Many professional services marketers invest substantial time and money marketing too many substandard ideas through white papers, op-ed and management journal submissions and sometimes whole books.
By Susan Buddenbaum, Bernie Thiel, and Robert Buday
What if a venture capital firm funded entrepreneurs on a first-come, first-served basis with no questions asked? People with ideas from wacky to wonderful would get into business—more of them wacky, no doubt, given the high failure rate for new businesses. Of course, the VC wouldn’t last very long. Without screening new-business ideas and the people behind them, it eventually would fritter away its capital after so many bad investments.
Of course, this scenario is highly implausible. Yet many professional services marketers make the equivalent mistake in their publication strategy. They invest substantial time and money marketing too many substandard ideas through white papers, op-ed and management journal submissions and sometimes whole books. Like the bad businesses funded by the VCs, these poor publications fizzle out fast.
Compared to a bankrupt business, a poor publication might seem like a trivial problem. But for professional services firms, it is a cardinal sin. Because such companies are in the very business of providing expertise, their publications must display authoritative knowledge. A refrain we hear often—that “publishing anything is OK because it gets our name out there—does not apply to professional services firms. Clients and prospects hold the writings of professional services firms to a far higher standard than, say, they do a technology vendor’s white papers meant to showcase its industry knowledge. Because of this, substandard publications actually can erode the professional services firm’s brand image, not enhance it.
Conversely, best-selling books, Harvard Business Review articles, substantive white papers and other publications can break open new markets for professional services firms and shore up their share of old ones, as the following examples attest:
- One consulting firm we worked with in 2005 on developing and marketing points of view on two topics (one on financial services and the other on health care) has generated 35 substantial business leads from the white papers it published and a direct marketing campaign around the papers.
- For another client, a research publication we ghost wrote helped the firm sell a multimillion-dollar, multiyear outsourcing contract.
- A fourth company told us that one white paper we helped write and market was “a catalyst for generating millions of dollars in additional consulting revenue” from existing clients.
How can professional services firms ensure that their white papers, articles, management journals, research reports, books and email newsletters generate substantial interest in the firm and, thus, maximize the investments made in these publications? We believe the marketing organization holds the key.
As the “gatekeepers” of a professional services company’s publications, marketers should have clear accountability for the success of published materials. But in our experience, while marketing professionals typically are proficient in getting publications written, designed and disseminated, many are not as engaged as they should be in the content development part of the publishing process—i.e., the activities encompassing idea generation through point of view completion. In fact, in many companies, marketing is not seen as a player in content development—or if it is, it’s more of as a secondary participant in the process. In a survey The Bloom Group recently conducted of nearly 180 professional services executives, less than half (48 percent) of respondents indicated that their marketing group plays a primary role in helping professionals in the firm to develop and capture their ideas. Worse yet, 44 percent of executives in our survey indicated that their marketing function’s performance in helping to develop content that generates strong market awareness and business leads was no better than average (with 20 percent noting it was ineffective).
By believing that only the firm’s experts are responsible for its content, and by viewing marketing’s role as packaging and distributing this content, too many marketing professionals set themselves up for lackluster publishing results.
A Portfolio Approach to Publishing Intellectual Capital
What’s the solution? Clearly, it’s not for marketers to march into the office of their practice or firm leader and demand they be a critical player in content development. On the contrary, we have found that there is a more helpful—and certainly less abrasive—way for marketers to insert themselves into the content-development process. This involves moving from an “order taker” role—in which marketers essentially publish any content that comes to them from subject matter experts—to a more consultative role that emphasizes guiding experts on their choice of topics for publication and providing valuable assistance in shoring up ideas that are not yet ready to be marketed.
One way for marketers to make such a shift is by effectively taking a portfolio management approach to the thought leadership reflected in the firm’s publications: collecting, assessing, developing and writing about a balanced array of ideas to ensure that the firm has the right mix between short-term bets (ideas ready to market now) and long-term bets (ideas needing more extensive development investment) to support demand generation in the current quarter as well as over a year or multiple-year period. Such a balanced portfolio reflects the needs and realities of the professional services world today, where there is little tolerance for marketing that doesn’t produce in the short term, but also an intense need for marketing programs that anticipate market needs. A marketer who invests only in the big-bet ideas that take substantial time to develop probably won’t be around long enough to get them to market. At the same time, stringing together only quick hits will do little to elevate the firm’s reputation for thought leadership—which is critical to building strong demand for its services. Hence, the portfolio mix is essential for growth.
Implementing a portfolio management approach to a firm’s publications involves four basic steps: topic identification, topic assessment, idea development and portfolio balancing. We explain each of these steps in detail.
Step One: Topic Identification
The first task in creating a stable of strong publications is gathering ideas for topics internally within a professional services firm. In some organizations, the process is informal: The firm’s professionals approach the marketing team with ideas. The risk in this approach is that the ideas that surface may not necessarily be in areas needed to support the growth of the business. In other firms, marketing is more aggressive. Marketing may convene workshops with practice leaders and others to generate topic ideas—especially in areas where the company has set significant growth targets.
Whatever process marketing uses to generate ideas, our rule of thumb is that marketing needs at least four times the number of topic ideas as it has publishing opportunities for them. We say at least four times because the marketer should expect that most of the ideas won’t pan out. The professionals working on them may keep their idea development activities forever on the back burner, letting client and sales work continually “cut in line.” Or when they present their ideas in the form of, say, article or white paper drafts, their lack of depth on the topic or examples to support them finally come clear. Or they may even leave the firm (and take the article with them).
Step Two: Topic Assessment
Once the marketing team has assembled a collection of prospective topics, it should assess the topics through two primary lenses:
- The market need for clarity on the topic or issue at hand
- The depth of the firm’s expertise on the topic or issue at hand
A key to publishing a steady stream of points of view that make the phone ring is identifying the extent to which an issue or topic is understood, and being effectively dealt with, by one’s prospects. Topics that are not well understood by executives, or those that involve a business problem for which an effective solution has not yet been advanced, represent some of the best opportunities for professional services firms to provide deep insights and position themselves as trusted sources for help.
One helpful way to identify where a lack of prospect clarity—and, thus, the business opportunity for professional services firms—is greatest is to think of issues as falling at various points along a maturity curve, with emerging issues whose significance and impact are yet to be fully known or felt being at one end of the spectrum (immature) while topics that have been around for a while and are well understood anchoring the other end (mature). Generally, issues at the immature end of the spectrum are those with which professional services firms can help their clients the most with insightful, expert guidance. And, because little has been written about emerging issues, the field is wide open for firms looking to stake a claim. As an issue begins to move along the spectrum and becomes more pervasive, the pain prospective clients feel from the issue becomes more intense, as does the desire for a solution to the problem.
After evaluating the market’s interest in the chosen topics, the marketer will have half of what he needs to make an overall assessment on which topics could support the firm’s editorial calendar. The other half of what he needs is a gauge of the firm’s expertise and experience in the chosen topic area as an early indication of the extent to which the practitioners’ ideas on the topic are well-developed.
It is not uncommon for firms to want to write about an area in which they have little experience or expertise. This is most often the case when a firm wants to break into a new market and use publishing as a way to establish itself as a player in that market. If a firm has little experience to draw upon, the ideas it wants to put forth will need investment in research and analysis to provide the insights for a novel, compelling point of view. (This was certainly the case when Michael Hammer initiated the research that ultimately led to reengineering as a powerful business concept.) On the other hand, if a firm has a reasonable base of experience in the topic area (a useful rule of thumb is having completed related projects with at least five clients), there’s a good chance that a point of view can be developed and marketed more quickly.
Once the marketer has an assessment of the market’s inherent need for guidance on the topic and the depth of expertise the firm possesses, he can begin to create a portfolio of short-, medium- and long-term activities to fill the publication pipeline. (The timeframes here are the length of time it takes to develop the point of view to the point at which it can be written about in such vehicles as articles, white papers, books and reports.) Assessing each point of view topic through even a simple framework such as the one in Figure 1 can show the marketer what he has to work with—which ideas should be captured and published right away, which should be developed over time, and which should be left unpublished.
This framework consists of two evaluative axes: The maturity of an issue or topic is on the Y axis and the depth of expertise the firm has on the issue or topic is on the X axis. By comparing potential topics the firm could write about along these two axes, a marketer can quickly get a picture of where he should be investing his time and money—and how:
Figure 1: Assessing How to Treat Prospective Publication Topics
- An emerging (immature) topic on which the firm has much expertise and experience would fall in the lower-right quadrant, or “expose.” In such a situation, the firm should essentially rush its point of view to market. With deep knowledge about an emerging issue, the firm should look to capitalize on first-mover status and define the market to its advantage through early, insightful publications that clearly position the firm as the leader.
- A topic that’s just beginning to get the market’s attention and is also new to the firm would fall in the bottom-left quadrant, or “cultivate,” and would best be viewed as a long-term bet. With such topics, there’s sufficient time for the firm to invest in point-of-view development, and enough growth potential in the area, to merit a measured approach to penetrating the market.
- A mature topic on which the firm has little experience or expertise would land in the upper-left quadrant, “ignore.” As the quadrant’s label implies, the firm should pay little attention to this topic, which offers scant return on investment. The firm is at a significant disadvantage developing a point of view in an attempt to steal business from established providers that already have been meeting the markets needs.
Step 3: Idea Development
With the range of potential topics thus plotted, a marketer can determine how to pursue the topics in each quadrant. Regardless of whether a topic requires short-, medium- or long-term development, a marketer must remember that a fact base is needed to bring insight and credibility to the point of view. To be substantive and generate market interest, all points of view need evidence—examples of companies that have followed the approaches set forth in the point of view and have benefited substantially. Such evidence can come from one of two places: the firm’s experience in advising on the issue, or its research on companies that have addressed the issue. Understanding the evidence on which a point of view will be based—new research or past client experience—is key to determining how long it will take to further develop into a substantive point of view and how to proceed (Figure 2). Experience-based points of view can be developed faster; research-based points of view take longer.
Figure 2: Timing and Approach to Developing Target Topics
Step 4: Portfolio Balancing
The process of topic collection, assessment and idea development provides a portfolio of ideas or points of view that can be brought to market in a variety of publications—some sooner, some later. Once topics are collected and assessed and further idea development is identified, the last step is to ensure that the portfolio is balanced. Ultimately, the balanced idea portfolio has sufficient ideas in various stages of development to create an engine to meet the demand-generation needs of various practices and the firm overall. As we mentioned earlier, it is critical at the outset of a year’s publication schedule for marketers to collect many more ideas than they have budget and editorial space to support. That will enable marketers to have multiple alternatives if some don’t come through (and many, perhaps even most, will not).
It is also critical for marketers not to put most of their eggs in the short-term basket (which can meet immediate market needs but fail to position the firm on critical emerging issues that offer significant potential growth) or solely in the medium- and long-term baskets (which can establish the firm’s competency in an up-and-coming market but compromise the pursuit of current opportunities). Short-term ideas must be marketed to keep the inquiry pipeline full while the bigger bets have time to develop.
Finally, it’s crucial for the idea portfolio to be tightly aligned with the firm’s targeted growth areas. In other words, don’t plan to develop ideas on topics that are of little strategic concern to the firm, and do ensure that the appropriate well-developed ideas are available when needed to capture business opportunities across a three- to 24-month horizon.
How does a venture capital firm decide which companies to invest in and which ones to pass by? Is it based on who asks for funding first? Is it based on who needs the biggest investment? Is it based on how loudly or how frequently they ask for investment? Is it only based on who comes to the firm to ask? Clearly this is not the case. And just as clearly, these should not be the basis on which professional service firms decide which topics merit attention in their publications.
It’s time for marketers to rethink their role in intellectual capital development: to assess and guide the development of strong ideas into well-developed points of view effectively marketed for results. Managing idea development through a portfolio approach helps ensure that marketing is continually helping to generate compelling content, the key ingredient to successful professional services marketing.
Marketing professionals can and must play a vital role in making sure the ideas they publish, in fact, show their firms possess superior expertise. Those who can do that will invariably contribute to the growth of the overall enterprise, as well as boost the impact and standing of marketing in their firms.
Originally published 11/26/2008