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Both content marketing and thought leadership are about sharing information that helps customers solve problems, so it’s no surprise that many may be confused about the difference between the two terms.

However, there’s quite an important difference: Content marketing is about distributing useful information in order to attract customers and drive sales, while thought leadership is a specific type of content marketing that focuses on positioning and differentiating yourself as an expert. While they both drive sales, thought leadership is primarily about driving conversation, engagement, and innovation.

Simply put, thought leadership focuses on providing insights around a problem, not just pitching a product. It’s highlighting and showing deep understanding of a problem, explaining issues, exploring opposing views—and then offering a solution. Thought leadership content intrigues, challenges, and positions you as an expert in your field, resulting in incredible competitive differentiation for your business.

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How to create thought leadership content

You’re already an expert in your business; now it’s time to demonstrate that expertise. Here are eight tips for creating effective thought leadership content:

1. Solve, don’t sell.

An easy way to demonstrate thought leadership is to illustrate a common customer challenge, then offer unique solutions to solve it. For example, understanding financial markets can be tricky for someone who doesn’t know the field inside and out; Charles Schwab distributes research reports to help investors make informed decisions, even if they don’t end up investing with Charles Schwab. Start using your marketing assets to communicate complete solutions, not just push your product. Check out MPN’s ModernBiz content for ready-to-use copy blocks and more to get you started.

2. Listen before you speak.

Listen to your customers, join online and professional communities that discuss the issues you and your customers care about, be where the conversations are happening, then wade in. By doing this, not only will you demonstrate thought leadership by adding to the conversation, but you will learn more about the customer challenges, which become your opportunities.

3. Focus.

Your thought leadership content should align with your organization’s unique value proposition. If your business mainly concentrates on Dynamics CRM for retailers, then your thought leadership pieces should reflect that focus. What are the topics of debate in that community? What problems can you help solve?

4. Provoke thought.

Keep in mind that you can’t, and you don’t need to, solve everyone’s problems. Thought leadership can be about asking provocative questions, inspiring innovative thinking, and figuring things out communally. Be open and invite others to be open to exploring new ideas with you—that demonstrates how forward-thinking your organization is and makes people want to take the journey with you instead of someone else.

5. Repurpose content.

Use your thought leadership content in your marketing campaigns. Repurpose it as tweets, Facebook posts, blog articles, webinars, videos or infographics. Use your content in multiple ways, both internally and externally, to fire discussion and creative problem-solving while getting the most out of your content creation budget.

6. Choose your channel wisely.

Whitepapers, case studies, webinars, seminars, Q&As on Twitter, videos, social media and blog posts—there are a lot of channels available to spread your ideas, and you’ll probably want to use more than one for each piece of content. Target your marketing for more effectiveness by creating content that’s specific to your customer personas and tailor that content to where those customers are in their buying journey.

For more help determining the right channel and creating thought leadership content, check out the demand generation videos on Smart Partner Marketing.

7. Let your thoughts be free…

Giving away IP for free can feel counter-intuitive, but it’s a great way to bring people to you and encourage their trust.

Rand Fishkin’s “Whiteboard Fridays” are a brilliant example of thought leadership: Fishkin lays out complex marketing principles in a way that’s entertaining to watch, easy to consume and share, highly informative, and most importantly, free. Yes, he’s giving away hard-earned intellectual property (IP), but his efforts have put him at the top of Huffington Post’s 2016 “23 Thought leaders every online marketer must know” list—a payoff well worth the effort.

8. …but get something in return for them.

Free doesn’t mean you don’t get anything in return. Gated content—the whitepapers or webinars visitors have to register for—are a great way to capture contact information so you can follow up with prospects later. By enabling you to collect insights on your leads and nurture those most likely to convert, using gated content can increase your engagement and closing rates with high-value leads.

To decide when to use gated or non-gated content, think about the stage of your prospect: in the early stages of exploration, leads are not necessarily engaged or invested in your products and services yet, so ungated content helps build trust and creates a positive image of your company. In the evaluation stage, leads are becoming more qualified, and it’s time to get to know your prospect, so it may be wise to prompt them to fill out a short form.

To decide what will work best for your business, weigh the risks of both gated and un-gated content with your market, competition, and customers in mind. Here are some things to consider:

Risks of gated content:

  • You may lose visitors who fear getting spammed.
  • You may have less ability to maximize that content for search engine optimization (SEO) or for readers to share your ideas via social channels.
  • Gated thought leadership can make you vulnerable to competitors who offer similar content without requiring registration.

Risks of un-gated content:

  • Competitors have easy access to your IP.
  • Because you’re not capturing contact information, it can be difficult or impossible to grow your database and nurture these visitors as prospects.

It’s a crowded marketplace—use well-planned thought leadership content as a part of your overall marketing strategy to make your voice heard above that crowd. Start today by showing your customer, rather than telling them, how your company understands and can fix a customer’s problems.

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