thought leadership vs. content marketing

Thought Leadership vs. Content Marketing

I’m going to take you on a journey through the brain to set the scene for the thought leadership vs. content marketing debate.

Inside of our brain is the Inner Sanctum of Thoughts. Throughout the sanctum are an infinite number of decision chambers.

Most of our decisions happen at the subconscious level, which is the function of our routines and rituals. The decisions we feel most in control of are the things we choose to buy.

When you experience the trigger that makes you want to buy something, you enter the chamber of decisions.

Each door to get out represents a brand in that niche. Most niches will have dozens of doors to go through.

In the B2B world, where the thought leadership vs. content marketing debate is most relevant, the step through that door is merely the first step of the buyer journey. There is a long and winding path through multiple touchpoints before the actual choice to become a buyer.

The customer needs to research before they are comfortable enough to leave the chamber of decisions.

Content marketing was born from the need to help customers decide which door is worth walking towards in their quest to scratch whatever itch that led them into the chamber in the first place.

However, the problem became that with every company investing in content marketing, it became harder for buyers to compare and contrast their options.

Most CEOs were perplexed by this barrier, but someone eventually asked the key question–how can I make these people feel confident that this decision should be made in the first place, regardless of which option they choose?

Thought leadership was birthed from the need to guide customers towards the right decision as the door-builders engage in a never-ending skyscraper contest to be at the top of the prospect’s mind.

Instead of educating the customer on why their door is the best, the thought leader focuses on making the prospect as confident as possible in the fact that this decision is high-value enough to act on ASAP.

Even though they do have a door in the game, so to speak, their primary focus is on building a relationship of trust. The theory is that this trust will inspire the prospect to follow them through their door when they are ready.

To benefit from a thought leadership strategy, you have to first study the difference between thought leadership and content marketing.

I studied the Google results for this keyword, and this is what the most authoritative (?)articles on the topic had to say.

Thought Leadership vs. Content Marketing is a Dichotomy

Dichotomies are, by definition, adversarial. The top-ranking organic result sets up thought leadership vs. content marketing as a battle of strategies.

The tone is B2B, so thought leadership strategy is framed as something companies need to evolve into from content marketing.

Content marketing is spoken of like the old and battered toy and thought leadership is positioned as the trendy toy everyone loves.

While it does go on to make some decent points regarding the differences, I think this dichotomy is false.

Thought leadership and content marketing are an apples-to-oranges comparison. They are similar in that they are both fruits, both commonly found, and both have the potential to be delicious if produced correctly. In terms of anatomical make-up, though, there are some key differences.

There are 4 Key Differences Between Thought Leadership and Content Marketing

The second result outlines what the author thinks are the four key differences between thought leadership and content marketing:

  1. Peer-to-peer vs. top-down
  2. The commodity is thinking vs. the commodity is value 
  3. ToFu vs. all funnel stages
  4. typically “offsite” vs. typically “onsite.”

This article does not go with the dichotomy angle but rather sets them up as things that can be used in conjunction with one another. I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, but I disagree at varying levels with the author’s suggested vital differences.

1 – Thought Leadership is Peer-to-Peer, Content Marketing Is Top-Down 

The one distinction I most agree with is that thought leadership is peer-to-peer while content marketing is top-down.

The author reasons that the audience for thought leadership is for one’s peers, which means it must come from a person and not a company.

This is the crux of the difference between these two strategies, in my opinion. I do not think a company can produce thought leadership. Only a person can.

A person can certainly produce thought leadership content under the sponsorship and direction of a company, but the critical distinction is it is this person’s thoughts, not the company’s thoughts. What people think of as corporate thought leadership is educational content marketing.

This leads to the second key difference from this author: in thought leadership marketing, the commodity is thinking, while in content marketing, the commodity is value.

2 – The Commodity in Thought Leadership is Thinking, and Value in Content Marketing.

Thought leadership content is created to make you think, which may or may not be directly tied to a revenue objective.

Content marketing revolves around content designed to move you through a company or entrepreneur’s marketing funnel, providing you value with the hopes of extracting value from you later.

3 – Thought Leadership is Strictly Top-of-Funnel, While Content Marketing Focuses on All Stages

The third distinction was that thought leadership is strictly “top-of-funnel,” and content marketing focuses on each stage of the funnel, as well as the customer’s journey through it.

The content marketing definition here is spot-on, but I would argue that thought leadership content focuses on the “pre-funnel.” It revolves around providing a steady stream of thought-provoking content on subtopics within the topic ecosystem of the pain and/or desire felt by the prospect.

Thought leadership does not need to be directly tied to the funnel. It stands on its own and is sustained by its value proposition.

4 – Thought Leadership Content is Published Off-Site, Content Marketing is On-Site

According to this article, thought leadership is content published somewhere other than your website, and content marketing is the stuff on your website. I think this distinction is useless, to be quite honest.

Both thought leadership and content marketing content can be published anywhere. The distinction comes from how it was created and who it was created for, not where the content is published.

Honestly, nothing else past these first two results added anything new to the conversation. The fourth result wanted me to enter my email address before reading it. It is insane that Google would present such an article as the fourth-best answer to this query, but I digress.

My Foundational Differences Between Thought Leadership and Content Marketing

I want to wrap up what I think about the thought leadership vs. content marketing debate. I discussed these throughout the article, so I won’t ask for more time. Here’s my recap:

  • Thought leadership must be the thoughts of a singular person, while content marketing is for expressing the thoughts of an organization.
  • Thought leadership does not have to be directly tied to a revenue objective, while content marketing does.
  • Thought leadership refers only to the creation and placement of content, while content marketing encompasses the entire process from design to distribution.
  • Thought leadership’s endgame builds community while content marketing’s endgame generates revenue.

Thought leadership marketing is perfect for CEOs, startup founders, and service-based entrepreneurs who want to position themselves as a go-to resource within their industry and take advantage of the opportunities that come with the territory.

The great thought leadership paradox is that those with the perfect level of expertise to be true thought leaders rarely have the time to consistently create the content necessary to be recognized as a thought leader.

My core mission as a ghostwriter is to find these types of people and help them create content that builds them the community required for sustained niche authority.

Does this sound like you? Fill out the contact form below with a little bit about your expertise and we’ll get started!