Thought Leadership Vs Content Marketing Tactics

Optimize Marketing Mix

Thought leadership is getting a lot of attention among those aiming their marketing to increase brand recognition. So does content marketing, which is often touted for its ability to create top-of-funnel and marketing-qualified leads. So what are the differences in these two marketing strategies? Here are some thoughts to contemplate.

  • Content marketing is top-down; thought leadership is peer-to-peer
    • Content marketing is typically a top-down communication method whether selling B2B or B2C. Think about the last time you read a company blog that was clearly intended to sell you as a customer and ask yourself this: Was the company talking with you or to you? In the vast majority of cases, content marketing’s intended purpose is not to start a dialogue with its intended authorship. Rather, content marketing’s central objective is to initiate a relationship with the reader that the company writing the content marketing hopes to leverage into sales activity. But the communication, in content marketing, is framed in a hierarchical manner.
    • Thought leadership, on the other hand, is typically more often a peer-to-peer marketing activity. In fact, one study found that authors failing to understand that was one of the main drives of dissatisfaction among readers. Typically, thought leadership aims to foster a direct connection with the reader. The objective is not to immediately exploit the value provided to sell but rather to leverage the quality of the thinking to begin, or further, a business relationship. The authoring party begins a dialogue to which the reading party — or the industry at large — is free to contribute.  
  • Content marketing’s commodity is value; thought leadership’s is quality of thinking
    • Think in terms of the sales funnel…both content marketing and thought leadership need a bait with which to hook the reader. The ultimate objective of both is to sell. But these two forms of marketing use slightly different lure to capture the attention of the reader.
    • Content marketing is about providing value to the reader. Good content marketing should be informative, engaging and useful. But its ultimate aim is to position the authoring company as the obvious vendor to choose from when the reader requires a product or service. 
      • Example: Let’s say that John owns a wedding photography service and shares interesting content about how to take the best wedding photos. Sara is getting married in six months and found John’s blog while searching for keywords. When it comes time for Sara to find a photographer for her wedding, John may likely to be top of mind. In fact, after reading his fascinating insights about wedding photography during the stressful lead-up to her wedding, Sara might even subconsciously feel as if she owes John her wedding business. This symbiotic relationship is the basic formula that makes content marketing function. 
    • Thought leadership operates at a slightly different level on the marketing plain. If John was an aspiring thought leader, then he’d better be prepared to have something truly groundbreaking to say about wedding photography…maybe John is prepared to agree (think third party endorsement) with a prediction that within five years all wedding photography will be done by drones using holograms as the output and that conventional wedding photography is doomed as an industry. Ideally, John also has some statistics that might be original to back this up. Strategically, this might make sense for John if he were quietly piloting a drone-hologram photography service (hence, there’s a sales hook). But his objectives here would be a little more oblique than trying to get Sara to book him as a photographer for her wedding. John might be hoping to pique the interest of local and national media with his surprise prediction. Maybe he’s hoping a drone/hologram manufacturer might read the piece and approach him about a partnership. If John’s prediction were to resonate far enough may become a thought leader about photography in general. This might mean that he could be booked for thousands of weddings or transition into something more lucrative entirely, perhaps as a wedding photography consultant. The quality he would be exploiting to do so would be the originality of his thought and the fact that, rather than just promote his business, what he said contributed to an important debate that may impact upon hundreds of thousands of livelihoods, including those to whom he wasn’t trying to sell.
    • A 2019 Edelman and LinkedIn study found that 28 percent of decision makers rated the caliber of thought leadership they read as “mediocre to very poor”; that poor thought leadership can have a detrimental impact upon brand perception; and recommended avoiding being perceived as more white noise.
  • Thought leadership fits higher in the sales funnel
    • Relative to content marketing, thought leadership fits higher in the sales funnel. Thought leadership is often deployed by businesses that are selling high-ticket items in complex and long-lasting sales processes. More than 50 percent of those surveyed in a study, for instance, worked at businesses with more than 200 employees.
    • The central objective when thought leadership is deployed in this context is to make an initial impression on the reader. Objectives can be tangible or intangible. About half of respondents to the Edelman/LinkedIn study found that positive thought leadership resulted in sales opportunities, including request-for-proposals. For instance, 89 percent of those surveyed said that effective thought leadership had lifted their perception of the authoring party…with respondents saying that the thought leadership had increased their respect for the author, boosted their trust in the organization and increased their perception of its capabilities.
    • Content marketing is used much more frequently in the B2C realm. Calls to action can be much more directly pivoted toward comparatively short sales processes and closing immediately.
    • In thought leadership, for example, the focus could be on convincing a member of a purchasing committee that it might be worth setting up a meeting with a potential vendor at an upcoming industry trade show.
  • Content marketing is typically onsite; thought leadership is typically offsite
    • Thought leadership is focused on creating original insights into important issues and leveraging the caliber of that thinking to realize top-of-funnel business opportunities for careful nurturing. Its promotional aspect, by necessity, is usually limited to the byline of the authoring party. This means that thought leadership is an ideal medium for offsite placement and is commonly authored and placed by PR practitioners or third-party endorsors.
    • Content marketing, by contrast, is often published on managed onsite resources such as blogs. Internal style guides rarely preclude the type of self-promotion that would be unacceptable for most thought leadership. The result of these differing constraints is two very different types of writing. 
  • Summary — Two different tactics
    • Thought leadership, which predates content marketing, is not an empty buzzword. Thought leadership and content marketing tend to have different target audiences, objectives and internal mechanics. The good news is that both are effective, and the two can be exploited in conjunction. Remember, content marketing focuses usually on selling a product to a consumer as soon as possible.

For more thoughts about marketing tactics, search the Thoughts Library.

Copyright ©John Trenary 2021

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