Step 3: Idea Development
With the range of potential topics thus plotted, a marketer can determine how to pursue the topics in each quadrant. Regardless of whether a topic requires short-, medium- or long-term development, a marketer must remember that a fact base is needed to bring insight and credibility to the point of view. To be substantive and generate market interest, all points of view need evidence—examples of companies that have followed the approaches set forth in the point of view and have benefited substantially. Such evidence can come from one of two places: the firm’s experience in advising on the issue, or its research on companies that have addressed the issue. Understanding the evidence on which a point of view will be based—new research or past client experience—is key to determining how long it will take to further develop into a substantive point of view and how to proceed (Figure 2). Experience-based points of view can be developed faster; research-based points of view take longer.
For topics in the “cultivate” quadrant, serious investment in deep research is necessary to develop a compelling point of view—provided the emerging topic is expected to blossom into an issue that will be felt severely and pervasively across the firm’s target markets. Such research typically will include a survey of executives that can help not only more fully define the issue, but also illustrate the extent to which the issue is a concern among executives, the perceived potential impact the issue will have on executives’ organizations, and some of the ways executives have (or have not) begun to address the issue.
In addition to a survey, extensive case studies are needed to identify and explore the experiences of companies that already are on the leading edge of devising solutions to the emerging issue—and have some results to show for their efforts. Such research is critical to helping the firm develop its own frameworks and approaches for solving clients’ problems related to the emerging issue, as well as to giving the firm evidence that its prescription to the problem is effective. The results of the research activities then can be marketed in many different types of publications, including research reports, white papers, articles and even a book if the content warrants.
Topics in the “expose” quadrant should receive a different treatment.With deep expertise in the emerging issue at hand already resident in the firm, comprehensive research generally is not necessary; speed to market is what’s important. When the market is begging for insights on certain red-hot issues, writing an article or white paper on the firm’s approach and insights—augmented by just one or two case study examples—may be all that’s needed to position the firm as a leader in the field and capitalize on the market’s desire for guidance. Importantly, little attention needs to be paid to the point of view’s novelty, as the fact that the issue is new likely means that few, if any, other firms have written about it. And with speed being the overriding critical factor, white papers and articles—which, with good writing assistance, can be developed in just a few weeks—are the ideal vehicles for getting the message out quickly.
In the “sustain” category, topics ideally should receive a blend of “quick-hit” white papers and articles and deep research. Because the topics in this quadrant relate to a mature issue that a firm has been involved with for some period of time, the firm most likely has built up a robust experience base that has led to considerable insights into how companies have successfully addressed the issue at hand.
Therefore, to demonstrate that it has the requisite expertise in the topic area, the firm could publish white papers and articles based solely or predominantly on the perspectives of its experts who have been intimately involved in relevant projects—with the idea being that such documents would incorporate messages that are highly practical in nature because they are drawn from in-depth client work.
However, in mature topic areas, such highly practical arguments typically will not be sufficient to generate demand for a firm’s services unless they also incorporate an element of novelty. Simply being able to say that it knows how to address the issue that companies long have faced—while certainly critical—is not enough to truly differentiate the firm from other firms that can make the same claim. In other words, it’s difficult for a firm to say something truly new and different about a topic that has been around for a while and is one on which much has been written.Therefore, when dealing with mature topics, a firm generally will find that it also must conduct deep research on the topic to uncover aspects of the topic that no other firm has covered. In particular, a firm with extensive experience on an “evergreen” topic (on which the market desires few new insights) must necessarily go outside its base of client experience for case study-based research that compares best and worst practice in the issue at hand.
No matter the approach to idea development, marketers can play substantial roles in helping firm experts shore up ideas that are not yet “market ready.” This may seem odd given that the experts possess the content and marketers are not the experts. However, marketers often sell themselves—and their careers—short by not helping the experts develop their thinking. In our experience, marketers can and should be engaged in the development of ideas. At minimum, marketers can play an important quality control role, evaluating each prospective idea to help subject-matter experts pinpoint where their ideas need further strengthening.A good set of criteria with which to start such an evaluation is the following:
> Focus (or depth)
(For a deeper discussion of these terms, see our paper “Competing on Thought Leadership: The Seven Hallmarks of Compelling Intellectual Capital”.)
To spark interest, a professional services firm’s point of view must meet a threshold level of quality on all seven criteria—especially in novelty (saying something very new), validity (having company examples that demonstrate the prescribed approach works), and clarity (ensuring that the idea being put forth is understandable). We generally advise marketers not to publish a point of view that isn’t strong on all seven criteria—say, at least 80 percent “developed” (Figure 3). We realize that this is a somewhat intangible and subjective assessment. But it can be made less subjective and more concrete by assigning hard numbers to some of the criteria—e.g., at least five company examples that prove the recommended approaches work would receive a score on the validity dimension of 80 percent.
These kind of criteria provide a mechanism for the professional services marketer to both discuss and assess a point of view with a subject matter expert who wants to be published, as well as provide that expert with feedback on how shortfalls on any criteria can be improved.
Marketers also can assist in idea development by pitching in on the research itself, whether it’s conducting literature searches to uncover what competitors have written about each idea (and thus demonstrate the need to say something new) or conducting case study research (with or without the firm’s subject matter experts) to gather a bigger set of data upon which the professionals develop their views about the roots of some business problem and how to solve it. Finally, marketers can be the bridge between actual client work and subject matter experts’ ideas by interviewing clients directly to document the lessons learned from this work as well as the validity of the firm’s approach.