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The difference between content marketing & thought leadership


DATE: 21 March, 2017

Content Marketing v.s. Thought Leadership

In the rush to “content strategy” the words “thought leadership” are often bandied about in the conversation between those offering content management services and their clients. Unfortunately what is offered is rarely related to thought leadership. The danger is that the concept gradually gets diluted as in McDonalds appropriating the concept of “restaurant”.

Let's start at the end, defining thought leadership, and then we'll come back to what other forms of content strategy fill in the spectrum between data and thought leadership.

Thought leadership manifests itself by possessing the ultimate authenticity, the ultimate respect and the ultimate trust. This is the simplest, most effective definition. It allows us to derive a whole lot of other characteristics about what thought leadership is, and is not.

At the opposite end of the content strategy spectrum is advertising — a purely market-driven exercise shaped by what consumers respond to. Advertising is carefully crafted and in the case of say, election advertising, is specifically devoid of thought leadership, but it works.

The vast middle ground is content strategy

In the middle is content crafted for messages, possibly formulated on data relevant to the audience and containing useful insights, and always tailored to battle the ever-declining potential of organic reach.

Because of the dramatic decline in organic reach, a lot of the effort in this middle ground goes into hacking the system, for example, finding images of cats or producing graphics which add zero value. There is a lot of focus on massaging the content before publication and as a result of measurement. Things are carefully crafted.

This type of content strategy has become a popular if not necessary part of marketing language and budget presentations.

The aim is to allow brands to tap into the minds and emotions of their customers by understanding what drives their collective mindset and tailoring content which connects. It is what constitutes the majority of “content marketing' and it is successful but it doesn't approximate thought leadership.

Most entrepreneurial business owners could be thought leaders

Because thought leadership must reflect the ultimate in trust, authenticity and respect, we can derive some characteristics of what is it and what it is not, and how it differs from content marketing.

Thought leadership cannot be outsourced, it comes from individuals. It does not need to be finely tuned and crafted, and it fills in the white spaces in systems or concepts, and often comes with a willingness to buck the status quo.

Thought leaders don't need to follow the advice of “How To Write The Perfect Linkedin Post” because careful crafting of words and sticking to facts or assertions which can be proven is not the essence of thought leadership. That kind of advice is for the rest of us who want to craft our content for an audience. It helps if a thought leader can write well, but it is not the focus and writing is only one medium.

Thought leaders focus on crafting ideas, not audience reaction and reach.

They write as they speak and they earn respect because of the depth of their ideas not the breadth of their reach. The reach will evolve organically without needing cat videos and infographics.

Most progressive entrepreneurial business owners and many CEOs could be thought leaders in their niche. They have first hand experience of trends shaping their industries and technologies and people. They possess authenticity and could quickly gain respect and trust. Oddly enough most choose not to be, preferring to be filtered and managed and to fall back into the mix of content management.

Being a thought leader means putting your own personal thoughts out there in whatever form appeals to you — be that LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Periscope or Snapchat. It's not about the medium. It's about the message and it's about filling in the white spaces which teams of content producers don't even know exist. Perfection is not required, but a mindset capable of joining the dots in ways not commonly seen by others is, along with a simple commitment to share.


Walter is GM Victoria for KINSHIP digital. He helps firms use social technologies to grow via the purpose, passion & commitment of employees and customers. He has an MSc in Computing Science and is a keen advocate of keeping mentally and physically fit. Connect with him on Linkedin and Twitter.