NEW! Listen to article

For B2B businesses, thought leadership is a high-octane contributor to marketing effectiveness—and demand generation in particular.

At least, it can be.

Getting it right, and activating the demand-gen component without straying into "sell mode," is incredibly hard.

For one thing, thought leadership is not content marketing. Confuse the two, and you're toast.

Sure, thought leadership has implicit marketing intent and usually falls underneath that function. But if you "market" overtly, use marketing- and sales-speak, or otherwise drift from the realm of providing unique, value-based ideas and POVs, you'll fail to generate any traction.

During economic downturns, thought leadership can be especially valuable as attitudes and openness to ideas change. It's a huge, often untapped demand-gen opportunity.

"Thought leadership is one of the most effective tools an organization can use to demonstrate its value to customers during a tough economy," emphasize Edelman and LinkedIn in their most recent Thought Leadership Impact Report.

Forrester, Gartner, Harris, and FT Longitude all tout the value of B2B thought leadership. Nine in ten executives say thought leadership is critical, according to the Harris Poll Unlock Revenue and Engagement with Thought Leadership. Fortune 100 execs estimate their thought leadership ROI to be 14:1.

The shocking part is this: A scant 20% of execs say they're any good at it. That's a deep demand-gen disconnect. Sadly, however... they're right.

Here are five essentials for ensuring your thought leadership initiatives are also effective demand-gen engines.

1. Set your strategy

It's tempting to jump into a thought leadership initiative without...thinking it through. But setting a long-term strategy tied to your thought leadership goals, and plaaning the ways you will attain them, is an essential ingredient of success.

For example, demand gen is just one possible goal among many. And because thought leadership has a natural demand-gen effect, it's already built-in, to some extent. But if demand gen is your top priority, your strategy should reflect that in the choices you make of topics, target audiences, and channels.

Ground your strategy in the realm of helping solve customer and marketplace pain points, and integrate it with your company's entire go-to-market approach. Be certain your thought leadership is highly differentiated from your other forms of content.

The best thought leadership is almost always generated from within rather than outsourced. So don't be shy about tapping into your company's rich vein of talent and expertise.

2. Help audiences navigate complexity

Your key audiences—whoever and wherever they may be—face constant disruption, unexpected events, hyper competitive markets, and increasing complexity. They're bombarded with content that's mostly clutter. By offering new ideas that help them penetrate that complexity, you increase your credibility, relevance, and demand-gen impact.

Hold your ideas up to a prism and break them down into their constituent components—the more nuanced colors. That helps you paint a fuller picture for your audience and amplifies the demand-gen impact of your other marketing efforts.

3. BYOPOV (Bring your own POV)

This is the whole point of thought leadership, isn't it? Simply repackaging retread ideas isn't thought leadership, it's thought laggard-ship.

Pinpoint potential opportunities that lie just over the horizon, industry trends you see coming that others perhaps don't. Provide insights that help audiences be more effective and successful.

Above all, deliver value and demonstrate that you understand opportunities they might not yet have recognized. That is what helps generate demand.

4. Be specific

Gross generalizations are a demand-gen death wish. Much of what passes for thought leadership might sound compelling at first. But it's superficial at best, and unlikely to contribute to demand gen.

Here, again, the prism metaphor helps. Shine the light of your ideas through a (metaphorical) prism. Break them down into more nuanced concepts that can be explored in ways that make them more insightful and valuable to audiences.

5. Establish an internal 'idea bank'

An idea bank is a storehouse of ideas that you can later draw from and invest in creating thought leadership pieces. Make it findable and accessible to other stakeholders. Encourage "deposits" from anyone, but assign ownership of "withdrawals" to the team or people responsible for producing thought leadership.

Help internal teams understand your vision of what thought leadership looks like in demand-gen clothing, so they have a better grip on what you're seeking.

Here are a few other "idea gen" suggestions:

  1. Mine your metadata. That's data about your data. What you're looking for are trends, anomalies, curiosities, or insights of any ilk hidden inside the data you may already possess or can easily access.
  2. Ask questions. The simple act of asking questions (which includes then listening closely to the answers and asking the follow-up questions those answers provoke) is the most overlooked methodology for uncovering ideas and insights, and linking them to your demand-gen goals.
  3. Poll your people. The minds within your organization are always an excellent resource. Your own subject-matter experts (SMEs) may be brimming with ideas that merely need to be coaxed out and developed. You can probe for them by using the questioning approach above.
  4. Do original research. The path of least resistance many large organizations take for doing research is to retain one of the big research, polling, consulting, or PR firms to conduct a study or survey of some kind. That can be effective, but it's expensive and often discounted by audiences. There's no guarantee that it will be solid, or it will yield unique insights, or it will be based on reliable data. My preference is to hunt down and extract golden nuggets from your own metadata.

* * *

No one has to read or listen to what you say. So be provocative and give them reason to listen.

More Resources on Thought Leadership and Demand Generation

Content Intelligence Isn't Just for Demand Gen Marketers

So, You Want to Be a Thought Leader? A Framework and Guide for Your Thought Leadership Strategy

The Top Benefits of a Data-Driven B2B Demand Gen Strategy

Enter your email address to continue reading

How to Make Thought Leadership a B2B Demand-Gen Dynamo

Don't's free!

Already a member? Sign in now.

Sign in with your preferred account, below.

Did you like this article?
Know someone who would enjoy it too? Share with your friends, free of charge, no sign up required! Simply share this link, and they will get instant access…
  • Copy Link

  • Email

  • Twitter

  • Facebook

  • Pinterest

  • Linkedin

  • AI


image of Daniel Kehrer

Daniel Kehrer is the founder and CEO of, a thought-leadership coaching company with a B2B and tech focus. He is a former journalist, author, syndicated columnist, senior marketing exec, and Forbes contributor.

LinkedIn: Daniel Kehrer

Twitter: @ValueViaIdeas