Step One: Topic Identification
The first task in creating a stable of strong publications is gathering ideas for topics internally within a professional services firm. In some organizations, the process is informal: The firm’s professionals approach the marketing team with ideas. The risk in this approach is that the ideas that surface may not necessarily be in areas needed to support the growth of the business. In other firms, marketing is more aggressive. Marketing may convene workshops with practice leaders and others to generate topic ideas—especially in areas where the company has set significant growth targets.
Whatever process marketing uses to generate ideas, our rule of thumb is that marketing needs at least four times the number of topic ideas as it has publishing opportunities for them.We say at least four times because the marketer should expect that most of the ideas won’t pan out.The professionals working on them may keep their idea development activities forever on the back burner, letting client and sales work continually “cut in line.” Or when they present their ideas in the form of, say, article or white paper drafts, their lack of depth on the topic or examples to support them finally come clear. Or they may even leave the firm (and take the article with them).
Step Two: Topic Assessment
Once the marketing team has assembled a collection of prospective topics, it should assess the topics through two primary lenses:
> The market need for clarity on the topic or issue at hand
> The depth of the firm’s expertise on the topic or issue at hand
Market Need for Clarity on a Topic
Not all topics that a professional services firm can write about are created equal. Some will have far more interest to a target audience than others, even if a firm has very little to say about the issue. For example, “business analytics” (using data mining and other technologies to identify patterns in customer needs, trends and other issues) is a hot topic today—far more than, say, artificial intelligence or activity-based costing.
A key to publishing a steady stream of points of view that make the phone ring is identifying the extent to which an issue or topic is understood, and being effectively dealt with, by one’s prospects. Topics that are not well understood by executives, or those that involve a business problem for which an effective solution has not yet been advanced, represent some of the best opportunities for professional services firms to provide deep insights and position themselves as trusted sources for help.
One helpful way to identify where a lack of prospect clarity—and, thus, the business opportunity for professional services firms—is greatest is to think of issues as falling at various points along a maturity curve, with emerging issues whose significance and impact are yet to be fully known or felt being at one end of the spectrum (immature) while topics that have been around for a while and are well understood anchoring the other end (mature). Generally, issues at the immature end of the spectrum are those with which professional services firms can help their clients the most with insightful, expert guidance. And, because little has been written about emerging issues, the field is wide open for firms looking to stake a claim. As an issue begins to move along the spectrum and becomes more pervasive, the pain prospective clients feel from the issue becomes more intense—as does the desire for a solution to the problem.
After evaluating the market’s interest in the chosen topics, the marketer will have half of what he needs to make an overall assessment on which topics could support the firm’s editorial calendar. The other half of what he needs is a gauge of the firm’s expertise and experience in the chosen topic area as an early indication of the extent to which the practitioners’ ideas on the topic are well-developed.
Depth of Firm’s Expertise or Experience on a Topic
It is not uncommon for firms to want to write about an area in which they have little experience or expertise.This is most often the case when a firm wants to break into a new market and use publishing as a way to establish itself as a player in that market. If a firm has little experience to draw upon, the ideas it wants to put forth will need investment in research and analysis to provide the insights for a novel, compelling point of view. (This was certainly the case when Michael Hammer initiated the research that ultimately led to reengineering as a powerful business concept.) On the other hand, if a firm has a reasonable base of experience in the topic area (a useful rule of thumb is having completed related projects with at least five clients), there’s a good chance that a point of view can be developed and marketed more quickly.
Once the marketer has an assessment of the market’s inherent need for guidance on the topic and the depth of expertise the firm possesses, he can begin to create a portfolio of short-, medium- and long-term activities to fill the publication pipeline. (The timeframes here are the length of time it takes to develop the point of view to the point at which it can be written about in such vehicles as articles, white papers, books and reports.) Assessing each point of view topic through even a simple framework such as the one in Figure 1 can show the marketer what he has to work with—which ideas should be captured and published right away, which should be developed over time, and which should be left unpublished.
This framework consists of two evaluative axes: The maturity of an issue or topic is on the Y axis and the depth of expertise the firm has on the issue or topic is on the X axis. By comparing potential topics the firm could write about along these two axes, a marketer can quickly get a picture of where he should be investing his time and money—and how:
> An emerging (immature) topic on which the firm has much expertise and experience would fall in the lower right quadrant, or “expose.” In such a situation, the firm should essentially rush its point of view to market. With deep knowledge about an emerging issue, the firm should look to capitalize on first-mover status and define the market to its advantage through early, insightful publications that clearly position the firm as the leader.
> A mature topic on which the firm is well-versed and deeply experienced would land in the upper-right quadrant, or “sustain.” Here, the guiding principle should be ongoing attention. With plenty of experience to draw on, the firm should use a steady flow of new publications on the topic to generate as much revenue from the market before the issue is no longer relevant.
> A topic that’s just beginning to get the market’s attention and is also new to the firm would fall in the bottom-left quadrant, or “cultivate,” and would best be viewed as a long-term bet. With such topics, there’s sufficient time for the firm to invest in point-of-view development, and enough growth potential in the area, to merit a measured approach to penetrating the market.
> A mature topic on which the firm has little experience or expertise would land in the upper-left quadrant, “ignore.” As the quadrant’s label implies, the firm should pay little attention to this topic, which offers scant return on investment. The firm is at a significant disadvantage developing a point of view in an attempt to steal business from established providers that already have been meeting the market’s needs.