Credibility, Thought Leadership, and the B2B Management Journal

A Talk with Former McKinsey Quarterly Publisher Jeff Pundyk

Many professional services and other B2B firms invest substantial resources in management journals – print and/or online publications intended to attract the attention of the executives who buy their services with thoughtful information. But just as mainstream media are grappling with online channels, many B2B firms are questioning their thought leadership publishing strategies.

Jeff PundykThe Bloom Group recently interviewed Jeff Pundyk, publisher of McKinsey Quarterly from 2000 to 2011, about the state of the B2B management journal. While at McKinsey, he led the transformation of McKinsey Quarterly from a client development tool into the voice of the firm in the marketplace of ideas.

Jeff’s background is in digital publishing. Prior to McKinsey, he co-founded a group-buying startup in the late 1990s and was founding editor-in-chief of in the mid-'90s. Jeff now heads Rebound Media, a company that develops digital media products.




Should Print Give Way To Online Distribution?

BG: When McKinsey introduced the online version of McKinsey Quarterly, were there readers who said, “You don’t need to send me paper anymore. The online is better”?

Jeff: What we did – and this is a good example of understanding the different values of print and online – is we built a public free offering for anybody online. That is a great way to widen distribution and reach people who are not current clients. They’re not C-Level. Maybe they’re students. Maybe they’re a smaller company. Or maybe they’re middle managers at big companies who would never get access to the print Quarterly. That’s an appropriate use of digital -- to reach a wider audience than just those people you’re already doing business with.

At the same time, we still produced the print version of the McKinsey Quarterly, which is a beautiful artifact. It’s a very high-end publication – coffee-table quality. And that goes to clients and friends of the firm. So McKinsey, because it’s heavily invested in thought leadership, has its cake and eats it, too. It hasn’t been forced to make a decision about print or online. Rather it uses print for what print is good for and online for what online is good for.

BG: We have several clients who are considering the future of their print journal, possibly all of whom are reluctant to give it up, despite the cost.

Jeff: I wouldn’t say print has no use these days; it’s just a very specific use.

Online channels enable you to create niche audiences. You can aggregate content around a niche, content that’s appropriate for a small but attractive audience online, which you wouldn’t want to cater to in print. And you wouldn’t be able to find those people via print.         

When Should a Company Have a Journal?

BG: McKinsey is unique in having a journal that it can target at the C-suite with some level of confidence that it’ll be read, because it’s such a huge brand at the executive level. Do you think there’s room for other consulting firms and the print version of their journals to find room on the executive’s credenza?

Jeff: Well, some of it has to do with your budget, of course. But I don’t think it’s a print/online problem. I think it’s a problem with thought leadership in general. McKinsey has an incredible brand, but the McKinsey Quarterly has established itself over the years as a legitimate and separate editorial brand. If you look at McKinsey Quarterly, you will see it never touts the firm. It never talks about the firm’s capabilities. It never talks about the firm’s clients or engagements. It doesn’t talk about the firm’s methods.

It is about a higher level of pure editorial content. “If you are thinking about this issue, here are some things to think about based on research, based on our experience, based on our expertise.” It is not an explicit marketing vehicle. So between the brand of McKinsey, which is a knowledge brand, and the brand of the McKinsey Quarterly, which has established itself as a legitimate editorial brand, it has tremendous credibility, whether print or online.

Not everyone else is in that position, and part of it is because firms spend a lot of time writing about themselves. When you do that, you undermine your editorial credibility. Then, when you do have something legitimate to say, people don’t listen because they think it’s a sales pitch.

So McKinsey goes to great lengths to separate the Quarterly content from content about the firm. And the result is that not only does McKinsey have a strong knowledge brand, the McKinsey Quarterly also has a legitimate editorial brand.

The thing that people need to think about when they are doing this is “What are you trying to accomplish?” Are you creating a marketing piece or are you creating an editorial piece? And if you’re creating an editorial piece, then there’s a whole different set of standards about how to do it. Those who adhere to those standards, over time, will earn the credibility to create the same kind of reputation-building vehicles that McKinsey has.

What Skills Do B2B Firms Need to Produce Quality Journals?

BG: Over the years we have seen several professional and other B2B firms start out with the idea of a purely educational publication, only to start weaving in marketing messages. How can companies avoid that trap?

Jeff: Part of it is having the right people focused on it. There are skill sets that are required that are not marketing skill sets. They’re publishing skill sets. And most firms don’t know how to identify those skill sets, or if they do bring in people with those skills, how to manage those people.

The key thing to ensure editorial credibility is decision rights. The editors should truly have jurisdiction over what will be published and how it will be published, just as in any other publication.

BG: What are the right criteria for making those decisions?

Jeff: For instance, is what you have to say distinct? Is it new? Is it interesting? And then, once you get past all of those, there are other criteria that have to do with how well the topic is understood, how well it’s articulated and how fair it is.

BG: Do most journalists who move into this kind of job find the transition easy or is there a significant failure rate?

Jeff: It’s a learned skill. The basic toolset is similar to journalism. But there’s a long learning curve for how to work with the experts. There are two common problems. One is bending over backwards in deference to the experts and the other is pushing back too hard on them. It takes time to find the right balance.

Thought Leadership Journals and Custom Publishers

BG: One of the things that we heard from a company currently using outside writers to help them write their journal is their experts are unhappy that they have to teach the writers about the topic. How do you overcome that?

Jeff: As in any other journalistic endeavor, you have to build trust. You also have to build over time a track record of success. There’s nothing better than success to get some people lined up outside your door wanting to work with you.

The issue today with custom publishers, ad agencies and digital agencies is that content marketing is a buzzword that people are throwing around because of the rise of the Internet and particularly of social networks. People see opportunity, and they’re right that you can establish your brand through creating some kind of bond, based on “content” with your audience, rather than through advertising.

But the question is: What do people really mean when they talk about content marketing? Sometimes content marketing looks exactly like advertising. People point to the Right Guard ad with the Guy as content marketing. That’s great marketing, and perhaps it’s content marketing, but it’s not what we’re talking about.

Custom publishing traditionally has been something different than what we’re talking about, too. It has generally been about advertorial. We’re not talking about advertorial and we’re not talking about white papers, either. We’re talking about truly credible content that is the byproduct of a knowledge culture.

We’re talking about a very high-end product that puts the thought in thought leadership. It’s really about ideas, and not every company is the right source for this kind of content. As a rule of thumb, we’re talking about companies for whom knowledge is a natural byproduct of their work -- where there are experts resident, where knowledge is distinctive, where the problems being addressed are complex, fast-changing, and require specialized knowledge. This isn’t for everybody and not anyone can produce it.

Is Thought Leadership the Right Name?

BG: Do you personally use the term thought leadership to refer to this material?

Jeff: I like the idea of the term thought leadership, but it’s being misused so I’m not sure that it’s the term that I want to use. However, I haven’t really come up with the right answer. People talk about content marketing, branded content, and branded media, but none of these really get it right either. The reason I don’t like the term is that it implies that the “thought leader” is telling everybody else something proprietary, that the thought leader has the answers. While clearly there are people and institutions with proprietary knowledge, we’ve finally come to value the idea of a knowledge exchange, rather than knowledge being handed down. I think they call that a “conversation.” When you enter a conversation you hope to both share something and learn something. The exchange is two-way. The fact that you know something specific of have a point of view is simply the ante to entering the conversation. Nobody wants to sit at your feet to hear a lecture. And if that’s your posture, you miss out on developing your thinking even further.

Rather than be a “thought leader”, I think you want to enter into a community of thought -- And, that community of thought not only leverages what you know, but who you know. In other words, to bring value to the community, you don’t have to be the smartest guy in the room. You have to be thoughtful, bring other smart voices along for the ride, and listen as much as you tell.

BG: We have the same misgivings. We’re heavily invested in the term, but it is sufficiently abused that it can attract some ridicule.

Jeff: I lean on the idea of editorial credibility. I’m not sure that that’s right, either, but that’s what I’m trying to use as a way to distinguish what we’re talking about. My fear is that thought leadership has come to mean ghostwriting, and is not thought of as a strategic exercise.

BG: Say more about that. What do you mean by strategic?

Jeff: For instance, when Bloom Group takes on an engagement, you have some period of time where you talk to your client about what they’re trying to do and what’s the best way to do it You’re not just filling a prescription, like “I know something about such and such. These are my notes. Write this. Here, take some dictation because you know how to write and I don’t know how to write.”

BG: Exactly.

Jeff: And knowing how to write is certainly a critical skill, but I actually think the other part is the part where you had the most value. That’s the big skill I see missing in the marketplace and that’s the differentiator from, say, a custom publisher. But if everyone is throwing around the same language, then it’s hard to make the distinction to someone who doesn’t already understand that.

BG: Yes, in addition to it being equated to ghostwriting, another thing we sometimes see is people slapping the term “thought leadership” on any piece of content and thereby intimating it truly is exceptional.

Jeff: Right. And, that’s just bad execution. But the market knows the difference between bad execution, bad content, and good. Everyone talks about all the advantages digital brings to distribution. But everyone’s got those advantages. You know what that means? Every reader has got infinite choice, and if you don’t come out with a good product, I don’t care who you are, you’re not going to get read.

BG: We saw a tweet three minutes ago from a guy was at the 2011 National Retail Federation conference in New York who said, “Looking forward to some great presentations and thought leadership on retail.” He’s the CIO at Sports Authority. My guess is he knows the difference between good and bad content, and when he says he’s looking forward to thought leadership, he means real insights.

Jeff: Absolutely. He doesn’t have time to waste. He’s not going to read junk. And, by the way, when you put out junk -- just in the same way that if you put out something good it can enhance your brand -- it will damage your brand.

So the market ultimately will decide. But in the meantime, I think we’re going to go through a period where we’ll see a lot of bad content developed by companies in the name of thought leadership. And then just as quickly as it became a hot topic, it’s going to go away, because people are going to say, “Hey, that didn’t work.”

BG: Yes, but we don’t know how long it’s going to take them to work it out.

Jeff: I think it’s not going to take that long, because people are basically going to take a flyer. They’re going to say, “Look, I have X amount of marketing dollars. All right. Advertising, I know what that does. Let me try this.” And then they’ll try it and they’re not going to do well. And then they’ll say, “Look, that didn’t have ROI. That didn’t work.”

BG: But will these companies come to the conclusion that the content’s not good enough? We’ve seen a number of companies that have put up “thought leadership” web sites that are well produced but light on content. They clearly get very little traffic, but I don’t know if they’re going to figure out what the problem is.

Jeff: Then it won’t matter. It won’t matter that they don’t. They’ll simply say, “It didn’t work and we should go back to TV” or whatever. They’re not going to try again. But the smart companies recognize what constitutes great content, how to create it and, more important, the value of it.

It’s probably the minority who is doing it well. But just think of what kinds of audiences that minority can command, what tremendous awareness they can gain.

Those people stand out. I am absolutely 100% convinced that executives recognize quality. They recognize quality of thought, quality of presentation, and quality of writing.

BG: One thing that seems to be helping is that search engines enable someone to find really good content quickly, whereas 20 years ago it could take weeks to find the pig in the poke.

Jeff: And even better, your own social network, whether it’s your business network or a personal network, is doing the vetting for you. On Twitter I have people whom I trust and follow who point out things to me every day, and I will (a) discover them, and (b) go there with the expectation that they’re pretty good, because they come recommended by people I know and trust. And it works the opposite way, too, so I don’t need a central party to tell me what I should know. I have a distributed network of talented people who do this well.

So you can depend on the people you trust, your friends and others whom you trust, and not on McKinsey or Booz Allen or Harvard Business Review to tell you what you ought to be reading.

How Can Social Media Contribute?

BG: What does social media mean for the way that experts spread their ideas? Does it change the game?

Jeff: Well, first you have to take a step back and decide whether you are comfortable with the risk of having a conversation with somebody. I’ll no longer be handing down my thinking to you from the mountain, but instead sharing it with you and receiving yours. Also, if I’m smart I’m going to actually advocate other people’s thinking and act as a convener of smart people, not just be the central authority. That’s not going to make me any less of an expert, but part of my expertise is the value I bring as someone who knows other experts.

BG: And might some of those other people be competitors to you?

Jeff: They may be competitors, they may be adjacent, and they may be inspired amateurs, academics or whomever. Part of my value is that I vet some of that, so I’m certifying that my network is a smart one. But that’s a huge cultural shift and there’s a lot of risk for a lot of firms to get comfortable with. And you have to put in some real thought about how to manage those conversations when they start going in directions that you didn’t plan or you don’t like.

BG: How big a struggle was this change for the experts you worked with over the last 10 years?

Jeff: It varies greatly. Some of it has to do with what they’re experts in. Some of it has to do with a generational changing of the guard, and some of it is legitimate concern such as client issues. But you have to grapple with and confront them and figure out where on the spectrum you are comfortable playing.

But before you can even get into that world, you have to define the parameters of your comfort. And then within those parameters, you can have a lot of fun and you can see how thought leadership works to create bonds with your readers absolutely live, right in front of your nose. That doesn’t happen in print. With print you don’t know where it goes. You don’t know who reads it. You don’t know anything.

BG: And you’re not having discussions with your readers, either.

Jeff: Not usually.

BG: Even today aren’t most online publications simply PDFs or static online versions of the print version, so that the same thing applies to them, too? There’s little interchange between the author and the audience.

Jeff: Right. And so they’re not getting the value of being online. They might as well be in print. They’re getting some value from the distribution, but they’re not getting the value of engagement.

Should You Create Your Own Online Destination Site?

Jeff: The other thing to think about if you’re starting out today, and assuming you’re talking digital, is whether you want to create a destination or whether it would be better to contribute to existing destinations that you don’t own. It is a big investment to create a destination, and a bigger investment to create and maintain that audience at your destination.

This is just a tactical question. But depending on who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish, you might be better served as a contributor and active player on appropriate destinations that already exist.

I’m just saying that people, when they think about this, start immediately from the perspective of, “Well, I’m going to create a branded destination.” Or I’m going to build out a section of my corporate website. And that is a perfectly fine response but it’s not the only response. A way to test the waters without making such a big investment is to try as Phase 1 and see what kind of response you get by contributing elsewhere. Then, if that feels as if it’s gained some traction and you have some systems in place for creating content and you want to go to Phase 2, then maybe you start thinking about creating a destination website.

Is your stuff getting rejected or accepted? Is it getting much comment? Are you generating any leads as a result? Are you getting any engagement with it?

BG: Do you have people tweeting it or not? Are you making people angry?

Jeff: And also, how hard is it? How hard was it to make one article really good? Can you imagine doing that once a month? Can you imagine doing that five times a month? And writing the article in this environment is just the opening salvo. Can you give it the time needed to really engage once you start the conversation? If you can’t, you may be doing more harm than good by not meeting the expectations of your audience.

Jeff Pundyk is president of Rebound Media. You can follow him on twitter @jpundyk.


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