traditional thought leadership, but Blackrock CEO Larry Fink’s 2020 letter to investors is also a great example of corporate purpose flowing through to messaging that is backed up by action.
4. B2B will finally understand the value of emotional content
It has long been a mystery to us why companies see B2B buyers as purely rational beings – and don’t consider the emotional aspects that have such a huge influence on purchasing behaviour. This has been obvious to those in the B2C world for years, but B2B has been slow to recognise it.
Now, things are changing, and the best thought leadership campaigns are blending the rational with the emotional. It is not enough to present yourself as an authority – you have to build a connection with your audience and create associations between your brand and the topic that sits at the heart of your campaign. That means treating the audience as individuals and thinking about what will influence and inspire them – not just the features and benefits of your offering. We hope and expect to see this thinking become more commonplace in thought leadership.
The Longest Night is a great example of emotional B2B content from Philips. It uses the story of an Icelandic fisherman to highlight the firm’s investment in sleep-aiding technology.
5. Companies will create their content in a more unified way
Some companies can be short-sighted in their approach to thought leadership: they see a campaign as being only about lead generation, or only about brand-building. The problem with this binary thinking is that it means they will only capture a fraction of the available audience.
At any given point, only about 5% to 10% of your total audience may be interested in having a commercial conversation with you, so why pour all your resources into a lead-gen-only campaign? Equally, a brand-building campaign that has no clear, navigable next step through to a commercial conversation ignores the proportion of the audience that does want to engage with you.
Looking ahead, we expect more companies to take a holistic approach and move away from binary campaign objectives. This means looking across the entire audience journey and ensuring that a campaign serves every segment of the audience.
6. User experience will become more important as expectations rise
User experience, or UX, has traditionally been associated with design work or user interfaces. But it is also highly relevant to content, and we expect it to become a more integral part of content planning.
Good UX is all about meeting the user’s needs at a given time and making the process of interacting with a business as simple, streamlined and seamless as possible. Companies that are most successful in their thought leadership see UX and content as complementary. They recognise that there is no point creating great content if you haven’t thought about how the audience is going to interact with that content in different scenarios.
It starts with understanding the needs of the audience, then anticipating their questions and providing a seamless, easily navigable journey. A good UX process incorporates design thinking into content planning and often challenges assumptions about what works. By thinking about the user journey more carefully, companies can create a portfolio of content assets that work together, are personalised to the user and enable better tracking and refinement of content preferences.
So we expect brands to think more about UX in 2021: we know that audiences are growing more and more sophisticated, and less and less likely to tolerate a shoddy experience – however fascinating the subject.
7. Marketers will borrow from newsrooms to create more topical, event-driven content
The pandemic has accelerated many trends in the past year, from online business models to digital health and education. In our world of B2B thought leadership, one key trend has been the rapid adoption of a more agile approach to producing content.
In a fast-moving crisis, campaigns that took several months to produce were no longer fit for purpose; in their place, companies were keen to introduce a much more streamlined, rapid approach. To get there, they have been breaking up bureaucratic processes and dismantling the multiple layers of approvals that can slow down thought leadership campaigns.
Now that marketers have done a lot of hard work to remove these blockages, it is hard to imagine them returning to the old, slower approach. We expect that, in future, thought leadership will retain this new level of agility, and that it will sit alongside more thoughtful evergreen content in a multi-speed model. Like a newsroom, there will be topical content produced by the ‘news desk’; more detailed pieces produced by the ‘features desk’; and longer-term deep-dives produced by the ‘investigative team’.
8. Prediction-based content will become less common, but there will continue to be a market for companies that are bold in their views
2020 saw time horizons for thought leadership compress because audiences were only interested in solving their immediate problems. Future-facing predictions fell out of favour, and the long-term outlooks beloved by some thought leadership producers seemed out of step with a business environment struggling with an urgent crisis.
As managers start to plan for the slightly longer term, we expect content to reflect that longer time horizon. But we urge caution: forecasting and polling do not have a great reputation at the moment, so audiences will be wary of anything that is too bold. Almost by definition, thought leadership does need to discuss emerging trends and how they might unfold, but getting carried away with long-term forecasts and trying to outline how business trends will evolve over five to 10 years will rightly be met with scepticism.
By all means sketch a picture of the future, but be humble. Admit the limitations of your forecasts, keep timeframes to within a year or two at most, outline different scenarios and, above all, help companies to consider their options if things start to take an unexpected course. Let’s face it – it won’t be the first time that has happened recently.
9. Client advocacy will become a more important outcome
For many companies, thought leadership is all about ‘top of the funnel’ brand-building and igniting commercial conversations. Those are worthy goals, but in our view not enough attention is paid in content to relationships with existing clients.
Thought leadership can be a great way of staying in touch with clients and cementing the relationship with them in between long sales cycles. Even better, it can turn them into advocates for your business. We see a lot of companies using their clients as sources of insight for thought leadership campaigns – either as survey respondents or in-depth interviewees – and this can be a great way to engage clients and bring them closer to your business. We expect to see more of this as companies increasingly recognise the power of advocacy as part of their campaigns.
10. Marketers will find cheaper, more efficient ways to measure brand impact
We have always said that the biggest benefits of thought leadership come from long-term brand-building. But there is a problem with that: measuring the impact has traditionally been difficult and expensive. Most companies have relied on surveys of clients and audiences to assess changes to brand perception, but the data can be scarce because this research happens so infrequently.
In the year ahead, we expect to see companies turning to alternative methods to measure brand perception. For example, marketing effectiveness guru Les Binet has shown share of organic search to be a powerful and reliable way of measuring brand health. And there are numerous brand-tracking software and AI tools on the market that give businesses a quicker, more efficient way to track thought leadership’s impact on their brands. This is encouraging: marketers will now have access to far more robust, cheap and easy-to-use tools than a traditional brand survey.
We think we do a pretty good job of recognising new and emerging trends. We also know how to sort the exciting game-changers from the gimmicks and the fads. If any of these strategies and tactics resonate with your business, speak to one of our team to find out how to apply them to your marketing in 2021.