The 4 Key Differences Between Thought Leadership and Content Marketing

November 8, 2020

Thought leadership garners a lot of attention among entrepreneurs and those aiming to pick up more traction in their marketing to increase brand recognition. So does content marketing, which is often touted for its ability to create top-of-funnel and marketing-qualified leads. 

Many, however, are unsure exactly what the differences between the two are. This is a pity, because there are clear differences — and they are worth underscoring. The best recent research into this space is from a 2019 Edelman and LinkedIn study, which is my main point of reference for this article.

Related: 10 Tips on How to Become a Thought Leader 1. Content marketing is top-down; thought leadership is peer-to-peer 

First, content marketing is typically a top-down communication method, irrespective of whether the authoring party is trying to sell business to business (B2B) or business to consumer (B2C). 

Think about the last time you read a company blog that was clearly intended to sell you as a customer and ask yourself this: Was the company talking with you or to you? 

In the vast majority of cases, content marketing’s intended purpose is not to start a dialogue with its intended authorship. Rather, content marketing’s central objective is to initiate a relationship with the reader that the company writing the content marketing wishes to exploit down the line in the form of sales activity. But the communication, in content marketing, is framed in a hierarchical manner. 

Thought leadership, on the other hand, is more often a peer-to-peer marketing activity. In fact, Edelman and LinkedIn found that authors failing to understand that — and using an overly promotional tone to convey underpowered insights 

— was one of the main drives of dissatisfaction among readers. Typically, and when written appropriately, thought leadership aims to foster a direct connection with the reader. The objective is not to immediately exploit the value provided to sell but rather to leverage the quality of the thinking to begin, or further, a business relationship. The authoring party begins a dialogue to which the reading party — or the industry at large — is free to contribute.  

Related: 5 Things That Authentic Thought Leaders Avoid Without Fail 2. Content marketing’s commodity is value; thought leadership’s is quality of thinking

Both content marketing and thought leadership need a bait with which to hook the reader. The ultimate objective of both is to sell. But these two forms of marketing use slightly different lure to capture the attention of the reader. 

Content marketing, as mentioned, is about providing value to the reader. Good content marketing (note: much content marketing is not) should be informative, engaging and useful. But its ultimate aim is to position the authoring party as the obvious vendor to choose from when the reader requires a good or service.