The value of thought leadership

Through a recent survey of the C-suite at FTSE 350 firms, Andrew Rogerson reveals good news for marketing and communications directors.

Grist recently surveyed over 200 senior executives at FTSE 350 organisations to better understand how they view and use content marketing. The results of the first Value of B2B Thought Leadership Survey bring good news to those in charge of a professional service firm’s marketing and communication programmes – if they follow the lessons below.

High quality thought leadership can cement a firm’s reputation as a trusted advisor. It can underscore perceptions of expertise. It can even help close the deal. However, in an era of seemingly endless content one firm’s words of wisdom must compete for attention like never before. Much content fails to hit the mark often navel gazing, generic and conceptual. It is also often firm-centric when it should be client-centric.

It is in this context that we wanted to find out what professional services firms’ clients thought – what exactly the C-suite at FTSE 350 firms expected from thought leadership, how and when it is consumed and what would make it better. The results shed light on all this and more. Among its findings are these nine key takeaways:

1    Be useful. Senior leaders seek out thought leadership that helps them stay ahead of emerging trends (66%) and helps them make better, more informed decisions (60%) (see chart left). Those two responses proved by far the most popular when respondents were asked why they read such content and reflect the fundamental objective of successful content marketing – to be of use.

2    Failure comes in threes. Thought leadership succeeds when it proves useful, demonstrates an understanding of the target audience and provides fresh thinking. It fails, therefore, when it proves too generic (63%), lacks original insight or ideas (58%) or promotes the advisor, rather than addressing the reader’s needs (53%). The last of these reasons underscores the point made in the section above while the first demands of the advisor that it really understands its clients and their needs.

3    Let the client see the clients. The thoughts of their clients (57%) matter more to senior executives than any other group, according to the survey. Readers want to know what those they serve – or wish to serve – are thinking and doing. Reflecting those views makes thought leadership more valuable. Other voices that matter include industry experts (53%), professional services firms (44%), the public (42%), peers (36%) and inspirational individuals outside the industry (36%). The fact that 44% of senior executive say they actually want to hear from professional services firms is the first, but not the last, hard evidence for firms to build a business case for their own thought leadership.

4    Keep it short and punchy. Asked how senior executives prefer to receive thought leadership, two formats stood out: short articles of 800 words (63%) and blog posts of 300-500 words (57%). A significant minority are prepared to read longer pieces, feature articles of 1,200+ words (45%) and white papers and research reports of up to 4,000 words (28%). Taken together, the written word would appear to be the preferred format when compared to video (26%), audio podcasts (25%) and infographics (20%). In-person briefings (33%) and in-person slide presentations (31%) matter but, again, do not rate as highly as key text-based content types.

5    It’s complicated. Senior executives rely on multiple sources, online and offline, to get their thought leadership fix. Asked to identify from where they are most likely to seek out thought leadership material, respondents most commonly identified professional services/advisory firms (44%), industry events (43%) and online search (40%). Forget the actual numbers as there is little difference between all of these, but the fact that professional services firms are there at all is another huge endorsement of the opportunity for professional services firms to build thought leadership programmes.

6    Facebook, the professional network? Notably, Facebook – more commonly associated with friendship and familial connections – was cited as the social network senior executives were most likely to engage with for thought leadership. Facebook was referenced by 79% of respondents, compared with Twitter (73%) and LinkedIn (68%). Given LinkedIn’s role as the self-described world’s number one professional social network, these results might surprise. On the other hand, given that Facebook is used by 1.7 billion people every month – and over a billion every day – it is perhaps less surprising to see its influence spill into the world of professional thought leadership.

7    Monday lunchtimes matter. Two thirds of senior executives seek out thought leadership information on a Monday, making it the most popular day to engage with content by a large margin. Notably Friday (52%) is the second most popular day, countering a common view that the end of the week is the graveyard slot for content marketing. While Saturday (22%) and Sunday (20%) are the least popular days, the fact that one in five respondents are prepared to engage with thought leadership at the weekend is likely to be a product of easy access to information via digital media and smart devices.
If Monday is the most popular day to seek out thought leadership information, lunchtime is the most popular time to view the content. According to the survey results, 34% of senior executives selected the 12 noon to 2pm time slot. The working morning, between 9am and 12 noon, was the second most popular (26%), while as many said they viewed thought leadership content between 6pm and midnight (14%) as they did between 2pm and 6pm.

8    The C-suite ignore most of what you write. The survey sought to understand how much thought leadership content readers saw, what influence it had and what responses it typically elicited. Asked first to assess the impact of the thought leadership that comesacross their desks, senior executives said that 31% gets read and 28% of that has an impact on decision making. Although professional services firms need to work hard to make sure that the content they create reaches their audience, these are really positive engagement figures.  

9    Readers want to be creators too. Asked to look forward and imagine content that would prove most useful, four in five senior executives said that they wanted to read, watch and listen to material that they – and their peers – were involved in developing (see chart left). For those devising and managing content, this presents an interesting opportunity: the very people they want to reach through thought leadership appear willing to be interviewed and become active participants in the process.


Andrew Rogerson is founder and managing director of Grist Ltd, an award-winning B2B content marketing agency focused on the professions. Contact: 020 7434 1445 or