Content marketing and thought leadership: what’s the difference?

Rob Mitchell

Search on Google, and you’ll find lots of articles attempting to explain the difference between content marketing and thought leadership.

So I can claim no originality for the topic of this blog, which covers exactly that subject. But I felt compelled to write this post because it seems, on reading some of those articles, that there is very little agreement about the difference between the two terms. Each one arrives at slightly different conclusions – suggesting that there’s still a lot of confusion about these fast-growing marketing categories.

Here at FT Longitude, we call ourselves thought leadership specialists, not content marketing specialists. This is deliberate, because we believe that these two terms are quite distinct from each other.

Thought leadership is just one category of the much bigger B2B content marketing world and, while the two terms might share some characteristics, there are many areas where they differ.

In an attempt to clear up the confusion, here is our view of the key factors that distinguish thought leadership from content marketing.

Original insight that adds to the debate

To call your content thought leadership, it has to contain original thinking that puts forward a new argument or breaks new ground.

You have to add to the conversation, not just echo what others have said. The goal is to make your audience think, and ultimately to change their point of view or behaviour.

Content marketing in its broader sense does not need to do this – it might just be entertaining or fun.

Quality, not quantity

Anyone who has created thought leadership content knows that it requires considerable time and effort. It’s not something that can be churned out in huge quantities or in a short timeframe.

Content marketing, however, can. At the lower end of the market, there are many so-called content farms churning out blogs and articles that are designed to improve search engine rankings and bombard audiences with messaging. Not all content marketing is like that, of course, but unlike the thought leadership method of focusing on a few key messages, there is definitely a greater emphasis on quantity to attract attention.

There is also real value in the scarcity of good ideas. We advise companies to create fewer but bigger and more impactful thought leadership programmes. Strong ownership of a small number of issues is what helps these companies to stand out from the crowd.

The ideas come first – but it’s still marketing

Some commentators talk about thought leadership as though it’s divorced from the marketing process – an academic, ivory-tower activity that’s purely about ideas.

We say that’s nonsense. Good thought leadership has a very clear marketing rationale behind it.

Companies choose to produce thought leadership because it enhances their reputation, builds relationships with clients and prospects, and ultimately increases revenues. But the approach is fundamentally different from traditional marketing.

Thought leadership sells ideas, expertise and authenticity – not products and services. Over time, this builds trust – and that’s a vital asset that can ultimately lead to sales conversations.

Take the long-term view

It’s essential to track KPIs and measure the ROI from your thought leadership, but it takes time for returns to materialise.

Building reputation and positioning your company as having the greatest expertise and thinking on a given topic is a long-term game. This is particularly true in the B2B universe, where sales cycles can be long and it takes time to build trust and propose solutions.

Think top of the funnel – not the entire buyer journey

­­­Content marketers talk about the ‘buyer journey’ and the ‘content funnel’. First, companies build awareness, which starts at the top of the funnel; then, they take audiences along the journey until they become customers, where they exit at the bottom of the funnel.

Thought leadership typically occupies the top layer of the funnel. The goal is to build awareness, demonstrate expertise and tee up a commercial conversation through establishing an unmet need.

None of this is to say that thought leadership is better than content marketing. Smart marketers know that they need to apply both techniques if they are to stand out and have a distinctive voice.

Thought leadership needs to be integrated into a broader content marketing strategy, which helps companies to not only own great ideas, but also disseminate them to a wider audience.

Explore our guide to developing your thought leadership strategy for your go-to resource for on planing, developing and executing a strategy.

Book your free strategy call

We’ll help you to navigate and overcome any challenges you currently face and learn how to get more out of your content.

Book a Strategy Call

About the author: Rob Mitchell

Rob leads FT Longitude’s strategic planning and sets the overall vision and priorities for the business. He manages the board-level relationship with FT Longitude’s parent company, the Financial Times group, and also oversees FT Longitude’s finances, people management and administration.

Prior to co-founding FT Longitude in 2011, Rob was an independent writer and editor. Between 2007 and 2010, he was a managing editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit and prior to that he was an editor at the Financial Times, where he was responsible for the newspaper’s sponsored reports, including the Mastering Management series.

LinkedIn logo | Tel: +44 (0)20 7873 4178

Q&A: Barclays’ Head of Corporate Marketing talks campaign activation and ROI

PODCAST: Alison Tattersall on thought leadership and marketing strategy

Cookies on Longitude Sites

We use cookies for a number of reasons, such as keeping our Sites reliable and secure, enhancing your user experience, analysing how our Sites are used and tailoring our marketing.

back to top arrow