Author Archives: Bernie Thiel

How to Optimize the Thought Leadership SME Interview


Optimize-SME-InterviewIf you’ve ever been part of a thought leadership content development effort, you’re likely familiar with the subject matter expert (SME) interview. It’s the session during which a writer helping to develop a piece of content (e.g., a white paper or byline article) meets with the SME who will be the published author of the piece. Generally facilitated by the company’s marketing professional, the session is a forum for discussing the nature and goals of the project and, more importantly, the ideas and material on which the piece will be based.

The SME interview is one of the most critical steps in the thought leadership content generation process, providing one of the few opportunities for substantive, direct interaction among the main parties in the effort. For SMEs, it’s their chance to communicate what they want to say in the piece so it ultimately reflects their best thinking and positions them well in the marketplace. For writers, it’s the prime venue for gathering the key ingredients they need to shape the SME’s thinking into a strong, compelling piece of content. And for marketers, it’s an opportunity to ensure the project stays on time and results in a document they can effectively pump through the company’s marketing channels.

How can marketers, SMEs and writers make SME interviews most efficient and effective—and the best use of everyone’s precious time? A good place to start is understanding and upholding their five most important individual responsibilities during these sessions.


  • Set the goal for the meeting upfront so everyone understands what they must achieve in the time allotted. This is your chance to make sure all participants are aligned so they’re not working at cross-purposes or bringing in tangents that distract from the main purpose of the session. It’s especially important when there is a large team of SMEs involved, each one wanting to get his or her point of view across (which may or may not be relevant to the piece at hand).
  • Get the right people on the call. In most companies, the practice leader or some other senior executive is the main author of the piece—and that’s certainly appropriate. But while these “top dogs” may see the big picture, they can’t always speak on a subject at the level of depth necessary to develop a substantive piece. That’s why someone who’s closer to the issue on a day-to-day basis should also be involved, to complement the senior SME and provide depth and examples when necessary.
  • Make sure the SME is fully briefed in advance on what the call is about, the goal of the piece being developed, and how it will be used. This will help the SME understand what’s being covered in the meeting and what will be expected from him—and prepare accordingly.
  • Know up front and communicate the timeline for the piece, next steps, and responsibilities of the various parties involved so everyone knows their marching orders after the call. Even if the discussion between the writer and SME is rich and fruitful, subsequent momentum can be killed if the SME isn’t available to review the writer’s outline or the writer takes longer than expected to produce it.
  • Monitor the conversation between the writer and SME to ensure it’s on the right track and be able to step in and redirect it if necessary. It’s not uncommon for SMEs to use such interview sessions to help formulate their thinking on a topic, particularly if the writers are asking them questions they perhaps hadn’t really considered before. Brainstorming can be valuable, but marketers need to make sure it stays focused on the topic at hand.


  • Be prepared for the call. To be sure, SMEs are very busy and client work, not marketing, is their “real” job. But if the piece being developed will represent the SME and the company in the marketplace, then the interview session is important, too. Before the call, be sure to read the materials distributed to participants and give some thought about what you want to say about them.
  • Be able to talk at some level of depth on the topic. This goes hand-in-hand with the point above. It’s not enough to have read the materials prior to the call. An SME needs to be able to really talk through the topic deeply enough to give the writer something to work with. For many thought leadership pieces, that means discussing at a detailed level the business problem (or case for action), the company’s solution to it, examples of how the solution was used in a client setting, and how the client ultimately benefited.
  • Know what other relevant materials the company has produced that are available to the writer. In large companies especially, myriad other documents may have already been published on a similar or related topic that contain information the writer can incorporate into the new piece.
  • Be able to articulate the unique angle the new piece should take. Because no SME or company wants to play the “me too” game, SMEs must be able to tell the writer what’s new and different about the message the piece is trying to get across.
  • Respect and answer the writers’ questions. Inherent in the acronym “SME” is that these individuals are experts: They know a lot about their particular area of focus. But that doesn’t mean they know everything, nor does it mean they have fully thought through a topic in a way that’s necessary to create a strong narrative about it. SMEs should recognize that good writers know the right questions to ask, and how to ask them, to elicit what’s needed to craft a story that transcends talking points in a PowerPoint deck. Trust them.


  • Do your homework. Nothing destroys credibility more than coming into an SME interview with minimal knowledge about the topic at hand. It’s critical for writers to have done pre-reading to prime themselves—not just of background or source materials provided by the client, but also of other relevant publications to understand the context and what else has been written on the topic. And if the piece in question is a byline article, it’s important to have read the target publication to understand its editorial policy, audience, style and tone.
  • Think about what you might ultimately want to say in the completed piece. It’s extremely helpful for writers to have an initial storyline or flow for the piece in mind, however sketchy and high level, when coming to the interview. Often SMEs need that kind of structure. It helps them frame and focus their thoughts and get them thinking in the way writers need them to.
  • Have in hand a full set of questions to ask, but be prepared to “go with the flow.” Some SMEs come into a session knowing exactly what they want to say and will essentially lead the discussion. More common are the SMEs (and marketers) who expect the writers to assume that duty. In those instances, writers should ask the questions designed to elicit the high-level story they have in mind. But be open to following unanticipated threads that may arise during the conversation and lead to an even more powerful perspective on the topic than what was originally considered.
  • If you’re not getting what you need, don’t be afraid to probe and ask questions in a different way. As mentioned earlier, the SME interview is one of the few chances for writers to directly interact with the SMEs. If the interview ends and a writer has failed to extract what he needs to work with, he’s created a big problem for himself down the road. Often, simply changing the wording of the question can trigger a richer SME response.
  • Respect the SME’s position and time constraints. SMEs, especially those in large enterprises, have risen to their position for good reason: They are extremely important to their company and to clients, and often are responsible for selling and managing millions of dollars in business. Remember this and be gracious (and patient) when an SME is not fully prepared or has to cancel a meeting at the last minute.

There’s no question the SME interview can be challenging to pull off effectively every time, especially when it involves multiple parties with their own time constraints, personal styles, and agendas. But if marketers, SMEs and writers can keep the above guidelines in mind, they’ll have a much better chance of making sure their sessions are content-rich, on target, and a good use of time. In turn, writers will find they spend far less time toiling on outline and draft development, SMEs will see their ideas expressed in the way they intended, and marketers will be confident they’ll have a strong document for their next marketing campaign.

Answer These Four Key Questions to Boost B2B Content Marketing Effectiveness


Four-Qs-B2B-Mktg-EffectivenessContent marketing fever has swept the business world.  According to the most recent survey of content marketing practices and trends among B2B companies by the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) and Marketing Profs, just under nine in 10 participating professionals said their organization uses content marketing, and three-quarters indicated their organization will produce more content in 2016 than in 2015.  Furthermore nearly 30 percent of the average marketing budget is now earmarked for content marketing, and just over half of survey participants expect to increase their spending on content marketing in the next 12 months.

Unfortunately, however, increased attention to content marketing hasn’t necessarily translated into positive returns for organizations.  In fact, the effectiveness of content marketing is on the decline.  Just 30 percent of respondents in the CMI/Marketing Profs survey rated their organization’s use of content marketing as effective, down eight points from the previous year.  In other words, in seven in 10 companies, content marketing just isn’t getting the job done.

This study clearly shows that marketers still have a lot of work to do to capitalize on content marketing’s massive potential.  To that end, answering four key questions can help.

Do I have the right goals?

Survey respondents cited numerous goals for their content marketing efforts (Figure 1).  The most commonly mentioned were lead generation and sales.  Not far behind were lead nurturing, brand awareness, engagement, and customer retention/loyalty.

Figure 1:  Most commonly mentioned content marketing goals

Answer Four Questions_Figure 1

Few would argue that these are unworthy goals.  However, one objective missing from the list—and critically important for many B2B segments—is the establishment of a thought leadership position in one’s chosen markets.  Being seen as an expert is vital to differentiating a company from competitors, enhancing the firm’s brand, commanding a pricing premium, and providing a “safe haven” for buyers in times of economic upheaval.

For example, a B2B company’s offering and value proposition often can be quite complex and difficult to describe.   That’s especially true in the case of companies that sell highly technical products that typical business professionals may have trouble fully understanding.  Despite this, product companies’ marketing content often is laden with descriptions of an offering’s features and functions but is largely missing the key element that business buyers care about:  how the product can benefit their company tangibly and financially.  If a B2B company uses its marketing content to convey thought leadership—in other words, emphasizing how the company’s products embody the enterprise’s collective expertise in solving critical business problems—a product company can more effectively communicate the value its products generate for customers and, thus, connect with its target audience and move them to action.

In professional services firms, the challenge is equally difficult:  how to describe and communicate what is largely an intangible offering, i.e., expertise delivered via people.  With no product to “put through its paces,” a services firm has to rely on other ways to convince prospects that what it espouses—its advice—really works.  Gearing marketing content toward establishing thought leadership, a firm can demonstrate its unique insights into a business problem its clients are facing, its experience in solving the problem with other clients, the results from those experiences, and the firm’s approach to doing the work.  In other words, the firm enables clients and prospects to “sample” its expertise through its content, which can help clients understand the value of the firm’s services and significantly shorten the sales cycle.

Am I producing the right kind of content?

While survey respondents noted they have ramped up the creation of content in the past year, many still struggle to produce the right kind of content.  To wit, 60 percent said producing engaging content is one of the biggest challenges they face (Figure 2).

Figure 2:  Biggest content marketing challenges

Answer Four Questions_Figure 2

One of the ways companies can address that challenge is by sharpening their focus on the quality of the content they produce.  Quite simply, high-quality content is more likely to be noticed, consumed and remembered by the target audience.

What makes content “high quality”?  There are many factors, but a useful guide to content quality are the following eight hallmarks that we’ve identified in our client work:

Corporate Narratives Hallmarks

A critical enabler of such focus is a well-defined strategy and editorial mission statement that spell out exactly what the organization hopes to accomplish with content marketing and the topics and themes its content will cover.  Yet the CMI-Marketing Profs survey found just 32 percent of organizations have a documented content marketing strategy and only 28 percent have a documented editorial mission statement.

In our experience, one of the best ways to ensure that an organization’s content is aligned with and supports the company’s overall business—and engages audiences with relevant, compelling ideas—is to take a portfolio management approach to content.  This involves collecting, assessing, developing and writing about a balanced array of ideas to ensure that the company has the right mix between short-term bets (ideas ready to market now) and long-term bets (ideas needing more extensive development and investment). Doing so supports demand generation in the current quarter as well as over a year or multiple-year period—and, ultimately, enhances the effectiveness of and return on that content.

Am I using the right resources?

To produce high-quality, effective content, an organization needs a strong team with the right skills and capabilities.  That’s especially true as companies continue to increase the amount of content they produce.  But for many companies, hiring a full-time content marketing team may not be practical or even possible.  Budget constraints, intense competition for talent, or simply a desire to remain organizationally lean and nimble may lead to gaps in a company’s content marketing resources that can prevent them from developing content that generates results.

One of the biggest such gaps we see is in writing talent:  the people whose job it is to turn nascent ideas into compelling prose.  Many companies opt to fill this gap by using external writers for content creation—either solely or as a complement to their in-house writing resources. Indeed, external writers can be important contributors to content marketers’ efforts, as they can help a company develop its publications strategy and editorial mission, serve as “editor-in-chief” to ensure content focus and quality, and provide specific subject matter expertise on pieces that require it.  However, it’s critical that when using outside writers, companies make sure they carefully match the writer to the job. Many people from outside the writing profession believe “writing is writing,” but that’s far from the case. The writing skills for great website copy, brochures, white papers, books, news releases, proposals, advertisements and videos can vary significantly. Each requires distinct skills (Figure 3).

Figure 3:  Matching the writing skills to the task

 GreatWriting_Figure 3

Source:  Alterra Group

For instance, overtly sales-oriented pieces such as brochures and advertisements need writers who can spin creative, punchy, engaging copy that relies less on facts and more on flair to get the message across.  More straightforward content such as short case studies and web copy require writers who can convey information with good grammar, proper sentence structure, clarity, and readability.  Educational content, including bylined articles and other “thought pieces,” are best served by writers who can tell a logical, compelling story that doesn’t resort to breathless phrases or unfounded claims of superiority.  And the most complex type of content—including research reports, major white papers, and books—need writers who are skilled at shaping ideas and concepts and have significant knowledge of the industry or subject matter on which they are writing.

Individuals who are retained for setting content strategy and direction should have deep experience managing a publications program, while an editor-in-chief must be adept at identifying and correcting flaws in logic, structure, and grammar while ensuring tight and compelling prose.

Am I using the right metrics?

One of the most intriguing survey findings involves measures.  Just under six in 10 survey participants indicated one of their top challenges is measuring content effectiveness and 65 percent said one of their top priorities this year is gaining a better understanding of what content is and isn’t effective.  Employing the right metrics can help.

What are the “right” metrics?  Certainly, non-financial ones are important.  Such metrics as website traffic, sales lead quantity, and sales lead quality can help marketers understand if their content is broadly resonating with their target audiences.  But ultimately, the true test of content effectiveness is if it leads to business:  people actually buying from the company.  While an increase in eyeballs on the website or better sales leads are helpful, they don’t carry nearly the weight in the executive suite as business results such as sales do.  Drawing a direct connection between content produced and sales generated illustrates what is genuinely “effective” in the eyes of customers and prospects, and helps justify further investments in content marketing.

Encouragingly, this year’s CMI-Marketing Profs survey suggests content marketers have gotten the message.  In the past few years, survey participants were asked to indicate which measures they used, and most focused primarily on non-financial metrics:  web traffic (63 percent) and sales lead quality (54 percent), followed by social media sharing (50 percent) and sales lead quantity (48 percent).  Direct sales was cited by only 39 percent and, according to the study’s authors, that figure had been dropping steadily for four years.  It was almost as if these data suggested content marketers were finding it too hard to tie their efforts to real business results, so instead, were basically giving up and focusing on secondary measures they could easily track and directly influence.

This year, the survey asked which metrics participants consider most important, and results indicate that business results are in favor (Figure 4).  While sales lead quality was most frequently cited as important (by 87 percent), it was closely followed by sales (84 percent) and higher conversion rates (82 percent).   Whether participants are actually using such metrics is not known, as the question was not asked.  However, the fact that such a high percentage of content marketers acknowledge that financial metrics are vital suggests they are putting themselves in a better position to demonstrate their true value, and the value of their output, to the larger enterprise.

Figure 4:  Most important content marketing metrics

Answer Four Questions_Figure 4

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As the CMI/Marketing Profs research shows, content marketing among B2B companies is certainly on the rise.  However, as they boost their attention to and investment in content, marketers need to make sure they are not generating content for content’s sake.  Having the right goals and strategies for their content marketing efforts, using the right resources (including external providers) to develop the right kind of content, and measuring the impact of that content appropriately, are critical to the continued growth and value of the content marketing discipline.

How to Strategically Align Marketing Content with the Company’s Growth Goals


Strategically-Align-ContentBest-selling books, management journal articles, substantive white papers, research reports, company magazines and other publications have become critical to helping professional services firms and other B2B companies win new business and grow. However, many companies find it difficult to create content that consistently resonates with target executives and positions the company to continually engage with prospects over time.  Often, companies find themselves spending a lot of money on marketing content (because they know they have to), only to see the content fall flat in the marketplace and fail to deliver the hoped-for boost in image and revenue.

Companies can avoid this dilemma and get more out of their marketing investments by viewing their content more strategically, taking a portfolio management approach to the content reflected in their publications.  This involves collecting, assessing, developing and writing about a balanced array of ideas to ensure the company has the right mix of 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 business 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 company’s reputation for thought leadership—which, for most B2B companies, is critical to building strong demand. Hence, the portfolio mix is essential for growth.

Implementing a portfolio management approach involves four basic steps: topic identification, topic assessment, idea development, and portfolio balancing.

Step One: Topic Identification

The first task in creating a stable of strong content is gathering ideas for topics internally. In some organizations, the process is informal: The company’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. They could be topics in which the professional is personally interested and experienced, but may not be aligned with the business’s broader goals for the year.  In other companies, marketing is more proactive. Marketing may convene workshops with practice or business line 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, marketing should look to identify many more ideas than it can hope to publish on.  That’s because a significant number of ideas won’t pan out for a variety of reasons.  The professionals working on them may keep their idea development activities forever on the back burner, letting their “real 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 company (and take the article or white paper 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. A key to publishing a steady stream of content that engages the target audience is identifying the extent to which an issue or topic is understood, and being effectively dealt with, by those executives. 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 a B2B company—whether it’s offering a service or product—to provide deep insights and position themselves as trusted sources for help.
  • The depth of the company’s expertise on the topic or issue at hand. It is not uncommon for companies to want to write about an area in which they have little experience or expertise.  This is most often the case when a company wants to break into a new market and use publishing as a way to establish itself as a player in that market. If a company 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.  On the other hand, if a company has a reasonable base of experience in the topic area, there’s a good chance that a point of view can be developed and marketed more quickly.

Once a company understands the market’s inherent need for guidance on the topic and the company’s depth of expertise, it can begin to classify the topics to understand how long and how much work it will take to develop the content around them—in other words, to the point at which they can be written about substantively in such vehicles as articles, white papers, books and reports.  A topic will typically be one of four types:

  • An emerging (immature) topic on which the company has much expertise and experience (embodied in either a service or a product) and that should be capitalized on immediately. With deep knowledge about an emerging issue, the company should exploit its first-mover status and define the market to its advantage through early, insightful publications that clearly position the firm as the leader.
  • A mature topic on which the company is well-versed and deeply experienced and that should receive ongoing attention. With plenty of insights and results to draw on, the company should use a steady flow of new content on the topic to generate as much revenue from the market before the issue is no longer relevant.
  • A topic that’s just beginning to get the market’s attention and is also new to the company, and which would best be viewed as a long-term bet. With such topics, there’s sufficient time for the company to invest in content development, and enough growth potential in the area, to merit a measured approach to penetrating the market.
  • A mature topic on which the company has little experience or expertise and that should be ignored, as it offers scant return on investment. The company is at a significant disadvantage developing content designed to steal business from established providers that already have been meeting the market’s needs.

Step 3: Idea Development

With the range of potential topics thus categorized, a company can determine how to pursue each type of topic. Regardless of whether a topic requires short-, medium- or long-term development, a fact base is needed to make the content insightful, relevant, and credible in the minds of the target audience. To be substantive and generate market interest, all points of view on a topic 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 experience of the company’s customers that have actually used the company’s services or products, or the company’s research (e.g., surveys and case study interviews) on companies that are not customers but have addressed the issue in a similar way. Understanding the evidence on which a point of view will be based—new research or past customer experience—is key to determining how long it will take to develop a substantive point of view and how to proceed.  Experience-based points of view can be developed faster; research-based points of view take longer.

Step 4: Portfolio Balancing

Once topics are collected and assessed and the need for further development is understood, the last step is to ensure that the portfolio is balanced. Ultimately, the balanced content portfolio has sufficient ideas in various stages of development to create an engine to meet the demand-generation needs of various parts of the business and the company overall. Short-term ideas must be marketed to keep the inquiry pipeline full while the bigger bets have time to develop.  As 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. This will give marketers multiple alternatives if some don’t come through.

When balancing the portfolio, marketers should use the company’s overall strategy as a guide.  Doing so will help ensure the portfolio is tightly aligned with the company’s targeted growth areas and avoid developing content on topics that are of little strategic concern to the company (and, thus squandering money and opportunity).

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In an era when content has become a key to attracting and retaining business, it’s vital for marketers to ensure they produce high-quality, relevant, and compelling content that can cut through the content noise while supporting the company’s overall growth objectives. Managing idea development through a portfolio approach can help ensure that a company generates content that delivers results both today and over the long term.

10 Keys to Getting the Most from Thought Leadership Marketing Surveys


Ten-Keys-SurveysSurveys have become one of the most important items in a professional services marketers’ toolkit.  When done right, they can help companies demonstrate their insights on important business topics and generate awareness of the company overall.  Yet many marketers struggle to create surveys that provide sufficient return on investment.

What separates companies whose surveys are powerful lead and awareness generators from those whose surveys fall flat?  In our experience, 10 key practices make the difference:

  1. Get all key stakeholders involved early in the process—especially in the identification of the research topic and design of the research.  The most successful research projects have strong participation from the head of the sponsoring practice or company, appropriate subject-matter experts, account managers and business developers, and marketers throughout design, analysis and communication of the findings.
  2. Conduct comprehensive secondary research on the broad research topic before designing the research.  Doing so enables you to both identify material already published on the topic (and, thus, differentiate your research) as well as pinpoint aspects of the topic that have not been adequately covered by other organizations (and, thus, provide fresh new insights your audience will value).
  3. Always use hypotheses to ensure the research generates useful data.   They’re absolutely vital to ensuring you understand what you hope to prove with the research and keeping research execution activities focused on that goal. Hypotheses should not be so broad that they can’t be covered adequately by a survey and not so narrow that new discoveries are difficult.
  4. In crafting the survey questionnaire, devise four or five questions to probe each hypothesis.  If a hypothesis needs more than five questions to probe it, it is probably too broad and should be narrowed in scope. Questions should be easy for targets to answer and well within their professional purview.  Nothing turns off prospective participants faster than overly complex questions that take a lot of time to answer or those that are irrelevant to their area of expertise.
  5. Avoid the “C-level trap”: Trying and failing to target the most senior executives possible.  Many companies mistakenly think that the results of their surveys will be credible only if top-level executives participated in it. In fact, surveys on business or management topics often are best taken by professionals at the manager, director or vice president level because these individuals have the most intimate knowledge of the topic at hand and are more likely to engage with the survey.
  6. Create incentives for participation that provide both business and personal value.  Topical incentives such as early access to research findings or a personalized benchmark report can be paired with items such as drawings for iPods or gift certificates to most effectively drive participation. One would be surprised to find that even highly compensated executives still are attracted to incentives they find personally valuable.
  7. Don’t simply report interesting answers to questions:  Take sufficient time in analysis (and use the hypotheses as a guide) to determine the most compelling story (or stories) the data is telling and use that storyline as the basis of a compelling, well-written research report.  This is where we find surveys typically fail most frequently. Many companies spend considerable time and money collecting data, but then skimp on analysis—which can compromise the strength of the findings and squander the investments made in data collection.
  8. To help ensure that the research findings are consistently communicated externally, sufficiently train all relevant personnel on the findings and methodology—including marketing and media relations professionals, as well as any client-facing professionals.  Make sure these employees understand and can communicate the linkage between the research findings, the implications for clients, and the services your company can offer to help.
  9. Create and execute a full marketing plan around the findings. Within this plan, maximize the marketing opportunity the survey provides by releasing different sections of the results (such as specific industry or functional findings) in addition to marketing the overall findings. Use social media channels to broadcast the most interesting findings, and consider online channels and discussion groups as mechanisms to continue the dialog on the research topic and further engage clients and prospects. Offer to prepare and deliver tailored presentations on the survey findings to the management teams of each of the companies that participated in the research and to key target accounts.
  10. “Institutionalize” the research: make it an annual, semi-annual or quarterly initiative.  In doing so, your company ultimately will increase brand awareness, create anticipation for the research among target executives and be able to provide longitudinal comparisons.  This will help cement your company’s reputation as the “voice of authority” on the topic in the eyes of customers, prospects and the media LI Posts.

Survey research should play a central role in any professional services company’s marketing strategy. Executed well, surveys enable companies to generate interesting and useful content that attracts prospective buyers’ attention while demonstrating that the company understands the challenges these executives face. Many of the world’s leading professional services companies have multiple surveys in the field at once, and many of those surveys recur year after year, with a loyal and engaged audience looking forward to both participating in and learning from the research. A simple, yet rigorous approach to survey research can increase the odds that a company’s survey makes an impact in its chosen market by providing a platform from which a company can demonstrate its expertise, as well as a basis for meaningful discussions between a company’s client-facing professionals and their most important contacts.

How to Encourage Consultants to Contribute to Thought Leadership Marketing Content


Consultant-ContributeWith 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.

Building Incentives

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.

Leveraging Writers

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.

How to Create Content for a Winning Business Book


Create-Business-BookSo you want to write a business book—fantastic.  Business books remain a popular marketing tool for many companies and professionals, especially those involved in the business of dispensing advice (such as consultants, accountants and attorneys).  And for good reason: A book provides an outlet by which professionals can communicate their insights and expertise, and the possibility of becoming a best-selling author can be enticing. Furthermore, having a book as one’s calling card conveys credibility and authority, and instantly sets apart the author and his or her firm from competitors—thus helping to influence prospects and sell more work.

However, despite good intentions, many authors and their firms severely underestimate what it takes to produce a book that generates substantial market impact.  First there’s the issue of time. Paid advisors—whether they are management consultants, auditors, lawyers or accountants—are busy people and are expected to spend their work hours generating and delivering client work. Therefore, much of the work on a book must be done in the author’s spare time. Then there’s the effort required. Few people are so gifted that they can write a compelling book simply by sitting down and “putting pen to paper.” A successful book requires extensive research, rigorous analysis of data, and cogent writing.  The investment can be substantial.

The point is that books can generate significant awareness of authors and their firms, and a really good book can easily recoup its often-hefty investment many times over in both tangible and intangible ways.  On the other hand, poorly executed books—which, unfortunately, are all too common—can squander a firm’s time and money and sometimes even tarnish the reputation of the author and the firm itself.

Based on our experience developing and ghostwriting books, and our observations of others who have done so, we offer four keys to producing a business book that engages readers, provides solutions to a pressing business problem and, most important, generates a lot of business for the firm that authors it.

#1: The Book Comes Last, Not First

Ironically, some of the most successful business books didn’t begin life as books. Rather, the book was simply the culmination of a long series of investments in research, analysis, consulting, and marketing on a topic. By the time the book-writing began, the ideas that formed the basis of the book had already been well-developed and familiar to potential book buyers. This might seem like a minor point but it’s not. Many business books are “rush jobs” launched to capture a new market (such as the current darling, the Internet of Things). In these books, examples are few and superficial (they often are based on newspaper and magazine clippings).  Not incidental is the fact that such books also can be painful to develop because the authors have little to draw on and end up having to “make it up as they go.”  Prescriptions are predictable, generic and unproven, and the core elements of the book rarely go beyond the conceptual.

The problem with books such as these is that their development was totally backwards. Rather than asking, “What book can we quickly write to grab a stake in a new market?”, the authors should have first asked “What topic do we already have some expertise in and experience with today, and how can we take it to market while further developing our ideas through best-practice and other research and eventually write a book?”

When a book is developed in this way, it will have much greater impact because the ideas are more likely to be novel, robust, and backed with rich, compelling examples.

To illustrate, let’s go back to the mid-1990s and Reengineering the Corporation, one of the most successful business books of all time.  The authors, Michael Hammer and James Champy, didn’t set out to write the book when their two companies launched a research program on the management of information technology. It was only after several years of best-practice research across a number of studies, developing a reengineering approach, and gaining reengineering experience through consulting work, that they began to write the book.

The book, of course, was a runaway success:  Reengineering sold millions of copies worldwide, catapulted Champy’s heretofore small and unknown firm, CSC Index, into consulting’s “big leagues,” and made reengineering a household word.  Since then, firms around the world have generated untold hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue in “reengineering” consulting projects.

 #2: The Battle Is Won or Lost in the Content

While many factors contribute to the success of a book, what really distinguishes a successful book from a mediocre performer is strong, compelling content.  And that takes time to develop.  It requires data that supports the relevance of the topic (the “case for action”) and the validity of the authors’ prescriptions (rich case studies). It demands that this data be thoroughly analyzed, and that analysis shaped the argument and not the opposite (which we’ve all too often seen).  This research and analysis, which must be done before any actual writing takes place, can take a minimum of six months and sometimes more. One book we’ve worked on recently began with more than a year’s worth of research that informed the book’s central thesis and frameworks—including interviews with dozens of executives, in-depth case studies on more than 100 companies, mining of current and past related consulting projects, and intensive secondary research.  This was followed by several more months of analysis before we (the writers) were brought in to begin the development of the actual book.

Contrast this with the way many business books are developed and written. A firm sees an emerging market it wants to penetrate and decides having a book is the best way to do so.  With nothing more than a title and a page of bullet points in hand, the firm brings in a ghostwriter to sit down with the authors and “capture” their thinking. The authors have been pondering the topic, perhaps have collected some articles, and maybe pitched some related work or even completed a project or two. Because their ideas are nascent and examples few, there isn’t much for the ghostwriter to capture. Pulling enough material out of the authors to fill an entire book is painful:  Draft after draft is generated, with each only incrementally better than the former.  If the ghostwriter is good enough, he can help pad the copy with content he can find on his own through some concerted web searching or co-opting relevant content from other documents the firm has published.  Somehow, it all comes together in the end, but the product is inferior to what could have been produced had the firm approached it in the right way.  And the market’s acceptance of the book reflects that.

The problem is this: Even the best ghostwriters will only be able to wallpaper over ideas whose walls are cracked or crumbling.  The best prose in the world simply can’t hide fundamentals flaws in the logic and argument that form the basis of any good book, business or otherwise.

But how does an author know if his content is strong enough and ready for the writer?  One good way to find out is to critique the material on eight key criteria:

Corporate Narratives Hallmarks

If the content meets these tests, it’s time to bring in the writer, whose first order of business is to help the authors determine how to take the theme, analysis, and examples and organize them into a book. He will develop the overall architecture of the book—how the theme progresses from chapter to chapter.

Once the book’s architecture is set, the writer will develop detailed outlines for each chapter that put all arguments and supporting data in their place. This is arguably the most critical point in the book’s development. If a detailed outline cannot be created for the book—and “detailed” means 50 pages or more—then there’s probably not enough content yet for a book.

The outline is critical for another reason:  It’s the primary tool for extracting the authors’ ideas and putting them on paper. The writer will use the outline to guide conversations with the authors, and subsequently shape the transcript of that discussion into prose. But these sessions will only be productive if the authors are prepared to discuss the outline at the right level of detail—which, in our experience, isn’t always the case.

Two recent books we’ve worked on provide a night-and-day comparison.  In the case of one book, each chapter was supported by a detailed outline backed by deep research and thinking.  Because the outline had been prepared well in advance of his discussion with the writer, the author had time to reflect on the topic and think through what he wanted to say.  As a result, conversations between the author and writer were detailed, comprehensive and highly productive, giving the writer plenty of meat to work with to shape and build out each chapter.  The development of chapter drafts moved quickly—in fact, we were able to write the first draft of the entire book in about three months.

With the second book, chapter outlines were sparse and, in some cases, the authors were only vaguely aware of what they wanted to say (or even how their chapter related to others in the book).  In a few cases, a chapter “outline” was all of five bullet points or, at best, a short high-level PowerPoint deck that had been used in a sales presentation to a prospective client.  Not surprisingly, chapter-development sessions were typically long and difficult, often requiring multiple interviews to generate sufficient content, plenty of frantic searching by the writer to find additional content, and more than a few drafts of each chapter.

#3: Marketing Should Begin Long Before the Book Is Published

One of the most important things we’ve learned about book writing is that a book should never be the first publication a firm uses to get its message to market. Early in the research and analysis of the content, the firm should write and place articles, give presentations, and deliver the content in other ways to “prime the market” for the book.

Assume, for a moment, a firm’s idea has a 12-month research and development cycle (which is not uncommon). By month six, the firm should have done enough case study and/or survey research, and have sufficient relevant client work to draw upon, to deliver compelling conference presentations on the idea and pen a strong article or white paper for its own publication or an outside one.  Such a document can serve as a microcosm of the book, enabling the firm to confirm the structure, flow and argument it intends to use in the book.  The sections of the paper effectively serve as proxies for the book’s chapters.

If a survey is part of the research (something that should be done in the early months of the project), the firm should publicize the survey results when they become available. Surveys of executives can be an excellent tool to help make the case for the relevance of a firm’s idea. Finding out that a particular business problem is plaguing a great number of companies, at a great cost, can be the data necessary to make the case that there’s a fundamental business issue in the first place. Such data also is very newsworthy to business media which, by running stories on the survey results, will give the book considerable (and free) advance publicity.

Thus, over those 12 months of R&D on a concept, a firm has many chances to get various aspects of its concept to the marketplace. By the time the book-writing has begun, and the book is published, the marketplace will be familiar with the firm’s concept. If they’ve been intrigued with what they’ve read or heard already, they will want more. That means the book is far more likely to hit a receptive market.

#4: Post-Publication Marketing Should Not Be Left to the Publisher

Once the book is published, the firm should work collaboratively with the publisher’s PR people to promote it aggressively. Typically, publishers will get the book to reviewers, search for serial rights (book excerpts in magazines and newspapers), and set up some journalist and broadcast interviews. To promote a book well, however, the firm should set up press interviews with reporters not covered by the publisher’s PR people. These are often smaller, second-tier publications whose audiences generally will be more interested in the topic than readers of broader business publications.

Furthermore, the firm’s PR staff, in tandem with the ghostwriter who worked on the book, should develop, write and place op-eds in key business publications and business sections of general newspapers to generate buzz. In our experience, few book publishers will help write or place those articles.  The firm also should aggressively promote the book through presentations at conferences and via all relevant digital channels (including a website dedicated to the book and its concepts).

The best way to view the division of labor between the publisher and the authoring firm is this: the former is responsible for promoting the product (i.e., the book itself), while the latter must promote the concept. One of the reasons that Reengineering became a phenomenon is that the authors and their firms tirelessly and effectively promoted the concept to business audiences. No one can say for sure, but without such an effort behind it, Reengineering probably would be viewed today as simply a well-researched and well-written book instead of the blockbuster that it became.


A book is one of the most expensive, time-consuming, and highest-risk marketing initiatives that a company can undertake. The payoff can be huge, but only if the project is approached correctly. Firms that research and develop their book ideas thoroughly, understand when and how to use a good ghostwriter, and aggressively market the book’s ideas before and after the book is published are much more likely to see a strong return on their investment.

Five Key Ways to Engage Your Writers to Create More Compelling Content


Five-Ways-Engage-WritersAn organization’s content can take many forms — including web pages, blog posts, articles, white papers, presentations, brochures, and even books.  But they all have one thing in common: The written word. That’s why as high-quality content becomes more important to growth and market differentiation, so does great writing.

This is particularly true for professional services firms, such as consultancies, law firms, and accounting firms, whose chief offering is expertise, not products. For such firms, content is the chief embodiment of the company’s expertise and, thus, must be as strong and compelling as possible.

Yet, for any company, not paying enough attention to the writing process can result in content that is unclear, jargon-filled, or simply not all that interesting. Even worse, such substandard content can give clients and prospects the impression that the firm’s ideas, innovations, and offerings are substandard as well.

The good news is that any organization can significantly improve the quality of its writing — and by extension its content — by following five key guidelines.

Match the writing task to the writer

Different skills are required to create great different kinds of content. For promotional materials, firms should use writers who can craft punchy, engaging copy. When developing such materials, deep knowledge of the firm’s expertise is not necessary, but a solid understanding of the firm’s customers is.

Conversely, such pieces as news releases, fact sheets, and client case studies require writers who can take a firm’s expertise and communicate it clearly — and not in a promotional way — to target audiences. This requires solid writing skills, but not necessarily deep content knowledge, which often is provided by the firm’s subject matter experts.

In contrast, writers of research reports, major white papers, and books likely will need to help subject matter experts develop their ideas during the writing process and must be willing and able to do so. Such writers can be former journalists (particularly those with experience in in-depth feature stories on complex topics), or they can be researchers or firm experts with good writing skills.

Get the writer up to speed

It’s virtually impossible for someone to write well about something he or she doesn’t understand. Therefore, firms must help their writers become knowledgeable about the topic, giving them time to absorb background documents, research reports, presentations, and other materials. This should be done before writers meet with subject matter experts, enabling them to ask better questions and make the discussion far more fruitful.

Set the rules of engagement between the writer and the expert

To reduce the risk of battles over wording, both sides must have a good understanding of what the other brings to the table. Particularly for professional services firms, writers must realize they are capturing someone else’s ideas, and should see their role largely as making the content clear and compelling. And when experts’ ideas aren’t developed — lacking case examples, support, or rigorous analysis, for example — it’s the writer’s job to identify those shortcomings.

In turn, subject experts must understand — and respect — the role of the writer: To make their ideas accessible and attractive to the firm’s target audience. The experts must realize they are responsible for developing powerful, fact-based ideas, while the writer must be given the liberty to express those ideas in the best possible way.

Insist the writer develop a detailed outline before drafting copy

The outline is absolutely critical, especially for longer, more complex pieces. It helps the team develop a logical argument and identify places where support must be added. The outline also keeps subject matter experts focused on ideas, not words: When reviewing an outline, an expert will be much less tempted to waste time tinkering with specific phrases instead of strengthening the overall messages being communicated.

Let the writer help shape the content

In our experience, the best documents — especially those in the developmental category — are produced when the subject matter expert and writer work as a team in developing the content. The expert lends his or her insights on the topic itself, while the writer provides expertise on shaping ideas and educating and influencing readers.

Strong content is essential to lasting market differentiation and growth, yet any content is only as good at the writing on which it is based. By matching the right writer with the right projects, giving that writer the background and latitude he needs, and establishing clear rules for engagement, any company can substantially improve the quality of its writing — and by extension, the ability of its content to attract and engage readers.

Branding Strategy Insider’s guest blog by Corporate Narrative’s Bernie Thiel


Branding Strategy Insider ran a blog post from guest author Bernie Thiel, partner with Corporate Narratives Group.  Check it out here:

The Eight Hallmarks of a Great Corporate Narrative

The Eight Hallmarks of a Great Corporate Narrative

More and more, companies of all kinds are recognizing the need to create and market high-quality content that is noticed and embraced by the target audience. And increasingly, companies are turning their attention to stories as content that can capture customers’ attention and differentiate the company and its offerings. But not all stories are created equal. Some truly capture customers’ fancy and help drive loyalty and sales, while others miss the mark (sometimes by a long shot).

What makes a story engaging to customers and effective in motivating them to buy? In our experience, there are eight fundamental characteristics of a great story.

#1: It’s relevant: Stories that aren’t meaningful to people will have no impact. Thus, companies should make sure they know what’s important to their customers—whether by conducting traditional customer research, using analytics, or monitoring the chatter on social media—and build their stories around what customers are thinking. Often that can mean creating different versions of the same story, each tailored to a particular need, concern or area of interest.

#2: It’s credible: While people love to be entertained by the stories coming out of Hollywood, that’s typically not the case when it comes to corporate narratives. People asked to consider buying a product or service, however subtly, want to know that they’re not dealing with smoke and mirrors. They generally don’t like to take a leap of faith in their dealings with product or service providers, but rather, want proof that what they’re buying “works.”

#3: It’s compelling: If a story can’t grab the intended audience and hold their attention, it’s either not worth telling or it’s not being told in the right way. What makes a story compelling is generally a combination of factors—subject matter, words, imagery, sound and others—all working together to create an experience in the minds of readers, viewers or listeners.

#4: It’s persuasive: Great stories don’t simply keep people interested. They also excel in motivating people to do something—and for companies, that typically means ultimately buying something from them. Similar to the previous hallmark, persuasiveness is not the result of any one factor. But imagery and words generally play a dominant role in making a connection—emotional, intellectual, or both—with customers and moving them to action.

#5: It’s timely: Unlike the classics of literature and film, which people can read or watch over and over, storytelling in a marketing context must align with a person’s need within the buying cycle. That means it must be informed by an understanding of when customers or prospects are considering a purchase, the context in which they are determining whether and what to buy, and the information they need to help them make the purchase decision.

#6: It’s understandable: A story may have a great underlying message with real potential to inspire and engage prospects and customers. But it will never live up to its promise if the target audience has trouble deciphering what a company is truly trying to get across. Regardless of medium, a story needs to unfold logically, making it easy for the audience to “connect the dots” and follow the narrative.

#7: It’s informative: The most effective corporate narratives are those that educate and inform, that provide insights on something people value. Such stories convey an air of authority or credibility, often through research, that benefits the companies authoring them. By telling the audience something they didn’t know (but should), these stories position the company as a place the audience can turn for help addressing a particular personal, professional or business challenge.

#8: It’s authentic: People, whether business buyers or consumers, hate to be fooled. They avoid companies they perceive to be insincere or untruthful. Thus, if companies want their stories to have a positive impact on their audience, they should strive to ensure that their stories are true—and, more important, are true to the essence of the company.

The bottom line is that if a company wants its content to make an impact—i.e., attract customers’ and prospects’ attention and spur them to action—it must tell a great story. Anything else is just additional noise and clutter that discourages people from wanting to learn more about a company and its offerings and, ultimately becomes another unwanted obstacle in the buying process.

(For a more in-depth discussion of the eight hallmarks, including examples of companies that are doing it right, read our white paperCreating Stories That Inform, Enlighten and Inspire: The Eight Hallmarks of a Great Corporate Narrative.”)

EY’s “Reporting”: A Strong Example of a Customer Magazine


One of the best ways for companies to communicate their stories to current and prospective customers is the customer magazine.  Done right, a customer magazine gives a company a great opportunity to cover various aspects of its business in an informative, engaging and familiar way, and to appeal to the target audience with content that is meaningful and relevant to them.

EY’s Reporting magazine, the most recent edition of which was just released, is a strong example of a customer magazine from a professional services organization.  It enables the assurance, tax, transaction and advisory services firm to make what’s generally a pretty dry and fuzzy topic—corporate assurance—accessible and interesting. It also provides a platform for highlighting the issues on which EY’s assurance practice can provide in-depth expertise while keeping executives informed of leading practices that can help them improve their assurance function.

Reporting highlights the expertise of the firm’s professionals, which should be the core goal of a customer magazine for any company whose primary “product” is its professionals’ knowledge and advice.  But the magazine also makes good use of non-EY experts in the form of interviews with and articles by executives from other organizations (some of which are likely EY clients), which makes the magazine more interesting, diverse and, importantly, more credible.  And many of the articles in Reporting are drawn from or based on other EY documents, such as white papers and research reports.  This approach helps extend the use of material already created (thus increasing the ROI on that content) and alerts customers to more in-depth content they may not have been aware of.  It also provides a steady stream of editorial source content for the magazine and helps ensure consistency of message across the practice’s publications.

Finally, the design and editorial quality in Reporting is uniformly high.  The articles feature strong narratives about the concerns of EY’s customers and are written in a journalistic style that is suitable for publication in external magazines or journals. That’s critical to helping the magazine stand out from the myriad other content vying for customers’ attention and time, and to ensuring the magazine remains relevant and provides value to its target audience.

In all, Reporting leaves readers with a positive impression of EY’s expertise in the corporate assurance arena, and is a worthy ambassador for the firm’s assurance practice.