This article first appeared on the Business of Marketing hub.

The idea that you can’t measure the impact of thought leadership is a myth. Here’s what you can do to demonstrate the value of your initiatives.

“Don’t forget to sell shirts and shoes.”

Kevin Plank, the CEO of sportswear company Under Armour, famously has this phrase written in permanent ink on his office whiteboard. It’s to remind his staff (and himself) that marketing initiatives must drive revenue and sales.

When the concept of thought leadership is mentioned, I often hear people dismiss it because they think you can’t accurately measure its impact on these crucial business metrics. This idea is false.

A 2014 International Data Corporation survey authored in co‐operation with LinkedIn shows that online networks play a vital role in the purchase process. Three quarters of B2B buyers and 84 per cent of C‐suite execs and vice presidents use social media to make purchasing decisions.

Importantly, these customers are buying from companies after reading content they have produced, or content that has been quoted by a trusted third‐party.

The secret is to define a clear goal and the path for achieving it, and then to use data to connect the dots

In this piece, I will not only demonstrate that the impact of this kind of thought leadership can be measured with some practical tips – I will also show how it can generate real revenue into the millions of pounds, eclipsing many traditional tactics.

You see, once you’ve decided to implement thought leadership and employee advocacy programmes beyond the “please retweet this” approach some comms teams want to pass off as advocacy, you need a way to tell if these initiatives are working.

According to The Information Technology Services Marketing Association (ITSMA), the 25 per cent of marketers that can demonstrate marketing’s impact on the business do so by defining a clear goal and the path for achieving it, and then using data to connect the dots.

When applied to thought leadership, this means crafting a set of metrics that can be easily measured. As with any formal marketing programme, building in these measurement metrics during the development stages will mean you can check and efficiently compare “before” and “after” results from day one.

You need to start with a clear goal in mind

According to Microsoft, it takes 7 – 13 touches to deliver a qualified sales lead. Yet, by the fourth contact a full 89 per cent of salespeople have given up.

That’s why it’s so important for marketers to step up to the plate and provide those extra touches in the form of thought leadership content.

We even know that great thought leadership does lead to increased revenue. Roughly half of executives have awarded business to a company because of its thought leadership content. But for many organisations, joining the dots between specific campaigns and sales can be a challenge.

The first step towards overcoming this challenge is to make sure you have a laser focus on why you’re producing content.

Ask yourself what success looks like. Are you looking to increase revenue? To build your lead pipeline? To generate more RFP conversions? Ideally, choose a metric you already measure and then map the impact of your content efforts on top of this.

Don’t be fooled by vanity metrics. More ‘likes’ or ‘engagement’ do not always translate into an increase in sales. The business impacts of thought leadership can be broken into three categories: reputation, relationship and revenue.

Arguably a key goal of any thought leadership programme is to cultivate a reputation as a trusted authority in your field. Ideally, this reputation will prompt others to solicit your input on strategic issues and take this into account as they form their own opinions and make business decisions.

The greater you and your firm’s reputation, the more likely your peers are to consider your product and service over someone else.

Thought leadership can also be an inroad to developing important connections with other recognised authorities, industry leaders, potential customers, business partners and more.

However, as a long‐term marketer I’ve always believed that the best metric is increased revenue.

But how can you attach a sales revenue figure to a blog post, a tweet, a podcast appearance or a mention in the national press? The answer is that you need to have a range of tactics in play. There is no one “silver bullet” to win the measurement game.

While attributing revenue to thought leadership activity can be challenging, it is essential to ensure you can continue your activities. We all know your activities can lead to subsequent revenue events – it’s just a matter of putting a system in place to help you see when this happens.

Starting with a clear goal in mind will also help you see which of your activities are driving the most leads, so you can focus your efforts around these.

Joining the dots between content and sales

Once you’ve defined your business objectives, be sure to establish a baseline for your chosen metrics before you begin your thought leadership campaigns.

If your product is easily described and bought online, you should then be able to measure attribution directly from your thought leadership content using links connected to your marketing automation platform.

This will let you track where customers have clicked on your content and actually made a purchase or asked for more information.

For products and services that are harder to directly link to a sale, you will need to ensure that you measure absolutely everything you create that can be measured. Use short links to provide a unique tracking link on every piece of content you share on social media, or via email.

If the call to action on your content is to visit your company website, using UTM parameters in conjunction with Google Analytics will help you connect the content to the sale. (UTM parameters in a URL identify the marketing campaign that refers traffic to a specific website.)

Another common technique for measuring the short‐term impact of thought leadership content is to focus on generating leads. Once you’ve worked with your sales team to define what counts as a qualified lead, it should then be relatively straightforward to devise a system for capturing the contact details of new prospects and tracking how many leads your initiatives are generating.

But, what if you’re focusing on longer term goals like building awareness of your offering or developing a loyal following online? In that case, you may need to be a bit more creative in your approach.

One possible way to tackle this challenge is to conduct quarterly audience surveys to measure how your audience’s perceptions change over time in relation to the thought leadership you create.

But at the same time, don’t under estimate the power of anecdotal evidence when it comes to demonstrating the impact of your campaigns.

When I was an executive at IBM, I generated $100 million of incremental revenue that I could directly link to thought leadership activities such as public speaking, blogging and having an active social media presence. By keeping a detailed account of these activities, I was able to make the direct links to revenue over time and prove that my work was not only delivering better qualified leads, but also leading to real revenue.

Whenever your team’s thought leadership activities lead to a positive business outcome, make sure you broadcast it to the rest of the organisation. This will go a long way towards securing buy‐in for your initiatives and provide tangible evidence that they deliver results. Remember that other areas of the business may be completely unaware of the great work that you do!

Keeping track of the results your team’s thought leadership activities generate can be tricky. But with the right processes in place, it is possible – and the rewards for building measurement into your thought leadership programme from the outset can be huge.

Set clear KPIs linked to defined business goals to build measurement into them from the outset. Then, track your activities religiously to build up a clear picture of the outcomes they deliver. Oh, and remember: don’t forget to sell shirts and shoes.

Key takeaways

  • Start with a clear goal in mind. Defining exactly why you’re creating thought leadership content from the outset will make it easier to set measurable KPIs to work towards.
  • Measure everything. Ensure you have systems and processes in place to track activity that results from your thought leadership campaigns before you begin.
  • Don’t under estimate the power of anecdotal evidence. Individual success stories are a great way to show the rest of the business what thought leadership content can do.