According to the Content Marketing Institute, 86 percent of B2B marketers engage in developing and distributing content as part of their overall marketing efforts. The reason? It works. Increasingly, we're all in the content game to drive interest and engagement with prospects and customers.

Creating a content marketing program is relatively easy and inexpensive. All you need is an idea, some time to write, and a LinkedIn or Medium account to post your articles for free. Activate your social networks, and then track for what kinds of content and channels drive qualified prospects into your funnel.

I recently discussed the topic with Amanda Van Nuys, vice president at Bateman Group, a PR agency with clients such as Google and LinkedIn, to discuss why the best B2B content is thought leadership focused. She said, "Everyone uses the term 'thought leadership,' but very few actually understand what makes great thought leadership." Van Nuys suggests that you use nine specific characteristics as a litmus test.

Does your content pass? If so, then it has the potential to really take off in social channels and drive business value.

1. Ride a media wave

Outdated or obscure topics don't do nearly as well as those that already have some buzz. For example, databases are boring, but big data and predictive analytics are not. The best way to check if a topic has buzz is to do a simple Google news search. If there's a lot of recent activity, then you've probably got a contender.

2. Be personally credible

Thought leadership doesn't come from companies, it comes from people. Choose a topic that you can speak to with authority and authenticity on the basis of your current and past experience. People will trust you, and your natural passion will shine through.

3. Be visionary

Nearly every B2B business relationship takes place over the course of multiple years, so when a customer purchases your products or services, the person is also buying into the future of your organization. Put a stake in the ground about what the world will look like in three to five years. What new trends or technologies will emerge? This demonstrates that you're a big thinker with expertise in the space.

4. Be edgy or counterintuitive

Which article would you rather read: "Big Data Matters" or "Is Big Data Irrelevant?" The best pieces of content marketing are controversial, buck a trend, or even throw stones at giants. Take an angle or perspective that is fresh and unexpected and you'll drive more readership.

5. Speak to a real pain point

We all ask the age-old question "What keeps my buyer up at night?" Your potential buyers are struggling with real issues that can be a great starting point for thought leadership. The rapid pace of technology innovation, shifting market expectations, and new competitive alternatives are all issues that can make your piece of thought leadership more relatable.

6. Connect to your business

Blatant self-promotion is a no-go, but alluding to a unique approach that paves the way toward a solution is both relevant and valuable. The best thought leadership pieces should loosely tie to what you do as a business and the value your product or service provides.

7. Include concrete examples and facts

Everyone loves interesting stats, particularly if they're surprising. Validate your point of view with recent research from well-respected sources such as industry analyst firms.

8. Show the return on investment 

What good article on B2B engagement doesn't mention ROI? But in this case, you want to make sure your readers are getting a return on their investment. Did you give them an immediate action they can take to bring impact to their business? Are they more informed about a subject that will change how they do business? Make sure your readers feel good about investing in your point of view.

9. Keep it simple

Too often I see thought leadership content that is too technical, filled with jargon, or tries to cover too many ideas. The articles that leave a lasting impression are the ones that convey a powerful message in a simple and concise way.