A few years ago I was consulting with an IT enterprise architecture firm. We began by conducting qualitative and quantitative research for this company. I secured an interview with the CIO from one of the big three credit reporting agencies. Sitting down with this very sharp gentleman, I asked him what he looks for in an IT consulting firm.

I’ll never forget what he said: “I look for thought leadership. I want to know that the people I’m hiring are real experts in their area. I need to see the clarity of their thinking. I want to understand how their approach is effective and able to produce outcomes that matter to me and my company.”

Now he made this statement several years ago, long before blogging became popular. In fact, back then, blogs were actual web logs and the only people interested in them were techies who were looking for bugs. But as I was recalling this conversation a few days ago, a question popped into my mind.

Why is it that almost no one uses the term thought leadership anymore? Why is it that “content marketing” is the moniker we all use now? More importantly, what is the difference between a content marketer and a thought leader and does it even matter anymore?

I think the answer is yes. Absolutely yes. To understand the differences between thought leaders and content marketers, let’s look at some characteristics that define both of them.

Key Take-Away:

Thought leaders are stimulating forward movement in the sales funnel and creating leaning-in behavior, where prospective ideal clients find their ideas so valuable and useful that they desire more. Much more.

Characteristics of a content marketer

Most content marketers are good writers. Usually they can put sentences together that make sense. Most content marketers are good at the mechanics behind blogging and social media. They can tell you how many followers you need to have, how often you should post content and where you should post it. Usually these people have a solid understanding of SEO and how to drive traffic to your site. These are all important skills.

But here is where content marketers, at least the kind I see in abundance today, typically miss the mark. Usually they are not subject matter experts themselves. The genesis of the ideas they write about actually come from interviews with subject matter experts. This makes them one step removed from the nuances and details, the finer points shall we say, of the topics the write about. This is one reason that I often find the content of content marketers to be lacking in richness and detail.

Another area where I see weaknesses is in how they use research studies. Everyone knows that new research is often a treasure trove of ideas around which content pieces can be created. But much content marketing today draws upon research that the writers did not produce. More than once I’ve seen statistics quoted from certain studies where, upon further investigation, the conclusions drawn from the writer are not supported by the study.

 

Characteristics of a thought leader

A thought leader, on the other hand, may not be a great writer. I have worked with many such thought leaders who struggle to put grammatically correct sentences together. I have often discovered that, when they do write their own prose, it needs significant re-working of sentence structure and of the order of presentation of the ideas. In my experience, it is actually very rare to find someone who is both a subject matter expert and a great writer.

But what makes a thought leader… well, a thought leader, is the domain-level expertise they posses in their niche market. Usually these people have a long history in their industry and deeply understand their ideal client. They are more practitioner than theorist. They possess a clarity of thinking that most people within their market niche immediately recognize as credible. They communicate with conviction and a gravitas that is nearly incontestable.

 

The missing ingredient – the passionate guiding voice

But even all of that doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter. I believe that what separates a content marketer from a thought leader is their passionate guiding voice. Here is what I mean by that.

Most content marketers create content that provides information, often very useful information. But thought leaders tell their prospective ideal clients how to achieve their most important goals, realize their most exciting opportunities and resolve their most vexing challenges.

A thought leader is committed not to creating informational content, but to providing guidance on topics that matter most to the people that they really want to connect with.

 

What is the impact?

So what is the difference, as it relates to business outcomes, between a content marketer and a thought leader? Well here is what I’ve witnessed. Content marketers do indeed drive traffic to websites and they build brand awareness and those are important goals in the age of a content glut. But I’m not convinced that is enough.

Thought leaders are having a different impact. They are stimulating forward movement in the sales funnel and creating leaning-in behavior, where prospective ideal clients find their ideas so valuable and useful that they desire more. Much more. 

 

Next steps

If you would like to hear more about how to create content that achieve these results – forward movement in the sales funnel and leaning-in behavior – I have a resource for you. It’s called 7 Steps To A Content Marketing Program That Consistently Yields Ideal Clients. It contains 7 videos and downloadable tools that you can use to build a highly effective content marketing program. It’s free to anyone who registers for it.