Which Comes First: Content Marketing Or Thought Leadership?

Once upon a time, there was a little marketer with a big problem. Her sales executives said, "We need more leads." So she bought a big new shiny marketing automation engine . . . .

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but I'm sure we all know the end of the story. The marketing engine didn't live up to expectations because data and content didn't come in the box.

More than ever, marketers view content as the fuel needed to run a powerful revenue generation machine. But the debate over the quality of the content created seems to have reached a fevered pitch. Look no further than posts from SAP's Michael Brenner, Marketo's Jon Miller, UK-based Velocity (the slide show here is a riot!), Dr. Liz Alexander, and SHIFT Communication's Christopher Penn to see the backlash against bad content marketing practices grow.

Why now?  I see four key trends converging on business-to-business marketers that drive interest in, and failure with, content marketing:

  1. Increased buyer sophistication. Gone are the days when sales can show up at the client's door, share a brochure, run through a demo, and start contract negotiations. In this new age of the customer, buyers go online to research and problem-solve and rely on peer networks (traditional and social) to help them out. They have become adept at avoiding marketing messages and more discerning about what they read, watch, and visit.
  2. Underperforming marketing mix. Marketing execs struggle to make sense of a stunning array of digital marketing tactics, few of which seem to stand out from the crowd. But don't blame the tactics — most email, social, mobile, etc., campaigns suffer from irrelevant, uninteresting content used to lure buyers to open, click, or engage.
  3. Rise of marketing automation. Sales demands more pipeline help and the chief financial officer wants proof marketing programs work. Automation gives marketers a start at solving both problems, but not all the answers.
  4. Media fragmentation. Cheap, easy publishing technology pushes many traditional business publications into obscurity as these tools let everyone become an overnight journalist, including many marketing departments. Too bad that journalistic acumen and audience understanding doesn't come along with the software.

These four factors combine to release a flood of company-backed content onto unsuspecting buyers. Marketing leadership looks at the tsunami streaming out corporate doors and says, "We need to make this better."

Enter thought leadership. (Saving content curation as another topic for a later date.)

But here's the problem. There is an awful lot of tired old white papers and trumped up case studies masquerading as thought leadership. It's time for CMOs to get real about content marketing priorities and whether thought leadership should be one of them.

Getting real means understanding that very few ideas or points of view you put out will get picked up by the market and your buyer communities to take on a life of their own. It means deciding if your content publication efforts exist to generate demand, build or change your brand, get your voice heard above the din, or create a provocative unexpected perspective that runs contrary to common practice. The last is the hardest to do.

I'm planning to explore what it takes to produce a persistent thought leadership platform (subscription required) in upcoming research. The key question is: Can CMOs manufacture thought leadership, or is it only earned through the consistent, dedicated pursuit of good editorial publishing that is educational, interesting, and (even) entertaining?

Please feel free to comment here or drop me a note to let me know what you think.


Hi Laura -- You may also want

Hi Laura -- You may also want to check out this recent Slideshare from REI's @JColman: http://www.slideshare.net/jcolman/why-ourcontentsucks

Thanks MaryJo -- always good

Thanks MaryJo -- always good to talk with Marketo, and Jon Miller specifically, on this topic. @JColman slides are derivative of the Velocity work, so I appreciate the pointer here. I think the theme is loud and clear -- too much stuff and not enough of the "good" stuff. Thanks for commenting.

Laura, Thought provoking post


Thought provoking post that will undoubtedly open up a lot of good discussion. I'd argue that the most effective approach is for thought leadership and content marketing to go hand in hand.

My opinion is that companies will reap the benefit of content marketing by taking a long term approach rather than one which cranks out content purely for the sake of filling the lead generation end of the funnel. Getting the CFO to buy off on the longer term approach my be difficult when they're looking to measure the results sooner than later but it will lend itself better to creating a thought leadership position at the same time.

I'll look forward to following your exploration of the topic.

Thanks Scott -- I agree with

Thanks Scott -- I agree with your perspective that the two must go together. I also think you can't force TL, even when the CFO is breathing down your neck. Unfortunately, TL may be one of those places where heads of marketing may try to hire it out to an external agency. Not that there isn't a place for outside help in the process, but good TL isn't something you can rent by the month.

Laura, Agreed on TL. I'd go

Laura, Agreed on TL. I'd go so far to say that if someone is purely outsourcing TL they probably don't "get it" to begin with.

What really cuts it as thought leadership?

Laura, one of the elements that really resonated with me is your mention of old content, recycled white papers, etc. I used to be involved quite heavily in inbound marketing, and it can be tempting to throw up any old content with a spiffy new description in the hopes that someone will download it and you can capture the lead.

This process began to lack sense to me, as so few people were connecting truly valuable content to the offers they put before their customers. My personal goal is to help people connect their content marketing and inbound marketing strategies with their thought leadership initiatives. Lets create valuable content that advances our industries.

If our overall goal with thought leadership is to increase our brand awareness and authority with our industry, we as companies will reap the most benefit by defining what makes us different. My contention is that it's not our products, but our people and our perspectives that separate us from the competition.

I will be curious to learn more about your views on how companies can be true thought leaders and create integrated initiatives that include everything from speaking to white papers and blog posts. Look forward to reading more from you!

Well said, Cara. Thank you

Well said, Cara. Thank you for the thoughtful commentary. As digital specifically and technology in general continue to advance at staggeringly rapid rates, it becomes so easy to replicate products and features. As you say, what differentiates companies is how they solve problems for their customers - and it takes people and experience to do that, not just the product "stuff." Thanks for the insight and for helping to shape up the upcoming report.

Laura a couple of comments.

Laura a couple of comments. You are only perceived as a thought leader if the market sees you as such. Self labelling is merely a pretence.

I haven't seen the label bestowed on many people who merely curate content. But I also don't believe you have to persistently produce content to be a thought leader either. The key to thought leadership, based on years of working, writing and research on the topic, is producing content that is new, insightful and that addresses issues or challenges your clients'/targets face. If your market cannot gain those insights anywhere else and they help a business process, solve an issue or make them see and go about things differently, you will rapidly be elevated to the status of expert or thought leader.

And with that comes the all important trust followed by engagement with you and then the sale. Simple in theory but it requires a disciplined process, needs to be tied to the business objectives of the organisation and requires a long-term commitment as well as resources to work.

You mention my co-author Dr Liz Alexander in your article - we outline this very clearly in our new book on thought leadership.

Thanks Craig

Looking forward to reading more in your new book. I interviewed Liz for this report and very much appreciated her insights. Thanks for sharing yours here.

Hi Laura! It's been ages

Hi Laura!

It's been ages since we last connected (I was chairing the B2B Council at the IAB at the time)! I've since moved to beautiful San Francisco after selling e-Symposium to BrightTALK in 2005.

I'd love to share some metrics we have across the 100M minutes of thought leadership viewed on BrightTALK since 2010. I'm also happy to share the ROI impact of clients who have successfully produced a persistent thought leadership platform. Lots of useful data for you.

Tweet me at @valgenton.

Speak soon,