Content Marketing and Thought Leadership: What’s the Difference?

Content marketing is a well-established discipline for generating inbound leads through keyword targeting and other methods. And since you’re reading this on MarketingProfs, you probably don’t need me to tell you what content marketing does and what it’s good for.

But what about thought leadership?

To some, the term sets off an instant buzzword alarm. Others assume thought leadership and content marketing are the same thing, which isn’t the case—although the two can be used together to good effect.

In this article, I’d like to provide a little bit of clarity about these two powerful forms of marketing, including how they’re alike and how they’re different.

Content marketing offers value in return for business

Content marketing works in large part by creating a transmission of value from the content publisher to the reader.

Content marketers need to ensure they have valuable information to convey to their readership. Over time, providing that value—while also positioning yourself as its obvious supplier—is a clever means of creating a relationship with the reader.

There are a few things to note about that relationship, and I’m highlighting them to draw distinctions between content marketing and thought leadership:

  • The “commodity” being exchanged in content marketing is valuable information. Searchers want to find solutions to their problems. Content marketers learn what users are searching for and develop content that provides answers to their readership. Ultimately, searchers may choose the content marketer’s company as their supplier.
  • The content marketer-reader relationship is typically top-down. As content marketers, we’re writing to a target buying audience, but that doesn’t mean it’s a one-way street. Good content is backed up by strong community management, and there should be dialogue. But, ultimately, the architecture of the relationship is vertical rather than horizontal.

Thought leadership offers insights in return for introductions

Executing thought leadership requires identifying a target audience and learning about its needs. That’s because thought leadership often requires exchanging insights for business introductions.

What’s the difference between that and what we’ve just discussed about content marketing?

Setting, for one. Thought leadership’s natural home is in large B2B marketing. Many organizations in that space have dedicated thought leadership managers. Those organizations don’t necessarily need to build up reputations, but having something original to say about an issue can be a useful way of distinguishing themselves in a crowded vendor landscape. That’s particularly the case when the organization is trying to bring a new solution to market or disrupt some established practice in the industry.

Content marketing is used in both B2B and B2C selling contexts, but it is more appropriate than thought leadership in a B2C setting. It might, for instance, provide lots of useful information about how to get started with a home-improvement problem, but it’s unlikely that the information being conveyed is cutting-edge research. More likely, it’s an informative guide about how to tackle a problem.

Needless to say, content marketing should be original, informative, and engaging. But there’s a difference between providing information that is useful and conveying insights that are original or have not been written about before. The first is content marketing. The latter could be thought leadership.

In thought leadership, introductions are more valuable than near-term gains

Thought leadership tends to be less about selling than even content marketing. In fact, the selling target could be well off in the distance, and thought leadership’s immediate intended purpose might be solely to kickstart a relationship.

Large B2B selling processes are not renowned for moving at lightning speed. Moreover, many large contracts are awarded through the issuing of requests for proposals (RFPs) and governed by rigid procurement guidelines. Sometimes, adherence to them is legally mandated.

Trade media outlets, which often carry thought leadership, are important conduits of information for both sides of that process. Unlike blogs, the outlets are offsite placement locations—and remaining nonpromotional is often a style guide requirement.

In the context of long sale cycles, and in specialized fields, getting on a potential buyer’s radar might be more valuable than selling them something tomorrow. It’s for that reason that thought leadership is often employed in the B2B context primarily for its ability to create introductions.

The extent to which C-level executives carve time out of their busy schedules to read thought leadership content is surprising: 48% of decision-makers spent more than one hour per week consuming thought leadership material, according to the latest edition of the Edelman/LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study. A solid 17% spend four hours a week reading it!

The good news, for those who wish to establish themselves as industry thought leaders, is that there’s a receptive market for that type of content. The bad news is that a cookie-cutter approach to all content simply isn’t going to cut it.

Content marketing is fundamentally different from thought leadership

Thought leadership and content marketing both involve creating words. But make no mistake—they are not the same thing.

Content marketing provides value to readers to create relationships that should ultimately be beneficial to the authoring party. It typically does so through content on managed (onsite, owned) channels.

Thought leadership focuses on conveying original insights or interesting ideas to stimulate interest among recipients. The information is often also carried to its readership off-site, through trade media and other niche publications.

Because their objectives and target audiences are fundamentally different, thought leadership and content marketing cannot be approached in the same manner—at least not if you’re hoping for good results.

That’s not to say your content marketing writer cannot also produce thought leadership; rather, the tone of voice and content itself should differ. Setting a separate editorial calendar and strategy for each activity wouldn’t be a bad idea.

If you’re doing thought leadership, it’s important to do it well. The latest edition of the Edelman/LinkedIn study bears out the risks of poorly done thought leadership. Organizations that scored an A-grade on thought leadership were awarded with heightened brand perception and a higher likelihood of being included in RFP opportunities. Conversely, those that did thought leadership poorly found that they suffered negative effects:

  • 38% of decision-makers said poor thought leadership had decreased their admiration for an organization.
  • 27% of decision-makers said poor thought leadership had led them to not award business to an organization.

Unfortunately, the study also showed, a lot of thought leadership fails to achieve its desired objectives: Decision-makers commonly complained that thought leadership… well, didn’t really contain much “thought” or much “leadership.”

Here’s what thought leadership should be

To avoid authoring low-quality thought leadership that may damage your reputation, think about what thought leadership should be, and then strive to author content that carries the right messaging.

Thought leadership should contain high-quality thinking. Thought leadership isn’t about reiterating somebody else’s ideas and dressing them up in fancy language. If your thought leadership is going to be worth the time of an executive readership, it should contain original insights that they haven’t read or can’t read somewhere else.

In all likelihood, your readership knows who you are, what you do, and what you’re ultimately selling. The unknown element is your thinking and your vision. Thought leadership should make that unknown known.

If your insights are truly original, often your readership will expect that you support them with research. If you don’t have the budget to commission your own, check whether there is already research that you can draw from to support your case.

At minimum, before putting pen to paper on a thought leadership article, ask yourself:

  • Has this been written before, or am I just rehashing somebody else’s ideas?
  • What’s the insight that I’m trying to convey? It is something that the readership is likely to find original?
  • Is this a subject that my readership is likely to be interested in?

Thought leadership and content marketing work well together

The good news about content marketing and thought leadership is that you don’t need to choose one over the other.

If you have a strong marketing team ready to produce great content, there’s no reason that you can’t do both. But a different style and different content are both called for. After all, the two types of assets will be pursuing different objectives.

Done well, both forms of content can benefit your business.

More Resources on Thought Leadership

Is Anybody Following Your Thought Leadership? Five Best-Practices

So Much of What You Knew About Thought Leadership Has Changed

Five Steps to Building Trust With Thought Leadership

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