What is the Difference Between Thought Leadership and Content Marketing?


Posted: February 11, 2013 | Content Marketing

The other day, I asked the following question:


Here are some of the responses I got:

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.

Related Resources

  • http://twitter.com/vofmarketing Sangram Vajre

    I believe you can create content but not thought leadership. If you have thought leadership in your DNA as a company or a person then content marketing simply is means to get the word out. Lot of organizations confuse content marketing and thought leadership and think the more the content, better the thought leadership. I do think Marketo is a thought leader and is fueled by content marketing.

  • http://blog.marketo.com/ Jon Miller

    Thank you all for your comments…. I think we’re settling in on a nice distinction…

  • http://twitter.com/MelissaPaulik Melissa Paulik

    I think Acquire B2B’s definition says it best for me. The only issue I have is what some marketers think is “thought leading.” To have a thought leadership piece implies you have an original thought.

    BTW, what a great way to use Twitter and then repurpose the content!

  • http://twitter.com/MelissaPaulik Melissa Paulik

    Stan, your comment made me chuckle, and at first I thought, “yeah, he’s got a point.” Then I remembered all of the discussions I’ve had with clients who want to create email campaigns with CTAs that offer brochures. I think there is such a thing as “content free” marketing.

  • http://twitter.com/bradshorr bradshorr

    Interesting post & conversation. From the reader’s point of view, expertise is assumed; otherwise, why would someone be writing about that particular topic? After the content has been read, the reader will judge whether it contains tremendous expertise (thought leadership), garbage, or something in between.

  • Doug Kessler

    Love this conversation and issue. I agree: thought leadership is one form of content marketing. It’s at the peak of the content marketing pyramid (ooh — I feel an infographic coming on).

    Some great content marketing works lower down — helping people with best-practice and how-to stuff. To me, thought leadership is out there on the leading edge of big issues.

  • http://communitas.tumblr.com/ tobymurdock

    good distinction. thanks Jon!

  • http://twitter.com/contentbyjess Jessica

    Fascinating. I’m surprised that innovative thinking isn’t mentioned more in this conversation. I would really like to see Doug’s infographic! My own understanding of thought leadership includes content marketing as the medium, and genuinely unique, even boundary-pushing insight as the enriching contribution.

  • http://twitter.com/allstuffhere maham iqbal

    Only selected people are thought leaders. Every thought leader can be a content marketer but every content marketer cannot be a thought leader. As per my analysis, thought leaders are successful content marketers because of their mass following and most importantly ability to write good content.

  • http://twitter.com/jillkonrath Jill Konrath

    Thought leadership is in the eye of the beholder. If you’ve been immersed in a topic for a while, it may be stale to you. However, many of your prospects would still find it totally eye-opening.

  • Bryan Boettiger

    Thought leadership is a gift to the market and feeds growth or movement forward of said market. Content marketing can and should branch from the concepts set forth through Thought Leadership and more thoroughly express your value proposition/market position to the participants in your target market.

Jon (@jonmiller) leads Marketo's product marketing, strategy, and content marketing initiatives. He is the author of multiple Definitive Guides including Marketing Automation, Engaging Email Marketing, and Marketing Metrics & Analytics. In 2010, The CMO Institute named Jon a Top 10 CMO for companies under $250 million revenue. Jon holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Harvard College and has an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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What is the Difference Between Thought Leadership and Content Marketing?

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