Whither Thou Thinkest . . . Finding Topics for Thought Leadership Content

Marketers grapple with finding topics for their thought leadership content, especially once they get the first couple (the easy ones such as Best Practices ) under their belts.

I thought I’d share my approach.

My clients come to me with a subject for thought leadership content: HTML5 security, big data search architecture, CRM, restaurant inventory management—or whatever it might be.

It’s my job to find the topic.

I have a guiding principle I follow.

The easiest way to lead someone’s thinking is to take it where it’s already going.

I group target audiences together in terms of roles and responsibilities. Different groups need different thought leadership messages. The CIOs and CFOs who own the green lights need some. The department mangers that make the choice need some. The people in the trenches that influence and obstruct need some. Each of those groups are thinking about very different things. The CIO is only peripherally concerned with the development environment. The network engineer isn’t any the more interested in corporate exit strategies.

So before I try to lead my target’s thinking, I want to find out what’s on their minds.

I look, of course, at the similar content my client’s competitors publish. It’s a kind of Pareto principle: 80% of what I see discusses 20% of the possible topics. Often, my clients have already published a couple of these basic pieces, and need something with more depth and focus.

My most treasured source of information (maybe it’s because it’s so rarely available) is the sales force. They talk to my targets. They answer their questions. They profile them internally and think about the best ways to argue the case.

They follow my principle all the time.

But as I say they’re not often available to me.

Each target group—developers, managers, executives—has its own community: populated with magazines and published experts and so on. That’s a real mine of information. Just to make the point, as I’m writing this, I picked the developer community, pulled up a list of online magazines targeted to it, opened good old Dr. Dobbs and this is the first headline I saw:

Engineering Managers Should Code 30% of Their Time

A skim of the article led me to a concept that was new to me: “technical debt.” I found a healthy discussion about it.

That one-minute excursion gave me insight into what the development community is thinking about.

It takes longer in real life. I’d read the articles and the blogs and so forth, and that insight would deepen. I’d look through the other magazines as well in the same way, trying to find concepts that many of them were discussing. But if that were the only data point, I could still refashion “Best Practices for Writing Great Code” into “Don’t Mortgage Your Software’s Future: Understand How to Eradicate Technical Debt.”

More and more, I join LinkedIn groups to learn what those communities are talking about—and the discussions point to a lot of information resources. (Full disclosure: LinkedIn is a client).

The overall research might take an hour or two before workable topics emerge–no need to dig deeper than success.

And in the end, it’s an easy, reliable methodology for finding relevant topics that touch the right buttons in the marketplace.


Connecting Message to Market

Think about something you know about. I’m going to say automobiles. At some level—maybe it’s just at the user level or maybe it’s at the engineering level—we all know about cars. We know what they do. We know how to make them go forward and backward, turn left and right, stop, turn on the radio, and so on. When it comes to cars, we’re an expert marketplace.

Now, imagine an ad or a brochure with this kind of content:

With today’s increasingly mobile world, supported by highways and regulated by traffic signals, the need to have a car that can both accelerate and stop has become an imperative for people across the country.

You’d laugh at it wouldn’t you? Clearly, the writer didn’t understand the market. And I think it would make most people feel disconnected from the message.

Now, ask yourself: When you create your technology marketing messaging, how much of that same type of content are you delivering to your market?

I see it often in most every kind of content. I imagine you have too. Those long (usually introductory) paragraphs that describe “the state of things today.” Fifty, maybe even 100, words spelling out in dense and sonorous language exactly what the marketplace already knows. Knows as well as you know what a car does.

This wastes time, wastes content real estate, and disconnects your message from your market.

It’s OK to have a problem definition section—it’s a good way to let your market know that you know what they know. But make it real and make it specific. Don’t explain, empathize.

CIOs (just as an example) know the state of things today and they’ve read the statistics you cite. That’s not the problem you can help them solve. They have problems like staffing and training, integration, transition, hidden costs, budgeting, device management, political opposition, and so on. You want to talk to a CIO about problems—well, that’s the list that troubles them.

And that’s where your conversation with them should begin.

Five Don’ts of Technology Copywriting

I thought I’d focus today on mistakes writers make when they create tech marketing content. I chose an Adobe piece at random: they were the first site I looked at and I found something I could use. Not meaning to pick on them specifically at all. These are mistakes I find everywhere–including in my own stuff.  The piece I’m talking about can be found here.

So, here’s my list of Don’ts.

1. Don’t Compare.

Unless you’ve got some real hard numbers to drive the comparison, don’t talk about how much better your product is than the others.

Here’s an example:

Gain the deepest insights and most concise visitor segmentation available.

When you make comparisons, you start a conversation you can’t win. If the marketplace wants to compare depth of insight, let it start the discussion.

2. Don’t teach.

Your markteplace knows its business. You don’t have to teach them about it.

You cannot effectively optimize your marketing efforts unless you are analyzing and reporting on those efforts to make the right data-driven decisions. Guesswork doesn’t cut it anymore in marketing— marketers must be able to determine what the business impact of their marketing efforts is.

This isn’t such a gross violation, but it makes my point. There’s a certain “Analytics 101” feel to it. Better to get straight to the point.

3. Don’t make big statements.

Adobe Analytics is the industry-leading solution that delivers the analytics and reporting capabilities to enable data-driven decision-making.

That’s such a sweeping statement. I looked it up for a minute or so. There are a lot of companies that make the same claim. Usually this is something that little companies do to puff themselves up. There can be only one leader, and that’s the only one who should make that claim. It might be Adobe, in which case: go for it.

4. Don’t leave in the fluff

Edit your content for the phrases that just don’t contribute to the message. It’s OK to say just what you need to say–the market appreciates it.

Here’s the original:

Quickly analyze large volumes of rapidly evolving big data from multiple channels and data sources in real time. Powerful visualizations make it easy for users to immediately infer meaning to make timely, customer-focused decisions that improve overall business performance.

Here’s an edit

Analyze big data from multiple channels and data sources in real time. Clear visualizations let you instantly make timely, customer-focused decisions that improve business performance.

5. Don’t be afraid of Features.

My final impression is: the piece is Feature shy. The precept that you sell holes not drill bits isn’t true when you’re selling technology. Carpenters know all about holes—they buy drill bits. Marketers know all about marketing: they buy marketing tools.

Features are your differentiating point—“how” you do something is a lot more interesting to your market than “what” or “why.”

B2B Messages: Just the Facts Ma’am

What are your areas of expertise? Z Scale railroads? Cooking? Sailing? Carpentry? Telescopes? Big Bands?

Whatever it is, put it in the front of your mind for a moment to answer a question.

Within your areas of expertise, what marketing messages do you respond to?

I know the answer for me. I respond to nuts and bolts. All the hype and superlatives and flash go unnoticed by me–unless they annoy me.  For me, an area of expertise is the guitar. I’m a mediocre player, and I’ve been a mediocre player for 40 years. I know about the benefits of a guitar.

So when I go to read about or buy a new guitar, I bypass all the information meant for amateurs–stunning highs, large sound, low action, beautiful rosettes.  I want to know about construction, materials, components.

B2B markets are made up of experts–just like you and me.  They don’t listen to the messages meant for the non-initiated. And, in B2B, there are very few amateurs, very few people who don’t already know about their products and markets.  And just like me, when they read messages they want the facts, the details, the data–not the benefits.

Limited Time Only–Free Elevator or Landing Page Content–While Supplies Last Only

Here’s something for nothing. Perfectly suitable for landing pages, elevator speeches, or a wealth of other important message elements.

YOUR NAME HERE delivers industry-leading YOUR CATEGORY HERE lifecycle solutions, aligned with your critical business needs, that drive down costs, satisfy customers and improve the bottom line.

Now, how easy was that?

All right. It’s a trick. If that sounded at all good to you, like something you could work with, think again.

I see this kind of one-size-fits-all content all the time–and I look at more product content then any ten men alive. Absolutely meaningless content. Content that tells me absolutely nothing about what the company does. Content that, put in with all the other simliar content from all the competitors, makes the product exactly one more brown cow in the brown cow herd.

I remember when I learned the technical term for this.

I was running marketing for a company. We were in a meeting about brochures or something. One of the attendees was a founder and the CFO. Dick’s background was Sales. We were dealing (as I recall) with some feature or function that we wanted to promote that wasn’t ready yet, nor even fully defined.

I was going on about what we could say, and Dick finally said “So, we’ll just throw in some more Generic Marketing Bullshit?”

The answer of course was yes.

GMB is an ugly thing. It does nothing to communicate with B2B tech markets. It does nothing to inform. It does nothing to move a selling cycle into gear. It’s just wasted words.

The cause of GMB is fear. Fear that if we don’t dress up our product in fancy fluff-and-feathers messages, our markets won’t be compelled, or magnetized, or excited, or whatever superlatives and fluff are supposed to make them be.

But here’s the thing. You really can talk about what you do. It’s all the market wants to hear about. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you make. Don’t be afraid to talk features. Go ahead. Talk turkey with your tech markets.

Free range turkey, that is: without any added fillers or GMB.

The Value of Copywriters

The value we bring as professional copywriters isn’t that we write well. A lot of people write well. Many of the Marketing executives I deal with came up through the copywriting ranks. I’m very good. Some of them are very good.

The value we bring is not about writing. The value we bring is:

  1. We learn the topic/product on our own.
  2. We listen well, take notes, understand the key points.
  3. We don’t need a lot of handholding, asking question after question–we know how to research
  4. We understand the market/audience–we know how to talk to experts.
  5. We make smart decisions on our own–we know how to solve issues of structure and theme without help.
  6. We hit our deadlines. Every time.
  7. We write drafts that don’t need a lot of revisions–we get it right the first time.

Once we get all that down, the writing is the easy part.

Eschew the “New”

Hey old timers. Remember when the coolest thing you could put on your web site was some pea-green, football-shaped, spinning animated GIF with the word NEW written on it?

Many B2B vendors, especially in the tech world, are still at it.

They love to promote their latest releases, and their latest functionality. So when they update their data sheets or their web pages, the word “new” appears often.

“New! Full support for mobile integration!”

They’re proud of what they’ve built and they want to share it with everyone.

Not a good idea.

First of all, when does a new feature become a standard feature? Many sites are still promoting “new” features that are in fact many months old. Just one more thing to maintain.

Second, why expose where you are on the innovation curve, compared to your competitors. If your Report Dashboard is new, why advertise it, since Acme may have had one for years?

Most importantly, the only people that care whether your features are new are existing customers you’re trying to upgrade. For new customers, the age of the feature is completely meaningless.

The Best Tip You’ll Ever Get on Creating B2B Headlines

You can’t swing a mouse online without hitting foolproof tips for writing headlines–compelling, effective, magnetic, sure-fire–all kinds of headlines. All the same advice, and not all of it applicable to B2B copy.

Here’s a better way

Copy the trade magazines.

Headlines attract readers and readers attract revenue. Editorial boards spend money answering the big Headline questions. Their magazines are where the research exposes itself. Analyze them. When do they use rational verbs and when comparatives? How many ask a question? How many puns? When are they dull?

That forms a real basis for both the structure and creativity of your headlines.

An End to Generic Benefits in B2B

Recently, I copied a client’s existing benefits bullets from its web site, and scrambled them up with its competitors’ benefits, and made one long, alphabetized list. The client couldn’t identify which benefits came from its own content and which was the competitive stuff. It all looked the same.

If you’ve read my articles on Benefits vs Features in the B2B world (here’s one) you know my bias against the generic benefits blather many (most?) B2B companies spill. The notion that our markets need to be told about the benefits of a product category is fundamentally flawed.

B2B markets buy the way the average consumer buys a car. It’s a major investment. Few of us get up in the morning and on the way to the golf course decide we’ll stop to pick up a little Maybach. We think about it long and hard.

When we go the dealerships, we already know what a car does. We’d be stunned if the salesperson started to talk about how it gets us from here to there faster than walking, or that it goes forward and backward, or that it can play music while you drive. We know all that. What we want to know is:

1. Why is this Ford better than that Honda?

2. Why is this dealership better than Across the Street Motors?

The first of those is a features question, pure and simple. From gas mileage to seat warmers to autopark: a features game all the way.

The second is the benefits issue. Not the benefits of the car, but the benefits of the business. Their services. Their warranties. Their personality. Benefits statements specific to that company, not generic to that car.

This is how B2B operates. When someone shows interest in a B2B product, they know what it does and why it has value. That’s why they’re talking to you. They want to know why your product is better than someone else’s (the features) and why your company is a better one to do business with (the benefits).

Take a look at your own benefits statements.

Are you telling your marketplace that your cars go forward and backward?