Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives, via Flickr.

Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives, via Flickr.

I’ve been involved in corporate communications for 25 years and still see companies treading the path of mediocrity with what they say and how they say it. Why? Here’s my one word answer: risk. The risk of being blamed if you stick your neck out too far, the risk of losing your job, the risk of a negative media response, and the risk of what your clients will think if you veer into uncharted territory.

Certainly it’s sound business practice to weigh up risk. But when it paralyzes decision-making and the creative process then the risk is to the brand’s reputation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched great content get funnelled through the corporate sanitizing machine and end up a watery soup of corporate-speak and atrophied creativity.

Unfortunately this mass of low-quality content does the opposite of what it sets out to achieve – to engage clients and prospects and nurture leads.

Companies producing great content are courageous

Image courtesy of Penn State Special Collections, via Flickr.

Image courtesy of Penn State Special Collections, via Flickr.

I’ve said it many times over the years: “You have to be brave if you want to be a thought leader.” The same goes for brands and companies that want to produce great content.

But what is so brave about producing great content and what do you have to do to get there?

Start by looking at the work of brands like IBM, Deloitte, Booz & Company, McKinsey, GE, Dove, PwC, and Philips. Then think about process. For these brands, it comes down to three things:  research, planning and great execution.

In a post on the Content Marketing Institute blog, Robert Rose says that content should be managed as a strategic asset across the entirety of the organization. He makes the point that content should deepen our relationship with customers.

There are four key steps involved:

  1. Research the trends and issues that impact your client’s business or sector now and in the future;
  2. Plan content that addresses these issues or trends;
  3. Package it in such a way that it is attractive, findable and shareable for your market; and,
  4. Quality over quantity.

The global engineering firm, SKM, is exceptional at this. In my interviews with Dale Bryce, the head of capability marketing, he points out that the aim is to make thought-leadership content a “social lubricant for engagement.” That is, SKM gives its staff the freedom to enter into dialogue with prospects and clients between projects, and content is used as the catalyst.

Importantly, these conversations have nothing to do with trying to make a sale. The result is that SKM’s clients and prospects end up appreciating the brand for offering something valuable over and above a paid-for service.

But SKM’s staff don’t blindly initiate these conversations. Critically, they constantly collect client data, which has produced the following findings:

  1. Their clients like receiving short, sharp, relevant articles from them.
  2. They expect SKM to check in with them between projects.
  3. They want to receive unsolicited proposals relevant to their ongoing success.

This is where well-researched and relevant content comes in. In one case, SKM produced a report on groundwater, which client managers could then give to relevant clients. Doing so opened doors: SKM provided a gift, that gift facilitated a conversation, which in turn led to business. In ideal situations, providing thoughtful content prompts the client to call SKM to invite the firm for that all-important conversation – and SKM doesn’t even have to ask for a meeting!

What should quality content do?

High-quality thought-leading content should:

  • challenge those in your field of expertise to think about new approaches to existing or potential problems. GE’s Ecomagination campaign has been doing this successfully for a number of years and has helped companies re-evaluate the supposed trade-off between profitability and environmental performance;
  • stretch your clients to think “What if?” IBM’s Smarter Planet campaign raises awareness of how better systems can solve some of the world’s biggest infrastructure problems;
  • reframe existing debates (or frame completely new ones) and stimulate conversations around your point of view. The Philips Center for Health and Well-being is doing this by challenging conventional attitudes towards aging as well as how we can make our cities more livable and lovable;
  • provide new insights on a particular topic area of expertise. The provocative Dove Campaign for Real Beauty forces people, particularly women, to re-evaluate what beauty really means.

And perhaps most importantly:

Do this with your content – express your opinions courageously and honestly – and the rest will follow.