Thought Leadership Marketing Defined

Most folks I meet say to me, “Well, I think I have an idea of what thought leadership marketing is, but I’m not sure, so tell me.” It’s a concept that’s referred to in a lot of business writing, today, but not often talked about in depth. It certainly doesn’t come up as part of your business education — there’s no scholarship at all that I’ve been able to find on thought leadership marketing.

So, how do I answer folks when they ask me what I think thought leadership marketing means. I’m generally long-winded, so first I like to put it into context. I like to talk about organizational functions and how thought leadership marketing fits. This is the story I tell.

First, you’re in business, generally to make money (even for non-profits, this is usually a major goal). You make money by selling products or services and marketing is the means you use to get folks interested in buying your products or services. You brand your company so your prospective buyers know what you do, what you stand for, and why they should turn to you when they decide to buy what you offer. They know to turn to you because you’ve positioned your company as the one that offers them exactly what they want and need. You did that by creating content — advertising, writing articles, speaking at events, writing books, blogging, hosting a website, and engaging in a variety of other tactics that clearly showed your customers that you know what they need and that you’ve delivered before. They trust you and know they can rely on your products and services. So they buy from you and you make money (the circle is now complete).

In short, I tell folks they’ve engaged in the following functions:


  • Business (a means of making money)
  • Marketing (a means of getting leads that will turn into business)
  • Branding (a means of making prospective leads aware of the unique aspects of the company)
  • Positioning (a means of differentiating the brand from competitors)
  • Content marketing (a means of positioning the company)
  • Thought leadership marketing (one type of content marketing).

So, for me, thought leadership marketing is the active positioning of your company (or you ) as an authority, resource, and trusted advisor on issues of importance to potential customers. This positioning is accomplished using a variety of media, including books, newsletters, blogs, e-mail, events, etc. It allows you to earn trust and build credibility and recognition, differentiating yourself as one who clearly understands the business and needs of your audience. It’s a means of nurturing leads, improving customer retention, and expanding your market.

Let me know what you think about this argument. Have I missed something? Does it make sense to you?


  • Mary Yanocha

    This is an excellent (and the most clear I’ve seen) definition of thought leadership marketing. As a professional services company, this is a concept we have been practicing since we were founded — and guess what — it does work! I would add one bullet called “Sales” to your list above between “Marketing” and “Business” as the action of converting a lead (closing the deal) brought in from one of the many marketing activities happens at this critical stage. All thought leadership marketing activities must help support the sales team in their efforts to establish trusted relationships with prospects that ultimately turn into clients.

  • jimpennypacker

    Thanks Mary. Great point about putting “Sales” between Business and Marketing. Thought leadership marketing wouldn’t work without the sales team.

  • Jeffery Lynch

    Very good definition…and I like Mary’s revision, too. The fact is, that Thought Leadership marketing is really not new, although it has been gaining interest in the last few years. The problem with what passes as TL these days is that there is more Marketing than Thought. Thought Leadership, like maturity, comes with time, and is something that others say about you, not something you can claim. Like humility, if you say you have it…you don’t. Keep blogging!

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