What’s the Difference Between Thought Leadership and Content Marketing?

PropelGrowth Blog - Financial Services Marketing

In terms of company growth, marketing content is for the short-term, thought leadership is for the long-term.

Have you ever read through the sponsor descriptions for financial industry conferences? How many of them are clear and easy to understand? Financial technology providers usually struggle with explaining their solutions. Whether it’s an multi-asset class e-commerce platform, pre-trade risk management, or specialized market access; fin-tech providers generally offer sophisticated solutions, and just explaining what “it” is takes a white board and some time.

That’s why content marketing is so critically important for this industry. Content including papers, articles, videos, webinars and blogs can help buyers gradually understand the business needs and the value your solutions can bring to their organizations. In this way, content marketing can drive demand.

But many of our clients are confusing “content marketing” and “thought leadership.” It’s helpful to define the terms in a way that helps differentiate them for use in a marketing strategy. So let’s talk about the use cases for each and how a financial technology vendor should leverage them.

Content Marketing is Selling What You Have Today

  • Helping prospects understand their existing needs
  • Building awareness of the benefits
  • Driving sales of what exists today

Your core content marketing strategy should focus on helping people understand how they can benefit from using your core products AS THEY EXIST TODAY. This content is critical to driving demand for the next 12 months. It should build awareness of needs based on why your current customers bought, and demonstrate value based on the value a customer could obtain with the current product release.

This is the messaging that will attract an audience that you can sell to now. Don’t drive past the headlights with this content. Focus on the needs that you can address with the product as it exists today. That will allow your sales team to meet existing demand instead of developing a pipeline for the next major release.

Software companies often struggle with this. We’re always looking forward to what’s next, how new functionality is going to do more for clients. But your core content strategy should not focus there.

Thought Leadership is About Driving Industry Transformation

  • Being a longer term change agent
  • Building awareness of unrecognized needs
  • Generating demand for what’s coming in 12-18 months

Your thought leadership should have a longer term focus. This is an opportunity for the executives in your organization to be change agents. Thought leadership content helps to change the way the entire industry thinks about a problem, but without an immediate expectation for ROI in terms of pipeline and revenue.

Thought leadership strategy should take your 1-2 year product roadmap into consideration; but the actual content should not be product-focused. Instead, it should focus on a shortcoming in your target industry, point out weaknesses in current approaches, and suggest ideas for how the industry can change to eliminate those weaknesses.

Related: Content and Thought Leadership to Support the Buying Cycle (White Paper)

Being a Change Agent Takes a Lot of Work

Thought leadership can be used to drive industry and regulatory change. But this takes time, consistency and persistence. For example, back in 2007, a company that provided direct market access started pointing fingers at the practice of providing market access without risk controls. They coined the term “naked access” and launched an extensive content and PR campaign focused on this topic. They wrote about the topic, educated the press, and spoke at industry events. They even encouraged competitors to jump on the campaign to push for regulatory reform. This strategy took years. Gradually, attention grew, the term caught on, and the regulators started paying attention. At first, the SEC claimed there was no issue with naked access, but the campaigners persisted. Eventually, the tide turned, and the Market Access Rule (Rule 15c 3-5) was released by the SEC in late 2010.  That is a perfect example of an effective thought leadership program.

But just one or two articles a year on a topic won’t accomplish this kind of result. The book of press clippings related to the naked access campaign was 4 inches thick, filled with articles, press releases, commentary, and announcements that built up gradually over the course of about 3 years. It started slow, and started to catch a head of steam in 2009.

Content to Drive Sales, Thought Leadership to Drive Change

So an easy way to distinguish between the two disciplines is to think of your core content marketing strategy as something that will generated leads and help close sales for today’s products based on why your customers are currently buying. Your thought leadership strategy should have a longer term goal of helping your company be an agent for change. Both are important to your overall marketing strategy. But don’t put all your eggs in the thought leadership basket. Both are necessary. Content marketing drives demand for today, thought leadership drives demand for the long term.

What Do You Think?

I realize that my definitions here could be controversial. So what do you think? Do you have different definitions for these terms?

Explore this topic further:

Best Practices — Content Marketing and Thought Leadership

Get some help

We offer a coaching service to help you develop your strategy for thought leadership and content marketing. Call or email me if you’d like to discuss this further. You can learn more about our coaching service here.

Candyce Edelen

11 responses to “What’s the Difference Between Thought Leadership and Content Marketing?”

  1. Nice distinction, Candyce. I hadn’t thought about making such a distinction between content marketing and though leadership before. I categorized thought leadership as serving a unique purpose under the content marketing umbrella. I like your perspective.

  2. Hi Joan, thanks for coming by and commenting. I think it’s an important distinction. Otherwise, we can get caught up in thought leadership while the market is still confused about what we’re selling. Frankly, it’s easy to do in marketing too. We can’t recommend impressive nurturing programs before we help the client get good at basic blocking and tackling.

  3. Candyce, you make an excellent point about the need for long-term commitment to thought leadership. This, in turn, helps alleviate another problem I see with technology and services companies: Confusing intriguing theoretical approaches to a problem with thought leadership proven in the field.

    My takeaway is that thought leadership is hard, sustained work, so whether a software or financial services company, make sure you’re seeing (and have a game plan to tackle) a problem or opportunity others are not, and be ready to pay in time, money and effort to spread the word.

    Great post, Candyce.


  4. Thanks Bob. Both content marketing and thought leadership require sustained work. Thought leadership is necessary to get out in front of an issue and change the status quo, and it always starts in the theoretical. But it’s important to not pigeon-hole all your content in the thought leadership arena. That is, assuming you want to generate shorter term revenue. 🙂

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