Consider a company that is trying to choose between two consulting firms, each claiming to be a thought leader in solving a particularly thorny problem. One firm’s representative says, “We’ve written five posts in our firm’s blog this year,” while the other says, “Here are reprints of five articles we’ve published this year on the websites of your industry’s most influential professional associations.”
Based on that, which do you think is more likely to get the job?
When it comes to demonstrating thought leadership through content, it’s not just about getting your content published anywhere online in hopes that Google will find it. To show thought leadership effectively, it matters that the content is posted in a place online that has credibility with your market. Here’s why.
I had lunch recently with a colleague I’ll call “Janet,” who works with one of Canada’s biggest banks, sourcing external expertise. If the bank needs to solve a particularly thorny problem and doesn’t have the expertise in-house, Janet’s group gets the job of finding an external service provider.
As Janet told me, “We hire a ton of consultants.” Her team includes a researcher, whose job includes online searches to find experts on a wide range of topics. This task starts with keyword searches under relevant topics. Once the researcher has pulled together a list of possible service providers, the list can be shortened by looking at a few criteria, such as:
- Articles that the purported expert has published
- The expert’s previous speaking engagements
- How often the person has been quoted in the news media
- How many relevant courses they have taught
Note one vital aspect of Janet’s methodology in determining who gets onto that short list: It’s not just about generating good content and posting it on your organization’s own website. Content needs to pass the hurdle of third-party credibility — it needs to meet the standards of a business or professional website editor, a conference organizer, the online editor of a professional association, or other gatekeeper.
So, counter to accepted practice in much of content marketing, when you are selling high-level business professional services, such as consulting, law, engineering, actuarial science, or architecture, it’s important that at least some of your content be published by credible third parties.
Choose the right medium
In building third-party credibility for your firm’s would-be expert, consider first the media that your target audience is most likely to use.
Let’s say your firm has made a recent key hire — an engineer with expertise in setting valuations on brownfields (properties with soil and groundwater, as well as buildings, that have been contaminated through previous industrial use). Who are the potential clients for this person’s services? They could be property developers, but also municipal officials trying to offload publicly-owned sites for development; lawyers specializing in property issues and environmental matters; construction companies; and architects.
You need to find what associations these people belong to, and which ones have websites that are open to contributed content. For example, there may be bloggers looking for guest content on this issue, or commercial magazines that need submissions for their online and print publishing efforts. You can find these outlets through online searches, but you are likely better off going right to the source: Ask people in your target market what media they rely upon.
Try to think like one of your client’s clients — what do they consider to be trusted, third-party sources of information on contaminated site remediation?
Choose a message… and a technology
After determining the media, you need to craft a message that will demonstrate your engineer’s expertise — without sounding like a sales pitch. Possible themes:
- New developments (such as new legislation) that may affect the target market
- Slower-moving but influential trends — and how to gain a benefit or avoid a problem
- How-to information about a process that is relevant to the target market
Some topics suit themselves to text, likely in the form of an article. But also consider other formats such as infographics, audio files, videos, slide shows, and eBooks. For instance, a subject with a visual component might work best as a video or slide show; an eBook can provide a more detailed look at a topic; or an audio file might be the best choice if it’s important to have mobile content that users can absorb while doing something else — like driving to work.
“Selling” your idea the right way
Some contributors make the mistake of developing their content first, and then trying to get it published on the third-party site. To see why this may not work well, consider the viewpoint of a gatekeeper, like the editor of an association website. This person has no idea if the content that just arrived in their inbox has been published on dozens of other sites before, and if the content is not specific enough to the association membership’s needs, it might be a waste of the editor’s time to even review it.
It is much better to present the idea to the editor first, to gain their buy-in, before the content gets developed. This can be best done through the long-established freelance journalist’s sales tool: the query letter. A good query has four points:
- What’s your proposed topic, in one or two sentences?
- Why would these particular readers, members or viewers be interested in your topic?
- What are some of the points you plan to cover?
- What are the qualifications demonstrating the credibility of your proposed author, speaker or other content creator?
This print-based process works well across online media, as well. For example, a white paper posted on an acknowledged, well-known resource, such as inc.com, cfo.com, or a professional association website, has greater visibility than a self-published paper. And more visual content, like podcasts, slide shows, and videos, can also benefit from being shared on relevant third-party sites rather than just posting on your own site, or on a site like YouTube, where it’s likely to get lost in the crowd.
Publications, particularly industry magazines and journals, put a great deal of effort into building their reputation for reliability and accuracy. It’s the basis on which they sell subscriptions and advertising space. So, they guard that reputation carefully. This halo of respectability extends to the content on their pages, so that anything in a technical journal or magazine gains some of that brand sparkle — I call it “reflected brand equity” (hey, a new bit of consultant jargon — and you read it here first!).
In addition, including reputable media outlets in your content distribution plan can also give your content an SEO boost, due to the priority that search engines place on credible online resources.
Of course, this type of visibility and reflected equity doesn’t come without effort. Your ideas may be ignored by the publication’s editor, or rejected outright. You may need to try again with a different idea, or try your original idea with another editor (or both). But when it comes to demonstrating thought leadership, efforts like these are essential.
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Image courtesy of Carl Friesen