The liaison between thought leadership, content marketing and top of mind

As a marketing strategist, I get to explain content marketing to a C-level audience on a regular basis. In doing so, I often use the phrases ‘thought leadership’ and ‘top of mind’. I do so because I noticed it helps people on the ‘business’ side of an organization, understand faster and better what content marketing is (and isn’t), how it works (and doesn’t), why they should invest in it and what they will get out of it.

When it comes to defining ‘thought leadership’ and ‘content marketing’, I almost always refer to the B2B Content Marketing Workbook by Velocity Partners. This is a superb and essential piece of content that well explains the essence of B2B content marketing in a way your granny will understand. (So thank you, people at Velocity. You rock!)

Let’s get to it.

What is thought leadership? Thought leadership is “exploiting your unique position in your markets to generate valuable insight and advice on issues your customers and prospects care most about”.

If you break that definition down, you notice a few things:

  • Your unique position: in order for your content to stick and inspire, you need a perspective that no one else has in the market. This is what Joe Pulizzi from the Content Marketing Institute calls your ‘content tilt’.
  • Valuable insight: where value is in the eye of the beholder, in this case the buyer, not the seller. In order for that to happen, you need to know what’s (extremely) valuable your audience.
  • Advice on issues: it’s about advice that is relevant for your audience, and since you’re the expert, it better be good. And it’s about issues, not products or services, or not at this point.
  • Care most about: it’s about your audience’s priorities, not your own.

Velocity goes on to say: “If the materials you bring to the market don’t follow this recipe, they’re not thought leadership, they’re brochures. Brochures are only valuable when the hardest part of marketing is already done. A brochure will never move a market.” (my italics)

I often get asked: does content marketing mean that we have to stop making stuff like brochures and spec sheets? Of course it doesn’t. Take spec sheets: they might help prospective buyers compare your offering to that of your competitors, “when the hardest part of marketing is already done.” Nothing less, but also nothing more. Bear that in mind.

On to content marketing.

“Content marketing is turning your insight and advice into campaigns that change people’s minds and incite action.”

Now, let’s break that one down:

  • Campaigns: a campaign is not “let’s write 7 blogs and make a fancy infographic.” A campaign consists of a number of planned and measured steps or activities.
  • Change people’s minds: because it’s all about action, and that’s where action starts: between the ears.
  • Incite action: the only measure of success that matters. You don’t create content for the sake of it. You create content to get people to do something.

Content marketing starts with great content, but it doesn’t end there. If the wonderful content you create, is not made to do what it’s meant to do through a campaign, it will just sit there, doing nothing.

As Velocity puts it: “A lot of marketers are good at the thought leadership part but fall down when it comes to proper content marketing. Others run great campaigns but skimp on the quality or the credibility of their insight and advice. That’s the fast track to irrelevance.”

In other words: when you put all of your efforts and budget into the creation process, you will fail, because you’ll be the prophet shouting in the desert. No one will hear you. No one will even know you exist. On the other hand: when you’re good at content promotion, but you didn’t do the work that is required (and it is a lot) to make that content highly relevant, you’ll be in a crowded marketplace shouting more or less the same as all the other vendors there.

You will make noise, when what you need to do is to create a signal.

So where does that leave ‘top of mind’?

When done right, thought leadership and content marketing place your organization or brand top of mind. In other words: when it’s time to make a shortlist or even a purchase, your audience will think of your brand first.

People in B2B sales know how important that is. When you’re top of mind, you’re the first vendor on the list prospects will contact, and when you’re the first, chances are you will set the tone. Other vendors run the risk of being measured against you and the standards you have set. Being top of mind improves the sales people’s hit rate.

So, to summarize: thought leadership and content marketing combined help you achieve top of mind awareness, which in turn impacts the quality of the leads you generate. In the end, your sales people get higher quality leads that they have a better chance to close.

This is the mechanism. The trick is to recognize that this is not achieved overnight, and that it requires a lot of planning, patience and persistence. You can read more about that in another blog post I wrote about the biggest myth in content marketing.

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