“Our thought leaders don't give us their time.” We’ve heard B2B marketers utter this gripe for years. Of course, it’s nearly impossible for them to capture their firm’s knowledge in articles, write conference presentations, and otherwise “package” ideas if the internal experts won’t spend time sharing their knowledge. But when billing and selling keep the company running, shouldn’t that be expected?
Of course it should. And a study on thought leadership marketing that we just released quantifies just how difficult it is for consulting firm marketers to get their company’s subject experts involved. The study (which we conducted with the Association of Management Consulting Firms and Rattleback) found that while 46% of consulting firms said their consultants’ field expertise was the best source of thought leadership content, only 35% of their content ultimately came from their consultants. A much higher percentage – 64% -- came from primary or secondary research.
That’s no surprise. But it doesn’t make it acceptable. So if you can’t get your firm's experts to pause from their hectic schedules and pen articles, blog posts, speaking presentations, and (if you’re really shooting for the moon) books, what are you as a thought leadership marketer to do? The answer seems to be:
- Publish very little high-quality content
- Commission studies that will fill the content gap
- Publish articles without their input
You don't want to do #3: You're there to market your firm's expertise, not yours. Most firms we know don't commit this sin. But plenty of others commit sins #'s 1 and 2.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with research, especially studies that enable a B2B firm to develop new insights on an important and complex topic. As we’ve written before, that research can spawn new, differentiated services. But when studies supply most of the content a firm brings to market, they create a problem of their own: They can lack the perspective of the firm's experts -- people who are paid to solve the topic at hand -- unless those experts are involved in the design of the study and the analysis of the data. When a firm's experts aren't involved in this way, the research findings far too often are superficial. Absent a strong point of view about a problem in the world and the best way to solve it, such studies don’t whet market appetite for the knowledge the company’s consultants, accountants, lawyers or other professionals bring every day to their clients.
How can marketers get their firms’ experts to write articles when those experts barely have the time to write an email response to marketing’s requests?
The answer: Tell your experts they don’t need to spend time agonizing over outlines, paragraphs, or turns of phrase. You’ll hire professional writers (better term: idea developers and communicators, as I'll explain in a moment) to do that. Your expert’s most important contribution is his or her ideas. A strong content development process will take those ideas, refine and support them, and then communicate them in compelling prose. During this process, the subject matter expert needs to account for only 20% to 25% of the total hours needed to translate ideas into a strong article or presentation.
To become a recognized thought leader, your experts don’t need to carve out huge blocks of time to write. People who think that will never find the time to contribute their ideas to your firms’ warehouse of expertise; it’s too daunting. But if you can persuade your company’s subject matter experts to (as the old Greyhound Bus commercial says) “Leave the driving to us,” you’ll find them far more willing to participate in content development. (That “us” is you, the thought leadership marketer and content manager.)
Sounds good, you say. However, some subject experts worry about being “caught” for not writing the words under their byline. How do you, the thought leadership marketer, deal with that? We deal with it by explaining that the ideas the authors express are their ideas. They are the thought leaders’ thoughts; our editors and writers help these authors communicate their ideas.
After all, do presidents write their own speeches? Of course not. They set the agenda; they articulate the points they want made, and then they turn it over to professional speechwriters, running a pen over the final product to make sure it reflects their ideas and what they want to communicate.
The subject expert is responsible for the ideas in a piece of content; the idea developer/communicator is responsible for helping the expert refine and support those ideas (to make them powerful), and of course, for expressing the ideas in language that connects with the audience.
How does an idea become an article, conference presentation or other piece of content, and who will play which roles? For us, the content development process has three steps:
- Choosing a topic – the client problem that the content will address
- Developing the ideas/creating the argument – creating a detailed, structured outline that begins with the problem and ends with how to overcome the adoption challenges of the solution. We’ve written about this before.
- Capturing the argument in prose – by having trained writers convert the detailed outline into compelling copy.
In the table below, we illustrate the tasks for the subject expert and the marketer in each step, and how many hours they should expect to spend for a typical self-published article of 3,000 to 5,000 words.
Note that for the subject matter expert, none of those steps calls for writing prose. For people who don’t get paid for writing, spending time writing doesn’t pay. The expert’s role is to provide the expertise that someone getting paid to write turns into an outline, and then a draft of prose.
Creating strong content requires people who can help develop an expert’s ideas, not just to write those ideas. Some firms have marketing professionals who can play this role, while others work with firms like ours to facilitate the process. Either way, we are talking about more than ghostwriting; we’re talking about idea development, and people with complementary skills (such as diplomacy), as my colleague Tim Parker recently explained.
If you can make this case to your firm’s internal experts, you'll establish more of them as thought leaders, and produce more thought leadership content. Your firm’s experts will still have to bring their very best ideas to the table and be ready to strengthen them. But if you take the writing chores off their table, you should significantly increase their participation in your thought leadership marketing programs.