Management journals long have been a staple of the B2B marketing mix. Yet readership of their online editions varies greatly from firm to firm. We looked at several dozen online management journals of B2B firms, and five in-depth: those for which viewership numbers could be determined (the online publications of McKinsey, Booz & Co., Boston Consulting Group, Roland Berger and Korn Ferry). We found that three are attracting hundreds of thousands of monthly viewers but the other two generate only in the low thousands.
Why the gap? We believe it’s because professional services and other B2B firms with small online audiences have largely transported the print publishing model of “closed monologue” to the online world. Those with the largest audiences have a much different online model—“open dialogue,” which engages the audience more fully and generates much more interest in the firm’s services.
But that’s not the only big benefit of open dialogue. It can also help B2B firms understand which content is resonating with prospective customers. By tracking and analyzing the right measures, smart B2B marketers can better focus thought leadership investments and greatly increase their ability to generate leads efficiently.
After years of hoping to see their firm’s management journal sitting on clients’ office credenzas, many B2B firms have invested heavily to put their content online. But their online audience remains small, which leaves these firms wondering what happened to the audience growth they were promised. And they’re also questioning whether they can abandon the print version.
So what should these firms do? To answer that question, we looked closely at the online journals of dozens of B2B firms over the last five months, from consultancies and executive recruiters to software vendors and architecture firms. Examining five in particular—those with their own URLs (which enables us to assess their online viewership)—we found significant differences. The ones with the greatest traffic appear to view their online journal as part of a larger discussion, a place to contribute, convene and aggregate to and from a network of credible sources. We call this an “open dialogue” model. In contrast, the B2B firms with small numbers of online readers have largely carried the print publishing model online. They see their online journals as a platform for delivering a "closed monologue" in which they do all the talking and no listening.
This closed monologue model is severely limiting. The online world provides unprecedented capabilities for doing far more: attracting many more prospects and deepening their interest in a B2B firm’s expertise. But that’s not all. A much larger and much more engaged online audience provides B2B firms with a significant new advantage, one few are exploiting. Stronger viewer engagement gives marketers unprecedented data on exactly which content is most appealing. B2B firms can then rapidly redirect their thought leadership marketing activities -- webinars, seminars, microsites, press outreach and more -- to content that will attract the most client interest.
Online technology, and particularly the fast-evolving tools of social media, today gives B2B firms new opportunities to turn their online journals into powerful business development tools. But this is only possible if they make the leap from the old print model to one that promotes extensive open dialogue.
In this article, we explain the differences between the closed monologue and open dialogue models for online journals, and why the latter has the potential to markedly improve a B2B firm’s thought leadership marketing and business development activities. We offer ways to increase online dialogue with your audience. We explain how to measure such engagement, and then use that data to recalibrate your marketing activities. Lastly, we talk about how to drive more traffic to your online journal.
You will note that we don’t go into the critical issue of how to produce compelling content. Many of our other articles on this website address that issue. Without compelling articles that provide novel, proven ways to solve business problems, B2B firms won’t attract many viewers to their online publications, regardless of how many opportunities they create for open dialogue. However, strong content is no longer enough.
Online Journals: Moving from the Publishing Model to a New One
B2B marketers have a tremendous opportunity in front of them, but only if they stop regarding their online journals solely as vehicles for blasting their ideas out to the market. The goal of the closed monologue model is to attract clients through impressing them with a B2B firm’s expertise. The articles typically spotlight the firm's professionals—the consultants, lawyers, accountants, researchers or others. Occasionally, B2B firms will interview client executives or others who are recognized for expertise on certain issues (management gurus, academics, etc.), as do the publications of firms like McKinsey, Bain, Booz and Boston Consulting Group.
Readers who wish to comment on articles are usually relegated to “letters to the editor” that run in future editions. (Some B2B management journals have no “letters to the editor” sections.) The subtext of this model is to publicly show just how smart the firm is.
On the other hand, the subtext of the open dialogue model is very different: to show the firm is an important player in a large and vigorous network of experts and ideas. To gain a larger audience, B2B marketers need online publications that bring a number of opinions to the table on each issue (but especially, of course, the journal publisher’s) to enrich the discussion, to move it from closed to open. Google’s year-old online management journal Think Quarterly lives this philosophy. The site is home for a theme-based quarterly journal with contributions from inside and outside Google, a video-based section that features the perspectives of industry leaders, and an insights section that houses custom studies and data-rich content. Site visitors are given many opportunities to comment, share and contribute. Google engages its audience by creating multidirectional conversations—dialogue rather than monologues about how to solve certain problems—and gets the credit as a thought leader by setting the agenda, convening the experts, aggregating best of breed content and publishing its own points of view.
Shifting the model of B2B online journal from closed monologue to open dialogue flies in the face of much of today’s wisdom on thought leadership marketing. Many advisors have told B2B firms to publish articles that establish thought leadership. But we believe that this publishing model is limited. The open dialogue model is not at all constrained by the limitations of print publishing, only by the limitations of the print publishing mindset.
The open dialogue and closed monologue models share the same goal: to attract clients to the firm by showing off the firm’s expertise on solving clients’ problems. B2B firms are not in the media business. They don’t publish journals to profit directly off those journals in the way that Fortune or Harvard Business Review do; B2B firms publish journals as marketing tools to attract clients. The open dialogue model better serves that purpose.
B2B firms must still showcase their expertise. However, their expertise does not sit in a vacuum. When they find other articles that shed additional light on their chosen topics (especially to confirm their own points of view), they should summarize and then link to this content. The Web’s capability to link effortlessly to other articles on topics makes this easy—so easy, in fact, that your readers will be doing it with or without your help. McKinsey’s What Matters online site—a different site than its core McKinseyQuarterly.com site—has taken this to the extreme. The site features more non-McKinsey authors—186 in all—than McKinsey authors, ranging from former US President Bill Clinton, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson and IT guru Don Tapscott to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and actor Matt Damon. (Note: The latest content on the site is from December 2011, which makes us wonder whether the firm will be deemphasizing it.) Forbes.com, the online version of the venerable business magazine, has attracted a flock of external voices as well. Its Leadership section publishes the views of many more outsiders than Forbes staffers. In fact, the site goes so far as to link to articles in competing publications that it thinks are interesting. It’s hard to argue with Forbes.com’s tactics: It has commanded an online audience of 30 million unique monthly viewers.
A B2B firm should encourage its extended network—the people in its sphere of influence—to contribute their views, all for the purpose of opening (and thus enriching) the dialogue. Having an eclectic range of voices on any issue no doubt can raise people’s understanding it. They can make for a rich source of perspectives on any issue. These voices could include clients, academics, research firms, trade associations and alliance partners. And, by doing so, the firm can position itself as an important player in the community, sharing not just what it knows, but who it knows. We don’t suggest giving your competitors digital space—only people in your circles who aren’t trying to take work away from your firm.
This shifts the role of the B2B firm from one of publishing content to convening expertise and experiences. That broader role not only enables a B2B company to generate a broader discussion on any issue (more than it alone can provide). It also enables an issue to be discussed indefinitely: until it runs out of commentators. Unlike online newspapers and magazines published by media companies, articles of B2B firms address much longer-lived issues: how to create better customer segmentation, respond to a class-action lawsuit, account for derivatives or deal with some other business issue.
Given that the sources of knowledge can be wide and diverse, it follows that the communication on any issue becomes multidirectional—authors commenting on what the B2B firm’s authors wrote, and viewers who don’t want to pen long articles nonetheless being given a chance to comment on them briefly. Booz & Co. permits readers of its online journal strategy+business to provide such comments; so does BCG in its newly revamped online publication BCG Perspectives. But these comments pale in comparison to the ones that online B2C publications such as The New York Times are generating with their articles. The Times can generate 300 to 500 reader comments a day on each opinion article. Each comment, in turn, can generate hundreds of “recommendations” from other readers who endorse the view presented. We find the comments often are more enlightening and entertaining than the columnists themselves. They thus draw more people to the online publication; and they enable readers to feel like they are contributing to an ongoing conversation—a dialogue where a firm can get market feedback on its thinking, products and services.
The open dialogue model of the B2B online journal is one of multidirectional conversations. Alas, many other B2B online publications continue to keep the communication one-directional. If anything, it only increases the pressure for each and every article to have exceptional content.
The tools of publishing in the print world are, of course, words and graphics (pictures, illustrations, charts, etc.). They are the very same tools that vast majority of online journal publishers use in their online editions. Essentially, most journal publishers still “print” their content online. The tools for presenting content in the open dialogue model can do far more. Not only can B2B firms present words, pictures and graphics, they can offer interactive graphics, videos of authors talking about their articles (and the subjects of those articles as well), and polls to gauge viewers’ opinions. (See sidebar on how online tools that can foster an open dialogue.) Ernst & Young has embraced video in its digital presence. E&Y’s banking practice teamed with Knowledge@Wharton to do a series of videos featuring E&Y experts in conversation with Wharton professors. The result puts the firm's experts in great company, shares their significant knowledge and extends E&Y’s reach to Wharton’s audience.
These online tools enable B2B firms to better demonstrate the effectiveness of their ideas. Bloom Group research has shown that prospects wanting to "kick the tires" of a professional firm's expertise are looking for examples on how clients have benefitted. So case study write-ups are essential. Better yet is to let prospects see your clients directly recommending your approach in an online video. The consulting firm Innosight does this well on its corporate website with several “impact” videos. One features its work on Chevrolet’s electric vehicle, the Volt, here.
The online world also enables viewers to try on a B2B firm's ideas—not just read about them. Since professional services firms are in the business of diagnosing and solving organizational problems,allowing online viewers to see whether some ideas might fit them can be a good way to build interest. Management consultancy Booz & Co. uses online diagnostic tools. One here helps executives assess their company’s decision-making effectiveness. BCG Perspectives features similar interactive tools, one of which it calls an “e-intensity index”—a way for policymakers and executives to determine the adequacy of a country’s Internet infrastructure, here.
Measuring Engagement to Actively Recalibrate Marketing Programs
The ability to extensively measure audience engagement with a B2B firm’s content can provide an even bigger source of value in its thought leadership marketing programs: determining what other marketing activities to bring to bear to quench the thirst of hungry viewers. Online statistics provide valuable insights on their audience’s interests. This data allows the B2B firm to align its thought leadership marketing to those interests and thus invest more wisely in webinars, seminars, micrositea, videos, LinkedIn groups and other activities that can nurture interest in their expertise.
Online publications provide their owners with new data for measuring viewer engagement with each piece of content. Forbes.com uses its measures of online reader interest in each article to determine what types of articles to write. “You can track the digital news consumer’s first click, second and each one after that,” said Lewis DVorkin, chief product officer of Forbes Media, in his blog. “You know how far down the screen they scroll. And most important, you learn what they think as the social conversation evolves.”
By social conversation, DVorkin is referring to viewer engagement. This means not just how many are reading an article but, more importantly, their interest in each article as determined by how many do something with the article after reading it. When mass-market online publishers talk about engagement, they focus on actions that tie the reader to the site. They measure how thoroughly readers complete their profile or how frequently they comment over a period of time, the number of email signups and frequency of visits. All of this is interesting and useful information. However, the B2B marketer can use measures of engagement in a much different way: to determine where to invest precious content development and marketing dollars.
While it’s not an exact science, measures of content engagement can tell us which topics and perspectives are the “best sellers,” and can help guide where to invest in additional thought leadership marketing activities. Broadly speaking, we see four dimensions to content engagement:
- Topic trending: This is an external measure, using such tools as Google, Twitter, and social tracking to understand which topics are already in the zeitgeist, both globally and locally. This tool that can help B2B firms pick the topics they want to weigh in on. The advantage is an existing and identifiable audience for trending topics; the burden, of course, is to say something fresh on a topic that is already well covered. To be sure, B2B firms can’t cover trendy topics that don’t relate to their business. But high-interest topics that are also issues that they can address should be high on their agenda.
- Readership: The articles that elicit the most visits, page views, time on page, PDF downloads, and printer-friendly views (an important measure since many readers will read offline) are the foundation for a growing body of knowledge. This dimension of readership indicates interest. But it leaves open questions as to what about the article is drawing the reader.
- Feedback: This can add a lot of flavor to the readership dimension. If an article is generating an unusual amount of online comments, email responses, “recommends,” and other feedback, it’s a good bet that the article should not be the last word on this topic. What’s more, the nature of the feedback can speak volumes. B2B firms that solicit feedback are obligated to read and respond, and in so doing build a picture of whether and how the firm can take the discussion farther through more content or other marketing efforts. This is a form of customer service and can provide insight into service/product development in addition to help guide further content development and content marketing activities.
- Sharing: These measure the degree to which a viewer lets others know about content that he likes. Use of digital pass-along tools such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, to name the big three, creates a virtuous cycle. They stand both as a proxy for high interest and help build audience. And, as any cycle should, it brings B2B firms back to the larger trends. Sharing tools allow content to become an active part of the larger discussion, wherever it may be taking place. Those articles that are shared the most are among the highest value, both to the B2B firm and to its readership. In addition, there is an emerging set of “social listening” tools– including advances to Google analytics—that can help identify top referring sites and engagement from those sites to specific pieces of content. This promises to deepen the analysis significantly.
These four measures can be crucial in making the hard choices of exactly where to invest in content development and marketing. Putting the relative value aside for a moment, think of the various content types in a hierarchy based on investment. The hierarchy could look something like this, starting with the lowest level of investment required:
Higher engagement in a topic means more willingness to overlook the cost (time and money) of engaging further in it
Now, let’s return to the measures of engagement to help determine which topics should get the highest level of investment. While every site differs based on a number of factors including frequency of publishing, variety of content types and, of course, what functionality is available, the four dimensions can work together to build a quantitative and qualitative picture of where the greatest interest lies—and the greatest opportunity.
To oversimplify, imagine testing an idea with a simple blog post. You may help choose the topic based on trending data, assuming you can move the discussion forward. This may be as small of an investment as writing a short post—6-10 paragraphs with a simple chart and a few links to related content on your site or on other sites.
In this case, let’s say there is high readership, low feedback and a sprinkling of “shares.” And let’s assume that the topic is trending well worldwide. That’s a scenario that likely justifies an additional investment to, say, to create a full article with an interactive chart or brief video as a complementary component.
What do our measures of engagement tell now? Does readership, feedback and sharing indicate that you’re on to something, that this might be a ripe topic for a webinar or maybe with a relatively low investment to do a simple poll on the topic? If it does, then a B2B company could develop additional marketing programs to further boost audience engagement in popular content. For example, it could hold a live video chat between the author(s) and a small group of people who commented on the article. (In November 2011, The New York Times began using social networking site Google+ to hold live videoconferences where readers can chat with reporters. Two reporters conducted a 29-minute online video “hangout” with several readers. You can see a recorded version here. Since then, the newspaper's sports section has been doing its own video "hangouts" with viewers.)
Or a B2B firm could devote a microsite to a popular piece of content, aggregating all the articles it has written on it, curating content from other sources, and providing other content on the issue. (We’ve written previously about the power of topic microsites, which you can find here.)
To generate even greater levels of audience engagement (which also require greater investment of resources), B2B marketers could consider online discussion groups and seminars. Several consulting firms have created special LinkedIn groups to nurture discussion and relationships. One of them (Knowledge Architecture) has used a LinkedIn group that it runs (KA Connect) and a yearly conference for group members to create exceptional levels of engagement with its target audience: executives in the architecture, engineering and construction industry. (You can read a Q&A that we did with the firm’s CEO here.)
Every B2B firm faces the risk of poor returns on thought leadership marketing investments such as seminars, microsites, and webinars. Online measures like the ones we outlined above allow firms to test, learn, and invest in marketing activities with the greatest return. That means they can stop guessing about what is and is not of interest. Over time, through benchmarking your experience, these measures will become more refined and more effective.
A word of caution: There will be some topics that B2B companies need to cover regardless of how well the articles do against these measures. Some issues are so tightly aligned with brand and business considerations that there is simply no choice. Still, even for those articles, these measures can help to determine if there are more engaging online approaches to those topics.
Online Management Journal as Client Engagement Tool
The role we describe here for the B2B online management journal is a much more prominent one than many of these publications are playing today in the marketing and business development mix. A B2B firm can turn its online journal into a highly effective tool for increasing customer engagement—for attracting prospects into its circle, raising their interest in the firm’s expertise, and ultimately making them much more likely to buy its services.
Moving today’s online journal to the model we describe requires planning that goes far beyond setting an editorial calendar. B2B marketers need to build audience feedback and sharing tools, create metrics of engagement, and determine the mix of marketing activities that will generate higher levels of engagement.
Yet getting there, more than anything, requires shifting the publication mindset from closed monologue to open dialogue. And capitalizing on the data that a B2B online journal can provide on audience engagement with your content requires a more integrated approach among thought leadership and other marketing programs. In fact, marketers will have to take down the walls that separate their publishing activities from their other marketing programs, including any paid media, PR activities and other online communications programs.
Most B2B firms have made the first step; they are online. The online journal can be a powerful tool—one that is both a dynamic brand builder and an analytic guide to smart marketing initiatives—but only for those willing to join the open world and listen as well as they write.
About the Authors
Robert Buday and Tim Parker are principals of Bloom Group. Buday can be reached at (email) email@example.com and at (Twitter) @bbuday. Parker can be reached at (email) firstname.lastname@example.org. Jeff Pundyk is the founder of Rebound Media and was publisher of McKinsey Quarterly from 2000 to 2011. He can be reached at email@example.com.