Making the Most of Your Firm’s Publications: a Portfolio Approach to Intellectual Capital Development
What if a venture capital firm funded entrepreneurs on a first-come, first-served basis with no questions asked? People with ideas from wacky to wonderful would get into business—more of them wacky, no doubt, given the high failure rate for new businesses. Of course, the VC wouldn’t last very long. Without screening new-business ideas and the people behind them, it eventually would fritter away its capital after so many bad investments. Of course, this scenario is highly implausible. Yet many professional services marketers make the equivalent mistake in their publication strategy. They invest substantial time and money marketing too many substandard ideas through white papers, op-ed and management journal submissions, and sometimes whole books. Like the bad businesses funded by the VCs, these poor publications fizzle out fast.
Compared to a bankrupt business, a poor publication might seem like a trivial problem. But for professional services firms, it’s a cardinal sin. Because such companies are in the very business of providing expertise, their publications must display authoritative knowledge. A refrain we hear often—that “publishing anything is OK because it gets our name out there”—does not apply to professional services firms. Clients and prospects hold the writings of professional services firms to a far higher standard than, say, they do a technology vendor’s white papers meant to showcase its industry knowledge. Because of this, substandard publications actually can actually erode a professional services firm’s brand image, not enhance it.
Conversely, best-selling books, Harvard Business Review articles, comprehensive research reports, substantive white papers, and other publications can break open new markets for professional services firms and shore up their share of old ones—generating millions of dollars in new business in the process.
How can professional services firms ensure their content generates substantial interest in the firm and, thus, maximize the investments made in these publications? We believe the marketing organization holds the key.
As the “gatekeepers” of a professional services company’s publications, marketers should have clear accountability for the success of published materials. And that means moving beyond simply being proficient in getting publications written, designed and disseminated. Marketers need to be truly engaged in the content development part of the publishing process as well—i.e., the activities encompassing idea generation through point of view completion.
A Portfolio Approach to Publishing Intellectual Capital
Of course, this doesn’t mean marketers should march into the office of their practice or firm leader and demand they be a critical player in content development. On the contrary, we have found that there is a more helpful—and certainly less abrasive—way for marketers to insert themselves into the content-development process. This involves moving from an “order taker” role—in which marketers essentially publish any content that comes to them from subject matter experts—to a more consultative role that emphasizes guiding experts on their choice of topics for publication and providing valuable assistance in shoring up ideas that are not yet ready to be marketed.
One way for marketers to make such a shift is by effectively taking a portfolio management approach to the intellectual capital reflected in the firm’s publications: collecting, assessing, developing and writing about a balanced array of ideas to ensure the firm has the right mix between short-term bets (ideas ready to market now) and long-term bets (ideas needing more extensive development investment) to support demand generation in the current quarter as well as over a year or multiple-year period. Such a balanced portfolio reflects the needs and realities of the professional services world today, where there is little tolerance for marketing that doesn’t produce in the short term, but also an intense need for marketing programs that anticipate market needs. A marketer who invests only in the big-bet ideas that take substantial time to develop probably won’t be around long enough to get them to market. At the same time, stringing together only quick hits will do little to elevate the firm’s reputation for thought leadership—which is critical to building strong demand for its services. Hence, the portfolio mix is essential for growth.
Implementing a portfolio management approach to a firm’s publications involves four basic steps: topic identification, topic assessment, idea development and portfolio balancing. We explain each of these steps in detail.
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—or may even have established a team that’s responsible for, among other things, creating an annual editorial calendar for its publications.
Whatever process marketing uses to generate ideas, we’ve found that marketing typically needs to pursue more topic ideas than it has publishing opportunities for them. That’s because some of the ideas simply 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—and they have to go back to the drawing board. 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.
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 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, a marketer will have half of what’s needed to assess which topics could support the firm’s editorial calendar. The other half 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. On the other hand, if a firm has a reasonable base of experience in the topic area, there’s a good chance that a point of view can be developed and marketed more quickly.
Having assessed both the market’s need for guidance on topics and the firm’s depth of expertise, the marketer 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 illuminate 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 the firm should invest time and money—and how:
- An emerging (immature) topic on which the firm has deep expertise and extensive experience would fall in the lower right quadrant, or “expose.” Here, the firm should essentially get its point of view to market as quickly as possible. 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, the firm has sufficient time 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.
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 a while, 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. The idea is 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) likely would have to 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. Seven criteria can form the basis of such an evaluation:
(We discuss these criteria in more detail in our white paper, “Seven Fundamental Characteristics of High-Quality Thought Leadership Marketing Content.”)
To spark interest, a professional services firm’s point of view must meet a threshold level of quality—say, 80 percent “developed”—on all seven criteria to be ready for publication. 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—for example, a minimum number of company examples that prove a particular approach works needed to pass the threshold on the “credible” dimension.
These kinds of criteria provide a mechanism for the 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 help 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.
Step 4: Portfolio Balancing
The process of topic collection, assessment and idea development provides a portfolio of ideas or points of view that can be brought to market in a variety of publications—some sooner, some later. Once topics are collected and assessed and further idea development is identified, the last step is to ensure the portfolio is balanced. Ultimately, the balanced idea portfolio has sufficient ideas in various stages of development to create an engine to meet the demand-generation needs of various practices and the firm overall. As mentioned earlier, it’s critical at the outset of a year’s publication schedule for marketers to collect more ideas than they have budget and editorial space to support. That will give marketers multiple alternatives if some don’t come through.
Marketers also should avoid putting most of their eggs in the short-term basket (which can meet immediate market needs but fail to position the firm on critical emerging issues that offer significant potential growth) or solely in the medium- and long-term baskets (which can establish the firm’s competency in an up-and-coming market but compromise the pursuit of current opportunities). Short-term ideas must be marketed to keep the inquiry pipeline full while the bigger bets have time to develop.
Finally, the idea portfolio must be tightly aligned with the firm’s targeted growth areas. In other words, don’t plan to develop ideas on topics that are of little strategic concern to the firm. Instead, ensure the appropriate well-developed ideas are available when needed to capture business opportunities across a three- to 24-month horizon.
How does a venture capital firm decide which companies to invest in and which ones to take a pass on? Is it based on who asks for funding first? Is it based on who needs the biggest investment? Is it based on how loudly or how frequently they ask for investment? Is it only based on who comes to the firm to ask? Clearly this is not the case. And just as clearly, these should not be the basis on which professional service firms decide which topics merit attention in their publications.
It’s time for marketers to rethink their role in intellectual capital development: to assess and guide the development of strong ideas into well-developed points of view effectively marketed for results. Managing idea development through a portfolio approach helps ensure that marketing is continually helping to generate compelling content, the key ingredient to successful professional services marketing.
Marketing professionals can and must play a vital role in making sure the ideas they publish, in fact, show their firms possess superior expertise. Those who can do that will invariably contribute to the growth of the overall enterprise, as well as boost the impact and standing of marketing in their firms.