Content has become universally understood as an engine of business – especially for considered purchases with longer buying cycles. Organizations from big to small recognize the need to develop content to help facilitate a customer’s path-to-purchase, demonstrate its domain authority, and drive interest and consideration for its products and services.

Content Marketing became a powerful marketing approach over a decade ago, with the maturation of the internet, the commensurate explosion of online content, and the evolution of digital and social media marketing. This has given rise to an evolved customer journey, with customers doing most of their research online and relying on various forms of content to keep them up-to-date and aid in decision-making.

However, lately there’s been a dramatic rise in the use of the term “Thought Leadership”, which is generally used interchangeably with Content Marketing by marketers. The problem is – just because you’re creating and sharing content on relevant topics doesn’t mean you’re engaged in “thought leadership”.

So, what’s the difference between the two? While both Content Marketing and Thought Leadership are involved with the development of content to ultimately drive inbound interest, Thought Leadership goes beyond in its ability to provide a greater sense of authority, expertise and trust. Simply stated, Content Marketing isn’t bad; it’s just that Thought Leadership is more powerful.

So, what are some key elements that differentiate Thought Leadership from basic Content Marketing?

  • It’s audience-focused, not company-focused: As I’ve written here before, it’s more important to write content your customer cares about than you do. Rather than using content to promote one’s own products and services, Thought Leadership is instead consumed with answering the key questions of its audience. It demonstrates an understanding of the worlds, challenges, and needs of its customers and uses the language of the industry and its practitioners. Because of this, its main goal is to be helpful – which is why it’s viewed more valuably by customers.
  • It’s novel and original: There’s a fairly common playbook for most content marketers, consisting of similar types of summaries, e-books, and product comparisons. But Thought Leadership aims to be more original – with next-level insights, unique take-aways, and creative twists on the standard fare. This is what provides the Leadership part of Thought Leadership. In addition, it is generally pervaded with an attitude and personality – also helping it stand out as unique and worthy of attention.  
  • It demonstrates relevant experience and expertise:  This may be the most important aspect of Thought Leadership – it showcases the writer’s (and, hence, the brand’s) unique and pointed relevance in solving its users’ problems. It demonstrates an applicable set of experience and learning that sets the brand’s offering apart from its competition. Content that displays a breadth and depth of industry experience is the most powerful content, as this experience projects an overarching expertise – which leads to trust. And trust is the one thing most desired in the buying process.
  • It’s two-way, not just one-way. While Content Marketing tends to aim to push out its one-way story, true Thought Leadership invites input, elicits discussion, and even sparks debate. This can add a layer of authoritativeness to the writing, by demonstrating an openness for dialogue and opposing views that evinces confidence and substance.

So next time you or your marketing colleagues discuss moving forward with a Thought Leadership effort on behalf of your brand, recognize that you’re speaking about something beyond Content Marketing – thus requiring an effort beyond it as well. But the impact and results you’ll achieve will be beyond it, as well.

*Originally published in MediaPost’s Marketing Insider on 9/27/22

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