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

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

But what about thought guidance?

For some, the term triggers an instant buzzword alert. Others assume that thought leadership and content marketing are the same thing, which they are not – although both can be used effectively together.

In this article, I want to provide a little bit of clarity about these two powerful forms of marketing, including how they are similar and how they are different.

Content marketing offers value in return for business

In large part, content marketing works by creating a value transfer from the publisher of the content to the reader.

Content marketers need to make sure they have valuable information to convey to their readership. Over time, providing that value while also positioning yourself as an obvious supplier is a smart way of building a relationship with the reader.

There are a few things to keep in mind about this relationship, and I’ll highlight them to differentiate between content marketing and thought leadership:

  • The “goods” that are exchanged in content marketing are valuable information. Seekers want to find solutions to their problems. Content marketers learn what users are looking for and develop content that gives answers to their readership. Ultimately, searchers can select the content marketer’s company as the supplier.
  • The relationship between content marketer and reader is usually top-down. As content marketers, we write to a target audience, but that doesn’t mean it’s a one-way street. Good content is supported by strong community management and there should be a dialogue. Ultimately, however, the architecture of the relationship is vertical rather than horizontal.

Thought guidance offers insights in return for introductions

In order to practice thought guidance, a target group must be identified and their needs learned. This is because thought leadership often requires knowledge sharing for business launches.

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

On the one hand, attitude. The natural home of thought leadership is in large-scale B2B marketing. Many organizations in the field have dedicated thought leaders managers. These organizations don’t necessarily have to build a reputation, but saying something original on a topic can be a useful way to stand out in a crowded vendor landscape. This is especially the case when the organization is trying to bring a new solution to market or disrupt an established practice in the industry.

Content marketing is used in both B2B and B2C sales contexts, but is more appropriate than thought leadership in a B2C environment. For example, it could provide a lot of useful information on how to get started with a home improvement problem, but the information it provides is unlikely to be cutting edge research. More likely, it’s an informative guide to solving a problem.

Of course, content marketing should be original, informative and appealing. However, there is a difference between providing useful information and providing insight that is original or that has not yet been written about. The first is content marketing. The latter could be seen as a guide.

In thinking, introductions are more valuable than short-term gains

Thought leadership is usually less about sales than about content marketing. Indeed, the distant sales target could be far away, and the immediate intended purpose of the tour could be to build a relationship.

Large B2B sales processes aren’t known to move lightning fast. In addition, many large-scale contracts are awarded through the Call for Proposals (RFPs), which are subject to strict procurement guidelines. Sometimes compliance with these regulations is required by law.

Trade media, which are often thought leaders, are important sources of information for both sides of this process. In contrast to blogs, the sales outlets are external placement locations – and staying without advertising is often a requirement of the style guide.

In the context of long sales cycles and in specific areas, accessing a potential buyer’s radar may be more valuable than selling them tomorrow. For this reason, thought leadership is often used in the B2B context primarily for its ability to create introductions.

It is surprising to see the extent to which C-level executives cut time out of their diaries to read thought-guiding content: 48% of decision-makers spent more than an hour a week consuming thought-guiding materials. LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study. A solid 17% spend four hours a week reading it!

The good news for those looking to establish themselves as thought leaders in the industry is that there is a receptive market for this type of content. The bad news is that a cookie-cutter approach to all content just won’t make 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.

Content marketing provides value for readers to build relationships that should ultimately be beneficial to the authoring party. This is usually done through content on managed channels (on-premise, owned).

Thought guidance focuses on conveying original knowledge or interesting ideas in order to pique the interest of the recipients. The information is also often made available to readership through specialized media and other niche publications outside of the website.

Because their goals and audiences are fundamentally different, thought leadership and content marketing cannot be approached in the same way – at least not if you are hoping for good results.

That is not to say that your content marketing writer cannot produce thought leadership as well. Rather, the tone of voice and the content itself should be different. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to have its own editorial calendar and strategy for each activity.

When doing thought guidance, it is important to do it well. The latest edition of the Edelman / LinkedIn study highlights the risks of poorly crafted thought guidance. Companies that received an A grade for thought leadership were recognized with increased brand awareness and a higher likelihood of being included in RFP opportunities. Conversely, those who felt the leadership was bad found that they suffered from negative effects:

  • 38% of decision-makers said that poor thinking decreased their admiration for an organization.
  • 27% of decision makers said that poor thinking led them not to outsource business to an organization.

Unfortunately, the study also found that many thought guides fail to achieve their desired goals: Decision makers often complained that thought guides … well, it didn’t really have a lot of “thought” or a lot of “guidance” in it.

Here’s what thought guidance should be

To avoid creating poor quality thought guidance that can damage your reputation, think about what thought guidance should be, and then make an effort to write content that has the right message across.

Thought guidance should include high quality thinking. Thought leadership is not about repeating other people’s ideas and using fancy language to dress them up. If your line of thought is worth a senior readership’s time, it should contain original knowledge that they have not read or cannot read elsewhere.

Most likely, your readership knows who you are, what you do, and what you ultimately sell. The unknown element is your thinking and your vision. Thought leadership should make the unknown known.

Often times, if your findings are truly original, your readership will expect you to help them research. If you don’t have the budget to commission your own assignments, see if there is any research available to support your case.

At the very least, before committing an article on thought leadership to paper, ask yourself:

  • Has this been written before or am I just revising someone else’s ideas?
  • What insight am I trying to convey? Is it something that the readership is likely to find original?
  • Is this a topic 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 have to choose between each other.

When you have a strong marketing team ready to produce great content, there’s no reason you can’t do both. But a different style and a different content are both required. Ultimately, the two types of assets will have different goals.

Well done, both types of content can benefit your business.

More thought-guiding resources

Is someone following your line of thought? 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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