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Thought leadership and SEO are often seen as two wildly distinct fields. One aimed at looking good in the eyes of people; the other, trying to please an algorithm. But are they really so different?

In this post, we’ll look at thought leadership vs SEO. We’ll clearly define both concepts and look at the differences between them before we show you how you can make SEO and thought leadership work together.

What is Thought Leadership?

Thought leadership refers to the trust, authority, and credibility gained by a person or company in regards to a specific topic or within a certain industry or field. While you can achieve thought leadership organically throughout the course of your career or as your brand grows, many companies employ specific marketing strategies to achieve the status of thought leader and as such attract more customers. The same goes for solopreneurs looking to establish a personal brand.

Companies want to become thought leaders so their target audience:

  • Is more likely to hear about them.
  • Is more likely to trust them.
  • Is more likely to buy from them.

Some of the strategies they can employ to achieve this are:

  • Creating high-value, original content.
  • Seizing speaking opportunities at events where their target audience hangs out.
  • Getting featured on highly-reputed industry websites.

Examples of thought leadership content

Marketing agency Animalz distinguishes five different types or sources of thought leadership content:

1. Counter-narrative opinions

Counter-narrative opinions can also be defined as controversial. They point to articles that go against the grain but that are also true. It’s not enough to simply say the opposite of what everyone else is saying. Your opinion needs to be backed up by knowledge, observation, and/or experience.

A good example is this post on SparkToro in which Rand Fishin advises against using Customer Persona templates in marketing.

2. Personal narrative

People love personal stories and in business, they’re a good vehicle to share lessons you’ve learned and think your audience should learn as well. They also allow you to share your brand philosophy and how that was shaped.

A good example is this post by Flow CEO Viola Eva where she shares how traveling adventurously has allowed her to succeed in business.

3. Network

When creating network thought leadership content, you’re relying on the knowledge and experience of your connections. Podcast interviews, guest posts, and expert round-ups are all different forms of network content that allow you to position yourself as a leader through the leaders you affiliate with.

In this post, Sean Lane of Drift lists books that were recommended to him by guests on the Drift Operations podcast. All of these people are experts in their fields, making this roundup a valuable resource.

4. Industry analysis

Another way to showcase your expertise is by keeping an eye on evolutions and trends within your industry and then commenting on them. A thoughtful analysis demonstrates that you know the subject matter, especially if you can add a unique perspective.

A good example is this article by Lily Ray for Amsive Digital about the impact of COVID-19 on organic search visibility.

5. Data storytelling

Data storytelling is similar to industry analysis in that you take existing information and draw conclusions from it. The difference lies in that in this case, the data you use is yours. It’s data that you’ve collected yourself, or that the use of your product has generated.

A good example is this Evergreen Content Study by Backlinko.

What is SEO?

SEO or Search Engine Optimization is the collection of strategies used to make pages rank in the first place, on the first page of the search engines so that they can attract more organic, unpaid website traffic.

The main purpose of search engine optimization is to attract more leads organically, and some of the SEO strategies used to achieve this are:

  • Backlink building to increase the domain authority of the brand’s website in the eyes of the search engines.
  • Creating optimized blog posts that answer the questions of the brand’s ideal customer.
  • Website optimization to ensure both the search engines and the user can easily find their way around.

Examples of typical SEO content

1. Listicles

A listicle is usually an article consisting of a quick intro followed by a list in which each item is briefly described. Items can be tips, examples, activities, and more.

This post with 9 Affiliate Disclosure Examples is a typical listicle.

2. Buying guides

Buyer guides aim to help readers choose a specific product from a group of products. This type of content can be highly supportive and informational, but it’s also often used by affiliate marketers as a highly-effective way to generate sales.

This Buyers Guide by Arlo tells prospects exactly how to go about purchasing a Training Management System… which is exactly the product Arlo is selling.

3. Comparison posts

Comparison posts help readers choose between two or more products by comparing them side-by-side. Oftentimes, these types of posts will have a comparison table as well as a verdict on which of the compared items is the best.

While they’re a typical type of SEO content, comparison posts also offer a great way to show how your product is better than that of your competitors, as prospects will be comparing anyway.

This post from Campaign Monitor clearly targets the keyword “best Mailchimp alternatives”. Instead of avoiding talking about their competitor, Campaign Monitor takes this opportunity to highlight how its product is better than MailChimp’s, and how easy it is to migrate from MailChimp to Campaign Monitor.

Thought Leadership vs SEO

While both thought leadership marketing and SEO can be used to attract qualified leads, the difference between the two strategies lies in their primary purpose as well as their approach to content creation.

Thought leadership content aims to generate brand awareness and increase the brand’s credibility. The goal of thought leadership content is rarely to directly convert, but rather to warm someone up so they’re more likely to convert sometime in the future.

SEO content is also a demand generation tool as it helps the brand get found in search, but its primary goal is to get the user to click. First, on the correct search result in Google and then, on whatever the call-to-action is within the blog post.

For what concerns their approach to content creation, thought leadership content is all about what information is being shared, while SEO also (not only!) focuses on how that information is shared.

To the untrained eye, a pure thought leadership article and an SEO article can look exactly the same, but the thought leadership article is written with the sole goal to convey a point as best as possible, while the SEO article also takes into account that the article.

  • Has the right keyword density.
  • Links to trustworthy external sources.
  • Has internal links.
  • Includes images, graphics, or other types of media.
  • Has the main keyword in all the right places.

and more. 

It’s not a matter of quality

It’s important to mention that the keyword-stuffing days of SEO are over. A decade ago, the difference between SEO and thought leadership content could have been quality, but that’s no longer the case. Nowadays, SEOs try to please people just as much as they’re trying to please Google. The result is high-value content that can rank well in the search results.


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Thought Leadership SEO: Two Approaches Combined

While SEO and thought leadership are two different marketing approaches, they can and often should be combined to achieve the best possible results.

Fueling SEO with thought leadership

1. Expert content builds backlinks more easily

Building backlinks isn’t easy, but when you create original, high-quality content, your chances of getting a link back increase significantly. Publishing original research is a good example of this. If you’re the primary source of information, other websites will have to link back to you.

2. SEO ranks the page, thought leadership helps make sure people read it

SEOs put a lot of work into making sure pages get found and clicked on in Google. They also optimize the content to make sure it contains whatever the user is looking for so they’ll keep reading, and you know what? It’s much easier to keep someone engaged when you can offer a unique, well-thought-out perspective, than if you regurgitate the same thing everyone else is sharing.

3. Strong opinions attract other strong opinions

People love giving their opinion on something they feel strongly about and the more people chime in, the better the chances it’ll be picked up by the media. Do you have a controversial opinion about a hot topic in your field? Do you have a strong point to make about a strategy or practice others feel strongly about as well? Write it down, make sure to share it on social, and it might just snowball its way to a big media outlet.

Fueling thought leadership with SEO

1. Keyword research tells you what people need help with

Thought leaders carry a wealth of knowledge with them, so how do you decide which expert insights to share first? By doing keyword research, you can learn what your target customers need help with right now, and be the one who gives it to them. Your expertise status will rise each time you answer your audience’s questions. 

2. Optimization helps thought leadership content travel further

Take it one step further and optimize your answer – your thought leadership piece – for the main keyword you’re targeting. More people will find it, which means more people have the potential to turn into qualified leads.

3. An easy-to-use website further boosts trust in your brand

It’s not enough that you share valuable, original information. If your website structure doesn’t make sense to visitors and your pages take forever to load, potential customers will get frustrated and click away. A part of SEO is making sure your website is fast, related blog posts are linked together, and users can easily find their way to your best and most important content.

What’s Your Recipe?

SEO and thought leadership marketing are both valid ways of reaching and attracting leads. How much of each you use and what your thought leadership SEO mix looks like, depends largely on your marketing goals. 

Do you want to gain as much qualified organic traffic as possible over the next few months, or slowly build a well-crafted reputation among industry peers? Do you want to rank for a few specific search terms, or be seen as the go-to source within your niche? Whatever your goal is, at Flow agency we can help you create the content strategy to get you there. Get in touch for more information.


Sofie Couwenbergh
Sofie is an SEO-savvy content strategist, consultant, and writer. She helps brands generate more qualified leads and keep customers engaged with engaging optimized articles like the one you’ve just read.
Flow Blog

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