Creating a Thought Leadership R&D Engine (Step 1): Start with the Right Ambition

The first thing that a successful thought leadership content machine needs is ambition or purpose. But before I talk about ambition, I need to clarify a key term because its ambiguity contributes to the problem I’m going to probe in this post. That term is “content machine.” By this I mean the group(s) in a company charged with creating new ideas, ones that demonstrate the firm’s know-how in solving the business problems it solves. The content machine is the group that creates such content.

The people who take that content to market typically have a different skill set. Ghostwriters, PR people, events managers and the like are there to market thought-leading content, not to create it. Without them, a firm's best ideas remain relative secrets. But without compelling ideas, the marketers get little traction. Investments in marketing events, glossy management journals and PR firms are largely squandered. Content developers and marketers need each other. (They often complain about each other, but that's for another post.)

This post is about content development, not content marketing. Over the last 25 years, I’ve observed that B2B companies are far less effective at developing content than they are at marketing content. Even B2B firms with research institutes can issue a stream of forgettable reports. Merely assigning a department the responsibility to make the company a thought leader doesn’t necessarily mean it will follow.

 

The place where a great thought leadership content machine begins is with the right ambition. By this I mean chartering the thought leadership R&D function with two purposes: not just capturing the firm’s existing expertise but also creating new expertise – content that becomes the focus of new offerings and new marketing programs.

The vast majority of thought leadership functions I know of focus almost entirely on the former, on capturing the firm’s existing expertise. There are exceptions. Consulting giant McKinsey & Company captures the expertise of its consultants through its talented editorial staff. They also conduct survey research, capitalizing on volunteer panels they have cultivated for years.

But McKinsey doesn’t stop there. Through its McKinsey Global Institute, the firm creates content that goes beyond what its consultants learn in the field and what its editors capture. The firm’s Global Institute has a team of people who direct and conduct macroeconomic and management research on topics in three broad categories -- competitiveness, productivity and growth.

How a firm develops content, the skills it needs to develop that content, and where those skills reside on its organizational chart all depend on the purpose that organization assigns its thought leadership content operations. Most important, that purpose or ambition will define whether the function is there to market existing offerings or create new offerings, or both (like McKinsey).

Thought leadership needs to serve two masters: creating demand for existing expertise and creating supply for new expertise, to be packaged, converted to services, marketed and sold. Simply put, if your content R&D engine creates great content (and if your marketers market it well), you’ll likely attract a lot of clients. But that will soon end if clients find your firm can’t deliver on the wonderful ideas you seduced them with.

That reputation might take time to gain. Months may go by before word gets out that you can’t deliver on your market promises. For sure, it will take a lot less time today with social media. A bad reputation travels fast on Facebook, LinkedIn discussion groups, company review sites like GlassDoor.com and Vault.com, and Twitter.

A thought leadership content function needs to be charged with creating compelling concepts that generate more leads – and new services. Making that happen starts by chartering your thought leadership R&D machine with the right ambition.

 

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