What is the Difference Between Thought Leadership and Content Marketing?

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The other day, I asked the following question:

How would you define the difference between thought leadership and content marketing?

Here are some of the responses I got:

RT @jonmiller: Thought leadership can be in content used for content marketing, but not all content marketing has thought leadership ~ME

AcquireB2B (@AcquireB2B) February 7, 2013

Some overlap, TL is outside the status quo and practices. CM is more focused on education and common practice. RT @wittlake @jonmiller #b2b

— Casey Carey (@caseycarey) February 7, 2013

@jonmiller Thought leadership is the goal; content marketing is the means.

— Resonance (@resonancecont) February 8, 2013

@jonmiller I think of thought leadership as your beliefs/values. Content marketing is the way you amplify those (& tie to your offerings).

— Heather Vaughn (@mewzikgirl) February 7, 2013

@jonmiller From a metrics perspective, TL measured by recognition metrics & CM by harder numbers typified by the steps in the lead funnel

emediaUSA (@emediaUSA) February 7, 2013

@jonmiller It’s like the difference between Apples and Oats. They go well together, they are both foods, but that’s the end of it.

— Eric Wittlake (@wittlake) February 7, 2013

My Thoughts

In a post from 2009, Why Thought Leadership Is Your Most Valuable Asset, I wrote that thought leaders:

  • Develop relationships with customers, prospects and others by engaging them in non-sales, industry-relevant conversations.
  • Become the go-to source for research, insight and interpretation of the latest news and trends.
  • Gain trust among prospective customers so that when the time finally comes to purchase, customers turn to the thought leader organization.

In retrospect, that sounds to me more like content marketing, which I define as “the process of creating and distributing highly relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage clearly defined and understood target audiences—with the objective of driving profitable customer action”.

So my thoughts have changed. My perspective today is that both thought leadership and content marketing can very effectively build your awareness and brand, but that true thought leadership is much rarer. Thought leadership consists of ideas that require attention, that offer guidance or clarity and that can lead people in unexpected, sometimes contrarian directions (think of Seth Godin).  Thought leadership needs to be educational and ideally provocative; content marketing can simply be fun or entertaining.

Recently, we’ve started to see a backlash against content marketing that’s devoid of quality, including must-read posts from Velocity, Jonathon Colman, Christopher PennMichael Brenner, and Marketo’s own Jason Miller. Perhaps what content marketing needs in 2013 is an injection of more thought leadership?

What do you think? How would you distinguish thought leadership from content marketing?  Let me know in the comments.

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