Thought Leadership is NOT Content Marketing

Thought Leadership is NOT Content Marketing

I recently opened my inbox and found an email from a reporter I worked with early in my career.

My former colleague had just read my blog post and she had one burning question for me:

“So WHAT IS thought leadership? It’s an inside baseball term. Can you define it?”

Good question
But it’s also one that we marketers also need to ask ourselves. Even among marketers there seems to be some confusion about what thought leadership is. I often hear people use thought leadership as a synonym for content marketing – another big buzzword du jour.

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But they are not one and the same thing. Not at all.

Thought leadership, to summarize Forrester Research analyst Jeff Ernst, is the strategic process of coming up with and sharing big ideas, insights and new perspectives on the critical issues that buyers face.

On the other hand, content marketing is the tactical process of producing communications (i.e., content) for your prospects, customers and other key target audiences.

Blurring the lines
Much of that content marketing typically focuses on building awareness for your company and selling its solutions.

That’s the stuff many marketers spend the bulk of their days creating: product brochures, web content, sales presentations, email campaigns and the like.

Most business people would never confuse this type of content as thought leadership.

But there are plenty of executives and even some marketers who think of white papers, eBooks, articles and blog posts as thought leadership content.

But it isn’t necessarily so.

That white paper or eBook may do a nice job of summing up current industry trends, thinking and approaches, but it may be little more than a thinly disguised product pitch.

In my view, it’s not true thought leadership unless it does one or more of these 6 things:
• Challenges current assumptions about a business challenge or approach
• Presents new insights, perspectives or ideas
• Offers innovative solutions to an existing problem(s)
• Pinpoints areas of opportunity, process improvement or profitability for prospects and customers
• Provides real leadership that inspires people to believe, contribute, collaborate and take action to address a problem
• Anticipates future trends and challenges

The future of thought leadership

True thought leadership will never go out of style. The world will always be hungry for fresh thinking and leadership.

However, to be effective, thought leadership must build credibility and attract followers. Most importantly, it must offer a vision for change and must lead on the issues that matter most to buyers.

How do you define thought leadership? What would you add to the list of requirements for true thought leadership? What do you see as the critical differences between content marketing and thought leadership?

  Discuss This Article

Comments: 2

  • Ryan says:

    Sheryl, I fully agree with you that thought leadership must accomplish at least one of the six items you list. However, I take a different view on how thought leadership fits with content marketing. Once thought leadership sets out content that contains fresh insights or innovative solutions (again you’re right, not a product push), that material must be communicated across a range of channels that include white papers, eBooks, articles and blog posts, etc. In my view, thought leadership is a high-end niche within content marketing.

    From a practictioner’s perspective, an organization has to adopt a content marketing strategy upfront, and then decide whether to pursue a thought leadership approach or a more run-of-the-mill content production/curation strategy (not that these are exclusive). Obviously, the former is more resource intensive and has a better potential payoff for the organization and its clients. Nonetheless, the tools are the same–it’s all content marketing (even if the term du jour is overused).

  • will says:

    In my view, thought leadership comes under the umbrella of content marketing, it’s the cream at the top, rather than that press release about SEO solutions which no-one reads. I agree with what you said though, it’s forward looking, fresh in insight and solution/problem based. BUT, I dont think there’s one company out there that does it to that level. Yet.

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