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 term “thought leadership,” which marketers have used interchangeably with content marketing. The problem is – just because you’re creating and sharing content on relevant topics doesn’t mean you’re engaged in “thought leadership.”

While content marketing and thought leadership are involved with developing content to ultimately drive inbound interest, thought leadership goes beyond 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 before, it’s more important to write content about what your customer cares about than what you do. Rather than using content to promote one’s products and services, thought leadership is consumed with answering its audience’s fundamental questions. 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 primary goal is to be helpful – which is why customers view it as more valuable.

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.

Thought leadership aims to be more original, with next-level insights, unique takeaways, and creative twists on the standard fare. This is what provides the leadership part of thought leadership. In addition, thought leadership has a distinctive “voice” that gives it personality and attitude, which helps it stand out as 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) pointed relevance for solving its users’ problems. It demonstrates an applicable set of experience and learning that sets the brand’s offering apart from its competition. This level of experience projects 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 and even sparks debate. This can add a layer of authoritativeness to the writing by demonstrating an openness for dialogue and opposing views that evince 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, too.

Michael Baer
Michael BaerPartner, Interim & Fractional CMO