And pursue them they have. A whopping 89% of executives surveyed said that they use thought leadership to drive sales, while 85% use it to build trust with clients or prospects and 83% use it to build brand authority. Looking ahead, 91% said that it’s an “important part of our growth strategy” and the same number said that it would directly increase revenues.
The COVID-19 pandemic made it even more important, dramatically accelerating the transition to hybrid work and rearranging how we conduct business and connect with each other in a way that places even more weight on communication: 93% of business leaders told us that thought leadership is more important now because “it’s harder to get noticed in a more virtual working world.”
That dovetails with another information age trend stretching to the early part of the century: a growing emphasis on soft skills in the C-suite over traditional hard ones. A recent Harvard Business Review analysis found a 27% increase in C-suite job listings looking for social skills, and a 38% decrease in those which sought hard skills, between 2000 and 2017. “People skills have grown in importance as CEOs are increasingly expected to respond to not just shareholders and board members, but employees, customers, the public at large, regulators, activists and more,” Axios reported. The rise of robots and artificial intelligence will only drive this further as rote tasks become automated, freeing executives and other leaders to focus on jobs requiring human abilities such as empathy, creativity and—yes—communication.
No wonder thought leadership has proliferated and no wonder executives see it as a multi-million-dollar value driver. But that’s the rub with thought leadership: When everyone is doing it (and everyone is doing it), how can individuals distinguish themselves? Two-thirds of those we surveyed agreed that “the market feels oversaturated with uninteresting thought leadership today” and a similar number (61%) worry that their efforts won’t break through a saturated market. And 78% said that most organizations check the thought leadership box but don’t push the envelope—everyone feels obliged to play, but few understand how to do it well. None of which is deterring executives. Indeed, annual spending on thought leadership has increased an average of nearly 40% since 2019, according to our survey, going from more than $140,000 to more than $194,000. And business leaders see it continuing to go up—by nearly one third by 2025 (up to more than $255,000).