Master the Thought Leadership AND Performance Content Marketing Mix


It’s a new year and time to streamline. There’s no better place to start than content marketing, particularly the way we create content and engage our customers with useful information.

Too many marketers approach all customers and prospects as equal when developing content. That’s a mistake because customers are at different stages in the buyer’s journey (if they’re looking to buy at all), and missing the mark with content is a disservice to your brand – and your budget.

Marketers must know how and when to apply thought leadership content versus when to apply performance content. It all starts with understanding the differences between the two and how to leverage each for measurable results.

The Difference Between Thoughts Leadership and Performance Content

Thought leadership content delivers big ideas that are issue- and industry-centric. An optimal approach to thought leadership is to develop broadly appealing content such as research reports and articles, then repurpose elements in a variety of bite-size chunks: blogs, email campaigns, newsletters, infographics and more. There is potential to collect some data from thought leadership content via email or web-based clicks but not granular, behavioral data about how individuals engage. Thought leadership should be delivered at a regular cadence (a daily blog or weekly newsletter) and requires broad distribution.

Performance content is brand centric, making a case for marketers’ products or services. It should include detailed, how-to insights about specific issues or challenges. Those reading performance content should be able to take action based on the insights it delivers. It includes whitepapers, e-books, webcasts, videos, or PowerPoint and Slideshare presentations – optimized for specific stages in the buyer’s journey. It’s gated, so engagement can be tracked in a granular way. Performance content should leverage fine-grained targeting (email, behavioral ads, contextually related links) to ensure it reaches prospective buyers who need actionable insights.

2 Ways to Drive Results with Thought Leadership

  1. Start a Dialog. Limited measurement opportunities don’t undermine the content’s value. Your goal, after all, is to educate and inform, to create positive brand recognition, not to make sales or have forms completed. It’s to start a dialog that will lead to future engagement and more quantifiable actions (like sales). Marketers and salespeople can spark dialogs by delivering thought leadership content at branded and industry events, as well as in customer meetings.
  2. Measure, Adapt on the Fly. While you don’t have a wealth of metrics, you still must leverage those that are available. You can infer engagement of prospects by evaluating web site traffic, aggregate clicks and open data for email messages, subject lines, article/blog titles and more. Use that insight to determine whether content you perceive as demonstrating thought leadership is, indeed, delivering value. If it is, maintain consistent practices. If it’s not, adapt titles, subject lines, online presentation and other variables for engagement.

2 Ways to Drive Results with Performance Content

  1. Build, Optimize for Target Profiles. Build buyer personas that factor in professional roles, industry, buying triggers and business challenges. Then create content with current, timely insights that speak directly to these factors. Use marketing automation to identify individuals that map to target profiles, then distribute that content via social, email and web channels. Leverage the insight gained in data gathering and analysis to create optimized offers.
  2. Test, Analyze, Iterate — Dispassionately. Define content and campaign quality in terms of the audience: Did targets engage? Were they receptive? Too often, marketers get married to the message. With content marketing, there’s a unique opportunity to test quality and resonance of the brand message. If campaigns fail, that may indicate your message needs revision, or that it isn’t translating to content engagement. Poor results warrant a forthright analysis and possible revisions. You also may have a content (asset, marketing offer or both) quality problem. Content that doesn’t advance your marketing goals is weak, no matter how well written or nicely designed it may be.

Marketers need thought leadership AND performance content to manage the progression from educating prospects to helping buyers make decisions—and ultimately earning their business. There’s no better time than now to develop your 2014 plan of action: simplify—and nail—the mix of content to deliver results that will separate your brand from the pack.


  1. Great article and I appreciate how you’ve outline the content strategy between thought leadership content and performance content. Coming from a research background, I continually witness the power of research as a thought leadership tool. Aligning the proper content to specific stages of the marketing/sales funnel will result in a dramatic increase in conversion rates. If Content Is King, then Content Strategy is your Ace In the Hole.

  2. Scott, it’s clear that you understand the importance of defining your audience before trying to engage. But go a step further, and dig into the importance of buying stages, clearly defining the difference between thought leadership & performance content. Good stuff!

    And +1 to Todd’s comments about strategy above :)

    • Scott Vaughan says:

      Carly, definitely on understanding the buyers’ journey and aligning content – format and function – with their info needs at each stage. Thanks for sharing your point of view.

  3. Great write up, Scott. The ability for marketers to personalize and truly take prospects/customers through the journey you mention is what 2014 is going to be all about. Thought leadership should be the overarching theme to your marketing strategy while performance content is your direct, personalized content to specific audience(s). Thanks for sharing.

    • Scott Vaughan says:

      Thanks Jason for feedback. I like the way you suggest to direct and apply thought leadership AND performance content. This is such a balancing act. So many marketing groups are so demand oriented their content and message becomes heavily weighted towards their products. Thought leadership creates a dialog with customers, prospects, partners and the market at large. Good stuff!

  4. Much has been documented recently about mapping sales tools to selling stages to ensure content coverage. (That’s something we’ve done for years. ) But one thing many organizations have yet to recognize is the similarity in this process with the one used to acquire customers. In fact, the strategies we use to nurture prospects along a defined path are directly applicable to how we enable salespeople in complex selling environments. And by applying some of the same methods, marketers can monitor and move specific solution areas into top-of-mind positions across specific types of sellers, and based on organizational goals.

    • Scott Vaughan says:

      Teresa, great point on the need/shift in thinking about sales tools. I would add this shift towards nurture is not just to enable sales people but to help prospects consume information they need to get up to speed before or in addition to engaging with a sales person. Our consumers/customers have control and do so much research on their own.

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