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Thought Leadership Isn’t A Content Strategy

Omar Akhtar


Do you really need to be a “thought leader?” Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. But that’s not a question you should try to answer on your own. It’s one you need to ask your customer.

Creating “thought leadership’ in today’s marketing lingo usually means putting out original content in the form of blog posts, white papers or contributed articles. A CEO writing about his mentors on LinkedIn, a telecom company publishing a white paper on 4G networks, an ad exec writing commentary on social media trends for Forbes; they’re all examples of what companies regard as thought leadership.

However, too many companies think creating thought leadership is the first, and most essential step of enacting a content strategy. Thought leadership has come to be regarded as table stakes, if you want to play the content game. In fact, if you ask most companies what their content strategy is, they’ll probably tell you where and how often they publish their thought leadership pieces. This doesn’t mean thought leadership isn’t valuable. It can be, but in very specific instances. The key is determining if those instances really apply to your brand.

Compounding the problem is the fact that most of the content being produced under the banner of “thought leadership” is really just “blogging.” Worse, it’s blogging for the sake of blogging. It isn’t introducing any new, original thoughts, nor is it establishing the writer as a foremost expert on the subject, and it definitely isn’t revolutionizing the way people think about a particular topic or industry.

This type of thought leadership is a holdover from the days when content marketing was solely the realm of the PR/communications department, and executives were encouraged to have a voice and presence on earned and owned media. Today, content can do much more than just establish a presence. It’s a driver of business across multiple departments within the company, including marketing, sales, service and product functions. As a result, companies now have to implement a content strategy that serves the goals of the organization, and not just the marketing or PR department. That’s often where thought leadership falls short.

Your content strategy doesn’t have to be synonymous with thought leadership strategy. In fact, you can have a content strategy devoid of any thought leadership at all.

In Altimeter’s recently published research report Key Elements for Building A Content Strategy, we found that companies who had the most success with their content strategy had clarity of vision about using it to serve the customer first. As a brand, you have to figure out what’s keeping your customers up at night. Is it the lack of thought leadership in their life? Or is it some other form of content that they would find far more useful.

For example, the content team at General Motors found out through third party reports that the biggest problem for its customers was inconsistent information about GM’s cars across its digital properties. These customers weren’t looking for thought leadership about the car owner lifestyle, and weren’t necessarily that interested in articles about cutting edge innovation and technology. What they wanted more than anything else was deeply unsexy, spec information about GM's cars that would help them make a purchase decision, or support them in servicing their cars.

As a result, GMs big content initiative was a Content 360 approach, which was to first make sure all informational content about its products was easily discoverable and consistent across multiple channels and platforms. “Our overall strategy focuses on making our content as easy to access and as consistent and accurate as possible,” says Michael McCormack, Customer and Dealer Experience Lead at GM. By striving for consistency, GM can help ensure that if a customer discovers a piece of content about a specific product in the early stage of their engagement, they will be able to bring that same content with them into another channel or another stage.

That’s just one example of a customer problem that wouldn’t be solved by thought leadership. Of course there are instances where it is extremely valuable. For example, Charles Schwab creates high-quality research reports for people looking to invest their money, and not necessarily with Charles Schwab. These reports help establish Charles Schwab as a subject matter expert when it comes to investment decisions, and in turn, helps drive real business.

Ultimately, it all comes down to what the customer’s biggest need is, and what type of content is best suited to deliver on that need. In our research, we were able to broadly categorize content into five archetypes that would serve the customer. To create a content strategy, try to force yourself into choosing one (and only one!) archetype, (see below) and use it as the basis for your organization’s content strategy. You might just end up with Content as Currency, an archetype where thought leadership plays a major role.

It's perfectly acceptable to deploy thought leadership as a strategic tool for engaging your customers. But it shouldn’t be the first, or only place you start.

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