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Earning B2B buyer trust - does so-called "thought leadership" content have a role?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed December 11, 2019
B2B buyers are changing - but our content hasn't kept up. Can content play a role in earning buyer trust and credibility? And what about "thought leadership" content specifically? These are topics I'm writing about in an upcoming dbook. Here's a preview.


Does B2B buying really come down to trust? No - not how sexy your AI is, no, not how auto-magical your SaaS is, but how much buyers trust you?

You could certainly make that argument.

Maureen Blandford struck that chord:

Three things have changed B2B buying:

  • The shift to subscription (SaaSy) software, which puts the focus on long-term customer results. That puts pressure on software vendors to continually earn their value - well past go-live.
  • The emergence of the customer experience (CX) market. A funny thing happened to SaaS vendors: as they emphasized CX software, customers decided to judge them by that standard - across sales, service, and support.

Blandford's tweet gets at both of these points - but there is a third. That's the independence of the modern B2B buyer. As I noted in Why enterprise buyers trust influencers - new research (2015):

  • According to Gartner’s Hank Barnes, 68% of the buying process has no direct involvement with the vendor, their partners or the vendor’s specific content and information.

That piece marked a multi-year dialogue/debate with Barnes on just how informed today's B2B buyer is, and how informed - or flawed - the buying process remains (see the latest update in It's time to reduce enterprise buying complexity - a dialogue with Gartner's Hank Barnes).

Debates aside, it's fair to say that today's B2B buyer has a sharper BS filter for vendor hype - and a greater savvy to evaluate their vendors, via trusted advisors, peer input, or formal peer review sites.

The "informed buyer," then, is a continuum, not an end state. B2B Buyers still have their work cut out for them, wading through tech hype and vendor hyperbole. How can they get closer to better buying decisions? Through two complimentary tactics:

  • Deepen so-called "trust networks" outside the vendor relationship.
  • Apply that hard-won know-how to vendor relationships. Challenge vendors (and their services partners) to re-earn future business with a relationship of mutual accountability.

The B2B buying process needs a rethink

Just about every analyst firm has defined some type of B2B purchasing cycle, along the lines of awareness -> consideration -> decision. Most of of these purchasing cycles have had to be redone in recent years, due to the near-universal acknowledgement that the buying process is no longer really chartable. Many also question whether a sales funnel is even a useful model at this point - given how buyers can jump in and out of a purchasing process for any number of reasons.

The so-called "buyer's journey" looks more like a map of a dog running through a park than a linear path.

But, this "re-envisioning" of the B2B buying process hasn't gone far enough. In a forthcoming diginomica e-book, or dbook as we call them here, we make a different case. With an assist from my dbook editor Barb Mosher Zinck, I argue that earning B2B buyer trust disrupts us further:

  • We need to be earning credibility/trust with decision makers even when they are not in buying mode at all, and aren't even casually evaluating anything.
  • Reaching B2B buyers means building opt-in audiences, reaching those who influence B2B buyers, regardless of whether those audience members will ever buy a thing from us.

We can certainly do that on an interpersonal level - meeting folks at trade shows, presenting relevant session content, sharing tips over questionable sandwiches. But here's the questions I'm preoccupied with:

  1. Can you earn B2B buyer trust at scale, through content?
  2. If so, what type of content is needed?

I'm biased on that first point. I credit my career to making connections with content - despite my highly imperfect sales and marketing capabilities. I've seen many peers do the same - some of them never went to charm school, and became highly successful analysts regardless. But I can understand why readers might want more proof points.

The second question is tricky, because all types of content are needed: from product demos to FAQs to user-generated content to peer reviews to webinars and so on. The seeds of trust in a B2B context begin with relevance and helpfulness, provided on the basis of domain expertise. Some think it's about capturing buyers' attention with storytelling and/or viral campaigns. Perhaps - but I'd challenge any B2B brand to sustain attention with stories alone.

Thought leadership - reaching those who don't give a care about your brand

A great narrative can intrigue, but in B2B, eventually you need to solve a problem to keep our attention. One type of content I'm particularly interested in is so-called "thought leadership" content. Why? Because, properly executed, thought leadership content can reach people who don't give a crap about your brand, and don't want to hear you extol the virtues of your brand at this time.

I've likened good thought leadership content to simulating a trade show dinner:

Imagine, if you will, the highlight of a busy tradeshow - a small dinner with trusted colleagues. I don't know about you, but the best show dinners I've attended are a mix of customers, partners, vendor executives, and influencers of all stripes, from reporters to the more exotic variety. What do such gatherings have in common?

  • an environment of trust, fueled by unfiltered viewpoints with reduced BS
  • a mutual respect of the knowledge/experience of all parties
  • a recognition that all present are committed to solving enterprise problems
  • good humor and a willingness to stray off topic rather than be a corporate mouthpiece
  • an unspoken agreement that no one will flip into hyper-sales pitch mode

As I wrote in The informed buyer is ruining the B2B content party

This should ring a bell with those who often find themselves well into a trusted relationship before the buyer finally asks, 'So what is it you actually do?' or 'Can you do for me what you did for so-and-so?'

But after the show, that vibe is quickly lost.

Then the show ends, and the focus shifts. The shame of it? The right kind of content could further these 'trust networks' and draw new stakeholders into the conversation. Yet B2B content rarely does so. And the price is paid in lost sales prospects.

Can content bridge that gap? And if you can capture this type of vibe in content, can it differentiate? I believe so. And I'm not alone. As Brian Sommer wrote, "we have the best people" doesn't cut it anymore:

When a firm can offer up a team that includes a published subject matter expert, how can some undifferentiated, unoriginal competitor stand a chance? They can’t.  Businesses buy people first, teams second and the firm third when it comes to services.  You can shout all you want that your firm “hires the best people”, “delivers value”, etc. but that is all noise and comes off undifferentiated to most service buyers.

Some of the most valuable content is the "thought leader" content that (hopefully) reaches folks who are not drinking our brand Kool-aid, and are not part of our contact database.

Measuring the impact of thought leadership content - some stats

The challenge is proving this type of content has impact. After all, you can measure webinar success through signups. Same with trade show exhibits. Yes, some "thought leader" content can be measured - sign-up white papers come to mind. But you want some of that content to be shareable and social. Sign up content isn't the best for that.

Let’s face it, "thought leadership" sounds like a pretentious and abstract concept, and there's probably better names for it. But the business impact on buyers is becoming clear. Studies to support that are increasing:

  • In a 2020 Edelman and LinkedIn survey of more than 1,300 US business decision makers and C-suite executives, 82 percent reported that thought leadership has increased their trust in an organization.
  • Edelman also found that consumption of thought leadership has grown from 50 percent to 58 percent over the past year.
  • And: 55 percent of decision-makers say they use thought leadership as an important way to vet business.
  • A 2015 study by ITSMA’s Thought Leadership Maturity Model found that 75 percent of would-be buyers say thought leadership helps them determine which vendor to put on their short list.

Buyer trust is crucial to earning opt-in signups for demos, newsletters, and webinars. As per Edelman:

  • 47 percent of C-Suite execs say they will share their information with sellers after reading quality thought leadership from a brand.  
  • 58 percent of business decision makers said that thought leadership material was directly responsible for their awarding business to one organization over another.

The wrap - earning influence goes beyond content

Another principle behind thought leadership content: now it's about earning influence, not paying for it. Yes, vendors can still pay money for dubious endorsements from "respected" third parties that frequently don't disclose their financial ties.

There is still a role for third parties to play with their vendor rankings and so on. But the best way tor a vendor to gain credibility now is to earn it. And content has a core role to play in claming that topic authority.

My colleague Barb Mosher Zinck always steps in at this point, with two reminders. First, you need to keep up that content momentum throughout the buyer relationship. Content is not just for prospects, but for customers in all stages of maturity, with all kinds of questions and problems. And, it's not just about content.

If B2B buying is about trust, then trust is built through consistent relevance and helpfulness across all your interactions. A weak link exposes you. Great content and poor product support leaves the sour taste of customer attrition. Content is just one way of earning a chance to solve a problem. Some might call that "experiences," or "context,": but that's another debate we've already hashed out on diginomica.

The next question, then, is: how do you produce this type of content? That's another post, but there are plenty of places to start. A good reference point is LinkedIn's Sophisticated Guide to Thought Leadership - free with sign up.

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