Sales Pipeline Radio, Episode 333: Q & A with Ben Laws


By Matt Heinz, President of Heinz Marketing

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This week’s show is entitled, Edelman and LinkedIn’s 2022 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Report and my guest is Ben Laws, EVP & Deputy U.S. Lead for Edelman Business Marketing

Tune in to hear more about:

  • Types of thought leadership
  • How to make sure your thought leadership content is effective based on quality and targeting the right audience
  • Red flags to look for to prevent thought leadership from back-firing
  • How to create relationships between your brand and other brands through thought leadership

Matt:     All right. Welcome everybody to another episode of Sales Pipeline Radio. I’m your host, Matt Heinz. Excited to have you all here. If you are watching us live, if you are live on LinkedIn right now in the middle of your workday, thank you so much for joining us. You have an opportunity to be part of this program. If you have a comment, a question, a rebuttal, a rant, all fair game, please throw that into the comments here in LinkedIn, and we can make you part of the event. We can call you out. We can argue with you. Ben can argue with you, I can argue with you. You can’t argue back except for in the comments, but we’ll make you part of the event and we’ll have some fun with it. So thank you so much for joining us live.

If you are watching or listening on demand, thank you so much for downloading, for subscribing. Appreciate each and every one of you as our episodes grow and our audience grows. And if you’re new to Sales Pipeline Radio, you can catch every episode on demand at We get a lot of pitches for different ideas, people that want to be on the show, different topics. This one stood out to me and I’m super excited to welcome to the show Ben Laws. He’s the Executive Vice President and US lead for business marketing at Edelman. Ben, thanks very much for joining us.

Ben:       Hey, it’s great to be with you, Matt. Thanks for having me.

Matt:     So, you guys have been doing a thought leadership study with LinkedIn for the last five years or so, and I think thought leadership has a lot of definitions from a lot of people. But I liked the output of what you guys came up with. I liked the structure of how you built it. How did that get started? And maybe introduce a little bit of what you found in this year’s version.

Ben:       Yeah, it’s a great question. I think we know as marketers, just intrinsically, that thought leadership matters. We know it’s something that is a valuable tool. It’s important for, in my case, Canadian side, to get our clients to put it out there and use that shaped trust to get new customers, to retain customers, to convert deals. But when we talk to CMOs, our clients, among them and others, what we really heard was “help me prove that.”

We didn’t see a whole lot of existing research out there in the market that really spoke to the hard ROI of thought leadership. And so we teamed up with LinkedIn and we developed this thought leadership impact report. This is the fifth year that we’ve done it and across that launch, two of the five years, we’ve seen some things that are pretty consistent. Who we’re talking to is one, marketers. But we’re also talking to business decision makers, and pretty senior ones. I think what’s particularly interesting is, when you talk to those decision makers, they say “when I consume good thought leadership, I’m more likely to include the producer in an RFP. I’m more likely to do business with them.”

And that tells us that thought leadership, it’s not just about brand awareness, it’s not just about sentiment, it’s about actual hard impact with those business decision makers getting a deal when you’re a vendor. One cautionary note is, we also hear from them when thought leadership’s not good. That influences them as well. They have decided not to include somebody on RFP, or they decided not to do business with somebody who’s producing thought leadership on the basis of not being great. So that’s always interesting.

What we set out to do in this fifth year was we all know what kind of world we’re living in right now. And in this period of uncertainty, we don’t understand, how does that hold up? Is that still how these business decision makers feel about things, or do they feel differently? I think the headline is, it is harder than ever to break in with those decision makers and get their attention. And again, I think that’s a pretty natural thought, but it was interesting to see it validated.

And then we see three statistics under that, that are a mix of cautionary but also a little bit encouraging. The first is, these buyers are all operating within the context of a recession, and we don’t know whether we’re already in one, if one’s going to happen, period. But I think we all see that budgets are under pressure, they’re seeing procurement tighten up, so they’re operating that reality, and naturally they’re a little bit less receptive to sales pitches or to talking to folks who want their time without there being a vital need to give it to them. So that’s one reality as I’m breaking through.

The other is, they say that when a recession happens, 55% of them told us that they expect to look at their list of vendors and service providers, and cut the ones that are not vital, the “nice to haves”. So that’s a little bit of a caution for a lot of the people that we work for. But the silver lining is 91% of them, so almost everybody said “look, those providers can find a way to stand out and make themselves seem more essential to us.”

And 61% of the people we talked to said “thought leadership is the most effective tool marketers can use”. So you start to play with the logic of those three facts, and I think what it tells us is, even in a recessionary environment, thought leadership is an effective tool to one, get in front of those folks because they’ll take their time to consume it, and it is going to have an impact in terms of making them think about you as somebody who can help them with understanding what their pain points are, or their opportunities. Understand what to do about them, and that in itself is a valuable service on top of whatever product or service you’re selling.

Matt:     Yes. Do you have any insight on what type of thought leadership? Like, what does that mean? How does it manifest? There are so many different channels, there’s so many different formats. We started this as a real, actual podcast, just audio. Now we do it is video, but we also do it live and on demand. So, any insight into what’s working. And then you also… I’ll follow up because I want to find out… What you mentioned, that sometimes it backfires. So we’ll get to that in a minute. But what works? What’s in the toolbox of what’s effective right now?

Ben:       We’re honestly pretty agnostic on format, and part of that is just from sector to sector, or from persona to persona. There definitely are formats that are preferred, we think, but frankly, even sometimes when we actually test, we find out that what we thought we knew about preferred consumption habits of format is not true. So, I think testing is always important, but I’d step back from that and say “focus on the core of thought leadership.” And that’s what you’re saying. I think there are two aspects to that, that make thought leadership good. One is the quality of insight, and the other is creativity.

So, the quality of insight is as simple and as hard as, what are we saying that’s timely and relevant to this audience, this very specific audience right now? And that’s tough because you’ve got to be out there collecting that intelligence, and then forming a point of view on the basis of it. But if it’s not timely and relevant, and if it’s not something that’s really helping them address something that’s right in front of them, then right off the bat it’s probably not very valuable. So that’s number one.

And then the creativity thought is, I do think that especially on the B2B side, marketers and even producers of thought leadership like us, we discount creativity. We think this is a rational process. Buyers have their criteria. As long as you can solve that sort of math problem, then you’re doing something right. But the truth is both in the idea itself but also the packaging, you’ve got to find a way to be creative. You’ve got to stop the scroll, you’ve got to keep attention. There has to be something surprising and delightful about the content that’s going to make it stand apart and not seem just so rational and frankly, in a sea of thought leadership, samesies. So, I think those are a couple of thoughts.

Matt:     Yes, I think that’s really helpful. The other thing I think about sometimes with thought leadership is sort of audience precision. I think a lot of people get really enamored with big numbers. I have more and more people watching, but are they the right people? So how do you think about that as part of knowing that it’s effective not just based on volume, but based on quality and precision of audience you’re addressing as well?

Ben:       The gold standard is obviously one-to-one. But if we’re being honest, it’s rare where we have the luxury or the resources or the time to actually get down to one-to-one. So, it’s prioritizing. And I think it’s really looking at that buying committee or a stakeholder committee if it’s not a purchase that you’re trying to influence, understanding how do they work together? And what’s the point that’s best to intercept? Who do we go in through? Who do we equip to then have conversations with the rest of the committee? That’s our best bet. And I think your point is just understanding from that standpoint back to, what do they care about? How do we relate to that? And really just placing a bet with some prioritization on, how do we influence them and then hope that that’s going to have a catalyst effect to go and then influence the rest of the folks we have to reach.

Because yeah, it’s a tough thing. And you think about all the work we do to build personas, all the work we do to get the voice of customer research. There’s rich detail there, and it’s balancing, having all that with just figuring out in a given period of time, in a given level of resource, how can we best put that to use in a very precision way? The last thing that I’ll give you is just distribution. And we are big believers that you want to be as efficient as possible with that distribution, especially on the paid side. A lot of traditional advertising does hard work at the awareness level, but it’s not necessarily the best fit for something like thought leadership where you really want to get in front of that very specified audience that’s going to actually find a tailored enough piece of content useful.

Matt:     Yep. You got it. Talking today on Sales Pipeline Radio with Ben Laws, he’s the Executive Vice President at Edelman. We’re talking about their fifth annual thought leadership survey that they do annually, of course, with LinkedIn. And you referenced something earlier that I wanted to get back to. So thought leadership could be an incredible tool, and I think it’s clear that there is a lot of stuff out there, but good, well thought out, creative thought leadership can still be highly effective. It sounds like there’s times when it can also backfire when, even well intended or maybe not well intended, can actually have sort of a counter effect. Can you talk a little bit about that? What does that mean and what are some things red flags for people to watch out for?

Ben:       Yeah, look, it is sort of back to the way we define thought leadership, which is essentially, look at the intersection of, what does your brand stand for? What are you an expert in? What’s an ownable set of things that you can educate people about? Look at your audience, understand that timely and relevant element of what’s important to them right now. And then look out in the landscape, and what are the trends? What are the macro factors? What is really shaping the conversation? And the middle of it is a perspective that’s going to work. But when instead of that, all you’re doing is basically putting a thought leadership wrapper on a sales pitch, that’s going to fall flat. And a couple of ways that we see that go wrong is one, if you’re doing nothing but talking about yourself. So if your thought leadership is essentially just a veiled attempt to get you in front of a buyer and say “We are great. Here’s our capabilities, here’s our speeds and feeds,” it’s just sales material.

And that’s another thing we find in the research we’ve done for the past few years is thought leadership’s a better asset than sales materials alone in shaping the perceptions of these buyers. So if you skip over that and you’re just going to the sale, then you’re not building that trust, you’re not getting that foot in the door and conditioning people so that when it’s time to sell them, they’re thinking about you in the right way, and they’re thinking about you at the top of the pack. I think that’s the biggest thing is, don’t mistake thought leadership for a sales motion, sales materials, because it backfires. It’s basically a bait and switch.

Matt:     Well, what I heard in both of those examples of bad, ineffective thought leadership is making it about you, right? Either you confuse actual valuable thought leadership as sales material, which is really just you trying to pitch, or you just make it about yourself. It’s more of a vanity play than it is something that’s valuable for the audience. And that’s a good reminder. So look in the mirror, look at what you’re doing, say “is this about me or is this for them?” And it’s easy sometimes, that slippery slope, to say “well, I got a sales pitch and it’s going to benefit them.” No, that’s still about you. What is it about them that’s going to get some value there? I think we’ve got a couple more minutes here to wrap up on some of the stuff that I saw from the research, and I definitely encourage people… I’ll put a link to the full research in the show notes so y’all can get a copy of the full report.

I think a lot of times people think about thought leadership and they think about net new, they think about prospects, they think about the broader market. But a lot of really good thought leadership also has a direct impact on your customer base and driving greater stickiness and retention and relationship strength with your customers. Can you talk a little bit about what the report has shown there?

Ben:       Yeah, definitely in terms of driving retention, we’re ultimately seeking with thought leadership is shaping trust, shaping how they think about an organization or a brand. And we see that as essentially necessary precursors to one, converting to a deal, but also keeping that customer in the long term. It’s got to be about more than your solution. It’s got to be about more than your product. There’s got to be some underlying sense of, what’s this organization’s value proposition that’s over and above the one thing I’m buying from them? So maybe I’m interested in buying more things from them, expanding that relationship. So, I do think it does work essentially at all levels of the funnel. At the brand level, it helps you really associate a brand with a value proposition and just get that thought instilled in people. And then in a nurture function, you’re kind of pushing people down the funnel and progressively making that bridge from, if this is what we are here to do for you, here are the exact products, the exact offerings that are going to do that.

And that’s the whole spectrum of where essentially we’re using thought leadership to establish a relationship, and then we’re looking along the way of whether it’s intent data, or working with the sales team, just those signals that indicate a hand raiser where it’s time to move over into sales mode. So I don’t know, does that answer your question?

Matt:     Yes, it does. I think one of the things that seems like a through line in this whole conversation is the relationship, and the fact that it’d be great if we could have one-on-one conversations with everybody. That’s not always possible, it’s not always scalable. But how do you actually create relationships between your brand and other brands? And it effectively comes down to you versus me, Matt, and you, Ben. I mean, it’s people to people. Until we really get to robots buying from robots, which I don’t know, maybe coming sooner than we think, but I think it’s still… The relationships we have and the way you feel about someone and the way you connect with people at the brand, when you connect with the thought leaders and sort of what they’re producing, and feel like there’s some residence and value there, for you, that can create intimacy and personalization and relationship at scale, I think is kind of what we’re talking about here.

Ben:       Yes, that’s absolutely right. Completely agree with that.

Matt:     Well, Ben, thank you so much for your time joining us today. We’re going to put a link to the page on where you can get a full copy of this report. You can get copies of the last several years’ reports as well. But definitely encourage everyone to take a look at that, some really interesting insights around the impact of thought leadership, some really great data around how buying conditions are changing as we face some economic headwinds as well, the impact of procurement, the impact of non-essential purchases. A lot of really good stuff in there as well.

Ben:       Hey, thanks for the time. And one thing I’ll say is you mentioned annual, right? And we definitely do an annual survey. I’d encourage everybody to look out for some [inaudible 00:15:33] from us this year because we practice what we preach, and we’re talking about a recessionary environment. In six months, maybe we’re still talking about that. I hope not. But we’ll be looking to figure out a few other things we can sort of investigate and bring into that lens of why does thought leadership matter right now? And I’m looking forward to talking to you about this, Matt, and definitely looking forward to connecting with anybody on the line.

Matt:     Yeah, I appreciate that. I certainly think we are talking about heading into a recession a lot, and we’ve been talking about that for a while. I just wonder, at what point are we no longer heading into it, or are we into it? At one point are we talking ourselves into the recession versus the-

Ben:       Psychology aspect, yeah. [inaudible 00:16:11] it without knowing it, and then we’re out of it before we… You know, so.

Matt:     Oh yeah, even just as we record this today, interesting story in the Wall Street Journal about all these tech layoffs, but you have a hiring boom, and depending on the industry you’re in, you’re in one of theirs, one of those or another. So yeah, interesting stuff. Well, Ben, thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you everyone. Thank you to Justin and Lacey and a bunch of others that were watching us live and making comments. Appreciate you all so much. We’ll be back here next Thursday, 11:30 pacific, 2:30 eastern. Another episode of Sales Pipeline Radio. Take care.

Ben:       Thanks.

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