Let’s cut to the chase, content marketing and thought leadership are not the same thing. While the terms are often used interchangeably there are some significant differences between the two disciplines. Here's our take on what distinguishes thought leadership from content marketing.
Before looking at the differences in more detail, let's start by sharing the following definitions we use to help steer our clients:
Content marketing is “a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.” (CMI)
Thought leadership is “original, authoritative and insightful content that differentiates your brand and helps your clients, leading to mutually beneficial commercial opportunities.” (Grist)
Whilst the two terms are related, thought leadership is a subset of content marketing that’s main purpose is to position the company as an industry leader by performing a deeper dive into a particular area of business or industry issue. We believe it is best structured around original research to ensure it adds to the conversation and not the noise.
“Content is king”
Content marketing produced by a B2B firm should always aim to be valuable, relevant, and consistent. But it does not have to be original or groundbreaking. Often content marketing is created to keep a business in the news feeds of its customers and prospects to ensure it remains front of mind. It’s also important for SEO, ensuring the right keywords are being used and that fresh, regular content is available for indexing and creating backlinks.
Published regularly and distributed to the places where customers and prospects are most likely to come across it – social media, email newsletters, sponsored posts – content marketing is a strategic discipline that is focused on creating and disseminating value for a specific audience. It’s often about questions like “How do I…?”, “What is…?” or “Where can I find…?” – but it always provides value through practical information and is never a sales pitch. Action is at the heart of it – action for search engines, action for readers.
Thought leadership is also about creating value, but its aims are different. As a subset of content marketing, its purpose is to position a professional or firm as a leading authority in their field. It also takes considerable time and effort to produce - it’s neither quick nor easy to put together, but the results far outweigh any rapid-fire content marketing piece.
Thought leadership is especially suited to B2B, given the complexity of the decision-making process and the length of the sales cycle. By creating original insight that speaks to a particular industry problem, you can assert authority and show you’re thinking about the bigger picture, not just sales. Use thought leadership to develop relationships by engaging in non-sales, industry relevant conversations; it can open doors with new prospects, help you keep in contact with prospects during discussions, and gain trust in the market.
It’s the hardest type of content to create precisely because it needs to break new ground or offer something new to an issue a firm wants to ‘own’. But the greater the effort, the sweeter the rewards – good thought leadership has the greatest impact on a potential buyer.
Building a content marketing strategy with room for thought leadership
Thought leadership should not be treated as a stand-alone activity. Smart B2B marketers make their thought leadership the centre point of content marketing campaigns.
Given the emphasis on creating new insights that add to the conversation, we believe thought leadership is best created from survey data. By going straight to the market to seek their views on a topic, you get the original insights as well as essential information about what your customers and prospects are thinking. The results of these surveys not only inform your thought leadership report, but can also be broken up and used in a content marketing campaign to promote the thought leadership.
At the very beginning of any thought leadership project, think about how you can make the most of all the content that can be created from your thought leadership. Consider the complex issues that your clients are grappling with, and how you can add original insights to help them solve challenges. Then, plan your thought leadership campaign to include content marketing pieces that promote and lead back to the survey-driven report.
Of course, this should all be done alongside your regular content marketing programme that tackles the easier, day-to-day issues and keeps you front of mind.
By taking a strategic approach to content, B2B businesses can both remain discoverable online while also establishing themselves as the go-to source for authoritative content. However, this can only happen when the separate tactics of thought leadership and content marketing work together towards the same goals.
Download our guide to effective thought leadership to discover how statistically robust and credible survey data can be turned into powerful thought leadership-driven content marketing strategy.