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By definition, every company can’t be a thought leader. The fact is that it’s a tall order to truly be a thought leader, assuming you’re on board with this definition of thought leadership in Wikipedia:

lightbulb“…a futurist or person who is recognized among peers and mentors for innovative ideas and demonstrates the confidence to promote or share those ideas as actionable distilled insights…”

Some companies put forth what they call thought leadership, when in fact, they’re simply keeping pace with the market. And that’s okay. As long as you’re able to satisfy your prospects’ needs, you don’t need to develop groundbreaking concepts. In fact, as Mike Schultz of the Wellesley Hills Group points out, thought leadership doesn’t always appeal to prospects.

That said, it’s understandable why companies pursue thought-leadership initiatives. After all, it’s one way to get industry analysts, partners, journalists – and sometimes, even customers – beating a path to your door. But there’s another way to get prospects to find their way to you: by leading the charge in content marketing.

I’d be willing to bet that most B2B marketers are now familiar with the concept of content marketing. (For those that aren’t, I highly recommend “Get Content. Get Customers. by Joe Pulizzi and Newt Barrett.) According to Joe Pulizzi, “Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

While thought leadership has its place, it’s not often applicable to the situation at hand – after all, it’s usually focused on a strategic vision. On the other hand, content marketing provides something of immediate value to prospects. And while not every company can be a thought leader, any company can be a leader when it comes to content marketing.

Interestingly, a well-executed content-marketing strategy reflects key characteristics of a thought leader as defined by Elise Bauer: a company that “deeply understands its business, the needs of its customers, and the broader marketplace in which it operates.” And, as Britton Manasco says, thought leadership is “the presentation of insightful, provocative and compelling perspectives that frame the way people think about key issues and even guide them to smarter decisions.”

Whether or not you’re conveying your understanding of your customers’ needs and the market on a strategic level, you should put that insight into play on a practical level, one that gets – and holds – your prospects’ attention over time. If you’re seeking step-by-step guidance, see Chris Koch’s blog post about the shift from thought leadership to “idea marketing.”