How B2b Publishers Should Mine the Thought Leadership Trend

By Robert Buday

B2b publishers sit squarely at the nexus of one of the biggest trends in marketing today: thought leadership. Readers are going online to find experts to help solve pressing business problems and advertisers are increasingly pitching their offerings in a way that educates potential and actual customers about how to problem solve.

With some notable exceptions, most b2b publishers I’m aware of are barely capitalizing on the trend and that’s a shame because if they did I believe they could attract more readers, advertisers and new revenue sources.

Thought Leadership 101

I have been in the middle of the thought leadership trend for nearly three decades. I left the b2b publishing world in 1987—I was a journalist at the former CMP Media—for the world of professional services. I’ve since worked to get expert knowledge down on paper, published and presented by firms to their target clients. There’s finally a name for this nascent marketing discipline—thought leadership marketing.

Thought leadership marketing is akin to the supermarket practice of passing out food samples, only in this case a firm offers samples of its expertise. When the content is compelling and it’s marketed well through “earned” media like a guest blog post, Harvard Business Review article, bestselling book or keynote speech, it can raise the revenue of a firm dramatically over time.

While firms do try to publish with established outlets, they may choose to self-publish as well. That’s why big consulting firms such as McKinsey & Co., Accenture, Deloitte, Bain & Co., FTI Consulting and Boston Consulting Group have been spending millions of dollars on their own b2b publications. They want control of their thought leadership marketing channels so they’re not at the mercy of the editorial judgments of academic journals such as HBR, MIT Sloan Management Review and UC Berkeley’s California Management Review as to whether their articles are worthy of publishing.

Time to Capitalize

Many b2b publishers are missing the boat because they aren’t actively working to attract high-quality opinion articles from leading professional services and other firms whose people have expertise that executives covet. Too many publishers devote little space to non-staff-written articles or, when they do, they keep this space open largely to freelance journalists.

A publisher like Forbes has done quite the opposite, growing to nurture a network of 1,200 outside contributors, which has helped boost its online audience and digital advertising revenue substantially. For every Forbes, there seem to be a dozen b2b publications that limit outsiders’ articles, bury them on their websites or relegate them to advertorials—i.e., pay-to-play.

Professional firms would love to publish their articles in your publications. Take consulting firms for example. Research that my firm and the Association of Management Consulting Firms has conducted over the last four years on consulting firms’ marketing strategies shows that getting their articles in publications like yours (both print and online) is a very effective way at generating leads. So is speaking at your conferences if you have them.

The trick is to make sure the content is exceptional and not promotional by not singing the praises of a company’s product offerings. To be clear, I’m not saying open up your editorial space to self-serving junk. Articles by non-staff “thought leaders” need to be evaluated on a clear measure: Do they clearly and uniquely explain a problem in the world and how to solve it with real evidence that the solution offered works?

Perhaps only 5% will pass such a test. Still, that 5% could become a steady source of high-quality content that increases your readership and advertising while keeping your budget in line since you don’t need to pay for these articles. Now is the time for b2b publications to jump on the thought leadership trend, but with high editorial standards and ethics. Your audience is clamoring for it.

Robert Buday is a partner at Bloom Group LLC, a thought leadership strategy, content development and marketing firm based in Hopkinton, Mass. He can be reached at