Friday, August 7, 2020

Getting the Fundamentals Right for an Effective Content Marketing Program

Facing the economic and business impacts of the pandemic, many A/E firms are giving renewed attention to their marketing efforts. It's about time. As I've noted in this space previously, I believe the power of marketing is grossly underestimated in our industry. Done right, marketing can generate a substantial portion of your sales leads, not to mention the less discernible but crucial benefits of raising your visibility in the marketplace and reinforcing your brand.

For marketing to have this kind of impact, you need to move away from the traditional self-promotion. Client-focused content marketing, or inbound marketing, has become the dominate strategy for professional services. But most A/E firms have been slow to embrace it. Many believe that publishing information about their firm and their projects constitutes content of interest to clients. Others can't seem to find a way to get busy professionals engaged enough in marketing to make it work.

Most failed efforts to make content marketing proficient, in my experience, can be traced at least in large part to poor fundamentals. In other words, these firms never build a solid foundation upon which to construct an effective content marketing effort. Below are elements of that foundation that I think are particularly critical to marketing success:

First, understand what content marketing is. This starts with a correct definition of marketing. There are still many in our industry—usually old guys like me—who fail to make a distinction between marketing and selling. You can't get marketing right if you can't define it! So here's a simple definition: Marketing informs and attracts prospects to your firm. Selling, by contrast, is working directly with those prospects to convert them to clients.

What's the best way to attract prospects through your marketing? Inform and educate them. That's the essence of content marketing. You're providing content, through various channels, that helps clients and prospects better handle the challenges they face and capitalize on the opportunities they have for success. The value of that content should stand alone. That is, it's helpful whether the client hires your firm or not.

Focus on serving your audience, not selling them. Your motives matter for several reasons. For one, it promotes trust. People are generally skeptical of marketing and selling because these activities are usually motivated by self-interest. If your focus is on serving your audience, you'll develop better content. This focus will also help you avoid the tendency to default back into self-promotion. Or to choose topics simply because they interest you, rather than being guided by what your audience values. Or being satisfied to merely address a popular topic without working harder to develop a fresh perspective on it.

Mix content curation with content creation. Content curation is collecting and sharing third-party content. Most A/E firms I've observed largely ignore this and focus their energy on content creation. I think that's a mistake. Why? Because most firms can't generate enough of their own content to fuel a robust marketing effort. Which means the content they create, particularly in writing, has less impact.

Let me explain from my own experience: I've produced a lot of my own content—through both writing and speaking—over the years. And the majority of my new clients have come through that effort. But most of the content I share is from other sources. That content has enabled me to build a much larger, more engaged audience. Thus my content has greater impact because it's reaching more people who have found value in following my posts.

I recommend that firms focus first on building their system for regularly collecting and sharing third-party content before tackling the challenge of achieving a reliable supply of their own content. That increases the likelihood of developing a successful and sustainable content marketing program. This article will help you get started.

Cultivate thought leaders as your primary sources of in-house content. Do you struggle to get technical professionals committed to creating content for marketing? Most firms do. And that's because most of our colleagues tend to undervalue the benefits of thought leadership. In fact, I would argue that our industry has a shortage of thought leaders, especially on the engineering side of the business.

So what's a thought leader? This is an individual who is recognized as an authority in a particular field and whose expertise is sought out by others. Surprisingly few in our industry seem to be interested in pursuing the status of thought leader. They are happy simply being known by their clients as qualified experts.

But becoming a thought leader isn't just about building a reputation; it's about enhancing your value and serving more people. The best thought leaders are relentless not only in building their expertise, but in sharing their knowledge and skills with others. As their sphere of influence grows, so does their value to clients. Indeed, they can command much higher fees than garden-variety experts.

A solid content marketing strategy requires a reliable source of content. You're not likely to find that among experts who just want to do their project work. So I advise finding professionals, even younger ones if necessary, who want to serve on a larger scale. Persuade them of the benefits of becoming a thought leader and help them grow into that role—and they can become your primary source of original content. This article will help you get started.

Strive to make content curation a part of normal work activities. As a consultant, I spend a good amount of time doing online research. Part of that is just who I am—a compulsive researcher who can't make a $20 purchase at Walmart without reading product reviews. But the main reason is my desire to provide clients with the best possible solutions and insights. So even when working on issues I know very well, I'm doing some research.

I'm assuming most technical professionals do some research as well as part of their project work. And that's an opportunity for fitting some content marketing into a busy schedule. Simply consider whether the information you found would be of interest to others—in particular, clients and prospects—and bookmark it in your browser in the appropriate folder. Later, you can determine how to share it with others, or perhaps use it as inspiration for creating your own content.

Integrating content curation with doing other work is a critical step toward building a sustainable process. The biggest challenge to content marketing is finding time to collect and create content. So it must become part of routine work activities to the extent possible. This may involve creating some new work habits, like doing more research. These can yield benefits beyond content marketing alone.

Imagine, having your clients essentially pay you for a portion of your content marketing efforts. I do, by sharing some of the content I find researching for work I perform for clients. In reality, those clients pay for the work performed, not the research. But I don't have to carve out additional time for a substantial portion of the content I share. That's important for busy professionals like you and me. This article describes this process further.

Maximize the repurposing of your content. Continuing with the theme of efficiency, it's important to find ways to extend the reach of your content by reusing or refashioning it as much as possible. For example, if you write a good post for your blog, consider the different ways you might expand its audience. Of course, you'll want to share it via social media, which holds the potential for others reposting it to much larger audiences. Other blogs with different audiences might reuse it unaltered or with revisions (I've had many of my posts used in this manner, usually in blogs with much greater readership than my own).

You might also consider ways to convert that blog post into other media, such as a podcast or presentation. It might serve as the basis for creating a webinar or YouTube video. You might expand it into an article for publication or a conference paper. You could combine it with other related posts to create an ebook that could be downloaded from your website.

Given the challenge of creating enough content, repurposing is key to getting the most from the content you do create. Thus I consider it one of the fundamentals for a productive content marketing effort. I know this is routine for many marketers, but I encounter many more who are not leveraging their limited marketing assets as effectively as they could. This article provides further guidance on repurposing content.

Obviously, I've not touched on many other crucial aspects of a competent content marketing program, but the above steps are common shortcomings I see. Too many A/E firms are trying to dabble in content marketing without laying the necessary foundation for success.

The best best way to think about thought leadership and content marketing is not as something you should do but as something that reflects who you are as a firm—a company committed to helping clients succeed at all stages of the engagement life cycle. That not only helps you get the job, but positions you as a regular go-to source of help and advice.