With consulting firms more reliant than ever on thought leadership as a driver of brand awareness, market differentiation and growth, marketers at such companies face a difficult challenge: getting enough subject matter experts (SMEs) to devote time to developing the content that fuels thought leadership marketing programs.
To be sure, demands on SMEs’ time have always been great. But today, as firms redouble their efforts to increase utilization rates of billable consultants, professionals find they have precious little “free time” left to devote to marketing. For many, the choice can come down to spending time with their families over the weekend or writing a white paper on Sunday afternoon.
Some forward-thinking firms recognize the challenge and have developed ways to encourage their billable professionals to contribute to thought leadership programs—for example, by including such participation in professionals’ official management objectives or making bonuses partially dependent on authoring a certain number of white papers or bylined articles every year.
Less-tangible incentives also can be important and effective. One global consulting firm, for instance, makes it known to all consultants that becoming “eminent” in the marketplace is important to progressing in their careers. But the firm doesn’t gauge eminence with a checklist—how many white papers a consultant wrote or how many presentations he delivered at industry events. Rather, it evaluates the sum total of measures a consultant has taken to build his reputation in the industry and the extent to which those measures ultimately result in leads generated and consulting projects sold.
Some firms reward SMEs based on the personal awareness they’ve gained. For example, when creating campaigns to promote pieces of content, many firms now use the tracking ability of digital channels to help them reward consultants whose content inspired the most prospects or clients to act. These firms direct interested readers to landing pages that are either specific to the pieces or to the consultants who wrote the piece. They then recognize the “winner”—the consultant with the most unique visitors to his or her page—with a party at the local pub, a paid day off, or some other non-monetary reward. In addition to publicly recognizing consultants, such an approach brings prospective clients to the digital doorstep of these consultants, giving them a valuable opportunity to engage directly in conversations with prospective clients and cultivate new relationships.
The head of global marketing at one firm provides this very interesting snapshot of how his firm handles the issue:
“We have been focused on building a robust thought leadership/content development capability for several years. We established an editorial board comprising senior leaders that helps set strategic direction for our content and related integrated marketing programs, which elevates thought leadership development to a more prestigious level with a business development focus. We also build thought leadership and innovation into the annual planning process.
Content is tied directly to specific marketing programs, many of them integrated across practices and leveraging multiple media formats and promotional channels. This creates both real deadlines as well as motivation to complete the content because there is line-of-sight visibility into how it will get to market. Internal peer review panels are assembled for most thought leadership to give our subject matter experts a sounding board as well as to apply positive pressure to make progress.
We strive to make the process as smooth and efficient as possible, so that our SMEs are responsible more for the ‘thinking part’ and less tied to the ‘getting down on paper’ part. This is difficult, though, because highly intelligent and opinionated people with a huge stake in what is communicated tend to want to be very involved in the process.”
The aforementioned firm also does a lot of internal communication leading up to and following the production and promotion of its content, which provides both a personal boost as well as a very real business outcome: Its consultants are more likely to promote the content to their clients and contacts, thereby creating lift for the SMEs’ practices.
Another approach we have found to be a powerful incentive is teaming a consultant with a marketer and writer who can take much of the burden off the consultant’s shoulders during the content development process. An experienced and talented writer, especially, can do much of the “heavy lifting” associated with content development—such as completing an initial analysis of research data as part of an industry study, structuring and shaping the argument of a white paper, or conducting in-depth literature searches to find examples and supporting data—before any writing begins.
Consider traditional white paper creation. For many consultants, sitting down and writing a compelling, cogent and informative 3,000-word document can be an onerous (or even frightening) task. If they know they are on their own to produce a first draft of a paper, it’s understandable why many are loathe to participate. While experts in their chosen fields, consultants typically are not great writers (nor is their value to the firm measured in their prose-generating abilities). However, consultants are good talkers—meaning, most are much more comfortable and proficient verbally communicating their insights on how to solve pressing client business problems.
Thus, a writer who can have an in-depth conversation with a consultant—and use the results of that interview as source material from which to develop an initial outline of a white paper for the consultant to react to and flesh out—can save a consultant valuable time and mental anguish. (Of course, to do so, the writer must have a solid understanding of the subject matter to begin with, as well as good interviewing skills and be comfortable with talking to senior business executives.)
Consultants who know they will have at their disposal a writer who can take an active role in helping to develop their thoughts instead of simply playing the role of copyeditor are more willing to take part in the process. They know their time will be used more effectively and efficiently and that they won’t have to face the prospect of agonizing over how to “put their thoughts to paper.”
Will consulting firms ever adopt the “publish or perish” model of academia? Perhaps in some small ways they will, such as rewarding consultants for writing articles that help position themselves and the firm as thought leaders. However, a consultant’s expertise and ability to sell and deliver high-quality consulting work—not his writing prowess—always will remain the principal reason for hiring, retaining and rewarding a consultant within the firm. A firm that is able to tap into consultants’ vast wealth of experience to fuel its white papers, case studies, articles, books and other such publications without distracting them from their billable work is more likely to produce more engaging, interesting and differentiating content that connects strongly with target buyers.