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Content vs. Thought Leadership Marketing: The Difference Twixt the Two

If you’re in the B2B marketing business, you’ll have noticed that both content marketing and thought leadership marketing have grown massively in popularity in recent years. As there’s a good deal of overlap between the two, there’s a lot of room for confusion. Naturally, many have stepped into the breach to help describe the differences for the less-enlightened. Here are a few of the more puzzling efforts I’ve run across:

  • “Thought leadership is the goal; content marketing is the means.”
  • “Thought leadership is your beliefs/values. Content marketing is the way you amplify those”
  •  “The distinction between Content Marketing and Thought Leadership is Genre versus Style.” 
  •  “It's like the difference between Apples and Oats. They go well together, they are both foods, but that's the end of it.”

One significant problem with these definitions is that they don’t help anyone decide where to apply one versus the other. If definition number one is right, we don’t need to do any thought leadership marketing; we should just market content until we attain thought leadership. If number two is right, we already have thought leadership, so we just need to do content marketing until everyone knows we do. Numbers three and four don’t give us any guidance at all.

At Bloom Group we know a thing or two about thought leadership marketing. A perfectly workable short definition for that is: “New, informative, useful information on a compelling, complex issue that positions a company or professional as an expert in a field.”

As my colleague Laurie McLaughlin just pointed out in a recent post, a useful summary of content marketing is: “An approach to create and distribute content to attract and retain an audience and get it to spend money.”

From those definitions, it’s reasonably clear how the two relate. Thought leadership is a subset of content marketing; It does all that content marketing tries to do but, in addition, positions the professional or firm as a leading expert in the field.

Back in 2013, Laura Ramos, of Forrester, illustrated the relationship thusly, and I think she summarized it well.

Thought leadership is at the top of the pyramid because it’s produced in lower volume than other content; it’s the hardest sort to create and market; it’s focused on the few issues a firm should own; and done well, it has the greatest impact on a potential buyer, addressing his most vexing problems with a firm’s best insights.

So, if thought leadership marketing is harder than other sorts of content marketing, when is it appropriate to deploy it?  

In brief, where:

  • Customers are grappling with a significant problem. For instance, warding off data breaches, or retaining top talent.
  • Your firm has a better way to address the problem (or opportunity), or you can develop one through original research.
  • Your competitors do not have an unassailable position in the space.

So perhaps the best way to think about thought leadership marketing is as one component of content marketing, itself a component of the overall marketing mix. Don’t be confused by the commentators who toss thought leadership marketing and content marketing into the same blender. Unless we clearly distinguish the two, the product will be lumpy and unappetizing.