Research and thought leadership studies: tips for consultants

Professional services firms, especially management consultancies, are mass-producers of thought leadership papers, research studies and other content marketing. However great the original ideas, much of it ends up a disappointment. This post goes some way to explaining why and gives four recommendations on how to improve. It’s based on aggregated advice I’ve given to five consulting firms. I’ve also included a handy pre-launch checklist at the end.

1. It’s not about you, it’s about them

Content marketing projects are collaborative in nature, with multiple decision-makers feeding their needs and opinions into the scoping phase. But they should never be the output of a committee, and they need a firm hand on the tiller. Without this, it’s all too easy for focus to drift and to overlook the obvious: what’s in it for the reader? It’s vital to begin from the readers’ position and figure out good answers to important questions, such as:

• Do we have a crystal clear definition of exactly who our target reader is: by company size, sector, role, geography, etc?
• Why should they care about this content?
• What’s the best way to expose them to it?
• How does this help solve a problem that really matters to them?
• What’s stopping them making progress with this issue?
• What can our firm offer that might help them move forward?
• What do we want people to do as a result of being exposed to this content?

The answers will always be revealing. They help keep a tight focus for the project and may highlight what to include in the report, such as third-party research, proprietary data or peer group case studies. They give us a clear metric for gauging success. They also tell us what to leave out!

2. Involve marketing early

Ideas for reports, studies and research often begin with what consultants hear clients talking about. They can be fairly well developed before marketing colleagues are brought in and that limits marketing’s ability to add real value.

I’ve seen interesting reports where the internal sponsor failed to see the opportunities offered by digital communications (e.g. data visualisation) until it was too late; the project was too advanced and the budget allowance insufficient. Marketing’s involvement should be about more than design and print. Early involvement also gives the marketing team a chance to plan the external launch strategy at the best time.

For example, negotiating exclusive access to detailed findings with any quality publication takes time. And media partnerships are best negotiated when there is still time to influence the scope of the research report.

A journalist with a special interest in the report’s theme could suggest great questions, a particular under-served research focus or a data presentation style you haven’t thought of. They might want to produce a video interview involving you and a client for use on their website. Or a round table discussion for readers.

This all takes time to plan and execute. Going to media with a finished product prevents these possibilities.

3. Understand and exploit the shifting media landscape

How and when time-poor business readers consume media has evolved markedly but especially in the last two years. There’s much more content vying for their attention and they are increasingly viewing that content on smart phones and tablets.

People now expect choices about how they consume content. Some want to read it, some want to download a podcast and listen at their convenience. Others prefer video. Some want a quick overview with the key findings, others want to explore the detailed data and do tailored ‘what-if’ scenarios.

By definition, digital media have fewer constraints than printed media and many advantages. These include the possibilities to introduce interactivity, animation, personalisation and shareability. But many senior people still prefer a printed document, so you still need some to hand out at events or leave behind at meetings.

Newspapers and business magazines have an increasing appetite for content of all descriptions. Not just words but static and interactive graphics, video, audio and photographs. Because they are operating with fewer journalists, this offers an opportunity for suppliers of good quality, unique content.

4. Timing is everything

Two or three stories on the same theme published at the same time will almost certainly limit the impact your final report receives. If there’s a big business news story or event on the day you plan to publish, does it help or hinder your plan?

Knowing what’s happening in the wider world is therefore crucial. Find out what’s going on with desk research and through planning tools like FENS or Foresight News. In particular, what are organisations that compete with you for media coverage on the same subject doing, and when?

This is the way to limit timing clashes – and spot piggy-backing opportunities.

If you’ve found this article helpful, please share it with others. And if you need advice or help with B2B content for a senior management audience, you can contact me by email at andyt@sixsigma-pr.co.uk

Pre-launch checklist of questions

Media scanning:

• Who’s written about this subject recently?
• What’s already appeared?
• How does this impact what we plan to say and our media launch plan?
• Is there a reporting gap we can fill – a missing piece of the puzzle?
• Is there a big, tangential news story on the horizon? One we can exploit through linkage?

Timing:

• Have we checked for news conflicts?
• Is there a wider event coming up to peg our story to?
• Have we given enough forward notice to news diary planning services in all territories, before launch?
• Have we allowed enough time for media priming, before publication date?
• Are we co-ordinated in all markets?
• Is there a best day of the week for this story to drop?

Spokespeople:

• do we have the right number in the right places?
• are they media-trained to the right level and confident on the report’s content and key points?
• are they available on and around launch date?
• do they have sound bites/messages prepared?
• what are the difficult questions and how do we best answer them?

Internal comms:

• Who else in our organisation needs to know about this?

Assets:

• what can we offer apart from a news release? Are there charts, graphics, images, contributors, video footage or other resources we can use to increase media appeal?

Story:

• How can we position this study? Unique/largest/most comprehensive coverage, etc
• What are the headline findings?
• Is there one overarching finding?
• What points are of particular interest and why?
• Where are the surprises, maybe the counter-intuitive?
• What general commentary and forward-looking predictions can we make?
• What are the wider implications for business and the economy?

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