Boosting the ROI on Thought Leadership

According to a recent survey conducted by Edelman and LinkedIn, only 18% of executives give high marks to the thought leadership they receive. For these executives, much of today’s thought leadership is derivative: it lacks the vision, analytical insight, and valuable advice that busy executives desire.

During my years as a publisher with Business International, the Economist Intelligence Unit, and Oxford Economics, I created many fee-based information services. Time and again, I found that what executives value most is data and analysis that help them make smart decisions—the kind of actionable insights that enable a company to grow its business, improve its performance, and plan its future. These executives seek more than business journalism; they want thought leadership that provides evidence-based decision support.

The Edelman-LinkedIn survey of 1,200 executives underscores the importance of conducting smarter thought leadership. One of its main takeaways: “Done right, thought leadership has tangible business impact. Done poorly, it creates risk.”

According to the survey, companies produce thought leadership to drive business in several ways: gain access to high-value decision makers (47% of senior executives share contact information after reading thought leadership); generate RFP opportunities (45% of senior executive readers invite bids on a project); and to win new customers (60% of senior executive readers buy products and services that they were not previously considering).

What does high-impact thought leadership look like? The survey indicates that executives want actionable insights to help them do their job better. But such insights are missing in the thought leadership they receive, according to 60% of executives. These executives want thought leadership that is visionary (88%), relevant and customer focused (66%), and brief and easy to digest (57%).

Meanwhile, poorly done TL can actually be harmful, largely through reputational risk. It can lead executives to stop following an organization (60% of executives have done so); lose respect for an organization (46%); and avoid awarding business to an organization (29%).

The value of applied economics

The secret sauce behind high-powered thought leadership—the kind that really engages executives and drives demand for your products and services—is applied economics.  By drawing on economic tools such as cost-benefit analysis, ROI modeling, and scenario forecasting, we at ESI ThoughtLab help our B2B clients turn me-too thought leadership into valuable decision support. At the same time, we use economics to deliver thought leadership content in more compelling and relevant formats, such as benchmarking tools, indexes, business scorecards, performance databases, and interactive infographics.

We have numerous examples of applying innovative economic analysis to meet a client’s needs. We used it to gauge the market opportunities for autonomous vehicles, create a quarterly index for monitoring the jobs of the future, analyze the ROI on smart cities, and assess the impact of AI on business performance. Our clients often tell us that these innovative uses of economics are among the most successful means to differentiate their organization, attract new clients, and drive new business. In short, economic analysis can help marketers address a key conclusion from the Edelman-LinkedIn study: that most B2B companies are missing the opportunity to capitalize on the full potential of thought leadership.


Lou Celi is Founder and CEO of ESI ThoughtLab, ESI’s thoughtleadership arm. Prior to setting up ESI ThoughtLab, Lou was board director and president of Oxford Economics, where he built the firm’s successful  business in the Americas and set up its global thought leadership practice.

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