Content marketing and thought leadership. Same thing, right? Well, not really. Actually, far from.
While the two terms often get used interchangeably there is a large and meaningful difference. When we, as consultants, sit down to right an article on a topic of interest to our potential clients we’ve just produced a piece of content. The fact that we’ve done it is meaningful — a lot of consultants and a lot of firms never take the time or have the courage to do it. And, if that piece of content is truly helpful to our clients, it will prove quite useful in our marketing. But, is that content a piece of thought leadership? Chances are, probably not.
So, What’s the Difference Between Content and Thought Leadership?
In his essays, Bob Buday of The Bloom Group argues that for content to qualify as thought leadership, a firm must present a point of view on a topic that not only stakes out a unique way of looking at and solving a problem, but also provides proof that the problem has been solved successfully in this way before. In fact, he argues that to qualify as thought leadership, a firm’s point of view must pass 8 “sniff” tests so to speak:
- Focus — It needs a single overriding message that can be described in 1-2 sentences.
- Novel — It must offer a new perspective on how to solve the problem.
- Relevant — ‘Nuff said.
- Valid — It provides meaningful data to demonstrate that the solution has worked before.
- Practical — The solution is both implementable and offers a process for doing so.
- Rigor — All underlying assertions are backed by consistent logic.
- Clarity — It’s communicated in the clients’ language.
- Coherence — It simplifies a very complex problem into an elegant solution.
Oh, is that all? Sounds easy, huh? Next time you sit down to write something, just apply these 8 simple filters to your thinking and you’ll be the J.K. Rowling of professional services. And, that’s really the point of Bob’s essays — to demonstrate how difficult it is to graduate your content to a place of true thought leadership.
Let’s Charge Ahead Anyway — How Can We Get There?
That really is the magic question isn’t it? How do you evolve your content upstream and make it thought leadership? Clearly, if we endeavor to hold ourselves accountable to such stringent outcomes, the place of thought leader doesn’t happen overnight. Nor, does it happen by accident.
Getting to the rarified air of thought leader takes a lot of hard work. It takes time, commitment and rigor. It takes looking at problems through a different lens. And, in most cases, it’s going to require applying a formalized, methodic approach to research and data collection to draw meaningful and unique insights.
The Three Levels of Content
Ultimately, if you want to move your content to a higher level, you’ll need to think differently about your approach to content strategy, the types of questions you seek to answer, and the way you go about developing content.
While content comes in many forms, when I look across the landscape of professional services firms, I actually see firms operating at one of three levels in the path from producer of useful content to purveyor of thought leadership.
It’s important to note that a firm can be successful in its online marketing operating in any one of these three levels. That said, the firms that truly rise to the level of thought leader are much more likely to achieve lucrative results from their content marketing efforts.
Level 1 — It’s Just Content
“Here are our thoughts on innovation” — Level 1 content often sounds much like this.
A firm at this stage:
- Is largely focused on developing and sustaining a publishing mindset.
- Is focused less on what is being produced and more on ensuring that the development of intelligent, thoughtful content is actually occurring.
- Can often find itself challenged to produce enough educational content to keep the firm relevant in the eyes of its potential clients (and search engines, I might add).
- Derives topics largely from the subject matter experts themselves with very little input from marketing.
Firms that function exceedingly well at this stage, produce content that is both useful and directly actionable. On the whole, the content expresses the firm’s opinions of its subject matter experts based on their past experience and any available, relevant secondary research (predominantly external).
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Level 2 — It’s Valuable Content
“How companies like yours are accomplishing the challenge of innovation” — Level 2 content starts sounding more like this.
Sonja Jefferson and Sharon Tanton built a business (and a book) based on the idea of Valuable Content. I’ve liked their frame of reference from the moment I saw it. The content we produce really needs to be substantially valuable. It needs to reach beyond our consultants’ experience and topical points of view. It should be not only useful and actionable, but also fundamentally valued by our clients. If we do it right, it’s welcomed like an exclusive gift.
Firms at this level:
- Start to think more like editors (check out Keith Luscher’s post for more on this topic).
- Have overcome the pressure of sustaining the content engine.
- Start tasking themselves with applying filters against the topics and perceived value of the content itself — they actually start rejecting content submitted by consultants.
- Start allowing marketers to contribute opinions as to what types of content to produce.
- Begin deriving topics from research and structuring them around topical threads.
Generally, the research that yields valuable content can still be largely one-dimensional — online surveys and secondary research are useful tools for deriving valuable content.
One of the reasons I chose this company to showcase is the fact that their entire business is built around a large, proprietary database — a benchmark of sales and marketing practices in thousands of companies of many sizes and types. By definition, companies use benchmarks to identify what it takes to compete at a comparable level to their peers. The underlying benchmark is a hugely valuable piece of intellectual property that the firm applies to its content in all its forms (making that content much more valuable than just the firm’s collective opinions on topics).
Level 3 — Welcome to Oz
“What drives innovative companies to actually be more innovative than their peers” — The tone of level 3 content is substantively different.
True thought leadership occurs when a firm drives down to the fundamental characteristics of a business problem, systemically identifies what makes uncommon performers uncommon, and then translates those insights into a simple, yet compelling framework that can be applied by clients within their business settings.
At this tier:
- Content development ceases to be a challenge of publishing or editing and becomes a challenge of determining what research to fund.
- Multi-faceted research combining both quantitative analysis and deep qualitative research efforts become the primary tool for discerning key topical issues.
- Marketing and leadership become the key decision-makers as to what research to pursue and what driving issues are yielded from the effort.
- Identified issues are deconstructed into a broad collection of marketable resources to derive the most value from the effort.
Okay, I can hear you groaning — what a lousy example! How in the world are you ever going to elevate your content to the caliber of Built to Last or Good to Great. The point of this example is not to make the place of thought leadership seem out of reach — there are plenty of people who have become thought leaders on much more accessible, narrower topics. The point of this example is to demonstrate that the novel thinking required to seed a place of thought leadership truly comes from rigorous analysis.
Ultimately, the magic of Jim Collins work is that it’s fundamentally rooted in multi-faceted research (see his comments on the research they do and how they do it). He uses a combination of historical data, company archives and personal interviews to reconstruct the situations faced and the decisions made by leaders in order to extrapolate a simple, powerful framework for how to build sustainable companies. Unlike the thousands of business books published each year, his work relies less on pithy language (the hedgehog concept aside) and more on research-driven insights.
His process for yielding true thought leadership by starting with intelligent questions and then structuring multi-faceted research to answer those questions is one that can be deconstructed and replicated on a smaller scale by most any firm willing to make the investments of time (and money) needed to do so.
My goal in thinking about and identifying these tiers was to help firms think about where they are within the evolution of their content marketing efforts. More importantly, I wanted to describe some of the characteristics of firms at each of these levels so firm leaders and marketers can think about what needs to change culturally to advance their firm forward.
I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know, thought leadership expert, Bob Buday over the past few months, and one of the things I’ve learned from him is the tremendous power a truly novel piece of thought leadership can have on a firm’s growth (Bob was the lead marketer at CSC Index when it “found” the concept of reengineering through its research — that concept catapulted the firm from $30M to $250M in revenue in less than a decade). Also, he’s largely taught me the importance of deep, multi-faceted research as an input to a firm’s goal of being recognized as a true thought leader.
In the end, if you made it this far…I hope you found this content to be valuable!