Accelerating Time to Leads with Topic Microsites

In this article, we show how to develop and market a point of view concurrently rather than sequentially. We explain how to start building an audience even before publishing an article or white paper, as well as how to continue increasing that audience and their interest in your services long after the white paper is published. The secret: creating a topic microsite on Day 1 that becomes the go-to place to learn about your white paper topic.

By Tim Parker and Robert Buday

IterativeA white paper with a compelling point of view (POV) will quickly gain buyer attention, especially if marketers seed the most intriguing ideas from a paper in customers’ favorite social networking groups, online publications and other Web sites that they frequent. It will break through today’s enormous white paper clutter. White papers such as this are a rarity at a time when many (maybe most) are deleted on arrival in an email in-box or languish on white paper syndication sites, rarely seeing the light of day.

However, developing a substantive point of view with illuminating frameworks and case study examples takes time. So does creating a comprehensive marketing plan that identifies target journalists, op-ed opportunities, publications, bloggers, and social networking groups. And executing that plan, of course, takes more time still.

But that doesn’t mean a B2B marketer should take months to develop the content of a white paper before producing, marketing and distributing it. In fact, to overcome the natural objections to producing compelling white papers and marketing them extensively, we argue that the marketing of the white paper should begin on the same day that content development begins. Not months or even weeks after. That may sound impossible. But the Web and social media allow us to do that, as we’ll describe in more detail below.

Perhaps the most counterintuitive thought we’d like to leave behind in our three-part series is this: the development, writing and marketing of a white paper should no longer be a sequential process. This is a relic of the print and mail days, when marketers couldn’t retrieve or correct a white paper after they had published and distributed it; they had to get it right the first time. In addition, the high cost of printing and distribution discouraged publishing a point of view until it was fully formed; spreading it across multiple publications cost too much.

The days of print and mail are gone, but they nonetheless have left marketers with ingrained habits, ones that have continued with publishing white papers on the Web. Publishing ideas today -- even before a point of view is fully developed -- is inexpensive.  And it can be done in the time it takes to click "save" on a new blog post.

For this and other reasons, marketers now have to unlearn their white paper marketing habits.  They need to abandon the sequential process and adopt a simultaneous one. The reason: The Web, social media and other online tools give marketers a tremendous opportunity to build an audience at the same time they develop content. In fact, if marketers can attract the right audience and engage them online, that audience can help shape a point of view.

This requires marketers to reconceive the final output of a white paper – not as a downloadable PDF but instead as text and graphics on a Web page. This Web page(s) should be devoted to the white paper topic at hand and feature the paper and other content on that topic. The goal is to make such a landing page (or microsite) the go-to place for people interested in that topic. This lets a firm put its collective wisdom on an issue in one place rather than scattered across numerous articles in different parts of a Website (or sometimes different websites). Thanks to the hyperlinked nature of the Web, a firm can comprehensively connect new and existing content so that each reinforces the other, instead of simply tossing another article into a loosely related collection.

The consulting industry is already seeing the value of such topic microsites, according to a survey we conducted from February to April 2010. (Click here to see the results, and scroll down to Exhibit 2 to see the list of thought leadership marketing tools and their effectiveness.) Some 74 consulting firms ranked topic microsites as the third most effective thought leadership marketing tool for generating market awareness and leads for business. Out of a list of 29 marketing tools, they rated microsites and online communities better at generating interest in their firm than articles they published on their websites. 

There are other reasons for publishing a white paper in the Web language of HTML rather than as a downloadable PDF.  One is that it enables a firm to make the core frameworks of its point of view – its diagnosis of and solution to a business problem – interactive. For example, a visitor might be able to answer questions to determine where her firm stands on an issue. In other words, prospective clients can begin to diagnose their own situation.

In this article, we explore how to simultaneously create and market the content of a white paper – i.e., how to reengineer the content development and marketing process, as the business process redesign experts would put it. The approach we explain below can attract customer attention as early as Month 1, develop an intriguing point of view in Month 2, and in the months that follow generate an ever-increasing number of prospects, more engaged prospects and a more substantial POV. All to say, that developing a compelling point of view and creating substantial customer interest in it can be done more quickly than before. And generating returns on the investment can happen earlier in the process. That would give marketers the justification to keep investing in the development and marketing of a promising point of view.

First, at a high level, we compare the conventional process with the new process we’re advocating. Then we lay out the new process and explain how it generates more prospects through the creation of better content and more effective marketing.

 

Shifting from Sequential to Concurrent POV Development and Marketing

The sequential process for developing and marketing white papers has been around so long that most marketers (including us until recently) never questioned it. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anything different. How can you publish and distribute an article before the content is developed and the writing is done and edited? You wouldn’t post or email an outline of the article or a draft that hasn’t been edited, right?

Of course not. But such thinking prevents marketers from realizing they can start to attract an audience for their firm’s expertise on an issue – expertise they eventually will publish in a white paper – long before they ever publish that paper. They can do this today because of the Web and social media, two online technologies that are just beginning to change the way organizations develop content and attract an audience to it.

from Wikipedia under GNU Free Documentation LicenseAs with many previous technologies, companies first exploit them by automating existing practices. The first cars were built by the same companies that made horse-drawn carriages; they were essentially horse buggies with engines bolted on. It was years before wheels and suspensions, for instance, began to evolve into anything resembling those we see today. The earliest refrigerators were made by taking the ice boxes that preceded them and installing a condenser on top; it was a long time before anyone started hiding the mechanics in the back, adding a freezer compartment and so on. The first mp3 players were essentially digitized Walkmans. It took Apple, of course, to recognize the potential of the player as a conduit to an online music store and myriad other possibilities, changing the format forever.

While the Web has been around for 20 years and online social media for at least five, B2B marketers have so far overwhelmingly used the technology to automate the old ways of publishing: turning a printed document into an electronic file, and sending it through email rather than the postal service. Marketers are now just recognizing the potential to revolutionize the way they create and market educational content.

By the time they commit resources to producing a white paper on a topic, most companies already possess a wellspring of expertise on the issue at hand. It may be in the heads of subject experts, in the PowerPoint presentations they have delivered to their clients, buried in studies they have conducted, or located in other places that are difficult to make available for public consumption. Nonetheless, the expertise is there just waiting to be captured and an audience attracted to it. The way to do that is to change the concept development and marketing process from a sequential to a concurrent one. (See Exhibit 1.)

Parallel process

Exhibit 1: White Paper Development and Marketing: Old and New Processes

Long before they publish a white paper, marketers can create a special website or landing page devoted to the topic that presents their firm’s expertise on the issue in shorter, less substantial (but still substantive) forms. That’s what blogs are all about. A company with deep insights on a topic that sets up a blog to communicate its insights – especially if the topic has been largely overlooked in the marketplace –has a tool that can spark customer attention and interest. And by using messaging services (e.g., Twitter) and posting comments in LinkedIn, Facebook and other social networking sites, that company can quickly build an audience for that blog.

But the blog should not be the only thing that company puts on this special website. (We refer to them as topic microsites – a web page or collection of pages focused on a single topic and providing purely educational – not promotional – content.) Potential customers not only look for informed opinions on a topic of interest, they like to know how other companies are dealing with it. News and feature articles published in the online editions of business journals are of keen interest, as are other pundits’ blog posts. A company wishing to be recognized as a leader on a topic can also attract prospects to its microsite by providing links to these articles. And continually replenishing these article links helps keep readers coming back to the site. Given how little time executives have to read, a B2B firm provides even more value when it summarizes those articles, highlighting aspects that may go unnoticed in the headline. Polls and surveys can provide quantitative data that help thought leaders demonstrate the severity of an issue and how many companies are struggling with it. Diagnostic tools can help prospects diagnose themselves, and discussion forums can allow viewers to post and answer questions – to join in the discussion. Well-orchestrated and continually nurtured discussion forums can foster lively debates and excitement on the site.

Visual content can help attract viewers to the site long before the white paper appears, that is, videos and presentations. Producing and posting informative video clips of subject experts discussing the issue at hand, the purpose of the microsite, and how it will evolve add personality to the site. This is important when introducing new subject experts into the marketplace: letting prospects see the person behind the insights. (Some of the most well-known business gurus have used public speaking to help gain their mass following: Gary Hamel, Michael Hammer, Michael Treacy, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, and others.) (See sidebar in right-hand column on this page, “Getting and Keeping Prospects Coming Back to a Topic Microsite.”)

So while it develops the content for its white paper, in the first month a company can concurrently launch a topic microsite with such elements as a blog, news aggregation, videos of thought leaders, polls and discussion forums. This has major benefits:

  • Builds an audience early in the process. By the time the white paper is posted on the microsite (month 2 or 3, in most cases), there can be an audience of dozens or hundreds of executives who have waited for that article – the company’s POV on the issue. And these readers don’t need to be convinced to open up their email or postal mail – they’ve self-selected to read the white paper.
  • Engages the audience in developing the POV. Conducting polls and surveys gives a company’s thought leaders quantitative data that can show the severity and ubiquity of the issue they are focusing on, as well as how successfully (or not) companies are addressing it. Discussion forums and surveys can solicit the names of companies that viewers consider to be successful at addressing the issue. McKinsey (the strategy consulting firm) uses its Facebook page (here) for its McKinsey Quarterly fans to not only post articles but also to solicit best-practice examples. In mid-April, the McKinsey authors of an article on social sector organizations that drive change asked Facebook fans for examples of such exemplary organizations. Within five hours, it received two good suggestions. Now imagine turning your video camera on the executives of such best-practice firms – i.e., interviewing them by video and posting the results (assuming you received permission). Depending on the reputation of the organization, those videos can become major generators of traffic to your microsite.
  • Gives an early indication of how well the POV is resonating and where to improve it. If the viewership of a topic microsite builds quickly, a firm will know it has struck a chord in the marketplace. If its white paper and blog posts generate many clicks and favorable comments, a firm will have evidence that it is on the right track. If the firm gets a lot of push-back on its POV, it will know that the topic is of interest and it has generated a conversation, but that its conclusions might need revisiting. If the polling and survey data identify sub-issues that need further clarification, the firm can then drill deeper on them – producing additional surveys and white papers on narrower aspects of the overall topic. If those articles resonate and generate client interest, the firm will have strong evidence to continue investing in the development and marketing of its POV, and on what aspects of it.

In running content development and marketing simultaneously, some of the biggest benefits come from leveraging development activities for marketing purposes – and vice versa. When content development and marketing are sequential processes, this type of synergy doesn’t happen. Let us explain. In content development, one of the first activities is conducting literature searches that will produce statistics, examples and the other evidence necessary to point to a problem in the world and how to best solve it. The fruits of the literature search will include recent articles written about the issue in publications, many of which have online editions that provide content for free (or registration). In the topic microsite, the results of the literature searches can double as article extracts or feeds.

In a similar manner, the microsite can ask viewers to submit articles on their views on the topic. In other words, the microsite (a marketing vehicle) can produce content. (McKinsey’s “What Matters” topic microsite runs often-extensive essays from managers outside the firm.) Video interviews of executives at companies considered to be best-practice examples (and ultimately featured in the white paper) can be posted on the microsite, serving double duty as both content to inform the POV and content to attract readers to the site.

How This Would Look

So what might the parallel activities of white paper content development and marketing look like over a five-month period? We sketch one out month by month (see Exhibit 2) and discuss the keys to getting market traction.

Exhibit 2: Developing and Marketing White Paper Content in Parallel
(Click to Enlarge)

Month 1

Content Development: Subject-matter experts (SMEs) are identified in a company, interviews conducted with them and an outline POV created. Survey designed and tested. Literature search begun to obtain statistics, identify potential best-practice case studies, and gather other evidence to support the POV. First few blogs written by or for the SMEs.

Marketing: Marketing plan (v1) written, identifying key target influencers (journalists, bloggers, etc.), online gathering sites for target clients (e.g., social networking groups), etc. In-house email list cleaned and filtered to target audience. Microsite designed and launched, with featured blog, survey/poll, news/blog aggregation, and discussion forum(s). Email sent to announce the launch of the microsite, pending white paper(s), driving traffic to site.

Month 2

Content Development: Survey responses come in. POV frameworks developed. White paper No. 1 content developed and written, edited and designed, and published on microsite.

Marketing: New blog posts. Email update to notify list that white paper has been posted (with link). Subject matter experts’ videos produced and posted. Site participants encouraged to submit their own articles on the topic. Those that are publishable are posted. Discussion forums identify best-practice examples.

Month 3

Content Development: Additional poll/survey designed and posted. Best-practice companies interviewed (video preferred) and videos posted (with permission). New blog posts created (with material from white paper No. 1). Articles for placement in external publications written. New survey designed and fielded on microsite on a facet of the overall topic.

Marketing: New blog posts, articles placed. Invitation issued to Webinar on survey results. Email update sent to target list.

Month 4

Content Development: New blog posts developed. Additional best-practice interviews conducted. White paper No. 2 developed based on new survey findings, new case study material, and new analyses.

Marketing: New white paper (No. 3) published on site. New blog posts. Email update sent regarding new content

Month 5

Content Development: Further surveys and case interviews conducted (as necessary) to develop additional aspects of overall POV. New blog posts (from white paper No. 2). White paper No. 3 developed (if necessary).

Marketing: White Paper No. 3 posted. New blog posts posted. Email update sent.

By continually putting new content on a topic microsite, letting your target audience know about it, and getting the websites they visit to link to the site, marketers can see their audience build month by month. As long as they give viewers good new reasons to come back – new blog posts, additional white papers on the topic, the results of audience surveys, and so on – the audience can continue to grow. And their interest in the services behind all the educational content is likely to only increase as well.

Key Challenges

For customers, topic microsites can become a regular destination to learn about and stay informed on a critical issue. If the site succeeds in capturing the high ground on a topic, it can generate many more leads than a traditional white paper. Even more important, by giving potential clients a much deeper sense of your expertise, topic microsites can cultivate far better candidates for your offerings.

But shifting from the sequential process to the process we lay out here requires marketers and their firm’s thought leaders to make their own shifts (see table below). They must:

  • Change their performance measures. Companies typically measure their white paper campaigns in such terms as number of downloads and leads generated. New measures must come into play given that the focus is on getting and sustaining traffic to a microsite – not on downloading content. Those measures include site traffic, customer loyalty, participation in forums, and numbers of comments on blog posts and articles.
  • Build content around a point of view. A firm cannot “own” all the issues that it provides services on; it has to make a selection. Once it has decided to go long on a particular topic, all of the firm’s existing and future writings on it should be aggregated in one place on the Web to make it easier for clients to find. Putting all the pieces in one place increases the chances that each article can build on previous ones. Each piece of content that a firm develops on the same topic can and should link to its other pieces. That takes the pressure off each to contain an overarching, self-standing point of view, and makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
  • Kill the PDF. Putting a white paper in PDF form means that readers can download it and pass it along to their peers who will have no apparent reason to visit the site themselves. Instead of the PDF, the topic microsite must become the center of your activity – the magnet that draws clients and prospects. All the content (including the white paper) should be posted there. Marketers should enable visitors to print out readable forms of content. But they must encourage them to forward links to the site – not PDFs – to encourage more visitors.
  • Shift from episodic to ongoing marketing campaigns. Traditional white paper campaigns have beginning and end dates. They end when the paper is no longer emailed or otherwise distributed and marketed. But the white paper marketing campaigns we’re advocating here don’t have to end (as long as the firm still wants to promote the expertise and the service behind the white paper). In fact, if done well, the campaign should bring an ever-increasing number of people to the microsite. That requires the site to be continually updated with new content – new blog posts, new white papers, new surveys, new videos and other material that will help viewers stay informed and engaged. To be sure, the marketing campaign we’re talking about still requires a plan of activities. But the plan doesn’t have to anticipate and scope out every activity in detail. It simply needs to provide enough guidance that you know what to produce next, that it will add value to the whole, and it likely won’t be negated by something you do later. 

 

   From  To

Content Development and Marketing Process

Sequential processes for developing and marketing content Simultaneous processes: POV is developed and marketed concurrently
Where the Leverage Is  Each piece of intellectual capital stand on its own (and must be complete to attract an audience)  Every element can and should build on other intellectual capital a firm owns on the issue (taking the pressure off any one piece to be stand-alone)
Publication Output Form/What Customers Read  White paper document or PDF  Landing page/microsite
Key Measures of Effectiveness Number of PDF downloads Microsite traffic and viewer engagement (e.g., page views)
Life of Marketing Campaign Start and end date  No end date necessary

 

Exhibit 3: The Shift in White Paper Marketing

The New World of White Papers

For the foreseeable future, white papers will remain a key marketing tool for professional services and other companies that sell high-priced, complex offerings to businesses. White papers that shed new, important insights on a business topic will continue to open doors and draw clients to a firm.

Marketers have the opportunity to power up their white papers, to make them much more effective at spawning good leads. Although many large firms organize their articles by industry and function, for instance, those sites are collections of disparate, stand-alone articles. Few firms yet use the natural hyperlinking quality of the Web to make sure that each new item of content mutually reinforces existing ones, or that they all build to a consistent – if composite – point of view. Doing so requires a much different approach to developing and marketing content– one that runs these activities in parallel, shifts prospects’ eyes from paper and PDFs to microsites, and aggregates content to show a firm’s command of a topic. Companies that master this approach will take the lead in thought leadership marketing.

Comments

Submitted by Brad Power on

This article was particularly timely for me, since I've been working on a research project on sustaining attention to process improvement for some time. I'd been thinking in terms of maybe publishing an article, and maybe some day publishing a book, but now I'm thinking I should go public soon with some quick blogs on the problem description, some hypotheses on the root causes of the problem, and some case studies with some indications of an approach.

In general, I tend to agree. But what about the credibility factor. If you're selling mortgage re-financing, or cars, or even marketing services -- a microsite is a respectable medium. But, aren't there still some high-tech industries that would place higher credibility on a whitepaper with the feel of legitimacy? For instance, would Boeing find a new parts vendor from a microsite?

Submitted by Tim Parker on

I think credibility has more to do with content than the medium - not to mention peer endorsement. There are plenty of white papers that are thinly veiled product promotions.I don;t think any format can fix bad content.

 

 

Submitted by Diana Harotian on
I think this is absolutely relevant and necessary today. Social media and viral networking are swiftly becoming the mainstays of communication and younger audience are consuming information in "bytes" not lengthy documents. I would add "quality" comments to the performance metrics that demonstrate understanding of concepts, probing questions and perhaps add value. Using a microsite to publish as information unfolds creates timely, relevant information that is continuously changing and evolving. So the research paper becomes more "organic" in nature.

Submitted by Small Business CRM on

It's just as easy to cloke product promotions in a thinly veiled micro-site.  I think there are still some buyers who trust a printed PDF more than words on a screen, especially with the influx of blogs where anybody with an opinion (or a product to sell) can be an author.

Submitted by Tim Parker on

 Agreed - and there are a lot of weak product microsites. But we're talking about topic microsites, which are different, and still rare. As for pdfs over html, our research shows that content trumps form every time. Poeple care a lot less about how its delivered than what it has to say. That's the reason the blogs you refer to are not trusted - it's not the facat that they are in html, it's that many contain derivative content.

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