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.


A Few Research Tips

Some quick and basic tips to make research easier and more successful.

Naturally, search first for the product category–like “Enterprise Content Management.” That will get you to the Wikipedias and other general information sites.

For a deeper, more detailed, dive grab some particularly beefy phrase and search on it. I’ll use content from Oracle’s Enterprise Content Management pages. Here’s what I pulled:

Provides complete management of document images within transactional business processes, including content management and business process management.

The first thing you’ll notice in the search results is that Oracle’s content is listed first–no surprise there. Get rid of the Oracle stuff by adding


to the search string.

To find statistics and analyst opinion, add this to the search.

+”according to” percent

If you want to find academic papers on your topic add this to the search:


If you want to find what associations and organizations have to say, add this to the search


If you want to get a feel for what ECM users think and say, use this string

ecm forum

Look It Up

Long long ago, I was preparing for my English Master’s exams. I was to be tested on every major era of English/American literature (Renaissance, Romantics and so on). I had a problem: I had never studied the Victorians (and one of the major texts for the essays was by Matthew Arnold). I knew they were out there. But I knew zilch about them. I was in a quandary.

What did I do?

I was a Teaching Assistant: a sort of/kind of/junior member of the Faculty. So I went to see Bob Chianese, who taught Victorian Studies (and whose classes, therefore, I had never taken). I sat in his office and explained my plight, and asked if we could discuss the Victorians for an hour or so.

He listened. And then he said:

“So. You want me to tell you during my office hour everything I’ve learned in 20 years of studying Victorian literature?”

I left his office chastised, chastened and just as clueless as when I entered.

But he made sense didn’t he? After all, all I really had to do was read some Victorian writers and a little bit of background.

That mixture of outrage and bemusement is what a copywriter’s clients feel when they’re asked to tell the writer everything he needs to know in order to write something compelling and convincing and powerful and so on. When the writer sits in front of them with eager eyes and a blank piece of paper, waiting to learn who, what, where, when, why, how, in what order, in what color, to solve what problem. And so on.

Some copywriters even ask their clients to fill out questionnaires—I should have tried that with Dr. Chianese:

Bob, I’ve got a date, but if you’d just fill out this form I titled “everything Mike needs to know about the Victorians to get his Masters,” I’ll do a great job.

Our job as professional copywriters is to relieve the client from the burden of teaching us. Part of our job is to learn on our own what we need to know: not to come to the client asking for a free ride to knowledge. It’s to study, to research, to do the hard work of figuring out something that’s sometimes completely new to us. When you encounter a term, an acronym, a concept that you don’t understand, don’t make a note to ask the client. Look it up. And when you don’t understand something about what you find when you do look it up, look that up too.

That’s one of the things that separate Wordsmiths from Professional Writers.