SEO Is Not a Synonym for Thought Leadership

Thought leadership is one of the most common—and most commonly confused—terms in the marketing world. Suppose you were to ask a room of communications professionals, who manage different brands’ thought leadership initiatives what it is and how each put it into practice. More times than not, you’re bound to get varied definitions and several different ways each brand applies and measures thought leadership.

Nowhere, however, does the term seem to generate more confusion than when uttered in the same sentence as SEO. And, never are company stakeholders more disappointed with outcomes than when the strategies are used interchangeably and, as a result, detract from one another in execution.

SEO is not synonymous with thought leadership, and vice versa. Although the two overlap in a Venn diagram of proven content marketing strategies and can and should be effectively executed in tandem, one cannot do the job of the other—and certainly not of both.

SEO satisfies keywords and search engines. It is data-driven, highly measurable and, depending on your preferred marketing funnel methodology, key to moving audiences further in their journey with your brand. The goal often boils down to generating the almighty click.

Thought leadership, on the other hand, is about satisfying the curiosity of real people—educating them on a topic, answering their questions and, in many cases, prompting them to think differently. It is driven by storytelling and, when done well, brings new ideas to market through a mix of expert opinions, real-world anecdotes and data. The goal is not only to build awareness for the thought leader and affiliated brand but, more importantly, to establish credibility and trust on the subject.

Ranking #1 on Google for a particular term doesn’t make you a thought leader; having a unique perspective on the broader topic does. It goes beyond simply writing to solve what people are asking about on search engines or compiling a list of best practices. Thought leadership is about seeing around corners and predicting where the future is likely to go, why it matters, how an audience will be impacted and what to do about it. It is about rallying others behind a bigger vision rather than rehashing established truths.

Creating Compelling Thought Leadership

But how can a brand tell if it is confusing—and thus underutilizing–the two strategies? One tell-tale sign is the absence of a deep industry expert in the formulation of a piece of content; without the expertise of a seasoned industry leader, odds are your content team is utilizing existing thoughts available in the market. Thus, whatever your thought leadership content is—blog, article, podcast episode or so on—it will lack the element of forward-thinking.   

Thought leadership must be created and cultivated beyond what Google can crawl: on the stages of industry conferences big and small; in the pages of books, of both the digital and (gasp!) print variety; throughout the talk tracks of all-hands company meetings and carefully crafted sales pitches; across corporate and individual social profiles; a constant undercurrent integrated across channels, evolving as conversations, innovations and markets evolve, not simply when performance shifts or search volume dwindles.

There’s no question successful thought leadership requires more energy, greater expertise and additional resources from across an organization, with harder-to-measure milestones that take a longer period of time to achieve. Then again, on the path to high performance, most leaders already know there are no shortcuts, a lot of grey areas and patience is required.


August 5, 2022


By Katelyn Holbrook


Thought Leadership