Content marketing vs. thought leadership

Mar 01, 2022
Strategy Thought Leadership

Is there a difference?

The pandemic accelerated the development and delivery of content across many areas and topics of B2B marketing. When in-person experiences were all but eliminated, content that was typically shared at these events shifted to digital channels. This content proliferation gave birth to so many content creators who consider themselves thought leaders. But this begs the question: Is content marketing the same as thought leadership? Are there differences between the two, and if so, what are they?

Thought leadership is a form of content marketing, and while they can be perceived as similar, there are some distinct differences between the two. However, both can be used to a great effect in B2B marketing.

Content marketing offers value in exchange for a strong business relationship. In essence, successful content marketing programs provide value in the form of helpful information to improve the customer experience, whether at the purchase stage or throughout the lifecycle of the product or service experience. Content consumers are looking for solutions to problems, and the value of that content can be shown in features and benefits of the product or service, in order to reduce the stress at any point of the customer journey. More often than not, content marketing is delivered on owned channels, and usually in the form of a two-way dialogue between the brand and the customer. “How to reset your password” is tremendously helpful content, but it certainly is not thought leadership.

Thought leadership is the type of content that makes one re-frame their thinking. It is content that is forward thinking, carries a strong point of view, challenges beliefs and viewpoints, demands attention and most importantly, creates a need for action. True thought leadership is not easy to do, because the most successful thought leaders are able to extract an insight that is actionable, one that can spark something as small as a new campaign or as large as an entirely new business model. Thought leadership is not sales talk – but it certainly does offer insights for business introductions – therefore it sits at the top of the buyer journey funnel. While it can be delivered on owned channels, it is well supported by trade media and other relevant earned channels.

The objectives, audience and channels are quite different for content marketing than they are for thought leadership. For those organizations that get thought leadership right, there are very positive paybacks in terms of new opportunities for growth. In the latest 2021 Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study, more than half of the C-Suite executives polled spend more time consuming thought leadership than prior to the pandemic. The study also confirms that B2B thought leadership, when done well, significantly influences brand perception and buying behaviours throughout the entire decision-making process.

Nevertheless, 71 per cent of executives say that less than half of the thought leadership content they consume gives them valuable insights. However, when these same executives consumed thought leadership content that they considered to be valuable, 42 per cent invited the organization to bid on a project (when that organization was not in their original consideration set), and 48 per cent awarded business to the firm responsible for the thought leadership. Buyers often feel that strong thought leadership provides proof that an organization genuinely understands or can solve specific business challenges.

In today’s business world, gaining trust and credibility is more important than ever. This means there is very little room for weak thought leadership or for product-related content as a thinly veiled attempt at thought leadership.

So, what makes good thought leadership? Or more importantly, what makes one a good thought leader? Here is a list of the 10 truths of thought leaders:

  1. They have carved out a niche or focus area and are the subject matter experts.
  2. They are seen as educators and teachers.
  3. They understand their audience and are in tune with their needs and pain points.
  4. They focus on timely issues of today and are forward thinking about the future.
  5. They don’t reiterate what everyone else is saying. Their thinking is original and unique.
  6. They are provocative and can re-frame the thinking of their audience.
  7. They take a stand and have a strong point of view that challenges conventional thought.
  8. They “lead with their thoughts” and extract actionable insights.
  9. They have a public presence that serves as a platform to share their expertise.
  10. They create trust with their audience and are human in their approach.

In today’s digitally-driven B2B environment, thought leadership is increasingly important, but also harder to do well. Cutting through the noise with unique, authentic, non-promotional and action-driven thought leadership is critical to earning trust and credibility with customers and prospects. Remember, thought leadership is quite different from content marketing. Understanding the difference will make a big improvement in the success of both tactics.




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