Best-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.