Where does thought leadership fit in the marketing and sales funnel?

Anybody that spends enough time thinking about their content marketing will at some point encounter the concept of the marketing and sales funnel.

A simplified representation of it can be remembered with the mnemonic AIDA: Attention, Interest, Desire, Action.

A simplified version of the marketing and sales funnel represented as AIDA. Source: Pixabay

You won’t have to dig far through Google to come across many difference taxonomies and ways of representing the funnel. But dig through enough examples and you’ll start to notice some commonalities:

  • Most break the funnel down into three constituent parts: top of funnel (ToFu), middle of funnel (MoFu), and bottom of funnel (BoFu). Developing awareness is a top of funnel activity. Cementing desire, overcoming objections, and validating needs are mid-funnel activities. While validating potential ROI and business need are bottom of funnel activities.
  • Some authors will regard the marketing and sales funnels as two separate animals while others will plot all stages onto one funnel. The sales component of the funnel in AIDA is represented with AIDA. (I think that plotting all stages onto one diagram makes things simpler.)
  • Those that are more sales-focused will often superimpose three labels onto the funnel: lead generation (at awareness), lead nurturing (mid-funnel: consideration and intent), and sales (evaluation and purchase).

Content marketers are accustomed to thinking about the collateral they create as targeting certain stages of the funnel:

  • Blog posts are quintessential ToFu activities letting the world know that you exist and ranking for the right keywords.
  • E-books and reports are common MoFu assets. These are detailed enough to help overcome objections and help validate needs.
  • Competitor comparisons and testimonials and case studies are commonly thought of as BoFu assets. These affirm the last remaining doubts that your company is trustworthy (testimonials and case studies offer social proof) and help satisfy those signing off on the purchase that it will be possible to achieve positive ROI through adopting the product/service being sold.

But what about thought leadership?

Where Does Thought Leadership Sit In The Marketing Funnel?

The first thing to say is that there’s no one right answer to this question.

Different marketers have different conceptions of what true thought leadership is — although I have my preferred definition (“thought leadership is the act of sharing original insights and thoughts with a target audience to help develop awareness and interest in the thought leader, his/her organization, or the product or service being sold.”)

Thought leadership and content marketing can be distinguished on a few key grounds (for more detail, see my piece for Marketing Pros above):

  • Thought leadership is more commonly non-promotional
  • Thought leadership, in light of the above, can commonly be leveraged off-site by being placed in editorial publications
  • Thought leadership — to merit the title — needs to be original and of legitimate interest to its readership. Content marketing doesn’t necessarily have to cross this bar.

My opinion is that thought leadership sits higher in the funnel than content marketing.

Of course content marketing can and commonly does work at the top of funnel level — developing awareness about the company and its offering through, for instance, informational blogs. But it can work throughout the full length of the funnel right down to facilitating conversion from leads to customers.

Thought leadership — on the other hand — tends to be a top to mid funnel activity.

Organizations and individuals commonly use thought leadership to:

  • Establish their credibility as an expert operating in the field. This is essentially an awareness activity — whether the awareness being generated is about the person him/her-self, his company, or the product being offered.
  • Convince the target audience of the reputability of themselves or their organizations. I would place this as a mid-funnel activity because it essentially involves overcoming objections.

Thought leadership, however, rarely operates at the bottom of funnel level. While showcasing one’s expertise or interesting ideas might be a terrific way of warming up relationships — or establishing them — when it comes time to go in for the sales classic content marketing assets, such as case studies, are often the preferred means.

When conversations move to brass tacks — can we make money from this? — the time for establishing one’s legitimacy or credibility or expertise is in the past;.

The above explains partially why thought leadership and content marketing can be used in combination and why, indeed, they’re often such a potent one-two.

Thought leadership tends to operate higher in the marketing and sales funnel than content marketing. Understanding their differences and approaching them as unique activities with different targets can help authors to derive maximum value from both — and realize their synergies.

Daniel Rosehill is the founder of DSR Ghostwriting, a thought leadership writing service and marketing consultancy specializing in helping develop and execute thought leadership campaigns for clients in the technology sector.

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Daniel Rosehill

Daniel Rosehill

Daytime: writing for other people. Nighttime: writing for me. Or the other way round. Enjoys: Linux, tech, beer, random things. https://www.danielrosehill.com