“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
“If a business team has a brilliant approach but no platform to promote it, can the brand be a thought leader?”
Philosophy aside, Scientific American set out to answer the former question (changing the forest to an uninhabited island), and determined that sound is only the effect of vibrations meeting ear drums. So “if there be no ears to hear, there will be no sound.”
Thought-leading content is a non-negotiable avenue (if not the avenue) to cementing your brand’s authority, with the foundation lain in great products, offferings, solid teams and positive customers’ experiences. A content marketer is a good partner in achieving this goal – emphasis on partner. Because the content partner is directing those vibrations through the empty forest to the ears (and eyes, hearts, minds and wallets) of customers across the web, while your team running the business is knocking down the tree.
Whether your site is a validation tool for existing leads, or you want to build your digital footprint to attract more traffic, thought leadership is something you want from content marketing. This “know-it-when-you-see-it” quality positively impacts your marketing goals no matter what stage of the funnel you’re targeting.
Having worked both in marketing departments and on editorial teams that serve marketers or C-level executives, I’ve encountered concerns when partnering on content marketing for thought leadership. Here are the most common:
- How can you possibly know enough about my industry to produce good content?
- Can you understand the nuances of my business?
- What if this doesn’t “sound like me”?
- How will you give a “branded” perspective?
- Will content be compliant? My industry is highly regulated.
- Am I going to end up babysitting you and re-doing all of your work?
All valid considerations. And if you find yourself asking these questions, I think the first step is to consider the job of a content marketing partner.
A content marketing partner: Defining your thoughts or promoting them?
A partner is brought in to be the expert on content. It’s an agency’s job to be a leader in marketing through content for your myriad goals (ie: thought leadership) and to produce assets that make your brand look good. But you don’t bring a content provider in to be the thought leaders for your business.
A good content marketing partner will promote your thought leadership – not build it from the ground up, like a founder or a business consultant brought in to restructure.
The people who build your products and consult with your customers are the people with the leading thoughts on your business and the market. You’re lucky if some of them are good writers or know how to work a video camera. But even in that best case scenario, they’re too busy to sit down at a computer and put their brilliant thoughts down on paper because they’re out there being the experts who keep the customers happy (and without that, what good is your marketing?).
It’s the content marketing partner’s job to tap into your team’s ideas and package them nicely into content formats for distribution across channels. This is why a good content marketing partner will promote your thought leadership – not build it from the ground up, like a company founder or a business consultant brought in to restructure. A content partner will determine the best medium for sharing your core values, and execute it successfully through a close partnership with you.
The real work of content marketing
There’s a scenario I can think of that disrupts my neat theory on “your team of experts, and an outsourced team of content marketing experts.” I have a marketing peer who works at a company that hired an economic consulting firm to produce a white paper on behalf of the brand, credited to the brand. The product was 100 percent original, market-leading and statistically significant research. (A lot of content marketing partners can provide white papers, but likely not to this depth of research.)
The company paid well over $2 million for this thought-leading white paper. It was a worthy investment. The brand used market data to refine its business model, and also used it for marketing mileage by sharing findings with trade publications, which subsequently begot notable media coverage.
But even after that, the brand needed a content marketing partner to help solve remaining issues:
- The information needed to be disseminated to different segments of its audience based on their key challenges.
- The dense information appealed to the high-powered (ultimate) decision makers in their prospect pool, but it went over the heads of lower-level teammates generally charged with researching viable providers online.
- The team wanted to use the research to update website content, emails and social messaging to reflect its refined business values.
Outsourced thought leadership has a big price tag on it, which could be worthwhile. And even if it is, the raw ‘ thoughts’ still need to be filtered by a content-savvy marketing team who will repackage them into relevant messages for the right audiences.
Whether you bring on a content marketing partner to capture the expertise of your in-house thought leaders and proprietary data, or to turn your thought leadership assets into marketing content, you need to pick the right partner to be successful and have a solid process for working together.
4 Steps to a successful content marketing partnership for thought leadership
Start with a Creative Brief
The cast at Disneyland manage to be true to their characters and convey a trademark sense of jolly. That’s because Walt Disney put together clear guidelines for cast members to promote it as the Happiest Place on Earth. Take the same approach with your content marketing partner.
At Brafton, we call these guidelines the Creative Brief, and they’re ideally a process between you and your content partner.
The Brief should outline:
- A clear statement of the company mission
- Core tenets of your corporate personality
- Color/ logo and related visual brand traits
- The style or tone you seek through content
- Company taglines, or oft-repeated quotes from the CEO
- Audience persona profiles
- Blogs, videos, social campaigns, etc. that your internal leaders admire
- Contact information for the internal go-to sources when content questions come up
Let the content team challenge you on the jargon
Your internal experts can speak in code about your processes, products and other offerings. Sometimes, certain phrases will clue in a more qualified audience and it can be a strength to introduce new phrases to market (think SaaS); other times… the corporate speak will do more harm than good.
While you may be targeting high-level execs who know the minutiae, remember that your online prospect pool is wide. You don’t want to cut people out of possible conversations, especially when the most visible content in search targets an 11-year-old reading level.
One client didn’t believe us on this, so we ran an A/B test and found our jargon-less pieces had 550% higher conversion influence.
Give production time… at first…
Content strategists and producers who take time to learn your business indicate they’re in it for the long haul – unlike others who may be in it to take your money and make a break for it. The ramp up process should be thorough if you want thought-leading content.
I asked one Brafton writer what he does to prepare for a new client. The process can include sitting in on sales demos, reading employee training manuals, reading past marketing collateral and talking to the product teams, or current customers. Even then, he finds the brands that he feels most confident writing for (and the ones who are most satisfied with his work) are the ones who hopped on the phone with him and an editor to go through drafts for a couple early pieces.
Make your content partner flex the multichannel muscle
Once the groundwork is laid, your content marketing partner should be proactive in discussing cross-format and multichannel strategies. There’s an advertising principle called Effective Frequency that says people need to see an ad multiple times before it really registers, let alone before they consider it. It’s similar in content marketing, in that you should reach audiences on as many mediums as possible to be sure your message is heard and amplified to thought leadership level.
The good news is that a smart content marketing strategist won’t start from scratch in every outlet, which helps you conserve resource AND create consistency with your message. Strong content can be repurposed across multiple formats to help you flood the web with your insights.
Once you have a process that works, you should see tangible metrics that indicate success. People spend longer on your site. Industry leaders cite your content (added exposure and bonus: links!). You gain followers. You boost web leads.
But remember: Thought leaders are valued for consistency of the experience they deliver and their ability to prove relevant over time. At every turn that your team works to evolve business, there are opportunities for your content partner to strengthen and refine your content marketing.