“Can I have the meat, please?” (not if you want well-done thought leadership content)

Aug 11, 2016

Imagine going to an upscale steakhouse known for the finest cuts of prime beef and telling the waiter “I’ll have the meat, please.” In the world of thought leadership content, that’s a lot like saying “I want to write a 10-page white paper and I want to start writing next week.”

Here at the Ergo Editorial steakhouse, we work with clients to help them define what kind of meat they want, how much of it, and how exactly they want it prepared. Getting hyper-specific ensures that they get a meal that they love.

Analogies aside, taking the time to ask the right questions and set the proper parameters streamlines the process. Sweating the details up front minimizes transactional friction, delays, and false starts, and helps keep the project on task and on track.

Scoping a project thoroughly and strategically is a skill set any business writer worth his or her salt must have.

Of course, we get started by covering the basics like length, deadline, and budget. (In my last blog, I laid out the five essential questions that thought leadership teams must answer before writing word one.) But then we dig deeper to get at the critical issues that thought leadership teams must address before any project can commence:

  • How “baked” are the authors’ ideas? Sometimes, a client’s idea isn’t much more than that, but the lead author is keen to “get something out” (often because competitors have published on the topic already) and the marketer wants to comply with the author’s wishes. In such circumstances, writers can often run through multiple drafts before the main point is nailed down. (Consequence of this route: takes far longer, costs much more.) But true thought leadership writers constructively encourage authors and marketers to begin at the beginning. They pressure-test the basic idea before putting finger to keyboard, sharpening and strengthening the argument and ensuring that it’s amply supported with lively examples and solid data.
  • How unified are the authors? Nothing derails thought leadership content more quickly than a kick-off call involving multiple authors who cannot agree to what story they want to tell. Ditto with multiple uncoordinated streams of feedback from the various authors after the writing has begun. For thought leadership to be smooth and successful, every one of the named authors must be able to encapsulate the story they want to tell in the same three bullet points. The writer can help facilitate this process, but it ultimately falls to the client (usually the marketing manager) to ensure that all authors are singing from the same hymnal. (For more on this, see “Why Thought Leaders Should Never be Writers.”)
  • What are the inputs for the report? A slide deck from a presentation? Interviews with your authors? Have the authors developed a bullet-point outline? Have they perhaps taken a stab at a full first draft? There’s often plenty of existing content that can be repurposed to build out or at least augment the piece. By talking through what’s available and what’s missing the writer can set expectations appropriately and solicit the addition information he or she needs to tell the story.
  • Is this meant to be real thought leadership or something that pitches solutions? Is the white paper or article meant to sell your best ideas or to rustle up business for a named service or solution or product? Simplified answer: if the former, it’s thought leadership. Top business writers are quite versatile enough to be able to give you a marketing brochure if that’s what you want. But true thought leadership content is different; it’s used to engage target readers earlier in the sales cycle, sparking deeper conversations with them rather than taking the 1-800-BuySomeNow! approach. It’s crucial to get this clear from the start.
  • Who’s responsible for the exhibits and graphics? The graphics are essential to the presentation of the overall story. Not only must they mesh with and complement the text but they must be alluring enough intriguing in their own right to pull readers into the story. Great business writers can help with that professional storytellers that they are and talented graphic designers will make sure the exhibits are visually interesting and brand-compliant, but it’s not the job of writer or designer to generate the exhibits or to select or check the data in them. It’s the authors who bear those responsibilities.
  • Who’s accountable for the factual accuracy of all of the data? A follow-on to that last point: The core data is generated by or assembled by the authors. The writer’s job is to package that data in a compelling, logical flow not to be held to task for the underlying facts. So make sure that someone on the thought leadership team whether it’s the marketing pro or a named person on the author team is on deck for a thorough fact-check.
  • What about review and quality processes? Who’s responsible for herding the drafts through the review and feedback process? How long should the authors be given to respond, given all the other work and travel on their plates? What about getting formal approvals of companies and people named in the article or paper? And what about external reviewers senior executives who aren’t on the author team but whose perspectives carry serious weight? To what extent do they have decision rights over the paper or article? Being clear about roles and timelines before project kick-off eliminates bottlenecks and helps ensure that deadlines are met.

Lining up the answers to those questions is key to initiating, planning, and executing thought leadership projects that meet objectives. With this nailed, you can turn to the next phase of the process: crafting the story so it grabs your audience and spurs them to action.

That’s the way to create well-seasoned thought leadership content. Short change the process and you may be left with “all sizzle, no steak.”