Content Marketing 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.” (A thought leader, it follows, is the company or professional so positioned.)

As we pointed out in another 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.



Good post- one of the better ones I'm finding on how marketers think about thought leadership.

"Where to apply one versus the other" is a decent question from the perspective of a marketer-customer conversation looking at a toolkit of techniques.

Thought leadership isn't just a technique like another media channel, though, that's like considering the pan you cook an omelet in as one of the ingredients. Like the pan, it's the environment where everything happens.

If you embrace thought leadership, done on a structural level, as a necessary basis for everything a company does in marketing, then content marketing is one of the ingredients in the pan. Social media is another. SEO another, etc...

My definition of thought leadership- Leading your audience to embrace *your* way of thinking about what you do as *the* way to think about it.

Done well, they won't consider doing business with anyone else because you have taught them to extract more value out of what you sell, elevate it to a higher purpose, or, perhaps, make a smarter buying decision- one made by criteria that only your company meets.

Chris McNeil
Thaut, Inc.

Submitted by Tim Parker on

Chris, thank you very much for your comment and I'm sorry we didn't see it when you posted it. Yes, there are different ways to see thought leadership depending on where you are viewing it from. A strategy firm might see it differently from a data analytics firm. And different people in those firms might view it differently too. Those views are equally valid. 


Add new comment