Creating a Winning Thought Leadership Magazine: 10 Content Keys
There’s no doubt thought leadership marketing has become an important focus for more and more companies. Pioneered by consulting firms, the discipline has been adopted by other types of professional services firms and, increasingly, many kinds of product-oriented companies that want to be seen as authorities in their chosen industries.
An effective component of a thought leadership marketing program is the company-produced thought leadership magazine. Highly educational in nature and issued on a regular basis, these publications typically resemble management journals such as Harvard Business Review in form and function. However, unlike management journals, they feature articles written by a company’s own people and highlight the breadth and depth of a company’s thinking on topics important to their target clients.
McKinsey Quarterly is arguably the best-known example of a thought leadership magazine and, for many years, it was pretty much the only one. Today, however, myriad examples of thought leadership magazines can be found among other consulting firms (such as Oliver Wyman and FTI Consulting) and high-tech companies (including SAP). Even “old school” manufacturers have gotten into the game (see Lincoln Electric).
But to enhance a company’s reputation and generate demand, a thought leadership magazine first and foremost must communicate robust, substantive ideas that the target audience finds valuable. If it doesn’t, the magazine is simply another ripple in the flood of superficial content bombarding executives every day.
How can companies ensure their thought leadership magazine gives readers what they want—and makes them ask for more? Ten keys can help.
#1: Know what you want to accomplish
Publishing a thought leadership magazine is neither inexpensive nor light on effort. Because it requires a significant investment, a company should fully understand what it wants the magazine to do. Thus, it’s critical at the outset to create a clear mission statement and well-defined editorial policy. These should spell out the magazine’s purpose, the kinds of topics it will cover, who will contribute to it, and its intended readers. Also important is identifying the main metrics that will determine if the magazine achieves its goals—such as readers’ time spent engaging with it online, number of downloads of each issue, or number of leads generated by specific articles. The mission statement and editorial policy should be informed by and aligned with the company’s overall business strategy and goals to ensure each issue supports an important area of the business.
#2: Go deep
Thought leadership magazines shouldn’t try to compete with news magazines, daily newspapers, and online news sources. Leave the short, high-level pieces, or those dealing with time-sensitive issues, to these outlets. Instead, a company should take the opportunity to deeply probe the topics covered, providing the kind of deep, rich and insightful analysis that readers can’t get anywhere else—and that represent the best collective thinking of the company’s experts. Contrary to popular opinion, busy business executives still take the time to read long-form content if they find it useful and compelling.
#3: Share the spotlight
A company’s magazine should definitely highlight the expertise of its own people. So thought pieces by and interviews with company experts should comprise the bulk of each issue’s editorial. But there’s also a vital role for perspectives from outside experts who have something important to say and can further the understanding of the topic. These could be client executives who can shed additional light on the challenges their organizations face or how their companies solved a problem many others are experiencing. They also could be professionals from other companies such as alliance partners, who can address an issue that may be outside the company’s sweet spot. Interviews with such executives creates a more well-rounded publication, adds credibility and depth, and engenders goodwill among those given the opportunity to contribute.
#4: Be cohesive
When publishing a magazine, it can be easy to get distracted and run articles and features that may fall outside of the magazine’s editorial focus. That’s especially true in larger companies, in which the potential topics and contributing authors can seem limitless. This is why it’s helpful to identify an organizing theme for each issue that every piece in that issue must address in some way. The theme should explicitly support an important offering, practice or area of the business. Taking a theme-driven approach to each issue helps keep the magazine on message and prevent it from becoming a grab bag of articles on whatever company experts want to write about that month or quarter.
#5: Be hyper-relevant
It sounds obvious, but it bears reinforcing: A thought leadership magazine has to hit on what clients want and find important. If it doesn’t, there’s no reason for them to read it. Worse, it may actually damage the company’s brand in the marketplace, painting it as out of touch with the very people the company hopes to gain (or continue to serve) as clients. One way to ensure relevance is to poll internal experts on what they’re hearing from clients while working on projects or during sales discussions. Better yet, surveying clients directly about what they’re struggling with and most concerned about can provide valuable insights on what the magazine should be covering. Even simply regularly reviewing “top issues” research that mainstream business and management publications conduct with their readers, or scanning the ongoing discussions in relevant LinkedIn groups, can help provide some guidance on high-level topics that merit initial consideration.
#6: Be practical
A thought leadership magazine should avoid veering into the academic or theoretical—that’s not what executives are looking for. What they are looking for is real-world examples of how to improve their company’s performance. Thus, articles should reinforce how the company’s advice and experience have helped clients solve their most pressing business problems—and, importantly, how that translated into quantifiable, tangible business benefits. One of the best ways to do this is through liberal use of client case studies. An in-depth case study that illustrates the problem at hand, how the company solved it, and what that meant to the client’s business is a highly effective way to bring concepts to life and provide evidence the company’s solution “works.” And, as an added bonus, they also give clients some positive “press” that can enhance their image among their customers and investors.
#7: Be different
If the company’s magazine is simply saying what everyone else is saying, why bother? It certainly won’t burnish the company’s reputation as a thought leader and likely will prevent the magazine from meeting its goals. But saying something new or different about contemporary topics can be difficult, as competitors are likely writing about them, too. The key is to find the white space in coverage: the new issues that have yet to bubble to the surface (but will), or the new dimensions of a well-trod topic that no one is talking about. A regular review of competitors’ publications can help uncover what they’re writing about and identify the coverage gaps the magazine can fill (based on the company’s expertise and experience). Making sure the magazine’s content stands out from the crowd is vital to winning the battle for target readers’ time and attention.
#8: Be clear
A magazine by definition relies on the written word to engage its audience. For a thought leadership magazine to be taken seriously and present the company in the best possible light, superior writing is a must. That’s especially true given the competition: Top executives will compare the magazine to leading publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and The Economist, which are known for their excellent writing (among other things). If the magazine’s writing doesn’t measure up to these prestigious outlets, chances are readers will, fairly or not, also discredit the substance of the pieces.
#9: Mix it up
When identifying the types of pieces to include in each issue, it’s important to ensure variety because different types of pieces have different roles. Thought pieces, for instance, are best for advancing the company’s thinking on an important concept, while case studies bring concepts to life and show how they can be applied in a real-world setting. Interviews are effective ways to allow prominent individuals to express themselves in an easily consumed Q&A format (and have the added benefit of being easier to develop than thought pieces or case studies). For these reasons, the most effective thought leadership magazines use a mix of all three types of pieces in each issue.
#10: Avoid the echo chamber
A company may know what it wants to say, but is it what the audience wants to read? By relying solely on an internal team to define the magazine’s content, a company risks falling into the trap of internal group-think and writing about what it thinks is important but what may not be all that important to the target audience. One way to minimize this risk is to establish an editorial advisory board comprising valued clients. Representative of the magazine’s target readers, this board can provide a helpful external perspective on topics and guidance on what executives like themselves would want to read. Inviting key clients to participate on the board is also great way to strengthen relationships with those executives.
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Producing superior content that will make a thought leadership magazine stand out from the crowd requires an experienced team. At minimum, this team should comprise a company’s marketing executive to ensure the magazine’s content is aligned with the company’s broader marketing messages and content; a subject-matter expert “sponsor” to ensure article topics are relevant to target readers; and a top-notch team of editors and writers to work with article contributors to make the magazine’s articles clear, compelling, and substantive.
Working together, this group can create a thought leadership magazine that’s a great platform for demonstrating the company’s expertise and value to its clients while differentiating the company from its competitors. By providing something of value that target readers look forward to receiving each month or quarter, the magazine can go a long way toward enhancing the company’s reputation as deep thinkers and problem solvers. More important, it can be an effective way to engage decision makers and, ultimately, translate that engagement into more leads and business.