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updated 7/15/2014 3:15:31 AM ET 2014-07-15T07:15:31

If you’ve spent any time marketing in a new (or young) market, you’ve undoubtedly heard the term thought leadership. In fact, some of the largest companies in the world spend a good proportion of their marketing programs defending their leadership in a market. It makes sense. Customers are more likely to purchase a product or service from the company they perceive to be the market leader.

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Related: 6 Characteristics Great Thought Leaders Share

But good will only goes so far. After an expansive editorial calendar, countless webinars and events, and even more dollars invested in thought leadership programs, your CEO is bound to ask, is all this thought leadership effort even worth it?

The answer, although yes, is complicated. Lead attribution is still a very messy operational exercise, and understanding what programs truly impacted that PO signature is more subjective than objective, but figuring out how to earn a return on your investment in attaining thought leadership need not be a completely blind effort.

Here are a five ideas on how thought leadership programs can be optimized to drive qualified demand to your sales organization:

1. Think of your blog as a landing page.  Measuring the traffic on your blog is interesting, but if optimizing around conversion, the metrics provide little more than click-stream feedback on the subject matter and messaging. Install marketing automation code (we use Marketo’s munchkin code at Gainsight) to cookie and track return visitors. Someone who visits your blog several times may impact your lead scoring methodology or warrant an email from your inside sales team.

Include a call-to-action on each blog post for readers to submit their contact information. Typically, a related white paper or e-book will get the job done.

2. Lock more content behind a gate. If you’re not locking your best thought leadership content behind a registration form, you’re missing out on pure gold. Marketers have to assume that potential customers visit their website to learn, rather than buy. That being so, look at the content published on your corporate blog as a great chapter in a forthcoming (gated) e-book.

Create a landing page for each rich content item and distribute that URL through social advertising and onto highly visible, third-party web properties to capture more names at the top-of-the-funnel.

Related: Do as Successful Thought Leaders Do

3. Invest in predictive technology to prioritize follow-up.  A key goal for a well-executed content marketing strategy is discerning which MQLs are ready to have a sales conversation. Since downloading an e-book does not reveal true sales interest, having an inside sales team follow up with each and every lead is likely a poor strategy.

Solutions like Infer and Fliptop  use internal and external data sources to score your MQL queue based on propensity to buy. Your inside sales team will appreciate the effort and, in turn, will be significantly more effective.

4. Partner with like-minded companies to access new databases. Growing your lead database is a key priority for all modern marketers. A quicker (and cheaper) way to access net new contacts is to partner on key marketing programs like webinars, e-books, and live events with companies that have audiences similar to your target market. Although the content presented is pure thought leadership, your database will benefit from their cross-promotion.

5. Tease by placing mid-stage content where it doesn’t belong.  The bet you’re making, in the first place, is to sell value to your target prospects before product, so be careful not to mix a “sales-y” message into your thought leadership efforts. Pushing the envelope just a little bit can create incremental sources of lead flow without ruffling too many feathers along the way.

Develop a ROI calculator that quantifies the pain your solution addresses, then promote it in the same channels as your thought leadership content. Other ideas for mid-stage content include buying guides, RFP templates, definitive guides and analyst reports. Just make sure to lock it all behind a gate.

The intangible benefits of thought leadership are important in this new age of the self-directed buyer. Prospects are engaging vendors with a much higher propensity towards purchase. Even if your first touch with a prospect was sourced through an executive referral, chances are they’ve read a blog post or seen your billboard off the freeway. But, the lead attribution conversation will be a whole lot easier if you can prove tangible activity from thought leadership programs.

Related: For the Best Content Marketing, Be the Master of Your Craft

Copyright © 2013 Entrepreneur.com, Inc.

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