Do You Need Content Marketing or Thought Leadership? (They’re Not the Same.)

by Debra Andrews | February 4, 2022

B2B companies often task highly paid internal subject matter experts (SMEs) with writing “marketing material” they hope will generate leads. They tie up hours and hours of expensive talent writing about topics those experts find fascinating or that demonstrate their knowledge of very complex subjects, thinking that will do the trick.

Nine times out of 10, their efforts don’t generate a single piece of business.

Why? Because the company is confusing content marketing and thought leadership. Many businesses view content marketing and thought leadership as the same. But they’re different activities, often with entirely different objectives.

Each strategy has its time and place. But if lead generation is your goal, you need to engage in effective content marketing. Understanding the difference between content marketing and thought leadership can help ensure you’re optimizing your marketing resources, driving leads through your revenue funnel, and growing your revenue.

Thought Leadership Elevates Brands & Individuals…

Many of the B2B giants—think McKinsey or Deloitte—spend a ton of resources developing thought leadership designed to elevate the brand as the go-to source in management consulting. Smaller companies invest in elevating C-suite individuals as thought leaders—think LinkedIn favorites like Dan Price or Liz Ryan.

Elevating the brand and creating industry rock stars has a place in marketing for select types of businesses and can be a PR boost. As long as your thought leaders are incredibly consistent and compelling, that is. But if you want to drive a predictable stream of leads through your revenue funnel, you need to engage in content marketing. 

…While Content Marketing Moves Buyers Through Your Funnel.

Content marketing has a very practical purpose: To contribute to revenue generation by driving leads into your funnel, nurturing them through the buying journey, and converting them to sales. In fact, a HubSpot report noted that 60% of marketers measure their content marketing strategy’s success in terms of sales generated.

RELATED: In-House vs. Outsourced Content Marketing: Building Your Rockstar Content Team

A well-conceived content marketing strategy aligns appropriate content to each stage of the revenue funnel:

  • Top of funnel (TOFU) content like blogs and infographics attract buyers and build awareness.
  • Middle of the funnel (MOFU) content like gated guides and case studies nurture buyers as they start to evaluate solutions to their challenges and problems.
  • Bottom of the funnel (BOFU) content like competitive comparisons and demos convert leads into customers by giving them a reason to buy from you.

Bottom line: If you have a charismatic, forward-thinking CEO who can build a widely recognized personal brand that might elevate your company’s brand in the process, then thought leadership might have a place in your PR efforts. Maybe it nets your CEO media interviews or speaking engagements or book deals.

But for most middle-market companies, those types of efforts should take a back seat to the practical content marketing strategies that generate leads and converts them to customers.

Thought Leadership Offers Insight & Commentary…

True thought leadership adds to an industry-wide conversation in a whole new way. You might float a novel concept that would be “disruptive” in your industry, take a stance on a controversial issue in your field, or comment on a new development or trend. Thought leadership is typically insightful, opinionated, and thought-provoking.

When Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments, decided to pay all his employees a minimum of $70,000 a year—then took to social media, podcasts, and news articles to lobby other business leaders to follow suit—he was engaging in thought leadership.

…While Content Marketing Educates & Informs.  

Content marketing is more prosaic.

Whatever form it takes—from blogs to white papers to webinars—content marketing aims to educate and inform buyers about a subject that speaks to their challenges and aligns with your solutions. Content marketing focuses on understanding your target buyer’s pain points and challenges, offering informative, valuable content that helps them envision a solution. From there, you direct them to additional helpful content or resources that ultimately encourages strangers to become customers.

Unless you educate and inform your ideal buyers on the nuts-and-bolts subjects that hold the key to solving their problems and eliminating their pain points, you won’t be successful in generating leads and converting them to sales.     

Bottom line: If your intent is to get the industry talking and commenting on forward-thinking topics, then thought leadership is your tool. But if your goal is to educate and inform prospective buyers in a way that attracts them in your revenue funnel and nurtures them until they become customers, you need content marketing.

Recognize Content Marketing When You See It

When your internal teams or external partners start talking about creating “content” to support your revenue goals, how can you know for sure that they’re engaging in content marketing and not thought leadership?

There can be overlap between the two. Content marketing can certainly add value to an industry-wide conversation, while thought leadership may help to get leads thinking about your company and entering your sales funnel.

But typically, content marketing meets these criteria:  

  • It’s driven by a clear lead strategy. Are you looking to improve your SEO (search engine optimization) to drive more prospective buyers to your funnel? Or trying to accelerate the rate at which leads come in? Or seeking to improve the rate at which leads convert to buyers? Effective content marketing is always driven by a well-defined business strategy that ultimately helps you generate more revenue.
  • It aligns to your revenue funnel. If you can’t clearly map a deliverable to a stage in the funnel and its objective—whether it’s to build awareness and interest, encourage consideration, promote intent, drive evaluation, or convert to a purchase—it’s probably not content marketing.
  • It speaks to your decision maker. Content marketing is about more than reaching the right types of companies. It’s about reaching the individuals who have the power to make or influence the decision to buy your product or service. Thought leadership, by comparison, often aims to create an audience by communicating to a broader swath of people in your industry, without regard for their decision-making authority.
  • It tends to follow readily recognized, purpose-driven formats. For instance, a marketing blog uses compelling headers and bullet points to make the material digestible and scrollable, boosting conversion. Because the purpose of thought leadership isn’t to turn the reader into a buyer, it doesn’t need to conform to a format that ensures a specific result. If written in blog form, it may even disrupt the traditional blog format, just to keep people on their toes.
  • It’s not tied to an individual. While you’ll likely gravitate toward certain SMEs to shape and inform your content, they won’t be the front-and-center focus. If you find you’re spending a lot of time trying to turn an individual into a marketing rock star, you’ve probably strayed from content marketing and into the realm of thought leadership.    
  • It’s your meat and potatoes. No company has an infinite budget. Middle market companies are especially challenged to stretch their resources across a large list of competing priorities. When you need to make tough decisions about what to keep and what to cut from your strategic marketing plan, true content marketing should naturally rise to the top of the “keep” pile. It’s the meat-and-potatoes staple you can’t do without if you’re serious about lead generation. Thought leadership is more like a demi-glace added on top; it’s nice to have, but the meal will satisfy your hunger just fine without it.    

The next time you’re thinking of asking an internal expert earning a six-figure salary to wax poetic in the name of marketing, step back and ask if the output you intend to generate would meet the criteria for content marketing. Consider whether the deliverable you end up with will drive leads to your funnel, nurture them through their buying journey, and convert them to sales. If the answer is “no”, then a middle market company probably can’t afford the opportunity cost of engaging in thought leadership at the expense of content marketing.

For growth-minded middle market companies that want to drive predictable revenue through a steady stream of leads that convert to sales, effective content marketing is a must-have. And the B2B experts at Marketri are highly skilled at developing content marketing that drives leads and generates revenue growth.

If you’re ready to engage in effective, purpose-driven content marketing, schedule a free consultation with our CEO Deb Andrews to learn how Marketri can help!