Back in the day, positioning yourself as a green / ethical / sustainable (delete as appropriate) bank or fashion brand or consultancy practice was a relatively straightforward thing to do, assuming you could back it up in some way.
These days it’s not so easy. With everything from ESG regulations to the explosion of the B Corp movement, having social and environmental values is no longer a differentiator – there’s just too much noise.
As business advisor and author David C Baker wrote recently about purpose-driven agencies, “There are a thousand firms claiming that space, and thus it has become a distinction without a difference.” He goes on to say that he’s a big proponent of being-purpose driven, but adds, “It’s a good thing, but it is not positioning.”
So should you bring your brand values into your positioning? Can it be done effectively, and if so, how? And are there any alternatives?
There are times when signalling a particular values-led product or feature is worth doing. For instance, a consumer will want to know if the toilet paper you’re selling is recycled or not, so by all means stick that on the packaging. But don’t be fooled into thinking that makes you Who Gives A Crap.
Who Gives A Crap oozes values from every pore. Not only is the product made of sustainable bamboo, they donate 50% of their profits to build toilets and improve sanitation in the developing world. They’re so passionate about their cause that one of their founders sat on a toilet in a warehouse and refused to move until their first £50,000 campaign was crowdfunded.
Crucially, because they were one of the first to really offer toilet paper that feels like a missional purchase, they could market it as exactly that.
However, if you were working at Andrex, and the company switched to using recycled fibres one day, you’d have a hard time convincing people you were the values-first choice. You’d be far better off sticking to your ‘soft as puppies’ message. Your recycled fibres alone would not give you the grounds to lead with a sustainability message.
By all means make ethical choices as a brand. But you only earn the right to build a value proposition around your ethics if they run uninterrupted through your business model.
As an aside: A glance at the Andrex site shows you their mission is “to leave a greener pawprint on our planet” which, while cute, doesn’t exactly ring true when you consider their parent company cut the use of recycled fibre from 29.7 in 2011 to 19.3% in 2021, and Ethical Consumer advised against buying their products in report published in May 2023.
To make this point with a B2B example, if you’re a commercial cleaning company and you use only environmentally friendly products, that’s absolutely something your clients might want to know. But it’s not enough to start marketing yourself as the green alternative.
By all means make ethical choices as a brand. But you only earn the right to build a value proposition around your ethics if they run uninterrupted through your business model. Because in this age of greenwashing, unless your values are near faultless, you’re going to be called out – or at the very least you’ll raise eyebrows from sceptical buyers (who might have given you a chance if you hadn’t embellished a feature and tried to hold it up as a sustainable brand).
So let’s imagine you work for a business that can hand-on-heart claim to be values-first. The problem you’re facing now is that too many other businesses are trying to lead with the same message. They’re all using the same language.
Which means your value proposition needs to be built around a specific cause. You can’t just be a ‘people-first fashion brand’ or an ‘ethical HR tech platform’ or a ‘green manufacturer’. Be clear about how you’re disrupting your sector, whether that’s championing size and gender diversity, advocating for skills-based hiring to combat hiring bias, or making a circular economy possible in a given locality.
If you can’t go big with a values-led message, your best bet for cutting through the noise is not to shout but to let others infer what you stand for from your actions.
For instance, Tony’s Chocolonely have built their entire business on “making chocolate 100% exploitation free”, rather than pitching their brand as “the ethical chocolate company”, a phrase that feels shallow by comparison.
Making chocolate 100% exploitation free isn’t just Tony’s brand positioning, it’s their business model. More than 9.2% of their retail price goes to cocoa farmers – more than the Fairtrade premium – and they work directly with farmer cooperatives, ensuring that premiums reach individual farmers.
If your brand is similarly cause-based, it can act a little like disruptive companies in the tech industry. And your marketing can cut through the noise using a couple of disruptive principles:
If you’re changing the way an industry operates, you can afford to bring your cause into both your value proposition and your communications strategy. You can be like Patagonia and only ever run awareness-campaigns instead of product ads, or you can create reports that urge further change in the industry, or you can hone a message that flips people’s perceptions on their head.
So what about the brands that are genuinely doing their bit for People and Planet as well as Profit but can’t quite claim to be disruptive frontrunners? Should you still try and position yourself around your values?
Let’s explore this using a set of three imaginary IT companies. You’re the customer or client trying to pick one.
Naturally you’d choose the more impactful business, PLT Consulting. However, we’re rarely in such a clear, clean cut scenario. You’re much more likely to encounter the following set of IT services companies:
If that’s all you’re choosing between, you’ll likely go for option 02. Until we add another company into the mix.
Suddenly PLT Consulting, the business that made a point about advertising their values, isn’t quite so appealing, is it? Those values have been overshadowed by the fact that Performance Wave can deliver exactly what you’re after.
Most of us want to make ethical choices wherever we can. But the truth is – unless a brand offers a disruptively ethical alternative – we’re rarely going to choose a company that appears to be values-based over a company that delivers exactly what we need. That’s true whether we’re talking about toilet paper or cloud infrastructure or legal services.
If your audience is primarily in the market for a HR consultant, you need to focus on how you’ve helped companies bring back their workforces from the brink. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk about your fundraising efforts for your local conservation charity and your commitment to pay the Real Living Wage, but these things need to take a supporting role.
Because ironically, if you can’t go big with a values-led message, your best bet for cutting through the noise is not to shout but to let others infer what you stand for from your actions. Infuse your values throughout your marketing – share pics of your team doing charity work, create an impact report to showcase how you’ve been reducing carbon emissions – but don’t lean on them as central to your value proposition.
So should you bring your brand values into your positioning? Only if it really is a central cause around which you’ve built your business, and which you can back up with evidence that even the most cynical aggressor would be hard pressed to deny.
Can values-based positioning be done effectively? Yes, if you go beyond generic terms like ‘sustainable’ and ‘green’, and hone your narrative around a clearly defined cause that runs clearly through your entire business model.
And are there any alternatives? Absolutely. Because we can’t all be Patagonia or Tony’s Chocolonely or Ecolab. But we can and should be infusing our values through all that we do. And, if we follow the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule, that can absolutely include our brand marketing.
For more on how to market your impact, read the first article in our series on sustainability, which is all about greenwashing vs. greenhushing.
If you want to be taken seriously for your sustainability commitments or your social impact, sooner or later you’re going to need to pull back the curtain on what you’re achieving.
Enter the impact report. It’s a document that will be familiar to any B Corp, non-profit or company that has grown to the point where it needs to disclose its impact by law.
There are many types of impact report, addressing different stakeholders and concerns:
In and of themselves, these reports can have great value for benchmarking and tracking progress in an organisation. That’s not all though. With the right thinking and narrative behind it, these reports can create an impact that’s all their own.
The fundamental difference between business and charity impact reports is that of stakes.
A non-profit’s impact report is justifying its existence. It needs to say, “Donors, this is why you should keep donating. This is what your partnership has accomplished. Here is the evidence this organisation is making a difference in the world.”
A business impact report, meanwhile, is evidencing its ethics. It’s shining a light on the impact – positive and negative – that the company has on the environment and / or other stakeholders.
For a business, the stakes will rise or fall depending on several factors:
Even if the stakes are low, that’s not to say your impact report can’t have an impact in and of itself. It can be an invitation to employees, partners or other stakeholders to go on the sustainability journey with you, or it can challenge others in your industry to take bolder action. With the right narrative behind it, it can become a key milestone in your organisation’s story.
If you’re primarily creating an impact report because you have to do it, you risk overlooking the value it can bring to your organisation. When it’s firing on all cylinders, an impact report can achieve a whole lot more than compliance. So how do you make sure yours delivers on all fronts?
1) Make sure your impact is instantly clear and evident
In an age of greenwashing and greenhushing, an impact report will stand out if it’s candid and clear. It’s all too easy for an organisation to create an impact report that obscures the important details with vague statements, commitments and a showcase of non-critical action. But a report that is aware of its audience and speaks honestly to what they care about will build a better brand reputation.
If in doubt, focus on the outcomes to your actions rather than the actions themselves. Charities are typically great at this. They know if there is no qualitative or quantitative measure of impact, there is little point in reporting the action. For instance, don’t only say you launched a new D&I committee, show how that committee is already shaping your organisation’s policies and processes.
2) Weave smaller stories into a wider narrative
The story you tell through your impact report can also be a swing factor for people looking for reasons to become a donor, stay investing, keep partnering, renew their membership, or continue a client-supplier relationship.
That’s not to say your report should advertise your sustainable brilliance (unless you really can justify it), but you can showcase how your company is learning, facing up to its challenges, and building a future that fence sitters will want to be a part of.
Personal stories are key here. This might involve a case study demonstrating how your partners are working to protect mangrove forests, or interviews with the people impacted by the changes you’ve made to your health programme, or the small business owners your direct trade is supporting. Personal stories will make a statistic like “we supported our NGO partner with 352 pro bono hours” far more meaningful to everyone reading it.
3) Don’t leave it all in the report – spread the message
Depending on the content of your report, you may also be able to use its quotes, case studies and statistics in your marketing campaigns. Not everyone will read the full impact report, but if you snip parts of it up into social posts, internal comms, executive summaries, emails and so on, your message can go far further.
If your comms paint a clear picture, your team, brand advocates and volunteers are also more likely to stay loyal to your cause. When they see what they’re contributing to, it can put fresh wind in their sails.
The answer to this question will depend a little on the scale of your operations and the stakes involved. If you’re a sole-trader, for instance, you could technically have a go at creating the whole report yourself.
That said, if the stakes are higher, you’re unsure of where to start, or you want your report to have the greatest impact possible, you might want to make use of the following:
If you’re a scaling company new to the annual report process, you’re not sure which sustainability framework to use (GRI, TCFD, SBTi, IRIS+, etc.) or you’re aware that your data collection has had too many gaps in the past, it can be helpful to work with a sustainability consultant.
A consultant – or indeed an internal sustainability expert – can help you to understand what companies, investors and regulators will want to see. They can also facilitate stakeholder workshops to help map out the scope of what you should be reporting on, and how you can collect and present the data in a responsible way.
No organisation can create an effective impact report without contributions from people in charge of key areas. This might involve consulting with the professors in charge of key research, or receiving full case studies written by your technical team. You can also bring in the voices of external experts and partners to provide a broader perspective.
If parts of your impact report are written by subject matter experts, you’ll probably need to edit the tone of voice for the sake of consistency. If your wider audience is non-specialist, you may need to simplify some of the language too, without losing the nuance that specialist readers will expect.
To learn more about how to do this, see our guide to involving experts in content creation.
Sustainability and ESG content specialists like RH&Co will ensure your report not only adheres to regulatory and ethical standards but that it also resonates with your audience on an emotional level – both line by line, and as a whole document.
We can help you to answer questions like: What’s the wider story we’re telling as an organisation? How can this impact report build momentum for our brand or cause? How can we launch this report as part of a wider campaign that attracts new members, hires, donors or clients?
In other words, how can we ensure that, when we launch this impact report, it actually makes an impact?
At RH&Co, we’ve helped shape impact reports for global charities and nationwide non-profits like the AHSN Network and Animal Free Research UK, as well as for B Corp businesses like BaseKit. We also launched our very own impact report in 2023. To learn more about how we can support you with your impact report, don’t hesitate to get in touch.
First, let’s be real: the most effective protection against greenwashing is to have an environmentally sustainable business model.
If your organisation is…
…well, you’re probably in the clear.
Alas, we live in a world where this describes very few companies. We also live in a world where businesses that have a net-bad impact on the environment are frequently popping up in the news for claiming they are “the world’s most sustainable airline” or “at the forefront of sustainable innovation”.
So most businesses are left in a carbon pickle.
We want to talk about the good things we’re doing because a) it’s good for the brand, b) it can help customers choose brands that align with their values, and c) we need to celebrate positive environmental impact where it exists so that others follow suit.
At the same time, we can’t resort to the standard marketing tactics of hyperbole, positive spin, and selling the future before it arrives. Otherwise we end up advertising “hydrogen-ready” boilers to consumers who don’t know that hydrogen won’t be a viable fuel till at least 2025, and who don’t realise all boilers have effectively been hydrogen-ready since the early 1990s. That’s a faux pax of CMA-clamp-down proportions.
So how can we highlight our positive environmental impact without losing face or falling off a regulatory cliff in the process? As some in the industry are starting to say, how do we navigate the space between greenwashing (embellishing claims) and “greenhushing” (no concrete claims at all). Greenhushing, depending on who you ask, is either brand shyness or another, even trickier, form of greenwashing.
Tearing your hair out yet? Let’s protect your scalp by exploring how you can market your environmental impact effectively.
To begin with, you can throw out any urge to describe your products using the terms eco-friendly or natural. To be honest, in this age, it’s arguable whether you should even use the word sustainable. After all, Patagonia, the most recognisable fashion brand for this sort of thing, doesn’t use the word sustainable to describe any of their products. Instead, they opt for concrete terms:
And so on. There are times when it’s helpful to use the word “green” or “sustainable” to describe a product if it’s measurably more green than alternatives, and that’s its primary differentiator. But you’d better be able to back it up to the hilt with concrete reasons why it’s green (biodegradable, plant-based, made in a solar-powered factory, made of 100% recycled materials etc.). If your list of reasons is damage-control at best, steer clear. After all, plastic is recyclable and we don’t call that green.
There are plenty of pitfalls when it comes to self-disclosure and company commitments. For instance, what do the following statements have in common:
Any guesses? Well… they’re both misleading. Really, really, really misleading.
The first statement was made by Amazon in an attempt to position the company as a climate leader. Turns out, according to a private report, the retail giant isn’t counting emissions associated with any third party products on their site – only Amazon branded products. That means when they’re talking about hitting zero-carbon, they’re only counting the carbon for 1% of their online sales.
The second statement is found in Boohoo’s Ready for the Future range. Nice name. But a CMA investigation is underway, since the actual amount of recycled materials included in a new garment might be as low as 20%.
And it’s not an isolated problem either. In 2020, an EU’s assessment of 150 product claims found that 53% used “vague, misleading or unfounded information”. Is it any wonder why consumers are growing cynical?
So what’s the antidote, other than being very vigilant about what you do and don’t claim? For many, accreditation from external bodies are the answer.
One of our clients, Davines Group, uses the platform Provenance to evidence the brand’s claims about its haircare products. Provenance uses blockchain data to fact-check claims about social and environmental impact against the company’s supply chain. So if they say a product has “widely recyclable packaging” or “supports biodiversity”, there’s an independent voice to back it up. The Davines brand itself is also a certified B Corp – so they have another independent voice on their side.
“Be authentic” is an easy thing to say but it’s hard for many brands and businesses to pull off. For a start, most would rather only be candid if their honesty will be met with applause – the equivalent of a pop star wearing their heart on their sleeve. Authenticity that involves, say, how unsustainable your current practices are, well, that’s less sexy.
That’s why greenwashing exists, after all. It’s so much easier for a corporation to showcase the 1% of the organisation that’s conducting research into a net-zero transition than it is to be upfront about the 99% that’s contributing to a climate or ecological crisis.
However, if you are chasing a genuinely sustainable future, and not trying to keep an environmentally toxic business afloat, brutal honesty can help put your impact in perspective.
When eyewear brand Ace & Tate became a B Corp in 2021, they could have announced it with green fanfare. Instead they announced it with the words Look, we f*cked up. Our bad moves, and proceeded to list all the ways in which the company had failed at sustainability, and what they were doing about it.
Within this they were clear to explain the limits of their carbon-reduction: “We can say we’re Carbon Neutral, but we still have a long way to go on the journey towards becoming net-zero.” They also showcased concrete errors: “We chose to produce a glasses case from Polyphenylene Ether (PPE) and bamboo fibre. It turns out, that’s not as sustainable as we thought.”
3b) …and about limitations
Even if you’re an engineering firm that only works with wind farms contracts, there are going to be limits to your positive environmental impact (possibly even a few downsides as well). And all companies can win more trust by sharing a little more than they do.
One of our own clients in HR consultancy was careful to do this in the promotion of a different kind of pension. We wrote an article for the company that had words to the effect of: For decades, our company recommended pensions that damaged the earth. Now we’re trying to change that. And yes in the interim, we’re partnering with companies that are offsetting rather than 100% carbon neutral. It’s not perfect but it’s a step in the right direction.
You might disagree with this brand stance on offsetting but at least you’re able to tell what the company is doing vs. what it isn’t. Whether or not they’re making the right move, at least they’re upfront about what they’re doing. And while transparency won’t endear a brand to everyone, it’s better than talking vaguely about being carbon neutral in a gambit for universal appeal.
RH&Co founder, Rin Hamburgh, recently hosted an ‘Ask me anything’ webinar, answering your questions on all things B2B content strategy and planning for 2024. If you didn’t see it live, you can watch the video recording or, if you prefer your content in written format, have a look at the Q&A answer summaries below.
Deciding what content to produce all starts with your business goals. Different types of content (and the different channels through which you can share them) are effective in different ways. So it’s important to understand what you’re looking to achieve – whether that’s scaling brand awareness, breaking into a new market, or increasing SQL conversions – so you can focus on the most appropriate content and channels.
You also need to understand what resources different types of content will require. For example, running paid ads requires a financial commitment over an extended period of time. On the other hand, posting regularly on LinkedIn takes time (and skill) but doesn’t necessarily have to cost anything.
In terms of putting all of this together into a strategy, think about your content priorities and frequency in terms of what LinkedIn’s Purna Virji calls ‘hum, sing and shout’ content:
If you’re really pushed on resources and have to put all your eggs in one basket for the short term, think about where you can get the biggest wins most quickly. Do you have a large client database you could reach out to with a reintroduction or referral email campaign? Have you recently completed a prestigious project that you could use to create a case study or enter an award?
Naturally the biggest part of the decision about what content to outsource vs produce in-house is going to be what skills you and your team have. While many marketers have some practical delivery skills such as writing or design or videography, it’s likely you won’t be able to do all of them to the same standard as a specialist.
This might not be a problem. You’ll need to think about the standard required for your content. For example, if you’re filming an important explainer video, you might want a professional videographer involved. But if, like us, you’re doing a webinar Q&A, you can probably use the software on your laptop to film and edit it together on a shoestring.
What many of our clients do is engage us to create the larger, more complex pieces of content such as white papers or thought leadership articles, and then do the repurposing of that copy in-house to create social media content. In a similar way, you would need to get a design or branding agency involved in creating your visual branding in the first place, but could then go on to use that branding yourself to create ongoing design assets in-house.
Measuring content effectiveness starts with setting goals and then defining what metrics make most sense for that goal. Each type of content and each goal will have different metrics that you might want to track, so there’s no one best way. However, it’s important to think about two key things…
First, be specific. If you’re sharing thought leadership content on LinkedIn, don’t just look at how many impressions or engagements you’re getting. Think about whether you want those impressions and engagements to come from people in a particular industry sector or at a particular level of seniority, and track that.
Also, make sure your metrics are relevant. Taking the thought leadership example again, the likely goal for this is brand awareness. So measuring leads generated is probably a bit of a stretch. But if members of your expert or senior leadership team are invited to do a speaking engagement or be a guest on a podcast, that could be considered a relevant win.
There are advantages and disadvantages to posting blogs or articles on a business website vs a social media platform like LinkedIn or a publishing platform like Substack or Medium.
One key issue is ownership. You own your website and therefore have control over it. Whereas on Substack, for example, the platform might disappear tomorrow, or it may require you to pay money in the form of promotions in order to get your articles in front of more people.
Posting to your website is also a way to attract people to that site, whether through SEO or organic social posting, where they can be exposed to more of your brand, products or services.
That said, not everyone is going to be willing to invest the time to click through to a post on your site – which psychologically feels like more of a commitment – whereas you might hold their attention for that bit longer if they can read within the platform they’re already on.
Ultimately your choice should be linked to your goals. If that goal is to raise your profile and grow your network within a given community, posting your content within that community can be very powerful. If, however, you want to drive traffic to your site and get people exploring your offering further, you might be better off posting the articles to your site and then sharing smaller snippets on social media.
This two pronged approach offers the best of both worlds, giving the browsers a taste of your brand and messaging while still allowing you to reap the benefits of hosting the larger content on your own site.
The biggest mistake we see people making with content is not thinking strategically enough about it. Often this shows up as writing about what they want to write about rather than considering what their audience wants to read about.
Another common issue is being too sales focused at the wrong time. You can’t write a top-of-funnel thought leadership piece and then follow up with a sales CTA like ‘book a demo’. It’s important to see content as a way of moving people along the customer journey, step by step.
A third mistake is giving up before they’ve invested enough time in content as a tactic. Content marketing can take time to build momentum – online marketing guru Neil Patel says you need to give it at least 6 to 9 months, while Joe Pulizzi, author of Content Inc, writes that it’s more like 12 to 18 months. It’s also not always easy to see the results on the bottom line, especially when it comes to brand building content, so make sure you set realistic and relevant goals that you can track your progress against.
Getting subject matter experts involved in content creation can be difficult because they’re usually very busy and often feel they have better things to do. If they’re not sold on the idea of content, or marketing in general, you’ll need to start by making the case for why it’s important.
When they do get involved, make sure you’re not taking more of their time than you have to. Do your research and use whatever time they have available to get the information from them that only they can provide – the anecdotes, experiences and insights that are so important for expertise-based content.
We have a lot more tips on this subject in our blog post, ‘Involving experts in content creation: a guide for marketers’.
Absolutely. Case studies can be a very powerful tool for B2B marketers and sales people – particularly those in service businesses. They’re a way of demonstrating the value you offer in a real world context, and this is especially useful when your offering is complex or intangible.
Like testimonials, case studies let your customers talk on your behalf. If you say your product or services are effective, that’s one thing. If someone else says it, that’s much more impactful.
Also because human beings love stories, case studies are that much more engaging to read than a process document.
In terms of format, there are four key elements you need to include:
A final point: if your case studies are long, it can be helpful to include a summary of key points at the top of the page.
Repurposing content by translating it into a different format is a great way to maximise your return on investment. You can absolutely turn a podcast into a blog, with a different approach depending on what type of podcast it is.
For a host plus guest podcast: Usually these podcasts follow a Q&A format, which translates perfectly into the written form. Depending on the length of the podcast and the guest’s answers, it’s likely you’ll need to edit both questions and answers, making them more concise and suitable for a reading audience, rather than a listening one.
For a panel podcast: This is where you have several people all chatting about a particular subject. In this case, the subject matter is front and centre, so think about writing a blog post that addresses the topic, and use pulled quotes from the podcast to highlight key points. This sort of blog post will feel a lot like a newspaper or magazine article.
Using the full transcript: You can also publish the full transcript of the podcast. This doesn’t make it a blog post, but it can be helpful for those who have listened and want to go back to a certain point by searching for a keyword. It’s also super low effort – just get an AI translation tool and then go through to edit out the ‘ums’ and mistakes.
Newsletters are usually sent on a regular basis to a database of readers who have signed up to receive them, and the content tends to be informational, inspirational or otherwise valuable in some way, rather than overtly salesy.
In general, newsletters tend to fall into two main categories…
The first is the long form newsletter. This could include the whole text of a blog post, for example, so that those who are subscribed never miss a post. Or it could be a letter format written to the readership – essentially an article but with a more intimate feel, since it’s written for and to the members of a specific group.
The advantage of this sort of newsletter is that your reader doesn’t need to click through to a different location in order to read all of your content. All you have to do is convince them to open the email and start reading, and then keep them engaged.
The second type of newsletter is the roundup. This is where you have several different sections, each of which has a small amount of text and most likely a link or CTA button leading to more.
This is a great way to share on more than one topic without the newsletter becoming unwieldy. Your reader will feel that they can browse and choose just the items that interest them, clicking through if they are interested in finding out more. It can also be useful for personalising future content, using clicks as an indicator of interest.
Here’s what we include in the RH&Co’s The Right Words:
Get in touch and let us know. We’ll be sure to update this article with relevant questions as often as we can!
If you’re in B2B marketing or sales – and what you’re marketing or selling is complex, expensive or business critical – you’ll know all about long sales cycles. The more important a decision is, the longer it takes to make. Add in the complication of multiple stakeholders and you’ve got yourself a challenge when it comes to keeping people’s attention all the way to the finish line.
But while the downside of a long sales cycle is that there’s more time for drop off to happen, there is a positive side – it gives you more chances to make the best impression possible on your audience. If you know how to make good use of that window.
In this, the third in our series of articles about B2B marketing challenges, we’re looking at how you can use content to overcome some of the hurdles you’ll experience at various stages of a long sales cycle, and build a more profitable relationship for the future.
Everyone’s wary of a sales person. No matter how friendly we appear, how pure our motives, how carefully worded our outreach, the truth is that we’re trying to sell – and people know it.
Which is why the best sales people don’t start selling straight away. They start off by building trust. These pros don’t try to shortcut the long sales cycle. Instead, they allow their prospects to move at their own pace, guiding them all the way rather than forcing them across the line.
Content can play a hugely important role in trust building by demonstrating expertise and value. It’s the classic ‘show, don’t tell’ method.
Trust building content might include a research paper digging into key trends in their industry, a series of blog posts laying out the various solutions to their problem, or a webinar on how to achieve a particular goal. Just be sure that your content is as unbiased as possible – remember, it’s not designed to close the deal, it’s designed to build trust by providing value.
You’ve just got back from a conference. While you were there, you had several really promising conversations. No one is ready to book a demo or receive a proposal yet but you want to build these fledgling relationships and stay in touch.
Think back to what you were talking about. Did your new contact mention a specific challenge they were facing? Is there a subject they seemed interested in exploring further? Whatever the case, if you have a relevant piece of content you can send them, you’ve got a ready made way to follow up without it feeling like a hard sell.
Thought leadership works well here, as do guides and ‘how to’ content. Again, we’re far from selling at this stage – this is all about adding value and proving that your and your company are genuinely helpful and knowledgeable.
It’s so frustrating. You’ve had a few great conversations with your primary contact. You’ve walked them through a demo or given them a great pitch – and they’re bought in. But now they have to get sign-off.
All too often in a B2B setting, we’re marketing or selling to more than one stakeholder. That requires us to adjust and adapt our messaging to different audiences with different priorities. And it often requires us to rely on someone else doing an internal sales pitch on our behalf.
Rather than leaving them to their own devices (are they really going to do it justice?), use ‘leave behind’ content to help them make your case as well as you would. This might be a pitch deck – one designed to be read, rather than viewed as part of a live presentation – a brochure, or any other piece of content that captures your core messaging and value proposition for that audience.
You’ve done all you can – now it’s time to wait for the go ahead or the “Sorry, we’ve gone in a different direction” email. Naturally, you’ll have tried to book in a follow up meeting but that isn’t always possible. Sometimes you just have to be patient.
Except, how long do you leave it? At some point, you’ll want to give your prospect a little nudge to see how things are going. But no one’s opening an email with the subject “Just following up…”, right?
To avoid that slightly desperate sense of nagging, think about how you can use follow up content to continue adding value. That might be a breakdown of how your costing works, a customer case study, or a “here’s what to expect if you go ahead” pre-onboarding guide. Anything that speaks to any doubts, queries or concerns they might be having in the decision-making process.
At some point during a long sales process, someone is going to raise an objection. If you’ve been in the game for a while, you’ll probably be able to list several common objections off the top of your head.
If these objections are raised in a face-to-face meeting, you should be prepared with a suitable answer. But why not preempt objections and use content to get ahead of your audience and provide even more value by helping them move past these blocks without having to voice them?
This type of content is especially important when the objection is coming from someone you don’t have access to yet, as in the case of getting buy-in from internal stakeholders, above. Here, the particular type of leave behind content you want is objective busting content.
As an example, we have an article on our blog titled ‘How can you blog for my business if you’re not an expert in my subject?’ We created it as a direct response to a challenge many in-house marketers face, which is getting their subject matter experts to accept that an outside agency could possibly create complex copy on their behalf.
While your prospect’s first touchpoint with your organisation might be a proactive cold outreach over email or via social media, or a meeting at an event like a conference or exhibition, it may also be via a referral, a Google search, a media appearance or a post on social media.
According to research from Showpad, B2B customers spend an average of 20 hours researching a company, product or solution before they get in touch with a sales rep – and up to 40 hours if they’re planning on spending more than $100k. Which means you need to make sure there’s great content available to them wherever they look.
We’re talking everything from top of funnel content like white papers and infographics to more bottom of funnel content like technical specs and case studies.
Now you might be thinking, “That’s a job for the marketing department” – and you’re right, to a point. But why leave them in a silo? We’ve found that the clients who get the best results from their content are the ones who see the marketing and sales processes as deeply linked, and have departments that work collaboratively on content strategy.
You can read more about how we helped React Native specialist development agency Morrow use content to increase both the quantity and quality of their leads in this sales content case study. And if you’d like to talk content strategy with an agency that understands sales as well as marketing, get in touch with the RH&Co team today to see how we can support you.
The benefit of being a B2C marketer is that you’re normally marketing to individual people. OK, in some instances you might need to get your target buyer’s partner – or perhaps parent – to approve, but generally the final purchase decision is pretty much down to one or maybe two people.
In the B2B world, however, it’s much more complex, with all sorts of buyer personas needing to be convinced, each with a different agenda. So how do you go about building a marketing strategy that speaks to the right people at the right time?
That’s what we’re exploring in this, the second in our series on B2B marketing challenges. If you missed the first one – How to market an intangible offering – make sure you bookmark it for later. For now, let’s dig into the issue of multiple stakeholders.
The first thing you need to do – before you start creating your marketing plan – is to work out which individuals and departments come into the buyer journey at which stages. This will depend on a host of factors, from the size and complexity of the businesses you’re selling to, to how expensive, complex or business critical the product or service you’re selling is.
Whatever the case, there are some general principles that apply across most medium to large businesses…
In our research report, ‘What do CxOs read?’, we learned that C-level execs aren’t really in the market to be sold to. They’re operating at a far higher level than that – interested in the big picture and what’s coming over the horizon rather than which employee benefits platform or renewable energy supplier to choose.
Does that mean you shouldn’t market to them? Absolutely not. But see them for what they are – the agenda setters. They’re the ones that will put employee engagement or carbon neutrality on the radar. In that sense, they’re step one in the marketing long-game.
Later, layers of people below them will be tasked with digging into solution options and selecting potential suppliers or partners. Chances are that the first involved will be those whose department is most closely involved – say, the HR department, if we’re talking employee benefits.
Once you’ve got their attention, you’ll most likely need some sort of approval from other departments, possibly including Finance, IT or Procurement depending on the size of the organisation. In these final stages, the CxOs may well pop back up to give their seal of approval.
Knowing which individuals and departments come in at which stage will help you build an appropriate funnel, and pitch the right ideas at the right time. Because each of your stakeholders will need something different from your marketing.
We’ve already talked about how CxOs are the agenda setters, the big picture thinkers, the horizon scanners. As such, they’re interested in learning about upcoming trends and being told what questions they should be asking in the boardroom.
Thought leadership, original research and trend roundups are all going to be useful here – the valuable, relational, educational content that doesn’t have even a whiff of sales about it.
Further down the line, the people tasked with solving a given problem will be looking to have that problem clarified for them, and the solutions explored. They still want impartiality at this stage, but you can move them towards more sales led content.
If you have to get through Procurement, they’ll be interested in compliance checks and making sure you tick all of their predetermined boxes. If what you’re selling falls outside of a department’s budget, you’ll be dealing with Finance, who will inevitably want numbers – what you charge, what results you’ll generate. IT, meanwhile, will want to understand how much you’ll be involved in technical implementation and how you’ll operationalise deployment.
Any comms or content at these levels need to be factual, detailed and as devoid of fluff as it is possible to get – while still maintaining your brand message and voice.
Having said that you need to cater for each stakeholder’s individual priorities, it’s important that you don’t present a fractured image to your audience. Each touchpoint with your brand needs to have a degree of consistency, so that a) the HR department and the IT team don’t feel like they’re engaging with two different suppliers and b) a LinkedIn post and an outreach email still feel like they’re coming from the same brand.
To get this right, you need two things. First, you need a strong brand in the first place. You need to know your value proposition and your messaging, you need a distinct voice, and you need guidelines that ensure everyone sticks to them – from the team responsible for creating your thought leadership to the sales people sliding into people’s DMs on LinkedIn.
Second, you need a strategy that ties everything together. Your customer journeys and how people and departments fit into them. What your marketing department is creating and sharing and what your sales teams are following up with once they have a lead. All of these elements need to be tied together so that there’s a plan rather than a scattergun approach.
One of the biggest problems with having multiple stakeholders is that you don’t always have access to all of them directly or at least not at the same time. That means even if you gain one person’s attention, you might have to rely on them to accurately sell you in to someone else within the business before you have a chance to reach them yourself.
In a marketing setting, you can counter this with dedicated content that supports cross-stakeholder communications. Our employee benefits platform provider, to go back to that example, might put together an article on ‘5 things your CFO wants to know about our employee benefits platform’. Likewise, we’ve got a blog post about the business benefits of blogging and how to sell them to your boss.
In a face-to-face setting, you’ll need to think about the ‘leave behind’. If you’ve done a great job of pitching your product or service – or even a higher level idea, if you’re chatting to a C-level exec – you want to make sure what you’ve said doesn’t get lost in translation. This is where brochures, pitch decks, and other forms on content can be very powerful.
If you need support creating a content strategy that takes into account multiple stakeholders, get in touch today to see how we can help, or visit our content strategy service page to find out more about what we offer.
Do you ever wish you sold shoes? Or that you were responsible for marketing a 5 star hotel? Something nice and tangible, with a consumer audience and a pretty well defined value hierarchy.
Inevitably it gets much harder when you’re selling a B2B service with as many permutations as leadership development, or as hard to define as ESG consulting. Or maybe you sell something that’s concrete at face value – like offshore wind engineering – but it’s hard to define what makes you different to that other engineering company with a more established reputation.
For the marketers and salespeople tasked with generating and closing leads in these sorts of businesses, there are so many more hurdles to jump through. In our new series, we’re exploring three of those challenges and how best to tackle them. Today we’re starting with one that is literally the most difficult to describe: intangibility.
The dictionary definition of intangible is “impossible to touch, to describe exactly, or to give an exact value.” For B2B businesses it’s the latter two points that cause the biggest challenge. And there are nuances to intangibility too.
For some businesses, their service itself is intangible. This applies to many consultants where what they’re really offering is thinking, conversation and recommendations. In many cases their offering will be entirely bespoke and therefore hard to describe or give a value to.
For others, the intangible element of their offering is the very thing that they hope will differentiate them. One of our clients is a contract cleaning company. They’ve built their business around a unique set of processes that make their service far superior to their competitors. But making that differentiation clear so companies will choose this company over cheaper suppliers is a constant challenge.
And then there are intangible outcomes. If you can demonstrate how you’ll be able to save a business £x each month, you have a relatively tangible benefit to offer. But where proof of success can’t be boiled down to a simple metric, it’s far harder.
In essence, the challenge of intangibility is one of assigning and communicating value. Your client values the tangible, you want to communicate the value of the intangible.
So why is having an intangible service, USP or outcome such a challenge? Because people want to know what they’re getting for their money. And if you can’t give them a tangible answer, they’ll start trying to anchor your offering to something that feels more tangible to them, something they can justify to procurement or the CFO.
This leads to a skewed focus. For example, they might focus on deliverables when it’s the thought process behind those deliverables that actually adds the most value. Or they might focus on tangible results, which aren’t always easy to define or can be misleading, as is the case with vanity metrics.
Another wrong focus is time input, where clients want to understand the number of days being dedicated to a given project, which is a crude way of measuring value, especially in knowledge-based and creative sectors.
That client discomfort with the intangible might lead them to want to engage with you on a test project first. But in some cases this isn’t really practical. You can’t offer a company just a bit of data science, or a single element of a cultural transformation – and any alternative services you offer as an on-ramp are rarely representative of your core offering.
In essence, the challenge of intangibility is one of assigning and communicating value. Your client values the tangible, you want to communicate the value of the intangible. So how can you overcome this?
The first option is to ease their discomfort by making your intangible offering feel more tangible. This can be as simple as turning your unique process into a framework, or at least giving it clearly defined – and cleverly named, if you can stretch to it – steps.
For instance, although their IT transformation projects can take many forms, our client LXS Consulting breaks down their alt-net solutions into components, describing the value of each:
Within our content strategy offering, we have a series of components such as Expert Gold Mining, Sales Enablement and Embedded Research, which help clients to understand what their strategy package will entail.
Likewise, a leadership development consultancy might talk about 360 reviews, employee engagements surveys or team coaching sessions.
By focusing on the ‘how’ of what you do – in other words, the features of your service – you sidestep the risk of being ‘fluffy’, which can sometimes happen when you focus purely on benefits, such as ‘empower your people to do more’.
But there is a danger too. Go too far down the features route and you risk productising your offering to the point where it becomes a commodity. From there it’s just a race to the bottom in terms of price.
So if too heavy a focus on features is problematic, then we need to make sure that’s balanced with good old benefits. The challenge is that here again intangibility rears its hard-to-define head.
You may think that the benefits you offer are tangible – saving your client time or money, for example, or boosting business performance. But if you leave it at that, you’re going to come across as fluffy. For your benefits to really feel tangible, you need to focus on measurability.
We worked with one client who could demonstrate how they helped small restaurant owners save an average of two days of invoicing admin each month, which is incredibly powerful.
But it’s not always that clear. For example, an employee engagement consultancy, you might be able to measure employee engagement to some degree or another. But it’s far harder to link that relatively intangible benefit directly to a tangible bottom line result.
Or what about where there are multiple partners contributing to a project? This might be the case with a new website launch, where the client engages a branding agency, a content agency, a development agency, even a UX or user testing agency. Which of these can claim to have offered the most value, since the final result is down to the combination of their skills?
We’ve already said that the problem of intangibility is really a problem of defining and communicating value. So part of overcoming the communications challenge around marketing or selling an intangible offering is about really understanding what your audience values.
In their HBR article, The B2B Elements of Value, authors Eric Almquist, Jamie Cleghorn and Lori Sherer, of global management consulting firm Bain & Company, describe the Elements of Value Pyramid. The pyramid encompasses 40 different types of value perceived by B2B buyers, organising them into five levels.
What’s interesting about the pyramid is the way that the more intangible or subjective value elements are closer to the top, while the foundation is made up of more tangible or objective ones.
This shows us several things about communicating the value of B2B offerings. First, we need to be able to tick the tangible, objective value boxes in order to be in the game. But we also need to be able to communicate value higher up the pyramid in order to differentiate ourselves.
There is one final solution that, if you can achieve it, will outperform all the others, and that’s building trust in your brand. Because once a client trusts a brand, they’re far less likely to quibble over how many hours a consultant dedicates to a given programme or whether they’ll be able to measure the impact of a digital transformation programme.
After all, you don’t see clients asking McKinsey or Accenture to justify their prices or explain their consulting process in minute detail, businesses just assume that they will gain value because there is such deep trust in those brands.
Although building trust is far too big a topic to dive into in much detail here, there are two elements to consider: demonstrating (rather than describing) your worth, and having others validate that worth.
To demonstrate your worth, you need to put all that intangible knowledge into a tangible format that your audience can consume. From research reports to thought leadership articles, webinars to podcast interviews, expertise-based content gives your audience a way to ‘test’ your expertise without committing to engaging your services.
To have others validate your worth, call on the people who have already been convinced of your value. Get testimonials or, better yet, create case studies. Use NPS scoring or online review tools. PR is another important part of the puzzle here – a mention in a respected industry publication may be exactly what you need to get an introduction to the right person.
If you’re a marketer responsible for executing an expertise-based positioning strategy, you’ll know how important it is to collaborate with the subject matter experts in your business to create expertise-based content. But how exactly do you go about doing that?
Before you start, you might want to take a look at the first two articles in our series on communicating expertise:
Now you’re all caught up, it’s time to focus on the particular challenges you’re likely to face as you go about creating expertise-based content to support your brand position.
While you may be well versed in your industry – even a specialist – you’re not the subject matter expert. The person or people with the deepest insights might be the founder or CEO, the CTO or Chief Science Officer, the product team or the consultants out in the field.
As we mentioned in the second article, content produced by marketers in isolation from subject matter experts is likely to feel insubstantial, no different from that created by businesses with no expertise full stop. To set your content apart and make your brand’s reputation shine, you’re going to need to work with your experts.
Easier said than done. Here are some of the challenges that you’re likely to face, along with solutions you can use to ensure you get the most out of them.
Every content marketer dreams of finding a subject matter expert who is also a brilliant content creator. Few realise that dream. It’s rare that a leading data scientist or pioneering microbiologist or highly qualified leadership consultant is also a talented and experienced marketer.
Chances are, if left to their own devices, your subject matter experts will pitch their writing at the wrong level for your audience. They will almost certainly use the wrong tone of voice – especially if they come from an academic background. And it probably won’t be strategically informed.
This is where you bring together their expertise and yours. Even if you’re lucky and your experts are fairly decent writers, you’ll still need to create the content strategy, set the topic areas, write decent briefs, make sure there are thorough brand voice guidelines available, and probably do a lot of editing.
But that may not be enough. If your experts aren’t likely to be able to craft great content even with guidance, you’ll need to think of them as gold mines. Your job is to dig until you find a rich seam and then extract as much gold as possible and use it to craft the content yourself.
Even if you’ve landed yourself an expert who is adept at creating content, there’s a good chance they’ll be too busy to put pen to paper. At least not with the frequency and consistency you need to support a decent content strategy.
It could also be that they simply aren’t all that interested, especially if they can’t see the benefit of creating expert content. Which means even if they say yes, they’ll find some reason why they couldn’t deliver this month – sorry, too much going on with the latest sprint or patent application or fundraising round.
Let’s address the latter issue first. If your expert isn’t convinced that content is important, you’re going to need to sell the benefits and make your case. Remember, they’re not the marketing expert, you are – it might be obvious to you that expertise-based content can have a significant impact on the business but not to them. Find out what it is they care most about – whether it’s generating leads or getting speaking engagements – and appeal to that.
Then, once they’re convinced, make it easy for them. Rather than bugging them every week, arrange a longer session once a month or even once a quarter to get the information you need for a content series.
And make sure that you do your research so that rather than asking them the basic questions – the stuff you could find out with a bit of research – you can ask them for those insights that only they as experts can bring: the anecdotes, the opinions, the nuance.
Experts, by their very nature, hold a lot of information in their heads. They may be good at accessing that information, but they’re probably less adept at sifting through it and working out which bits are relevant to the given piece of content you’re creating. Being passionately interested in their subjects, they may well go into far too much detail.
Imagine that information is a tangle of yarn. In that state, it isn’t inherently useful unless you’re a passionate collector of yarn. In order for it to be useful, it needs to be untangled, and the right strands knitted together according to a pattern to form that jumper, or a scarf or a hat. Ditto information.
As a marketer responsible for creating content based around subject matter expertise, you need to get good at extracting the right information from your experts – the untangling and selecting process – as well as using it to create the content itself. So you’ll need to learn to ask the right questions and guide the conversation so it stays on the right track, pushing back when your expert veers off track.
It might also be helpful to create a brief for your experts to consider in advance so they feel prepared. This is especially important if your expert is prone to rambling or if they’re the kind of person who likes to ponder a question for a few minutes – or hours – before giving their answer.
You’ll know – or get to know – your own experts and what you need to do to get the best out of them.
If challenge 03 is about your expert sharing too much detail, this one is the opposite. Experts often sit at the last of the four stages of competence – unconscious competence. That’s when you’re so good at something, or so knowledgeable about something, that you don’t realise how much others don’t know.
This can lead to two different problems. In the context of creating content, your expert may not drill down into a subject in enough detail because they assume you – or your brand’s audience – understand their jumping in point. Or they might completely miss the most interesting and relevant points full stop because again, to them it’s ordinary even though you know that your audience would be fascinated.
Again, your job here is to help your experts to a) identify what’s interesting to their audience and b) pitch it at the right level.
In our briefing sessions at RH&Co we often help experts to come up with analogies to make whatever it is they’re talking about more understandable to the brand’s audience. As an example, we work with a company that’s in embedded finance and one of their experts was talking about the difficulty of performing KYC (Know Your Customer) checks to protect against financial crime. The analogy we helped them come up with was:
“It’s the equivalent of taking a utility bill to the bank to prove identification. Except in this case, the bills aren’t yours and you might not know how to find the people who have them.”
You can see how that instantly makes the subject a lot more tangible and relatable.
This one might sound a little harsh but we’ve heard it from enough marketers to know that it’s true, even if it’s not meant as badly as it sounds when you write it down in black and white. It’s just so much easier to cancel an internal meeting than an external one, or push team based tasks down the to-do list because a request related to a client project feels more urgent.
In the same way that kids will often ignore their parents but listen as soon as a visitor has something to say, we’ve found that experts usually pay better attention to us as outsiders than they do to their own people.
Another benefit of being an outsider is that we can push back without fear of internal politics. We’ve often stayed on a briefing call with a marketer after the subject matter expert has left and heard them marvel at how much we’ve managed to extract. They may have been asking the same questions for weeks and not getting anywhere. It’s annoying but it’s just the way it is with some experts.
If you’re considering bringing in support to help you extract the right information from your subject matter experts and use it to create genuinely useful, authority-building content, you may find yourselves facing one final hurdle.
The problem with some subject matter experts is that they don’t believe anyone else is capable of representing their knowledge faithfully. That’s why we wrote “How can you blog for my business if you’re not an expert in my subject?” Follow the link for a post that’s designed precisely to help you make your case without treading on any political landmines.
The Rin Hamburgh & Co team is made up of skilled experts with many years of experience. Easy enough to say – but not especially convincing, right? Being an expert is one thing – proving it is quite another.
In the first blog in our series on communicating expertise, we looked at the deceptively simple question: what is an expert? But if you want to build your brand authority, it’s not enough to have expertise in your organisation, you need to prove you have it. Again and again.
One of the surest ways to do this is to create and consistently publish content that draws upon the expertise in your organisation, but where do you start?
Before you can convince others of your expertise – and that might be yours personally or that which is contained within others in your business – you really need to thoroughly understand what that expertise is and be able to clearly define and articulate it.
In part this is a deliberate decision around positioning. The more you (as an individual or brand) specialise – horizontally or vertically – the more concentrated your experience and therefore your expertise becomes. So an app development agency specialising in React Native or working purely with telco brands is going to be better able to serve clients in this area than a general agency, and perceived as more expert by their chosen audience.
But your value proposition may be more nuanced than this and so communicating may not be straightforward. This is why, before you can create a content strategy designed to build your reputation as an expert brand, you need to clarify and communicate your brand message.
Of course, communication is as much about who is listening as who is speaking, whether we’re talking about foundational messaging or the content you build upon it. That means you need to have a deep understanding of your audience.
This is the case across all marketing but in particular, for expertise-based content, you need to think about two things:
As an expert brand, you need to be very clear on how knowledgeable your audience already is – or isn’t – about your subject area. This will determine both where you pitch your content and how high a bar you need to meet to establish that expertise.
Let’s say you’re a private chiropractic clinic looking to create content for your patient audience. They might need to be talked through the basics of what chiropractic medicine is and why it’s beneficial but they’ll probably assume that there is a level of expertise within your practice.
Imagine, however, you’re a chiropractic-led medtech company looking to sell your platform to an audience of orthopaedic surgeons or an NHS trust. That audience is already highly knowledgeable and they’re likely to be much more sceptical about your expertise, so your content will need to work that much harder.
If expertise is high grade cashmere, then expertise-based content is a hand knitted cashmere jumper.
Another thing you’ll need to know about your audience is which aspects of your expertise they care about. Because there’s a good chance that there’s a very big chunk of it that they literally don’t want to hear about at all.
You (or your subject matter experts, if you’re the marketer in charge of content) might be happy to geek out on spiral dynamics or financial compliance legislation but your audience wants to know how to lead a successful team or get their app processing payments more quickly.
They want to see that you understand how what you do links into their world. How can you make it useful to them? If expertise is high grade cashmere, then expertise-based content is a hand knitted cashmere jumper.
Content strategy is too big a subject for us to go into in much detail here. Content pillars, buyer journeys, content categories like ‘how tos’ and ‘roundups’ – that’s content marketing theory 101. If you’re a subject matter expert, these are all things you’re going to need to brush up on, or you’re going to need to hire yourself a marketer.
But marketing knowledge alone isn’t enough to create expertise-based content. The truth is that plenty of brands provide useful content – guidance, education, data, trends, facts – by drawing on the internet and reiterating what other people know. There’s no subject matter expertise present to elevate it.
To imbue your content with that final level of authority, you need one of two things:
The more you can link your content into real life, the more anecdotes and stories and case studies you can thread through your content, the more weight it will have.
For instance, one of our clients is a highly experienced executive search consultant with decades of experience under his belt. Every one of the blog posts we’ve worked on with him has been stuffed so full of detailed real life situations that the reader is left in no doubt as to his lived experience and deeply practical knowledge. It also means his story-filled content stands out when set against the dry explainer content that exists elsewhere in his field.
This point links back to the first post in our series on communicating expertise and Dr Kneebone’s Master stage, where you’re actually shaping your field.
Another client of ours, a purpose-led HR consultancy with an ESG employee benefits tech platform, recently commissioned a study and worked with us to create a report on how climate conscious employees are, weaving together the data with insights from the subject matter experts within their team.
Now when they’re creating content about how employees are more climate conscious and how leaders need to think about this when they’re choosing their employee benefits, they’re not just regurgitating what everyone else is saying, they actually have something unique that they can refer to.
To create truly rich, effective expertise-based content, you need to involve both subject matter experts and expert marketers from the offset.
We’ve already acknowledged that there are plenty of brands creating content based on what’s already out there. Increasingly, you might argue that they don’t even need marketers to do this work – tools like ChatGPT can do it far more quickly and cheaply (albeit less accurately, in too many cases).
Sadly, there are also plenty of brands stuck at the level of this more generic content because their experts are siloed from the marketing department, who are creating content with only a superficial understanding of what they’re writing about.
To create truly rich, effective expertise-based content, you need to involve both subject matter experts and expert marketers from the offset.
Marketers, it’s your job to become a prospector, mining your expert’s brain for the most valuable seams of gold that you can then shape into content that serves your audience and the brand you’re building. You’ll need to set the strategy and push back when your experts stray from it. Remember, they’re not the marketing authority, you are. More on this in the next blog post in this series on communicating expertise.
And subject matter experts, you need to make yourself available and you also need to respect the expertise your marketer has. You’re creating content, not writing an academic paper or presenting to a handful of peers who are as interested as you are in every nuance of your subject. Your marketer is there to extract and shape the right aspects of your expertise so that it hits key marketing and business objectives.
In our experience, this truly collaborative relationship is hard to achieve – be prepared for the Storming stage of Tuckman’s group development model – but if you can achieve it, you will have the potential to create content that allows your brand to shine out as an expert among your peers and competitors.
There are many ways to position a brand in a marketplace. You can compete on price or personality, values, location or, if you’re lucky, the uniqueness of your product or service offering. Or you can choose an expertise-based positioning strategy.
Expertise builds trust. It encourages loyalty. It allows you to charge a premium because it shows you’re wiser and sharper than the next brand – and you can prove it. If members of your team have mastered certain disciplines and subjects, why would you try to compete on price?
This strategy is also a strong choice because it’s difficult to emulate. You can’t fake expertise, or not for long anyway. Only a few brands have what it takes to even qualify – and fewer know how to translate the expertise within their business into marketing strategy.
In this mini series on communicating expertise, we’re going to be looking at what it takes to build brand authority. We’re also going to look at the marketing challenges that stand in the path of every expert-led organisation. But before that, we need to clarify what an expert actually is.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines an expert as someone with a special skill or knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject.
Already we’ve got two different nuances here – skill vs knowledge. A skill is related to something you can do, so an example of a skilled expert might be a master carpenter or senior software engineer. Then you have the more knowledge-based experts, like university professors or management consultants.
There’s a third type of expertise too: interactional expertise, which surgeon and author Dr Roger Kneebone describes in his book, Expert, as the “ability to speak the language of experts whose work you cannot do.”
An example of a profession that takes interactional expertise to its highest point is journalism, since journalists write expertly about many subjects in which they themselves are not experts. We’d like to suggest that the best copywriters and content marketers fall into this category too.
You may be born with talent but you won’t be an expert until you’ve put in the time, not to mention effort.
Of course, having some level of knowledge or skill doesn’t automatically make you an expert. You have to work for it. That said, the moment you can call yourself an expert is also not a clearly defined milestone. It’s an ongoing and evolving process. So how do you become an expert?
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularised the ‘10,000 hour rule’, which essentially says that to become an expert at something you need to put in 10,000 hours of practice or study. This is actually an over-simplification of the work of psychologist K Anders Ericsson but it makes an important point, which is that there is a degree of time needed to become an expert. You may be born with talent but you won’t be an expert until you’ve put in the time, not to mention effort.
Dr Kneebone describes this evolution as the Apprentice-Journeyman-Master pathway. As an apprentice you’re putting in the time under someone else’s tuition or guidance. Next, you become a journeyman and, archaic term aside, this is where things start to shift. You move from supervised to independent practice, you start to take responsibility, develop your own style, and you learn to improvise.
Only then, once you’ve spent a significant period of time in this journeyman stage, do you finally step into being a Master. This is where you actually begin redefining your field of expertise, building on it and adding to the knowledge base, pioneering new things, even passing it on – in other words, teaching.
As you can see, there is no way to shortcut expertise. Even those born with extraordinary abilities – from Mozart to Serena Williams, Marie Curie to Bill Gates – all need to put in the time and effort required to claim the title of expert. Likewise, there’s no point building a brand positioning or marketing strategy around expertise unless you or your team has spent years accumulating it.
Let’s assume for the moment that there is a genuine level of expertise within your business – it may lie with the founder, the CTO, the product development team or a handful of consultants. Now the question is: can you prove it? Because what is there and what people see are often two vastly different things.
When you’re scoping out a business to see if they’re experts – let’s imagine you’re an SME looking for an ESG consultant, armed with nothing more than a handful of names from Google or LinkedIn – there are a few boxes you’re going to expect them to be able to tick as a baseline…
First, you’ll want to know that they understand you – your sector, your challenges, your goals. If you’re a multinational FMCG brand, you’re likely to discount the consultancy that has specialised in SMEs or the hospitality sector.
You’ll also want to get some clarity around the problems you’re facing. Some help digging below your surface level symptoms to uncover what’s really going on. A bit of guidance and even empathy goes a long way here and also helps to show they actually understand you.
You’ll also want your expert to be able to give you insights – to show you what you don’t know. An expert will educate you, give you the data, the trends. What is it you should be focusing your attention on? What questions should you be asking?
Where you have a problem, you’ll expect them to be able to show you what solutions are available – not just what they can do for you as a service provider, but all the possibilities. What are the pros and cons of each? What are the cost implications?
And you’ll expect them to be able to give you some recommendations. Again, this is not about them pushing their solution but about them really understanding you and showing that they care about you getting the right outcome, even if that isn’t working with them.
And then finally – and this is most crucial – you’ll want them to be able to back up everything they say. You’re about to spend a lot of money and take a big risk. You need to know they can walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
Now bear in mind that a lot of these points above are going to be part of the service that is ultimately delivered to you. By the end of your engagement with whichever ESG consultancy you choose, they should have hit each of these marks.
But remember, we’re talking about choosing the firm in the first place. You haven’t worked with them yet – you haven’t even booked your free, no obligation consultation – you’ve just got a handful of names.
So how can they show you that they understand you more than the next brand, that they have deep insights into your problem and can navigate you through the possible solutions? That they have experience and get results and that they actually care?
That’s where content comes in. And that’s what the next blog in this series is all about. To make sure you don’t miss it, follow us on LinkedIn or sign up for our fortnightly roundup, The Right Words.