Comprehensive thought leadership consulting for B2B & professional services firms

In Praise of “Small” (But Deep) Content

One keystone document can provide the core argument for articles, white papers, long blog posts and other parts of your thought leadership marketing.

Most thought leadership marketers know the benefits of putting an extensive, multifaceted marketing campaign behind a research study or a book. Over the last three decades, I’ve seen companies promote such “big” content through webinars and seminars, extensive press and influential blogger outreach, multiple opinion article submissions, and professionally produced videos.

A good example is the campaign McKinsey & Company launched this year to promote its new book, Strategy Beyond the Hockey Stick. It includes an audio book, opinion articles in Forbes, CEO and CFO magazines, interactive graphics, a slick video, and an extensive social media campaign.

Yet I’ve also seen marketers pay much less attention to promoting “small” content – articles, white papers, long blog posts, and other pieces that don’t have research or a book behind them. Sure, they may do a series of Tweets, LinkedIn posts or an email campaign to drive web traffic to the content. But a multiple-month campaign? Not usually. In fact, in many cases, they market such small content just once.

There’s no question that thought leadership studies and books can help B2B firms change the market conversation on an issue and emerge as a new authority on it. But considering that the cost of developing these materials can easily reach six figures, thought leadership marketers need a new staple in their marketing mix.

The new staple that marketers should consider is what we call a “keystone” document – a 5,000- to 10,000-word treatise that captures their subject matter experts’ best thinking on a particular business issue. We call it “keystone” because it can become the B2B firm’s main source of thought leadership content on a certain topic for one to three years. And it differs from what we typically think of as small content in two crucial ways:

  1. It contains much deeper thinking on the topic than a typical white paper or article.
  2. It is promoted extensively through multiple marketing channels.

Because of the structure of the keystone document and the rigorous thinking it contains, this type of small content can generate sizable client attention and many leads. With its core argument, supporting facts and case study examples, the keystone document enables a B2B firm to spin off multiple types of content from it, including:

  • 2-4 article submissions to external publications
  • 5 to 10 blog posts
  • Conference presentations
  • Webinar presentations
  • Social media messaging
  • A white paper that becomes a key marketing document on its own

We’ve seen this approach work well for clients such as:

  • FMG Leading, a human capital strategy consulting firm that developed three keystone documents on leadership development, which led to three articles on each topic published in the Harvard Business Review and one in The Journal of Private Equity.
  • Talent Dimensions, a talent management consultancy that created a keystone document on how to retain people in a company’s most important roles that led to a Harvard Business Review article and an opinion article authored by the firm in HR Executive.
  • Strategic Commitment and Quantum Performance, two consulting firms whose principals created a keystone document when they worked in the same firm, on how to get executive team commitment to a new strategy. That keystone document led to three opinion articles published in Forbes, HR Executive and Workforce.

By starting with a keystone document, these firms achieved their goals of publishing articles in prestigious places, securing speaking roles at top conferences, and generating many more downloads and leads than their previous small content articles did. The keystone paper we helped the founders of Strategic Commitment and Quantum Performance produce helped them develop the core ideas of a book, The Power of Strategic Commitment, that they published in 2009.

How to Develop a Keystone Paper

Developing a keystone document requires much more work than the average thought leadership article. In fact, developing the core argument typically takes 70% to 80% of the time spent on content development. This time largely goes to helping authors articulate and strengthen their core argument about some problem in the world and a better way to solve it. It also involves:

  • Identifying and creating 4-6 case study examples that illustrate how the authors’ solution or prescriptions worked in real companies
  • Conducting secondary research to gather data on the severity of the problem at hand, and how other companies have tried to address the problem but have fallen short.

Creating the core argument is best done in what we call a problem/solution outline – a document that can actually be as long or longer than the final draft. We use the outline process to develop, debate and work out the logic of the argument because it’s much easier to refine an outline than to write the entire paper only to discover that it’s off point.

Using this structure enables us to go back and forth with the subject matter expert, pushing their thinking until the point-of-view is solid and we have the evidence and examples to back it up.

Marketing the Keystone Paper’s Content

Another benefit of the keystone document is that you can start spinning off content from its core argument even before the paper is completed. Most marketers wait to promote a report, article or paper until it’s final, which could take months, especially considering you are working with subject matter experts who are typically consumed with non-marketing work. But with the keystone process, if the authors can develop their core argument through the outline process in the first few months, marketers can start publishing short blog posts from that work while the keystone is still being developed.

That way, you can introduce the ideas into the marketplace early, even if those ideas are simply to describe the problem the authors have identified, without yet mentioning what the solution is.

Whether or not you start marketing the ideas in tandem with developing the core content or afterwards, by the time the content is finished, the key is to promote it over many months using multiple platforms including:

  • Webinars and seminars
  • Email campaigns
  • Social media messaging
  • Opinion articles pitched and submitted to management and industry publications.

I realize that the process I’ve described is often resisted in firms where marketers are under great pressure to produce lots of articles for their practices. The downside of that pressure is that it can result in numerous superficial articles that don’t get read because they don’t add anything to the conversation.

Churning out this type of content with limited promotion virtually guarantees the firm will get a small return on its thought leadership investments. In our experience it’s the depth of content and breadth in marketing it that  changes the market conversation and generates leads. We’ve seen this happen numerous times for companies willing to embrace a more rigorous process.

Originally published 07/06/2018

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