A passionate marketer, CEO at iResearch Services, TechInformed & GivingforGood.
While content marketing is essential for all industries, I believe nothing pulls in leads and boosts long-term return on investment like a well-planned thought leadership strategy.
Nearly 90% of C-level decision-makers believe thought leadership influences their opinions of a company, according to a 2020 study by Edelman and LinkedIn. Meanwhile, only 17% of decision-makers would call the content they consume either “very good” or “excellent.”
That’s why it’s critical to understand the key differences between general content marketing vs. thought leadership. As the CEO of a company that specializes in thought leadership marketing, I believe both are essential tools in every company’s digital marketing strategy.
Content Marketing Vs. Thought Leadership: Seven Key Differences
Let’s say you conducted an online search about how to fix a problem with your car on your own or buy the parts you need. You found an article at the top of the results that answered your question perfectly. That’s content marketing.
Now, let’s say you follow C-level leadership from a major car brand on LinkedIn. You read their content on artificial intelligence in the auto industry, the pros and cons of hydrogen fuel cells and what the vehicle world will look like in 10 years. That’s thought leadership.
Here are the main differences to remember as you create a thought leadership strategy for your brand:
1. Content marketing solves problems, while thought leadership sparks conversations.
Thought leadership should stimulate conversations because you’re offering new statistics, surprising survey results and the latest industry ideas. Content marketing, however, should assist the buyer’s journey by functioning as a resource tool. It’s more matter of fact.
Your key performance indicators should look different for content marketing vs. thought leadership because they each involve other goals. With content marketing, for example, you might track your traffic to a blog and compare it to email signups or lead magnet downloads on the page. Those actions show that a visitor thought your content was valuable enough to stay in touch with your brand. With thought leadership, however, you might track monthly return visitors, engaged email subscribers and social media conversations.
2. Thought leadership content focuses on quality, not quantity.
A HubSpot article suggested that large companies publish three to five weekly blogs, depending on their goals. Content marketing always has a hot keyword to target or a trending topic to cover. Content marketing also involves a lot of evergreen content.
Thought leadership, on the other hand, is all about quality. For some companies, one post per month might be all you need. It depends on your industry, available research and how quickly things change.
Thought leadership should be longer than other blog posts because it deepens the topic. Not only should it offer solutions, but it should also offer research-backed opinions and ideas to get people thinking. People should be able to look at your thought leadership timeline to see how your leaders impacted industry trends and adapted to changing times.
3. Content marketing aims to sell, while thought leadership doesn’t push products or services.
Content marketing typically demonstrates your company’s solutions and explains why you’re the best choice. It often follows a format:
• Identification of the relevant problem;
• Actionable solutions and advice;
• Why your company is the answer.
Thought leadership doesn’t push anything. As a thought leader, you should rarely mention your company’s offerings. Instead, leadership content should drum up your brand’s interest, intrigue and authority. Your content should focus on your value proposition, expertise and capabilities. Show, don’t tell. Let readers arrive at their own conclusions.
4. Thought leadership requires research.
Research is critical at each step of the thought leadership process. Leverage surveys and other research tools to find untapped topics and identify upcoming trends.
For example, research by my company found that 50% of oil and gas executives believe that existing infrastructure in the industry is aging, thus increasing the risk of equipment failures. That statistic alone could birth thought leadership content on solutions for preventing failure, how to make efficient upgrades, balancing costs with upgrading equipment and predictions on future problems.
Research gets into the head of your audience. It can help you understand their concerns and problems. Anything else is just a guess.
5. Content marketing solves today’s problems, while thought leadership solves tomorrow’s problems.
Content marketing is reactive. You run keyword research to identify problems and topics, create content around them, share and repeat. It solves yesterday’s or today’s problems.
Thought leadership should always be at least two steps ahead. Thought leaders can use today’s research to create tomorrow’s predictions and solutions. Your thought leaders should show people why and how your company can be trusted to weather your industry’s ebbs and flows.
6. Thought leadership lets you influence the industry narrative.
Every industry-leading brand has a thought leader associated with its organization. In the late ’90s, for example, you couldn’t separate Bill Gates and Steve Jobs from the technology discussion. They defined the industry narrative, and people looked to them for answers.
That’s your goal for thought leadership. Aside from generating leads and improving business relationships, leverage thought leadership to set the stage in your industry. Of course, it takes time to reach this point. Thought leaders who become household names don’t do so overnight.
7. Content marketing boosts product authority, while thought leadership boosts company recognition.
Content marketing should offer your products and services as the solution to problems. Content marketing focuses on known truths.
Thought leadership, on the other hand, associates your company with a solution in itself. Your organization’s thought leadership should show people you’re constantly innovating, researching and investigating. It shows that you even question yourself in pursuit of the truth and aren’t afraid to take a stand.
Remember the differences between content marketing and thought leadership.
In B2B, thought leadership can solidify a presence people remember and generate leads. It shows leads that your company leadership is prepared to tackle industry challenges and offer solutions for everyone. While thought leadership can help you create partnerships with other forward-thinking organizations, content marketing can help you build vendor-client relationships.