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The difference between thought leadership and content marketing

By Olivia Barrow

If your business has a blog, or is thinking about starting one, then you need to understand the difference between the three types of content — TL, CM, and BS.

I’ll go into more detail with each one, but first, let me define these acronyms.

TL: Thought Leadership

CM: Content Marketing

B.S.: Did you think this stood for something else?

You would be surprised at how easy it is to confuse these three types of content. In my experience, most marketers invariably end up producing B.S. even though they aim to produce a quality piece of Thought Leadership or Content Marketing.

Also, most people don’t understand that content marketing and thought leadership are not the same thing.

So I’ve created a guideline to hopefully clear this up:

Thought Leadership

Rule No. 1: Thought leadership is about calling for change.

To qualify as true thought leadership, you have to express new, controversial, or unpopular ideas. The point of thought leadership is NOT to elevate your brand.

The goal of thought leadership is to define the direction in your industry, to rebuild ecosystems, to introduce innovative ways to solve problems.

The difference between thought leadership and B.S. is similar to the difference between being a leader and a boss. You know the saying, “a boss knows how, a leader shows how”?

A lot of thought leadership attempts end up with an author saying exactly what everyone else is saying, but just SAYING IT LOUDER, to draw attention to himself. LOOK HOW MUCH I KNOW. I’M THE THOUGHT BOSS AROUND HERE. In this case, the goal is to elevate the author’s personal brand, and the easiest way to do that (at least, at first) is to harp on popular topics and regurgitate what everyone else is saying, but just work a little harder to distribute it. Be a little pushier, a little peppier, or a lot more optimized for social media sharing. It may draw attention, and maybe even score high with the vanity metrics of likes and shares on social, but it won’t spark real change in your industry.

Rule No. 2: Real thought leadership provokes a reaction

For some people that will be a standing ovation from their desk, because you’ve finally articulated something they’ve been thinking, but haven’t been able to put into words. Or because you finally had the audacity to draw public attention to a problem that the rest of society wanted to keep sweeping under the rug.

But for the others in your audience, there’s going to be some discomfort, some squirming, even anger, and you’re almost definitely going to get negative feedback.

A word about negative feedback: Sometimes this comes in the form of insecure trolls calling you fat, or stupid, or entitled, or a bitch in an attempt to silence you. You should view this feedback as a win — you got their attention, and now they’re taking cheap shots at you because they don’t have a leg to stand on.

But sometimes, feedback comes in the form of your mom calling you and saying she’s worried about you. Maybe she’s read the troll comments, or she thinks you’re jeopardizing your career by taking such a strong stance on a subject. Maybe it’s not your mom, but it’s your sister, or your board chair, or your organization’s biggest donor. When that happens, be respectful, hear them out, look for nuggets of wisdom that will help you deliver your message with the most impact, but ultimately, REFER THEM TO RULE NO. 1 (and 2). If you’re not provoking the beast, you’re doing it wrong.

Thought leaders aren’t here to make nice or play by the rules of respectability.

Rule No. 3: Thought leadership shows how it’s done.

As important as it is to call out injustice, and warped thinking, and short-sightedness in your city, or industry, or organization, it’s also vitally important to show a better way. This means that if you’re only in this game to sow discord and raise self-righteous hell, you’re not a thought leader. Sorry, Alex Jones.

You have to offer solutions, and the best solutions come from your own experience. To be a thought leader, you first need to be an action leader. If you’re just doing the same things as everyone else, it doesn’t matter what you think. People want (and need) to hear the thoughts of people who are doing it differently, and producing results.

Your best source of content for thought leadership is always going to be your own experience. But if you look through your experience, and you can’t find anything that stands out as unique or contrarian or innovative, then you may need to accept the fact that you’re not ready to be a thought leader.

Rule No. 4: Thought leadership embraces the humanity of the author and the reader.

What does it mean to embrace the humanity of the author and the reader? It means you speak with honesty and vulnerability. You acknowledge your shortcomings. It’s real talk. It’s not fake optimism when your company is tanking. It’s owning up to the real challenges, sharing a vision for your plan of attack, and celebrating the wins you are truly proud of. It’s speaking from your heart, to the hearts of your listeners. You speak with respect and compassion, but you don’t water down your message. You speak with confidence in your mission and your methods, but with the humility to engage in discussion.

Got it? OK, let’s talk about content marketing.

Content Marketing

Content marketing is more about equipping your clients to succeed in the status quo than it is about speaking to your entire industry and calling for change.

The goal of content marketing is to build relationships with your ideal customers.

When done right, content marketing increases sales, turns your customers into loyal fans and advocates of your work, and saves you from wasting time talking to prospects who are not the right fit for your business.

Content marketing should always seek to educate and inform. What you choose to educate and inform your community about should align with your mission, and therefore the topics of your thought leadership, but the approach is different.

Content marketing is like the advice you’d give to a friend who was trying to make a decision and you had expertise that could help. Thought leadership is the rant you’d make before flipping over the desk and quitting the job at the unethical company.

With CM, we’re looking for how-tos, bulleted lists of practical tips, unbiased pros & cons.

  • Content marketing always provides value, never a sales pitch
  • Content marketing helps your customers succeed, whether they buy your products or not
  • Content marketing offers practical advice that relates to your field
  • Content marketing gets to the point quickly
  • Content marketing saves time for you and your clients by answering FAQs and clearing up points of confusion

Here are some examples:

  • an unbiased guide to choosing between similar products/services (i.e. “How to know whether to manage social media in-house or to hire an agency — HOWEVER, if you are an agency, and this is a thinly-veiled pitch for why agencies are better, this will be received as B.S. by your readers).
  • A how-to guide explaining how to DIY your services on a budget (i.e., a professional photography equipment co: “How to set up a professional photo shoot for less than $100”)
  • a clever and surprising customer success guide related to your product, i.e. “8 ways to use Trello to when planning a wedding”
  • an explanation of how a particular service (especially powerful when it’s not YOUR service) could save customers time or money, or help them grow their business i.e. “How to get the most use out of a virtual assistant” or “5 content marketing tools that integrate beautifully with WordPress”

Finally, we get to the B.S.

Promotional B.S.

If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll know when you’ve produced a piece of B.S. The tricky part is when you mix B.S. with some of the principles of CM and TL. That’s when things get a little fuzzy. You read the piece, and you realize that yes, I’m asking people to buy my stuff or sign up for my event, but you rationalize that it’s ok because you’re ALSO giving them good advice!

No. You can’t mix them. Don’t mix TL with CM, and don’t mix either with BS.

The following approaches will ONLY ever produce B.S.:

  • Starting with the question: “What message do we most want to get in people’s brains?” instead of “What information would most help our customers, or what would start conversations and change the way our industry approaches X?”
  • Mixing self-promotion, or event-promotion, or fundraising promotion with half-assed thought leadership or content marketing.
  • Using a headline no one would click on.
  • Being inauthentic because you’re afraid of how people will react if you speak the truth.
  • Speaking for the sake of speaking.
  • Sharing shallow, pump-up content that tells a trivial story and asks for engagement on a trivial subject.
  • Repeating what everyone else is saying.
  • Making a lame sales pitch.
  • Offering super-biased advice.

The quick and dirty conclusion

Thought leadership answers questions like, “What’s next? Why does it matter? Why should I care?”

Content marketing answers questions like, “How do I…? What is…? Where can I find…?”

Promotional bull shit answers the question, “Are you a self-centered, tone-deaf blabbermouth who wastes your customers’ time?”

Any questions? Let’s talk.

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