Measuring the impact of thought leadership

It’s a great time to be a B2C marketer: huge volumes of data have given marketing functions unprecedented visibility into customer engagement. And grounding the discussion in data and concrete metrics has greatly helped marketing reinforce the value it creates for the organization.

For B2B marketing, and thought leadership in particular, it can still be difficult to get that granular picture of impact. The long cycle of relationship-based selling and multiple touch points along the way make assigning value to content a challenge. When a company wins business, how can they accurately quantify the contribution of different elements and activities?

Increasingly, we’ve been talking with clients about how to measure the impact of their investments in thought leadership and what success looks like. Here’s a rundown of various metrics and approaches that companies are employing—and thoughts on why they still leave something to be desired.

Traditional web metrics

Many companies track page views, likes, shares, and comments to divine how well content is connecting with their intended audience. These metrics are all indications of reader engagement, which is a good thing. But even though these “eyeball” metrics are important, they don’t tell the whole story.

The best thought leadership is targeted to a clearly defined audience, which can be narrow—for example, CFOs at Fortune 1000 companies based in the United States. So, if an article gets 45,000 views but none of those are from your target audience, what have you gained? Unlike B2C, which is often about maximizing numbers at the top of the funnel, B2B content succeeds when it connects with a specific audience to support the long sales cycle.

For these reasons, B2B companies and professional services firms would do well to look beyond these top-line numbers.

Social media

Performance on social media, particularly LinkedIn for a business audience, has taken on increased importance. The challenge is that, like the Billboard Hot 100, high numbers on social can be bought through targeted investments in promotion. And the race for eyeballs can emphasize clickbait (such as attention-grabbing headlines and listicles) over distinctive insights.

Quality content should be matched with a savvy social media campaign, including the engagement of senior leadership to share content with their network. But the truth is that without an effective campaign, the best content may barely make a ripple in the conversation. Meanwhile, middling content can dominate the conversation and crowd out more worthy fare.

Mindshare

Since the conversation on important business topics is constantly evolving, being seen as a credible, authoritative voice offers another way to gauge impact. When excellent thought leadership achieves “evergreen” status and becomes a key point of reference in the conversation, this staying power has value. Mindshare, or the “public awareness of a phenomenon,” can be measured by the number of times a piece of content is cited and linked to by others. Thought leaders being quoted in other media based on their credibility is another metric.

An article we worked on for one client has been their most popular article for the two years since it was published in early 2018. It had everything: a timely topic, compelling insights, and a well-coordinated promotional campaign. When pieces achieve this kind of shelf life, they generate additional reputational benefits that can be more difficult to quantify—but are critical for B2B companies.

Customer relationship management (CRM) metrics

Some companies track the impact of thought leadership primarily by how it supports client engagement and business development. Metrics such as how often senior partners share content with current or prospective clients can demonstrate its utility in moving the conversation along and burnishing reputation.

CRM metrics and dashboards have the potential to paint a detailed picture of impact along the business-development cycle. However, the flaw with this approach is that it relies on people being diligent about logging every interaction in the CRM system. Since business executives often don’t have the time to do so, the data can be skewed by selection bias, resulting in an incomplete or misleading assessment of value.

Anecdotal evidence

The holy grail of thought leadership is when an article leads to a client conversation, which leads to an engagement. While many people view such anecdotes as unicorns, I can testify that they do happen from time to time. We’ve gotten feedback from author teams that the articles we worked on were directly responsible for ringing the cash register.

Such interactions are the definition of narrowcast—one-on-one conversations that directly address client issues. In this way, anecdotal evidence can be the ultimate metric. The challenge, of course, is repeating this trick consistently.

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Which approach or, more realistically, combination of approaches should companies implement? It’s clear in our conversations with clients that organizations are trying to track impact, but no one has truly cracked the code yet.

Over the course of 2020, we’ll be exploring what companies are doing to bring clarity to a stubbornly opaque process. We’re looking forward to finding and sharing insights in the coming months.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of Leff. He's spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he's had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of “lean content creation” as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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