Top thought leadership trends to watch in 2020

Rob Mitchell

What will the world of B2B thought leadership look like in 2020? As we race towards the end of another year, FT Longitude CEO Rob Mitchell makes his predictions on the key trends in thought leadership for the year ahead. From new methods to measure effectiveness and smarter ways to understand audience needs, to a rise in neuromarketing to create better content experiences, we outline 12 ways for marketers to keep ahead of the curve in 2020.


1. B2B content will become more integrated across the marketing funnel

The idea that thought leadership is a “top of the funnel” activity is increasingly outdated. Smart marketers recognise that restricting themselves to macro, awareness-building content, without middle of the funnel (MOFU) and bottom of the funnel (BOFU) assets, represents a dead end on the customer journey. Bear in mind that old adage that up to 70% of the B2B customer journey takes place before a face-to-face meeting – most users want to research a business on their own terms and in a self-directed way, with limited intervention from a salesperson. It’s therefore vital that companies create content that will facilitate the audience’s progress through the funnel and that they meet their needs at every stage of the customer journey.

2. Content strategy will increasingly become the differentiator between success and failure

According to the Content Marketing Institute, only 46% of companies have a documented content strategy. Given the importance of content to any successful marketing campaign, this is far too low. Too many marketers dive straight into content development without the necessary planning, or build their content in organisational silos without a link back to the objectives of the wider business. Strategy is like the yeast in a loaf of bread; it might not seem that consequential, but it is the most important ingredient to ensure your content rises to the occasion.

3. Marketers will be under more pressure to demonstrate effectiveness

Many indicators are signalling tougher times ahead for the global economy. And that means thought leadership marketers will find themselves under increasing pressure to demonstrate the value of what they do. Building a framework of quantitative and qualitative metrics on which marketers can report to their finance and leadership teams will increasingly become non-negotiable. Although this is not an easy thing to do, it’s vital that marketers look for ways of proving their worth – and avoid focusing exclusively on easy-to-measure metrics like click-throughs and downloads. Demonstrating the true brand and commercial value of thought leadership is the only way to secure future budget and ensure that content remains a key part of the marketing toolkit.

4. Companies will adopt more sophisticated ways of listening to audiences’ needs

Too much B2B content is created in a vacuum. Many companies still adopt an “inside-out” approach. Their messaging is based on what internal stakeholders think their audiences want to hear, rather than what really matters to their clients and prospects. Instead, they need to think “outside-in”, and develop their thought leadership with a deeper, continually updated understanding of what their audiences will value. Ongoing listening, using a range of tools, from social-media sentiment to market research, will be key to ensuring that content achieves cut-through and resonance.

5. Marketers will look to neuromarketing to ensure they have an edge in a crowded content world

In B2C, neuromarketing, using techniques such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), has become increasingly widespread. While it may be a step too far for many marketers, the lessons from neuromarketing, such as the best position for calls to action or to where the eye is drawn on a website, can be readily applied.

6. Design will come to the fore and attract a growing proportion of budget

The boring PDF with bar charts will rapidly lose share of attention and, thankfully, become obsolete. All too often, design is an afterthought in B2B marketing. This will no longer be sustainable. Instead, design has to be baked into the entire process, with researchers, editors and designers working hand in hand throughout a campaign to determine the best ways of bringing content to life and communicating a message using the full suite of content and digital assets. This does not mean the death of the long report, which we know still forms the core of many campaigns, but it should mean the extinction of dense, lengthy PDFs in which design takes place at the last minute with no real understanding of the campaign’s objectives.

7. Brands will use thought leadership to better articulate their purposes, cultures and values

Thought leadership is not just about communicating expertise or a commercial message. As more and more companies recognise the need to satisfy a broader range of stakeholders, they will increasingly use their content to convey this message, outlining their purposes and values, as well as their more traditional business perspectives.

8. Brands will reveal more personality and emotion in their thought leadership

The idea that B2B content needs to be rational, rather than emotional, is long past its sell-by date; yet, many marketers still have not cottoned on to this fact. In uncertain, polarising times, companies will bring a distinctly human touch to their campaigns. Building emotional connections with audiences is crucial to brand-building and long-term success. To do this, B2B marketers need to address the human aspirations and fears of their audiences, rather than just their rational decision-making.

9. Helping readers join the dots between content will become critical

When content gets created in silos within large organisations, the result is often disconnected, even conflicting messages. Thinking about content at portfolio level, and making connections between thought pieces across organisational boundaries, will become vital in order to convey a coherent message across an entire business. Intuitive UX is entry-level – now, brands must show smart connections between content across sectors and geographies. Building links between different content assets and thinking of your thought leadership portfolio as a “network” will help audiences to navigate your content and reinforce their perceptions of your expertise and positioning.

10. Audio will gain a greater share of budget, but brands will place their bets with care

Podcasts have steadily been growing in popularity for B2B marketers, and with good reason. In the US, for example, 40% of the population regularly listen to podcasts. Yet they are still relatively underused: research from the Content Marketing Institute shows that just 17% of B2B marketers currently use podcasts. So, there could be a gap in the market for savvy marketers seeking to stand out. But they need to be wary of the pitfalls. Although podcasts are relatively easy and inexpensive to produce, ensuring that they are engaging enough to attract and build an audience over the long term is more challenging.

11. AI and machine learning techniques will be used to unlock new insights and findings

The research that underpins thought leadership could be about to undergo a revolution. AI and machine learning have the potential to accelerate the gathering of insight and enable the analysis of large volumes of data at lightning speed. Potential applications include the use of natural language processing techniques to analyse open text responses, as well as the use of AI algorithms to formulate follow-up questions based on respondents’ previous answers, in order to derive a deeper layer of insight.

12. Behavioural nudge theory will increasingly inform research methods, helping extract sharper insights

If you ask consumers in surveys whether they are in favour of behaving more sustainably, most will say yes, but few will translate this into action. This so-called “say-do” gap between good intentions and actual behaviour will increasingly be challenged in research to ensure that B2B marketers get more accurate and meaningful predictions of how people really act (as opposed to how they think).


We think we do a pretty good job of recognising new and emerging trends – see our 2019 predictions here. We also know how to sort the exciting game-changers from the gimmicks and the fads. If any of these opportunities stand out to you and resonate with your business, speak to one of our team to learn how you can apply these smart strategies and tactics to your marketing in 2020.

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About the author: Rob Mitchell

Rob leads FT Longitude’s strategic planning and sets the overall vision and priorities for the business. He manages the board-level relationship with FT Longitude’s parent company, the Financial Times group, and also oversees FT Longitude’s finances, people management and administration.

Prior to co-founding FT Longitude in 2011, Rob was an independent writer and editor. Between 2007 and 2010, he was a managing editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit and prior to that he was an editor at the Financial Times, where he was responsible for the newspaper’s sponsored reports, including the Mastering Management series.

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Slowly does it: a more considered approach to thought leadership

Festive greetings and best wishes for 2020, from the team at FT Longitude!

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