Since thought leadership has been a business buzzword since the 1990s, I assumed that virtually everyone in the business world knew what it meant.
So I didn’t define it in a recent post on the 9 Pitfalls of Thought Leadership Marketing.
I immediately realized my mistake when an email showed up in my inbox.
“So WHAT IS thought leadership?” my former journalism colleague asked me. “It’s an inside baseball term. Can you define it?”
Good question, indeed.
But it’s a question that we marketers first need to ask ourselves because it’s become part of our own marketing jargon. I often hear marketers (and business executives) use thought leadership as a synonym for content marketing – another big buzzword du jour.
But they are not one and the same thing. Not at all.
Thought leadership, to summarize Forrester Research analyst Jeff Ernst, is the strategic process of coming up with and sharing big ideas, insights and new perspectives on the critical issues that buyers face.
On the other hand, content marketing is the tactical means of producing content and communications for your prospects, customers and other key target audiences.
Blurring the lines
Much of that content marketing typically focuses on building awareness for your company and selling your solutions.That’s the stuff marketers spend the bulk of their days creating: product brochures, web content, sales presentations and the like.
Most business people would never confuse this type of content as thought leadership.
But there are plenty of executives and even some marketers who think of white papers, eBooks, articles and blog posts as thought leadership content.
But it isn’t necessarily so.
That white paper or eBook may do a nice job of summing up current industry trends, thinking and approaches, but it may be little more than a thinly disguised product pitch.
In my view, it’s not true thought leadership unless it does one or more of the following:
• Challenges current assumptions about a current business challenge or approach.
• Presents new insights, perspectives or ideas.
• Offers innovative solutions to an existing problem(s).
• Pinpoints areas of opportunity, process improvement or profitability for prospects and customers.
• Provides real leadership that inspires people to believe, contribute, collaborate and take action to address a problem.
The future of thought leadership
True thought leadership will never go out of style. The world will always be hungry for fresh thinking and for business leadership.
However, to be effective, thought leadership must build credibility and attract followers. Most importantly, it must offer a vision for change and must lead on the issues that matter most to buyers.
How do you define thought leadership? What would you add to the list of requirements for true thought leadership? What do you see as the critical differences between content marketing and thought leadership?
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