Are content marketing and thought leadership marketing the same thing? I have had a point of view on this for awhile (as you might imagine), one that until I realized I hadn't published. But a great conversation with tJason Mlicki of Rattleback, a web marketing agency purpose-built for professional services firms, finally motivated me to write my POV down on digital ink.
So here it is. I told Jason to think about a continuum of educational content -- “educational” in that it explains how to solve a problem rather than blatantly promotes a company’s solution to that problem through the old feature/function diatribe. On the vertical axis, think about “complexity of a customer’s problem” addressed by your company's product/service offerings (from high to low problem complexity). On the horizontal axis, think about “complexity of solution” (also high to low).
I view content marketing as occupying the middle and lower left of this spectrum. For example, a bicycle manufacturer or bike retailer that puts content on its website about how to put your bicycle chain back on your bike is helping you solve a low-complexity problem with a low-complexity solution. (Or at least you hope it's not too complex to fix, especially if you are miles from home with a misbehaving bike.) The solution is not rocket science. You don't need to read a book or 10-page white paper to get it.
Thought leadership marketing's territory is in the upper right: the explanation of complex solutions to complex problems. When a company like software giant SAP tries to make the case for how big data (and all its underlying software) can spot supply chain bottlenecks that are costing your company millions of dollars – that’s a high-complexity solution addressing a very complex problem. A 3-minute instructional video is not likely to make you write a $10 million check to SAP for its software.
There’s a great need, and thus great market, for both types of content. And the skills required to create both types varies significantly.
Many companies don’t need thought leadership – they just need good content marketing. And other companies require thought leadership, not content marketing, to make their case.
You just need to know what you need.