What Ought to Happen Before Thought Leadership Happens

May 15, 2019

The Scouts have had it right all along.

That whole “Be Prepared” thing?  It applies just as much to thought leadership. To any type of strategic content, for that matter. But in our considerable experience, the necessary prep steps don’t happen consistently or thoroughly – or at all – meaning that many such projects run inefficiently at best and with all sorts of frustration and unnecessary cost at worst.

My finger-in-the-air guesstimate is that plenty of thought leadership projects waste at least 20% of the resources devoted to them – internal as well as external, such as freelance writers, editors and designers. With one awful report we worked on a few years ago, that wastage figure may have gone as high as 60-70%.

Putting it bluntly: a whole lot has to happen before thought leadership happens.

In earlier posts, I’ve described in some detail the steps that help lead to better thought leadership outcomes.

But let me put it differently, this time in terms of the actions that leading practitioners take to get things off to a good start. Marketers at these companies – or project managers, depending on who is leading the strategic content activity – use “proposal forms” or “content briefs” to put some structure around the idea of publishing ideas.

Where I’m coming from, a formal template for scoping out a content idea is a must-have. (Doesn’t matter what the template is called, as long as it’s a name that works for all those who will use it.)  The template must elicit the following, at a minimum, preferably from the subject-matter experts themselves:

  • Project name
  • Names and contact info for the primary authors
  • Project code (if any)
  • Project theme or topic
  • How different from existing content on the topic
  • Working title
  • Deadline(s)
  • Target audience(s)
  • Expected length
  • Expected format
  • Expected channel
  • Examples of what the team thinks “good” looks like
  • Examples of prior content on or related to the topic

Further to that last point: the discipline of using the template is just as much of a must-have. There should never be short cuts: “Oh, the content form is coming soon” or “We’ve got most of the rows filled in – sort of.”  If the content template doesn’t elicit the answers, the marketer must ask them directly of the SMEs before engaging a writer. If some of the information on the template seems trivial or unnecessary…well, trust us, none of it is. Incomplete information leads too easily to misunderstanding, and ultimately, waste. We see it happen regularly.

Why all this paper-pushing fuss? 

For this simple reason: no writer – in-house or freelance – can start a job if he or she hasn’t been given a clue about the deadline. All the good strategic content writers I know – certainly all those on Ergo Editorial’s team – are flat-out almost all the time, so the question of “when” really matters.

Similarly, if the writer has no idea what the intended length is, they can’t easily say whether they can fit it into their schedules. If they don’t hear what the topic is, how “baked” the inputs are, and how many authors are involved, they can’t easily budget their time to allow for the multiple drafts needed to deal with complex themes or non-linear editorial processes.

Unfortunately, it’s a rare thing when strategic content projects run like they should. (So rare that I’ve written about it when it has happened.) That’s nobody’s fault and everybody’s fault: the hard truth is that strategic content is, always has been and always will be very far down the list of priorities for any big-brained SMEs. And rightly so: their first job is to serve their clients, and their second job is making rain with future clients. And marketers, in our experience, are just overrun with demands for everything from social media campaigns to events planning to… the list goes on and on.

So let me just request this: let’s at least try to develop and use a content template. Your budget and your stress levels will thank you for it.

P.S.:  Watch this space for “Ought to, Part 2.”  Topic: better governance of strategic content projects.