Thought Leadership vs Content Marketing: What's the Difference?

Thought Leadership Vs Content Marketing: What’s The Difference?

By Sogi Chukwuanu 

A few weeks ago, my computer’s touchpad suddenly packed up in the middle of the workday. With dozens of looming deadlines, I did what any rational thinker would do. I panicked and ran straight to Google for help. Eventually, I stumbled upon an incredibly useful article that explained what I needed to do (hint: it involved switching my computer off and on).

But here’s the thing: while the article certainly solved my problem, it didn’t convince me to do anything beyond what I already wanted or needed to do. I didn’t browse further for more tech tips or guides.

In simple words, it wasn’t thought leadership. It was simply content marketing.

But what’s the difference?

Thought leadership vs content marketing

On the surface, content marketing and thought leadership may seem similar. They both provide value and involve creating content to increase brand visibility. However, overall, they serve different purposes in a marketing strategy. 

Let’s say, just like me, you conducted an online search on how to solve a problem – maybe with your motorcycle. You discover an article that answers your question and provides an immediate solution. That’s content marketing.

Now, let’s assume you follow a motorcycle brand on social media. You’re constantly consuming their content on bikes, latest trends within the industry, tips for getting the best use out of your motorcycle, and so on. That’s thought leadership.

If you’re thinking about creating a thought leadership strategy (or even a content marketing strategy) for your brand, here are the main differences to bear in mind: 

1. Thought leadership content is peer-to-peer, while content marketing is top-down

Think about the last article or social media post that was clearly selling to you. Was the author talking to you, or were they talking with you?

In many cases, the primary purpose of content marketing isn’t to spark a conversation with the audience. Sure, there may be marketing articles or social media posts that invite the audience to join an ongoing conversation. However, the main purpose is to initiate a relationship with the audience which can later be leveraged for sales. As a result, the communication ends up being top-down/hierarchical.

On the other hand, thought leadership is more of a peer-to-peer marketing activity. It’s not promotional, and its immediate goal isn’t to exploit the connection you have with your readers. Instead, it’s there to create a direct connection, provide high-level thinking, and spark a genuine conversation with your audience.

2. Value vs quality of thinking

An efficient content marketing strategy should aim to provide value to readers. It’s meant to be engaging, useful, and ultimately position the author as the best solution to the reader’s problem. 

Thought leadership, on the other hand, is all about the quality of your thinking. What innovative ideas and opinions do you have to offer? How are you impacting and adapting to industry trends? You have to ensure that you’re feeding your audience with groundbreaking information instead of just more white noise.

According to Edelman and LinkedIn, only 17 per cent of high-level decision-makers would call the thought leadership content they consume either “very good” or “excellent.” So, before you hit publish, ask yourself: am I offering something new or merely contributing to the fluff?

3. Content marketing solves today’s problems, while thought leadership solves tomorrow’s

Another core difference between thought leadership and marketing is that the former is predictive while the latter is reactive. 

But what does this mean? With content marketing, there’s a clear pattern. You:

  1. Identify a current problem or hot topic
  2. Create content to solve those problems
  3. Share, rinse and repeat.

Thought leadership is slightly different. Most consumers expect thought leaders to be two steps ahead of industry trends and events. They expect you to leverage today’s research to predict what will happen in the future and create tomorrow’s solutions. For instance, a few years ago, Andrew Ng predicted that AI would be the new electricity. Roald Dahl also predicted the rise of ChatGPT 70 years ago!

The more accurately you’re able to predict future industry trends, the more your audience will trust your ability to weather whatever storm appears on the horizon.

4. Content marketing enhances product authority, while thought leadership boosts brand reputation and recognition

As I’ve mentioned, content marketing positions your product and services as the best solution to your audience’s problem. But thought leadership associates your business/brand as a whole with a solution.

You’re showing people that you’re constantly innovating, researching, and digging to provide them with up-to-date information and solutions. So the next time they encounter a problem, their mind immediately flashes to your brand. 

Which should you focus on: content marketing or thought leadership?

It’s easy to assume that your marketing strategy is an either-or situation – where you have to pick between a well-crafted content marketing strategy or thought leadership content. But that’s not true.

You can either deploy these strategies one after the other or utilise both of them as part of your ongoing branding strategy. The question then is: which comes first? Do you first build authority via thought leadership and then start creating marketing content? Or should you reverse the steps and begin with a content marketing strategy?

If you’re in the earliest stages of building your branding and marketing strategy, it’s advisable to first focus on content marketing to help your business grow. This means creating valuable, informative, and engaging content that addresses the needs of your immediate audience.

Once you’ve managed to build an audience (no matter how small), you can then gradually expand into thought leadership content, to help establish your brand as an authority in your industry. 

This way, you’ll get the best of both worlds: a comprehensive marketing strategy that not only solves your audience’s problems but also enhances your brand’s long-term credibility and reputation.

So, there you have it, a whistle-stop tour of the thought leadership-marketing intersection. I hope this blog has answered any questions you may have about the differences between content marketing and thought leadership.

If you’d welcome our professional guidance and support along your journey, click here to book a free Clarity Call.

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