Eat your own content

February 24th, 2016

The best content is unique, opinionated, informed and direct. That’s why it’s vital to help your fee-earners find the time and motivation to both consume and create it.

Here’s a Noel Coward quote that sums up his view on the world’s most popular medium: “Television is for appearing on, not for looking at.” The great man could afford to look down his nose at TV. As a star of the pre-broadcast era, it was the stage and film that made his name and fortune.

When it comes to corporate content – whether it’s print or video; social media, email or web site – many business leaders appear to have flipped Coward on his head. It’s OK to keep an eye on FT.com’s twitter feeds or to check out that Harvard Business Review email. But God forbid we should write a blog!

I’ve lost count of the times a professional service firm’s partner or a banker has told me – after a conversation full of insight, wit and knowledge – that they simply don’t have time to write about their area of expertise.

Actually, let’s be honest: many business leaders neither produce nor consume content. They don’t read much from rivals or even colleagues because they can’t see the point. They’re (Noel) Cowards. (Professionals aren’t helped by their revenue model: time not spent directly on client engagement is billings lost.)

You can’t outsource experience

These are frustrating engagements for a content agency for two reasons.

First, an organisation’s content must reflect their truth – their network, their expertise, their insights. When leaders aren’t engaged beyond signing off the marketing budget for an email campaign, it’s incredibly hard to capture those truths. Thought leadership generally ought to come from people at the cutting edge – the fee-earners and leaders delivering innovation to their clients.

When it doesn’t? The content won’t feel right to us, the marketing people, the leaders and, most importantly, the customers and other stakeholders consuming it. Content is only worth producing (or consuming) if it gains, retains and changes its readership. Bland corporate jargon or me-too copy won’t do that.

Second, it makes the process much harder. A fee-earner who can’t spare any time up-front means briefs often lack detail. A writer cobbles something together, but at review the fee-earner feels it lacks detail or insight – and spends twice as long annotating the copy and explaining their position as they would have done giving the writer an interview at the outset.

The alternative? Take fully-formed thinking by an expert, and turn that into great prose, a compelling infographic or a video. It’s more straightforward. (And fun.)

Comms as part of the day-job

That still leaves the question of tone. A huge amount of the rework we do is down to the copy not “feeling” right. Clients often get cold feet when they read their definitive statements and opinions in black and white – even if they believe them passionately. They start to fear what readers and colleagues might think.

What can we do to give those people confidence to be themselves, or commit to arresting positions? (Seth Godin recently blogged on this as “hiding from the prospect of feeling foolish.”)

One solution is get them to see comms as a key part of their job. Explaining why a client engagement was a success, or what goes into a new service proposition, isn’t something to do when you’re not “fee-earning” – it’s a vital part of the firm’s value chain.

That’s true of consuming content, too. If fee-earners are reading blogs and case studies – learning what they like, and positioning their own thinking in contrast to these commentaries – it’s possible they might become more confident in expressing their own opinions. Content is as much about internal comms as it is winning new business. Reading what your colleagues are up to, especially in big firms, ought to be a must.

We can help, of course. Using experienced writers whose job it is to distil thoughts into pithy and direct copy makes the process much easier. Experts still need to find time for those chats – but as they see more of their words in content-friendly formats, we’d hope they get more interested in capturing their observations, sharing them and reading what other people are up to.

People businesses have to talk

The mission, then: consume more content so you gain confidence in producing better content yourself. It’s a journey even some marketing people could take. Kate Hamer wrote a blog post recently about how confectionary companies had almost completely failed to engage with a massively successful viral competition – the World Cup of Chocolate – run by Pointless host Richard Osman on his Twitter feed over New Year.

“This raises an interesting point,” she wrote. “It’s true that you can work in marketing and not necessarily be a consumer of the product you are selling. But I do think that people should immerse themselves in the platforms that they use professionally.”

In “people businesses” such as professional services firms, ideas, expertise and opinions are the products being sold. Consuming them avidly – on twitter, blogs and LinkedIn as well as the established business media – then distilling your own thoughts to share with other people is not just a nice to have. It’s core.

It might have been fine for Noel Coward to poo-poo watching TV. But business leaders shunning content – as consumers or producers – are slowly making themselves irrelevant and unmarketable.

Richard Young, Consulting Strategic Editor, Progressive Content
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