Last week I wrote about two proven models A/E firms can use to cultivate high quality content over time — Primary External Research and Internal Knowledge Sharing. Underlying your content strategy with a content model ensures that your firm’s effort can be sustained over time in the face of the myriad of obstacles you’ll surely face. Key people leave, a firm’s market and service priorities change, competitive dynamics change, and industry needs change — an underlying model enables your firm to sustain its content (and marketing) strategy through changes like these.
Digging into a Research-Driven Model
This article explores the Primary External Research model in a bit more depth. A research-oriented approach to content development is predicated on the idea of developing a substantive point-of-view on issues pressing to clients in the market. When firms talk with us about producing content this way, the first logical question they usually ask is, how do we identify the right topic? Sometimes it’s simple — a firm’s market lead has a sense of clients’ pressing challenges based on his or her conversations and relationships in the space. But, what if your firm is trying to enter a new market? Or, maybe the market leader retires? Or, maybe there is no market leader because your firm isn’t structured that way?
Here are 7 sources for good Primary Research topics:
Every RFP is laden with pressing client questions. Mine through your RFPs over the past 5-6 months. Look for similar or common questions asked by clients in a specific industry segment. Specifically, look for facility or project-oriented questions where there’s no simple, single answer to the question asked. Look for questions where you could identify industry best practices for the solution by looking across the industry and beyond your client base.
2. Record or Attend a Project Interview
The questions in an RFP are largely pre-structured and agreed to by a group of people involved in the buying process. They’re essentially scripted. But, the questions that arise during a project interview are often quite unscripted. They are questions that come up naturally in the context of a conversation between your firm’s subject matter experts and your prospective clients. People are much more likely to share their most pressing issues in a conversation than they ever would be in an RFP. Often, this can be a good place to drive to higher level topics.
3. Industry Presentations
If your firm is making presentations at industry conferences, ask the subject matter expert to make an audio recording of the session. In addition to being a good source of potential content, mine the Q&A to identify the types of questions potential clients ask in relation to your firm’s perspective. This will help you identify topics that may be a bit further afield.
Obviously, a firm’s market leads are always the marketing department’s first source for perspective on the challenges facing an industry or set of clients. But, often, the people operating in the day-to-day of the projects have a different perspective on the challenges of their particular projects. Interview the project managers and the client contacts. Ask them what surprises they’ve faced on a project. You’ll get a good starting point for future case studies along with some potential research topics.
5. Ancillary Service Providers
If you’re looking to carve out a position as a thought leader on a topic related to a specific industry, there are always other firms serving that same industry with different service offerings. There may be management consulting firms, technology firms, software companies, accounting firms and legal firms that work inside the same vertical that are producing their own research and content. This can be a great starting point for identifying ancillary or related content. For instance, if you’re an architecture firm serving the healthcare industry, you might look at research and content produced by any one of a number of leading healthcare consulting firms such as ECG, Navigant or McKinsey. This can be a source of both insights into the pressing challenges facing the industry, but also potential future partnership relationships like this one developing between Deloitte and Array Architects.
Obviously, one of the very best places to turn for insight on potential research and content topics is Google itself. Brainstorm a short list of potential content topics and start by entering a variety of google search strings related to how someone might search for that insight. Then, see what’s out there.
Continuing down our healthcare thread, here’s an example — a Google Search for “best practices for patient experience in an ER” yielded these results:
As it turns out, the first result is a Healthcare Consulting firm and the second an Association for Patient Experience that publishes industry examples of best practices — both could good be very useful sources of ancillary insight to narrow and refine your topics further. A Google search can also be useful to help you identify how much “white space” could exist for preliminary topics you’ve identified — how noisy or cluttered is the search results page? If there are a lot of paid advertisements, this tells you that it’s a fairly high volume search phrase or topic. Simultaneously, if there’s no substantive content answering the questions you’ve posed, it’s quite possible that a high quality research initiative could help you cut through that noise and rise to the top over time. On the flip side, a less cluttered page tells you that there may be less search volume around the topic, but it will be much easier to develop some content that can have tangible search success for your firm.
7. Google Scholar
If you’re not a researcher yourself, you’re probably not aware of this service (I wasn’t until a market research firm we work with shared it with me). Google Scholar lets you search all scholarly literature in one place. It can help you find articles, theses and books from across the world of research — essentially, it’s a good place to see what research might exist related to your potential topics to identify whether they’ve already been explored in depth (also, can be a good source for potential research partners). It tends to skew a bit more academic, but is highly useful just the same. Our same search for “best practices for patient experience in an ER” yielded these results:
Final Thoughts and Action Items
As you think about your marketing objectives for 2015, I’d encourage you to think a bit beyond the projects themselves. We all know this is a project-based business. As a result, there are specific opportunities your firm is pursuing this year; mapping your content topics against those projects makes a whole lot of sense. But, don’t forget to think about the long-term. What are some substantive topics your firm could really own and drive over a period of time? What are the big picture content topics you could explore to position your brand in the minds’ of your clients as a true topical thought leader? This is the type of content that will catalyze future opportunities and connect your firm with the clients you’ve always wanted to work with, but aren’t now.
Six Action Items for the Next 30 Days:
- Pick a high priority market sector based on your firm’s strategic plan and 2015 marketing plan.
- Carve out 1 day of your schedule to work on your long-term content and research strategy for that sector.
- Schedule a handful of interviews with clients and project managers on that day.
- Back fill the remainder of the day with some of the other activities outlined here.
- Isolate a short list of high potential research topics you could pursue in 2015.
- Present them to the firm’s market leader for feedback (and funding if your firm works that way).