COVID-19 turned the thought leadership taps on full force. While the virus is probably going to stick around awhile, companies are settling into their next normal and pulling back a bit on the outpouring of insights. Now’s the time to take stock of your thought leadership strategy and processes and ensure they meet the needs of your business in 2021.
If you’re like many firms we serve, you published more thought leadership content over the past two quarters than you produced in the previous two years. And, that content may have been all over the place. With markets changing at an alarming pace and more people at your company sheltering at their home offices than out in the field, organizations had both the motivation and the time to push out a lot of words on a lot of topics. In the rush to publish, quality control and strategy sometimes fell by the wayside and marketing departments often felt like they were doing more tactical execution than strategic content development.
While coronavirus probably isn’t going to make its exit anytime soon, it’s safe to say that the dust is starting to settle. Many companies are moving beyond survival mode and starting to migrate back to a ‘business as usual’ mindset. The fast and furious pace of content development has slowed, too, as leaders’ schedules are becoming fuller. For those of us who play a role in managing the thought leadership process, this is the perfect time to stop, catch our breath, and make sure all content is strategically sound going forward.
Here are four exercises you can do now that will help content do its job well and deliver the greatest value for your business going into the new year:
- Gut check your POV
- Use growth targets to guide the process
- Decide who should contribute
- Polish and share the content development process
#1 – Gut check your POV
In one way or another—or perhaps in a LOT of ways—your business looks different now than it did at the beginning of 2020. Whether what you do and how you do it has changed marginally or significantly as the result of COVID-19, you need to decide if your firm’s point of view makes sense in the context of new market conditions. Ultimately, all content you develop should adhere to and reinforce this POV—or the unique philosophical belief that separates you from the competition. POV really is your firm’s differentiator and should thus be central to all your messaging. So, take the time to make sure this cornerstone can still bear weight.
The good news is, in many cases it can and it will. The pandemic may have even reinforced the soundness of your way of thinking or your firm’s unique approach, as it has done for several of our clients, including TBM Consulting. TBM has long emphasized the importance of speed in achieving operational excellence, and, as the company’s COVID-19 resources page states, speed matters even more in the pandemic. If your business is in a similar situation, this is a good time to communicate the soundness of your firm’s perspective and its resilience in any market conditions.
In other instances, it may be necessary to tweak or more significantly adjust your POV. This is especially true if you operate within an industry that has been fundamentally altered, like retail or travel. Or if your philosophy was tied to the importance of close personal interactions—that’s obviously going to be a problem right now and for some time going forward. If you made a big pivot in response to pandemic conditions or if the way your firm traditionally has gone about solving problems for clients doesn’t resonate or work in the COVID-19 era, consider doing some insight gathering or even commissioning some research to get a better sense of what’s changed for your clients and how your approach or philosophy may need to adapt in turn.
Remember that you don’t necessarily need to scrap your POV and start over—you may just need to reframe it to better address current market conditions. For more on how to hone your thinking, see this recent article by Jason Mlicki on the 7 elements of a compelling POV.
#2 – Use growth targets to guide the process
While POV has a lot to do with your whys and your hows, growth targets are more about the whos and the whats. And these may be different now, too, then they were in Q1 2020.
In another of Jason’s latest posts, he discusses the importance of resetting growth for the post-COVID-19 era. He invites companies to answer some critical questions about what growth is going to look like for your business in the new year, including:
- Where are the biggest growth opportunities for the firm in the next 12 months?
- What big marketplace issues and client problems do we need to own?
The answers to these questions should directly map to your content topics and your content calendar. After all, the ultimate purpose of thought leadership marketing is to attract and generate quality leads—people with whom it’s worth having a conversation and who will ultimately turn into new clients and new revenue for your business.
This is who your content needs to be talking to and what it should be talking about in order to fill the funnels you need and want filled. Anything else is really just noise.
#3 – Decide who should contribute
Once you have a buttoned-up content calendar with topics that align nicely with your firm’s specific growth targets, it’s time to assemble all the players. During the heat of the pandemic, you may have been blessed with more time, attention, and input from your firm’s senior leaders than usual. However, that has probably yo-yoed back now, and these leaders may be even harder to pin down than they were before COVID-19.
To prevent bottlenecks and to keep content fresh for the new year, think about others within your organizations whose voices should be part of the thought leadership conversation. This may include:
- New subject matter experts who have surfaced due to shifts in your company’s whats, whos, whys, and hows. For example, if you have a new or more prioritized service offering right now, get team members from that line of business talking about it.
- Anyone who is leading or involved in structured research your firm is doing to adjust or confirm your POV. These people will be closest to any new insights you are turning up and can help explain what the data mean.
- Sales people, customer service people, or in-field consultants who are closest to your customer. In lieu of or in addition to formal research, the people in your company who interact with your customers every day are excellent resources for helping you understand your client’s current mentality. They are also great at providing detailed examples to support or lend more color to your content. Because the business environment and client sentiment are likely to be volatile for some time yet, it’s a good idea to check in with these people on a regular basis and make sure your content is staying in tune with your clients’ and prospects’ reality and that it is speaking to their greatest needs.
#4 – Polish and share the content development process
If your firm’s content development process got muddied during the crisis, you’re not alone. Some steps and measures definitely got sidelined and we’ve heard of companies publishing PowerPoint slides just to meet the influx of demand to get information out.
At the same time, you may have stumbled into new habits or ways of doing things that actually improved the process and that will stick. For example, at Rattleback we began doing copy development in tandem with data visualization work to expedite the timeline on some key research reports. We found that it’s a smart step that actually improves the final output, and we will continue to make it part of our permanent working process.
As you plan for the new year, use this time to take back the reigns on your content development process if you need to, think through everything you’ve learned during the crisis, and define the parameters for your thought leadership efforts going forward. Especially if you will have new contributors in the new year, now is the time to set and communicate the ground rules for how the process is going to work at your company.
Here are a few parts of the process we use at Rattleback that consistently help us generate quality thought leadership content for the clients we serve:
- Work with subject matter experts to flesh out the topic and develop a structured outline for the piece.
- Organize the outline so that it checks the following boxes:
- Defines the problem or issue in the marketplace. This problem or issue should specifically relate to your firm’s growth targets for the year. (See #2 above.)
- Discusses what, specifically, is complicating that issue for your clients right now.
- Talks through a resolution(s) to the issue that:
- Reinforces your firm’s POV
- Is actionable with specific advice clients can apply in their business
- Provides easy-to-digest chunks of information or steps
- Whets the appetite and makes the reader want to dig deeper or learn more
- Uses examples as proof points for the solution.
- Incorporates sidebars or checklists to reinforce key points and provide the reader with quick takeaways.
- Flesh out the outline by pulling in additional subject matter experts or contributors to fill in any blanks. In-field consultants and salespeople are usually great sources for examples.
- When the outline is complete, move into prose with a solid piece of content that meets a need in the market and reinforces your firm’s POV. If you struggle to fill in all sections of the outline—i.e. if you can’t define the problem, complication, and resolution and back it up with examples—consider sidelining the piece until you can.
Closing Thoughts: Develop Thought Leadership that Pulls its Weight in 2021
Coronavirus may be with us for some time. But businesses need to return to successful growth, and sooner rather than later. Developing and marketing high quality thought leadership content will be critical in driving that growth and bringing in the qualified leads your business can help right now. Use this time as you plan for 2021 to lay the groundwork for successful thought leadership marketing that will help get you the results your business needs.