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Four tests for choosing topics for your firm’s content

“I’d like to write an article on Topic X,” one of your firm’s senior professionals says to you. “Can you get something like that published?”

You’ve got a bad feeling about that. With all due respect to this particular eminence grise, you know that his understanding of Topic X is just a bit out of date. He’s retiring next year, and you’d rather build the profile of the people who are the firm’s future. It’s not an area of growth for the firm anyway, partly because of declining demand. And this means it will be a tough sell for any publication’s editor.

So how do you gracefully decline?

Tell him you have four tests for determining whether the firm should put a priority on producing a given piece of content. And here are those four tests.

As usual in this blog, we’ll use an example – in this case, we’re talking about an imaginary industrial hygienist who helps make sure that ocean-going ships don’t have a problem with asbestos contamination. In years gone by, ship-builders made enthusiastic use of this hazardous substance, now known to be cancer-causing. Now, there’s less use of asbestos, but it’s still a threat to the health of ship crews as well as workers who recycle or “break” ships at the end of their life. This hygienist, who we’ll call LuAnne, wants to be known for helping ship-owning companies manage their liabilities from asbestos in their vessels.

1. Is the proposed topic one for which your firm wants to be known?

To find out if the topic is a winner for your firm, you need to have a clear grasp of its business priorities, as set out in the business plan. This plan should clearly state the practice areas that are most important for the firm’s future. That would include those that pay the rent and payroll right now, and which are targeted for future growth.

Remember that the most important driver in choosing content topics is whether or not the topic furthers the growth objectives of the firm. If a given topic doesn’t drive future growth, don’t do it. Find a topic that does. This way, you safeguard your own future – you can show that you’re focusing your work on helping build the firm in the way it’s decided to grow.

In our asbestos-contamination example, you’re informed by your firm’s business plan that LuAnne’s practice is one that the firm wants to grow. So, you can be reassured that in helping her generate content around the hazards of ship-borne asbestos, you’re furthering the firm’s goals.

2. Is the topic one that the author can credibly discuss?

Years ago, I worked with a lawyer in Washington DC who wanted to publish some articles on a non-legal subject. Specifically, he had written a treatise on the wonderful ‘special relationship’ that exists between the United States and the United Kingdom. And he wanted me to get this treatise published.

The whole idea was wrong. It did nothing to promote the law firm for which he worked. And more importantly, while he had expertise in law, he had no credentials to address international relations. It would be a non-starter from the point of view of any editor, or any reader for that matter. Had he been a Fellow at some international institution, of which there are many in DC, it would have been different.

So, I found a way to not pursue that particular opportunity.

As this story shows, it’s important to be sure that the topics you work on for your firm’s content be those for which the author has credibility. In the asbestos-removal case, we can observe that LuAnn is a Certified Industrial Hygienist and has experience with asbestos detection, management and removal.

These credentials come in the form of academic or professional designations, as well as experience in the work and in the industry.

3. Does the topic meet a felt need from potential clients?

It’s important that the topics you choose address a real need that’s actually being felt by current and potential clients. There has to be a problem that they need to solve or something bad will happen to them, or an opportunity that they can access. Elsewhere in this blog, we’ve talked about “greed” and “fear” as being powerful motivators. The topics you choose have to inspire one or the other.

So in working with your firm’s professionals, be sure to ask them what’s pushing the need for what they offer. It could be a new law, or a new regulation. Maybe a new, disruptive technology.

In the case of asbestos on ships, this would have been a non-topic until recently. Asbestos wasn’t seen as a problem until about 1980 – it was actually seen as a wonder material, one that was fire-proof, great insulation, and able to be incorporated into a wide range of products including brake linings. Many ship-builders used it, and still do so.

Asbestos started to become a major concern only in the past couple of decades, and only in the past few years have regulations started to catch up with what industrial hygienists have been sounding the alarm about. Now, there are international regulations and standards on asbestos, and these regulations are causing ship-owners to seek out professionals such as LuAnne. So yes, there’s a strong felt need among potential clients. This is a good topic from that point of view.

4. Is there a story?

During my journalistic career, several times the editor would tell me about an idea I’d proposed, “There’s no story.” The editor meant that I hadn’t come up with an idea that is gripping an interesting to read. Sometimes, when talking with a business professional about a possible article, I get the same feeling that my editors must have had – no potential client wants to know this stuff.

This feeling often happens when my proposed author wants to write about what she or he does for a living, in great detail. But the clients don’t want to know that! It’s why they outsource the work! There is plenty of information locked inside the author’s head that the reader will want to know, but the details of the work aren’t of interest. Find something that is.

In a digital age, “the story” also involves search engine optimization. Because of the importance of SEO in getting information onto the computer screens of potential clients, it’s good to focus on content topics for which there are effective search terms.

In LuAnne’s case, if there are new regulations on asbestos, it is essential to work the names of those regulations into the content, particularly the headlines and sub-heads.

These four tests can help you determine whether content is worth pursuing – and if not, to focus your attention on topics that do work.

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