How to Make the Case for Thought Leadership Content

Content marketing ROI is notoriously hard to measure.

That’s doubly true for B2B startups selling high-ticket products or services that require customization and signoff from multiple people. Organic traffic is not necessarily a proxy for success because 1) you’re likely selling to a limited audience, so sales isn’t really a numbers game; and 2) customers can’t make a purchase simply by visiting your site.

But content marketing is valuable to these brands. If you clicked this headline, you probably know that. So how can you make the case for content to your CEO or CFO?

In this piece, I’ll lay out key data points that illustrate the value of content marketing, whether you’re advocating to keep, grow, or launch a program.

Business Buyers Shop by First Consuming Content, Then Talking to Sales

B2B startups are selling to businesses, but they’re also selling to humans. That is, the people within those businesses who make purchase recommendations and buying decisions are flesh-and-blood humans (for now).

Gartner set out to understand how these regular old humans go about shopping for business solutions and discovered that they do exactly what you’d expect:

  • They Google stuff.
  • They download whitepapers.
  • They ask colleagues and professional networks.
  • They download more stuff.
  • They scroll LinkedIn and tune in to interesting conversations.
  • They read websites.
  • They watch videos.

In other words: they consume a bunch of content. Then they get together with colleagues and compare notes. 

Eventually, they talk to salespeople. But guess what? Gartner found that business buyers are already 83 percent of the way through their buying process when those sales conversations happen.

How far is 83 percent? Far. If they were driving from Towson, MD, to New Bedford, MA, to see their grandparents, they would invite the salesperson into the car to consult about the route around the Rhode Island state line (see Figure 1).

A Google Maps screenshot of the driving route between Towson, MD and New Bedford, MA, as a metaphor for the B2B buyer's journey. A grey map pin marks the part of the journey where a sales rep would weigh in: while crossing the border between Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Figure 1: At the 83% point on a journey, you have limited input on where someone will end up.

Sure, maybe a persuasive salesperson could convince a buyer to end up in Hartford, CT, at that point. But they’ll never have the sway they’d have at the start to point the car in a meaningfully different direction.

But content does.

Because during that first 83 percent of the journey, what business buyers are interacting with – the thing that’s guiding them and helping them make up their mind – is content.

So what does it take for a piece of content to get a business buyer heading toward your solution? So glad you asked.

(Good) Thought Leadership Moves the Needle

Given what Gartner discovered about how B2B buyers shop for solutions, it should be no surprise that 54 percent of decision makers (and just under half of C-suite execs) spend more than an hour per week reading thought leadership.

Even more important, given our current economic moment: 55 percent of decision-makers consider thought leadership essential from firms that are selling something not deemed “mission critical.”

Related: The Thought Leader’s Edge: Securing Venture Capital in a Tight Market

Let’s be honest with ourselves, though: not all “thought leadership” is good. And bad thought leadership (like what ChaptGPT and its ilk churn out) actually harms a startup’s chances of winning over clients.

So what does thought leadership content need to do to sway sales decisions? At least these five things:

  1. Be short and clear. Readers should be able to get the message in five minutes or less.
  2. Present ideas that are counterintuitive, surprising, enlightening, challenging, etc. (AKA demonstrate thought leadership.)
  3. Use data and research to support claims.
  4. Offer concrete guidance on how to respond to the challenges or issues highlighted.
  5. Demonstrate an understanding of the reader’s pain points.

The TL;DR here: whatever messages your salespeople want to convey should be in your content marketing materials so potential buyers start considering them at the beginning of their buying journey.

Conversion Isn’t the Only Way to Measure Content Value

I mentioned at the top that organic traffic isn’t always a useful metric for B2B content. Neither is conversion (meaning, in most B2B settings, a site visitor providing their contact information).

A friend and former client of Propllr’s, Chris Rechtsteiner, who leads marketing teams at enterprise technology companies, is adamant about this. “Blogs don’t convert like product pages,” he said during a conversation last spring. “But they’re still valuable.”

He went a step further, validating a trend we’ve seen again and again on client websites: even when blog content does drive a lot of traffic (typically evergreen, highly technical, or tactical content rather than thought leadership), that traffic rarely “converts” in the traditional digital marketing sense (i.e., to MQLs).

So what's a content marketer angling for budget to do? Use this grid to set expectations about how different types of content can support the larger marketing mission:

Content type

Performance metric

How to Measure

How it helps

Highly technical or tactical blog content

Site traffic

Software (Google Analytics, SEM Rush, CMS-native measures, etc.)

  1. A rising tide lifts all ships. Traffic to one page on the site can help site performance overall.
  2. This content is helpful, likely to employees at target companies. Even if these people aren’t decision-makers, they can help validate your organization’s credentials.

Evergreen guides that solve customer pain points

Site traffic, site engagement (e.g., multiple page views)

Software (GA, etc.)

  1. This content builds brand affinity by helping get people where they need to be.
  2. It also establishes credibility by demonstrating that you understand your prospects’ pain points.

Thought leadership


  • Use by sales team
  • Used in media pitching / PR
  • Drive social media engagement 

Manual models (conversations with sales and PR  teams) + software for social measurement

  1. This content builds authority and credibility in your space.
  2. It gives sales reps a reason to reach out to and reengage with prospects.

It’s easy to miss the value of thought leadership content if you’re looking for evidence of its performance in software that can only track classic digital marketing metrics.

Use Thought Leadership Content to Fuel Marketing, PR, and Sales

If you’re fighting an uphill battle for budget, your best weapon is collaboration with other departments. Work with your sales colleagues to identify what kind of content to write, find out how they’re using it, and assess its impact.

Work with the PR folks to find out what would be most helpful to power pitches and validate claims that company leaders are also thought leaders. Work with the social team to understand what's performing well and how you can create a feedback loop between content and social.

And if all of those “teams” are you, then let us know if we can help!