Asset Managers’ Ongoing Quest to Build Marketing Muscle


It’s a phenomenon known to many in the investment management industry: a weak marketing function that essentially amounts to sales support. Without a doubt, marketing should work closely with sales, but the two functions are complementary. Weak marketing–which boils down to order fulfilment–does a disservice to sales teams and hinders a firm’s business development efforts.

Sadly, not everyone in the industry has a clear picture of the role and capabilities of a strong marketing function.

May I take your order, please?

Many asset management marketers will recognize the model OppenheimerFunds’ Chief Marketing Officer Martha Willis describes whereby marketing consists mainly of fulfilling sales requests for brochureware, down to the last detail. Sales teams who “told us exactly what the brochure needed to say, the type font—everything about it.”

A familiar feeling

The challenge for many asset management firms is to break from this request fulfillment model and add greater value to the organization. Over the past decade, many firms have confronted this challenge. Some have tackled it head on, while others have been less quick to adapt. Competition has become more intense, with greater fee pressure, an uptake in passive strategies by many investors, and flourishing digital technologies–all of which accentuate the  need to upgrade marketing’s role in the organization.

Then and now

Chief Marketing Officer at United Capital, Gail Graham, characterizes the old way of marketing:

“Years ago, you needed one or two “smart” people, maybe an outside writer, and the marketing communications channels from print to digital. In retrospect, it was pretty simple and a level playing field if you had some good ideas to publish.”

She goes on to outline the ‘new’ marketing operating system:

“Today, for small and mid-sized businesses, this is a whole new approach requiring strategic marketing and curation skills, time to maintain the quality and cadence of content, and technology to not only publish but manage the program and measure your results. For instance, in financial services, we have to link CRM, publishing, compliance, digital analytics and other functions to even get started.”

Locating the roadmap

For OppenheimerFunds, evolution towards a strategic, integrated marketing function focused on three areas:

  1. Acquiring digital know-how
  2. Incorporating product development
  3. Content creation–especially thought leadership (“when the piece that you’re creating changes someone’s behavior and makes them ultimately better at what they do” says Ms. Willis)

The path will look different to each organization, depending upon the starting point. I’ve been a part of the shift from weak to strong marketing in several instances. In my view, the rewards of embracing organizational change are worth the potential anxiety and risk. New ways of working offer the opportunity for greater creativity–particularly where new digital tools and content creation overlap. What’s more, taking the time to discuss the purpose and objectives of the marketing structure can help build consensus and direction. The shift does take time–it’s a long process measured in years, not weeks or months.

The firms that prove able to build strong marketing functions and deliver ‘true thought leadership’ should be best positioned to play a key role in business development–setting those organizations apart from the herd.

TED Talks Offer Tips for Content Marketing Success

The other day I was shown the WORST online TED talk I’ve ever seen. But since the individual who shared it with me has a real passion for the topic and is genuinely interested in delivering high quality content, I could not resist jumping in and uncovering a few choice insights about giving a great TED talk. Along a journey of discovery I found some incredibly valuable lessons for anyone interested in effective communications techniques, storytelling, content marketing and thought leadership.

If you’re not familiar with TED, it’s a nonprofit ‘devoted to spreading ideas’ according to its website, holding annual events for more than a decade. Though not without its critics, TED has single-handedly industrialized the purveyance of insight, with experts skillfully delivering interesting presentations in 18 minutes or less. The key question is, what makes a TED talk great?

The short answer: it’s about public speaking

Sam Leith, in a well-written review of Carmine Gallo’s Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds, paraphrases the 9 ‘secrets’:

  • Be passionate about your topic
  • Engage the audience by telling stories
  • Treat your speech like a conversation
  • Tell the audience something it doesn’t know
  • Include a few jaw-droppers
  • Use humor
  • Keep it brief
  • Engage all the senses by painting word-pictures
  • Be authentic.

There are a few more tips. As Leith points out, acting plays an important role, too. Delivery relies on good body language, voice control and a ‘a sweet spot of about 190 words per minute.’ Why 190 words per minute, which is at the high end of normal speech? According to at least one speech communication professor, Stephen D. Boyd, “[p]sychologists have found that speakers who deliver at a rate of 190 words per minute are more likely to seen as credible, objective, knowledgeable, and persuasive as compared to slow speakers.”

Kelly Stoetzel, TED content director, puts a lot of emphasis on rehearsal and preparation. In particular, you should ‘expect something to go wrong.’ That’s why it’s crucial to ‘know your material backwards and forwards.’ Importantly, you should construct your presentation for those who are listening. As Stoetzel notes, ‘the best type of speaker is one who is constantly thinking about the audience.’ For me, that last point should act as the overarching guideline to keep in mind–above the list of tricks and tips.

The long answer: it’s more than public speaking

Chris Anderson, TED curator, is in a unique position to weigh in on successful public speaking. In this video, he explains how to get the  best ‘substance’ (read: high quality content + strong delivery) to room full of TEDx conference organizers–coaching the coaches of TED speakers across the world. If you have 20 minutes, it’s worth watching in full. If you don’t have time, just keep reading.

Here’s what I take from Chris Anderson’s talk:

Every journey begins with a single word

The “very first thing that must be done in a talk […] is to pick a journey.” Anderson refers to each presentation as a step-by-step journey along which the speaker guides the audience. He describes a journey as a process of discovery and persuasion that can (but doesn’t have to) have the structure of detective story. Start with a question, a riddle, or an unexplained observation. Then start down the path. Along the way show clues. Sprinkle in ‘aha’ or eureka moments to taste.

The journey metaphor works because there’s a starting point and a destination. I think this is particularly powerful because it implies a purpose: you have a motivation or objective to achieve — and it involves getting your listeners’ brain gears churning along the lines you set out in the direction of your target aim. That’s why Stoetzel’s admonition to be ‘constantly thinking about the audience’ holds so much weight.

Plan a few pit stops

“Talks can’t advance difficult ideas without populating them with these rich examples,” says Anderson. Big concepts fly over people’s heads rather quickly if there’s nothing tangible or compelling to back them up. Likewise, anchoring the speech to several key examples helps fix the distance you’re able to travel with the audience. There are only a certain number of steps you can take in 18 minutes. Some speakers try to go too far. Anderson reminds that “in an 18-minute talk, trying to give more than three big examples is pretty hard.”

Jettison jargon

Anderson examines what works–and what doesn’t–for TED talks. One barrier is the speaker’s fog of unclear communication: “language that, in the context of a speaker’s worldview, makes total sense–but it isn’t where the people are.” This means using accessible language and avoiding jargon.

It also signals something important about the journey: it begins from your audience’s starting point, not yours. Technical experts need to strip down messages to simple, lay terms. Put yourself in the listener’s shoes. Assume your audience has an average education level and low awareness of your topic–then adjust these assumptions as needed.

Strike the right chords

“People think they have cracked the TED code with emotion” Anderson says, seemingly unconvinced–leaving the impression that this is not the best route to follow. First of all, it’s not that straightforward. “Inspiration is not something you get by targeting directly,” but rather a combination of authenticity and the sense of possibility, he adds.

When wielding emotion as a speaking tool, there is at least one ‘no go’ area. “Too much ego on stage is a bad thing,” notes Anderson. As listeners, “[w]e don’t like arrogance […] we start to shut down. The opposite of that is vulnerability.” A number of successful TED speakers have highlighted vulnerability as being the emotion they sought to convey. Vulnerability is powerful. Speakers willing to take a risk and ask the audience to join them on the journey create a human connection that makes people want to get involved in the conversation.

On humor, Anderson equivocates. Use humor, if you can. Not everyone can do humor, he adds. His most concise tips may be the most meaningful. “Be authentic. Don’t sell.”

Ask for help

Identifying your story and shaping it for an audience means that you’ll confront several critical questions. Anderson has identified the most challenging ones: “Is this person a leader? Do they have an idea the world needs to know about? Have they found a  way to make it accessible? Is this idea, or the scope of their work possible to fit into eighteen minutes? If not, what is the angle?”

Convincing others that your topic is fresh and it matters is, according to Anderson, “the single hardest thing to do.” He adds that “this is where speakers need help. It almost takes a journalist.”

The good news: it can be learned

As Chris Anderson wrote in ‘How To Give a Killer Presentation’ for Harvard Business Review:

“Since we began putting TED Talks online, in 2006, they’ve been viewed more than one billion times. On the basis of this experience, I’m convinced that giving a good talk is highly coachable. In a matter of hours, a speaker’s content and delivery can be transformed from muddled to mesmerizing.”

For those of us looking to deliver great presentations, that’s reassuring.

What do you think? Are there other keys to delivering a great TED talk or presentation?


Infographics Infiltrate Asset Management

As content marketing sweeps the asset management sector and the inescapable social/digital wave finally takes hold, some investment firms have taken the plunge and begun to produce infographics: web- and social media-friendly nuggets of visual splendor that convey complex information in accessible or unusual ways.

Here’s asset management firms along with a few consultants and industry groups that are using infographics. Jump in and add any others you can find. Voting-enabled, so choose your favorites.

No More Bad Finance Books, Please

The appreciation of art–and here I put an emphasis on literature–is a subjective exercise. One person’s cover-to-cover page-turner can be another’s doorstop. While it’s difficult to please everyone, a high quality book will get recognition from a good number of people. According to this Bloomberg article there are more than 11,000 business books published annually. A significant portion of those titles undoubtedly cover finance and investment topics–though not all of them do it well.

Bad finance books are happening

The reason I raise the topic of finance books–and bad ones in particular–is that in the span of one single day I heard multiple horror stories of vainglorious book projects wrapping up or already completed in several countries. Several top executives on both sides of the aisle–asset manager and institutional investor–had spent 12 months or more and a significant portion of time to produce works that were described to me as ‘awful,’ a ‘train wreck’ and ‘merdique.’ Ouch.

There are lessons to learn

No one contends that producing a book is either easy or straightforward. But the tales recounted to me touched on a number of things worth mentioning:

  • Books created solely to feed an author’s ego make the world a sad place.

  • A book project can be a distraction–for the author–or a disruption in the workplace–especially if the heavy lifting is delegated internally.

  • Quality content serves a purpose–e.g. a book must have a reason to be read.

Luckily, these points can be addressed by working with a content marketing coach, journalist or ghostwriter to help identify your objective and shape your story. Writing a book is a rather hefty undertaking. Having a coach help to bring structure to your thoughts and flush out your voice can make the process more efficient. Writing a bad book takes just as long, if not longer, than writing a good one.

On a more positive note

To pay forward some positive karma, I’ve compiled a list of good finance books that I think have particularly effective storytelling elements. This list is voting-enabled, so please jump in a vote for your favorites, or add titles that I may have missed. Also, please add comments below to share your feedback on bad finance books.

Why Asset Managers ‘Do’ Thought Leadership

Few asset managers lack the ambition to be recognized as a thought leader. Many publish white papers and studies on a regular basis.  Some unequivocally stamp sections of their websites with the ‘thought leadership’ label just to dispel any remaining ambiguity of purpose. What is less clear, however, is WHY they do it. It’s useful to look at the purpose thought leadership serves.

I had the good fortune of speaking with the head of an investment team who addressed the question in a recent client meeting. (All names have been withheld to protect the innocent). The actual question was “so why do you do thought leadership activities?” I find the answer incredibly instructive.

There are many reasons for asset managers to conduct thought leadership, namely:

Thought leadership helps provide structure and promotes rigorous thinking.

In the context of ever-evolving markets, investment and research teams tackle interesting and important questions every day. Rendering that output in an accessible, external form forces you to construct a compelling narrative that leads the audience from the introduction all the way to the conclusion. It sounds simple. Logical missteps or unanswered questions are not permitted. The benefit here largely goes to the team undertaking the activity, in that it raises the quality of analysis and communication.

Thought leadership fosters innovation and product development.

If you have a new client request or regulatory change, you have an impetus for identifying a solution. The path you take to tease out the right approach and the client’s decision (e.g. change strategy, shift assets, adopt a new framework), along with the final outcome–the client’s success–form the crux of a case study. Investors (whether they admit it or not) often exhibit a herd mentality. This is not a criticism. There are several reasons investors should care a great deal about what others are doing–not least because whole groups of investors share similar concerns. For asset managers, sharing that knowledge and client ‘win’ with the outside world makes good business sense, because it can bring the ‘lessons learned’ to a broader audience for whom it can be quite relevant.

Thought leadership allows managers to differentiate and deliver more than ‘just’ financial performance.

Lots of players on (often) clearly demarcated fields mean it’s rather difficult to stand apart from the herd among, for example, first quartile US large cap strategies. Investment management is tricky, in that while delivering strong performance trumps all else, there’s still the ‘else.’ Investors value clear, timely and insightful communication. Anything you can deliver that lights up their ‘priorities radar’ — be it a market or regulatory outlook, new portfolio construction techniques, or investment committee best practices — can strengthen the manager-investor relationship.

Thought leadership creates awareness.

Clients of professional services firms often prove willing to lend their attention to insights,  new solutions or trends–especially when it’s about ‘them’ and their area of activity. Thought leadership content with real substance stands out from what Jack Bogle dismisses as ‘financial pornography.’ All other things being equal, a thought leadership piece will garner substantially more client engagement than a product launch press release. Journalists give greater consideration to the former. It’s not hard to understand why. Thought leadership materials create an opportunity to engage with journalists in a more meaningful way–the clear advantage being that discussions with journalists translate into press coverage, boosting brand awareness and credibility, as any PR manager will tell you.

What’s more, for asset managers that have adopted ‘cause marketing’ either bolted-on (more common) or as a founding principle (think Generation IM)–a broad category that could span activist hedge funds, green investing boutiques, long-only managers with a focus on corporate governance, or more ‘plain vanilla’ shops with a specific corporate social responsibility focus (i.e. workplace diversity, a low-carbon future, etc.)–raising awareness on a particular topic counts itself as a win.

A win for all

While this list of reasons why asset managers do thought leadership may not be comprehensive, it certainly puts forward a number of valid purposes that can serve to inform an asset managers’ thought leadership activities. Coupled with the ways that thought leadership can add value for investors, it provides key elements for making thought leadership a mutually-beneficial proposition for asset managers and investors alike.

What’s your view? Are there other reasons for asset managers to conduct thought leadership programs, in your opinion?  Do you think that thought leadership is worth the effort, and that it ‘pays off’ for all parties involved?

How Content Marketing Is Sweeping Asset Management

More and more asset managers are riding the content marketing wave. What began in so-called Anglo-Saxon markets like the US, UK and Australia has quickly swept Europe and Asia. Firms are looking to create new content teams or reposition existing ones in order to refine the focus and to boost both the quality and volume of content. In this post, I explore the key drivers underlying this trend, along with opportunities and risks for asset managers. Finally, I offer a set of guidelines to help asset managers raise their content game and successfully navigate the oncoming deluge of less-than-stellar content.

Wait. Content what?

Content marketing relies primarily on storytelling and publishing to reach prospective clients. Messages are transmitted via a range of channels that include online articles, how-to guides, videos, documents (case studies, white papers, brochures, magazines) and more. Most content marketing evangelists advocate giving it away for free. It differs from other types of marketing that focus more on promotional and price-based offers.

Content marketing’s global domination

To some observers, there’s nothing revolutionary about content marketing–especially since the key tactics and formats have been around for decades. Yet, the term ‘content marketing’ itself appeared only in the late 1990s, and has really gained traction among marketing professionals over the past few years, with the founding of organizations such as the Content Marketing Institute. Worldwide, over 90% of marketers recently surveyed say they currently use content marketing.

content marketing table global

Asset managers board the content train

In this context, it’s no surprise that asset management firms have come to embrace content marketing. In some cases, this entails boosting headcount by adding investment writers or marcomms coordinators, often dedicated to a specific client segment. In continental Europe, some asset managers have created new content marketing teams and labelled them as such. Others have drawn from already-established product marketing, investment writing, PR, design, video & web teams. While the evidence is, in part, anecdotal and relies on discussions with industry marketing and HR professionals–I have no doubt that these moves signal a real move towards more thoughtful content marketing buoyed by additional resources and greater support from top management.

Why this makes sense

In a way, content marketing in the financial services sector is nothing new. In a guest post for Digiday, Barry Lowenthal details Why Finance and Content Marketing Go Great Together. To reiterate a number of my favorite key points:

  • “Financial-services clients [companies] have long been in the content game, investing tens of millions of dollars in research that they distribute to their clients.” Investment banks and sell-side research teams especially have perfected this activity.

  • ”They already have a publishing machine in-house.” Yes, nearly every firm can publish. But some firms have yet to uncover the true potential of a well-tuned machine.

  • ”They’re usually not selling anything online, so their KPIs lean toward engagement, which is the sweet spot for content marketing.” While some firms lament their inability to sell online directly to consumer (due to lack of infrastructure or regulatory hurdles, for example), it reinforces the role of the sales force and two-way interaction with clients.

  • They ”intuitively grasp the importance of being thought of as thought leaders.”  Go here for more on how asset managers’ thought leadership can create value for investors.

To these points I would add that content marketing suits financial services particularly well because education is key. Market developments, regulatory changes and product innovation–which are constantly in a state of flux–can all impact clients’ financial outcomes.

Several additional factors are making themselves felt in the asset management space:

  • Social media is becoming a must-have, at least for retail/advisor segments & recruitment purposes. This very public form of two-way communication and the opportunity for content to ‘go viral’ mean that managers have to focus more on delivering messages that meet the audience’s needs. Evidence from PwC confirms that firms that do this well have the greatest success.

  • Heightened competition, fee pressures, the growing popularity of passive strategies, and the decline of sales commissions (distribution fees) make it essential for managers to communicate more on the relevance and the added value of their product and service offer.

Proceed with caution

Without a doubt, asset managers’ embrace of content marketing merits praise–this is a positive development that will help revitalize firms’ attention to clients’ interests. Bumps and challenges may present themselves during the transition.  An amazing slideshare presentation from Velocity Partners warns of the unseemly underside of content marketing’s ascent, namely, lots of:

According to Velocity, key potential obstacles to include:

1. Coping with a marketing skills gap: finding “people who ‘get’ content, understand context and can actually produce things that audiences want to consume.”

2. Generating friction through mediocre content. Audiences will raise their defenses and become less trusting.

The warning: poor content brands risk being washed away amidst the effluence, while strong content brands stand to gain ground.

So, what’s an asset manager to do?

The marketing skills gap can be combated by informed hiring and training decisions. Consistently delivering high quality content and building a strong content brand is less straightforward. Here are a few tips:

1. Go a step beyond know your client (KYC) to know your audience (KYA). Find out what they know, where they get their information, how they make decisions. Document this and share it within your organization so that everyone is ‘on the same page.’

2. Identify and address clients’ most important issues–these are your benchmark. How you relate to them largely determines your relevance.

3. Raise the bar for the quality of your communications. Set a written content strategy and editorial policy.

4. Pay attention to the messages, articles and videos that capture your attention. Re-use the most effective storytelling techniques you find there for your own content.

5. Plan ahead, execute to near perfection, measure and analyze the results. Make adjustments, rinse and repeat to follow the path to continuous improvement.

6. Be patient–the road to success–earning your audience’s trust–takes time.

By following these guidelines, asset managers can build strong content brands. As Velocity points out, a strong content brand creates a virtuous cycle: strong content brands tell great stories that attract new talent (that tell great stories).

What’s your view? Do you have other examples of how content marketing is sweeping asset management? Additional tips on how to create great content?

When Higher Price Equals Higher Demand

Recently, a lot of recent political and business discourse has hinged on common sense notions of supply and demand—erring on the side of over-reliance on an appeal to reason that can lead to mistaken logic.

The law of demand posits an inverse relationship between price and quantity demanded—when the price of a good goes up, the demand for the product goes down, and vice versa. It’s important to emphasize that this general principle is not absolute, which is to say that there are exceptions to the rule.

Let’s examine several exceptions to the law of demand, illustrated here:

Supply and demand chart image
According to the law of demand, price and quantity are inversely related.

Meet Thorstein Veblen

Thorstein Bunde Veblen, an American economist and sociologist who coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption,’ leant his name to Veblen goods—which defy the law of demand. The Veblen effect explains how Veblen goods, or ‘positional’ goods, become less desirable (lower demand) when their price decreases, since their status symbol shine diminishes as they become more affordable.  For these types of goods, the reverse also holds true—higher prices coincide with greater demand.  Does this kind of conspicuous consumption ‘make sense’? Probably more than North Korea’s latest fad, buying refrigerators to store things like books since the power supply proves so unreliable.

Pinching pennies

Counter-examples to the law of demand are not reserved to the upper echelons of society. Economically-challenged individuals or lower income households can violate the law of demand when the price of basic goods (staples) increases, since they offset the price rise by cutting back on other less essential purchases. This concept comes from British economist Alfred Marshall, who attributed the idea to Scottish statistician and economist Sir Robert Giffen. He wrote:

As Mr.Giffen has pointed out, a rise in the price of bread makes so large a drain on the resources of the poorer labouring families and raises the marginal utility of money to them so much that they are forced to curtail their consumption of meat and the more expensive farinaceous foods: and, bread being still the cheapest food which they can get and will take, they consume more, and not less of it.”

Alfred Marshall, Principles of Economics (1895 ed. III.VI.17).

So not only does bread purchases make up a larger portion of the poor family’s’ budget–the family actually buys a greater amount than before in order to keep their stomachs full.

Buying ebooks

In The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, Mark Coker notes that a whole segment of ebook buyers steer clear of works at the lowest price point range ($0.99 to $1.99) because they judge low priced ebooks to likely be of lower quality than higher priced ones. He writes “lower prices generally resulted in more unit sales, with the exception of the $1.99 price-point, which appears to underperform.”

A blip in the ebook demand curve at the $1.99 price point. In theory, this should be a negative sloping line.

Aside from this one anomaly, his data showed consistency with the law of demand.  I’m not sure if there’s an economics term for this particular phenomenon.

It’s the counterexamples, stupid

While the actual requirements for a commodity to qualify as a Giffen good are strict enough to make their existence a subject of debate among economists, the fact that counterexamples to the law of demand exist at both the high and low ends of the price spectrum is telling. The ebook example shows that with real data under the microscope, the real picture may surprise you. Commentators who want to rely on the law of demand as absolute truth may rely too heavily on the general principle to support their argument—opening their claims to legitimate challenge. The lesson for content marketing folks is to be careful about how you use common sense arguments to build stories/prove points.

What do you think? Do you know of other ‘common sense’ claims that are over-used or used inaccurately?

The Price of Admission Ladder (Infographic)

The price of admission ladder is a kind of pay scale for consuming content: you consume; you pay. It covers ‘free’ and ‘paid’ content along a single spectrum to help audiences and publishers understand their relationship more clearly–online or not.

Value and engagement drive the audience to pay more in terms of time, data and money.
Value and engagement drive the audience to pay more in terms of time, data and money.

Read the full description here.

The Fight Club Rule of Thought Leadership

Views, advice and opinions on thought leadership abound. Trawl the world wide web long enough and you’ll stumble across debates about the ‘real’ definition of thought leadership or whether a company (rather than a person) can be a thought leader. The Fight Club rule of thought leadership, on the other hand, enjoys seemingly unanimous agreement.

The first rule of thought leadership is you do not talk about thought leadership.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the precise origins of the Fight Club rule of thought leadership. I make no claims as to authorship. You can find recent posts referring to the rule here, here and also here. (Sidebar: the formulaic first rule of Fight Club lends itself to pretty much any business or social media topic, which means there’s a whole section of the internet dedicated to corporate riffing of a single line from a 1999 movie. Why it’s reappeared after 14 years is anyone’s guess–possibly an interesting observation related to demographics and blogging).

 In practice, there are two corollaries to the rule.

 Corollary 1: You do not apply the moniker ‘thought leader’ to you or your colleagues.

This morning while eating breakfast I saw a guest political consultant on a news program call himself a ‘rock star’ on national television. The fact that he did so to prove a point he was making nearly caused me to spit half-chewed cereal and milk across the kitchen. The lesson? If you choose to behave like that you’ll probably come across as boastful, arrogant, pretentious, or just plain silly.

 Self-proclaiming yourself a thought leader is counterproductive to your desire to be seen as an expert. Audiences will be less receptive to your message. Know-it-alls tend to monopolize the conversation and be more close-minded: two things aspiring thought leaders should avoid at all costs.  Also, a recent study shows that people suffering from narcissistic personality disorder have fewer brain cells in a certain region of their brains…which means you risk being a few sticks short of a full croquet set (kidding: the science is still out on that one).

While there’s not a single, agreed definition of the term thought leader, most online commentators tend to agree that it’s a mantle bestowed upon an expert earned through years of hard work in an industry. Fly-by-nights and self-promoters need not apply.

Corollary 2: You do not apply the moniker ‘thought leadership’ to the materials you publish or the words you speak aloud.

You’ll find the term thought leadership plastered on brochures, web pages, smartphone apps, etc. This is also a no-no, for the same reasons as Corollary 1. This one proves tricky, though, because while it’s easy to follow, the genie is already out of the bottle. The IBM Institute for Business Value, for example, offers “leading edge thought leadership and practical insights for business executives.” SAP’s website offers thought leadership by topic. Both firms are frequently cited for the high quality of their thought leadership platforms. Does the label ‘thought leadership’ irritate their B2B audiences? Not enough to make the practice obsolete, obviously. In the financial services industry–my sandbox, so I won’t name names–plenty of firms similarly group white papers and other materials on a landing page under the banner of thought leadership.

The bottom line.

Not every company reaches the point of being recognized as a thought leader. Those firms and individuals that are successful appear to respect Corollary 1 and portray at least an outward appearance of humility. So it makes sense to respect Corollary 1. Clearly, the same cannot be said for Corollary 2, which appears to be more of a stylistic preference than a hard-and-fast rule. Ultimately, you’ll gain agreement within your organization as to whether you follow the Fight Club rule of thought leadership and its corollaries.

Do you follow the Fight Club rule of thought leadership and its corollaries? Do you know of any other generally-accepted rules to conducting thought leadership?

What You REALLY Pay for Content and What This Means for Marketing

“The best things in life are free”–so goes the 1959 hit Motown single Money (That’s What I Want) by Barrett Strong.

Content, on the other hand, is never free. You pay something for content, knowingly or not, though there’s not always a price tag or exchange of money. You pay in the form of time spent with content, divulged online behavior, personal data and–yes–cold, hard cash.

The revelation on price comes from a discussion on value.

This idea came initially from an off-hand remark I took from a discussion that many content marketing fans find shocking: “when you give information away for free, it essentially means that it has no value.” Hearing this from the (still anonymous) head of an award-winning content program sent my head spinning. Quickly, I took to the blogosphere, wrestled the claim in this post and sent the subdued remainder of an argument bouncing around discussion forums, the Twittersphere, and the like. It soon became clear that when content works, not only is it valuable both for the provider and the audience, but that you–the audience–pay for it. Always.

Knock, knock. You’ve been called to action.

The original, analogue example was a report–though any message, note, flyer, prospectus or other dead tree product addressed to you or put directly in your hands will do. Once you have the content in front of you, you make a conscious decision whether to toss it, skim it, or consecrate a few minutes to make sense of the message. In this brief window, you’ve already been called to action. As the seconds tick by, you’re engaged with the content–and you are NOT doing much else. In the time it takes you to pick up the content and decide your next move (ignore, skim, set aside for later, read), you’ve already paid an opportunity cost.

The more you like, the more you pay.

Your opportunity cost represents the lowest level of engagement–the bottom rung (Rung 1) on the price of admission ladder which illustrates what you pay as your involvement with a provider’s or website’s content increases. The more an audience engages with content (a sign that they attribute more value to it) the further they’ll move up the ladder–paying more time, data and cash along the way.

Value and engagement drive the audience to pay more in terms of time, data and money.
The price of admission ladder. Value and engagement drive the audience to pay more in terms of time, data and money.

Climbing the ladder.

As you move online, you continue paying opportunity costs that vary in length from obnoxious pop-up ads to hour-long videos. All the while, an invisible transaction takes place. On Rung 2, cookies record and store and your IP address, geographic location, and web-surfing behavior. As you spend more time on the site, you may move to Rung 3 by creating an account, or using social sign-in to identify yourself–thereby divulging personal identification information such as name, phone number, email address, interests etc. B2B sites may hit you up for corporate identification information (company’s name, your professional role, number of employees, sales turnover, etc). Divulging this information can unlock protected or premium content including special reports, tutorials, and the like.

You reach Rung 4 by opting into periodic communications from the provider–checking a box or signing up for a newsletter. Here you essentially enter into a tacit agreement for the provider to eat up more of your future opportunity costs in exchange for the convenience of being altered to new developments/stories/offers that appear on the site. Rung 5 introduces the distinction between free-of-charge and paid content by giving you a sample, i.e. 30-days free or 10 free articles per month. It serves to convey a single message: “See this paywall? there’s great stuff behind here and we’ll give you a taste while you’re looking for your wallet.”

You cross into Rung 6 territory once you’ve forked over money for content. It’s an initial purchase that likely bite-sized so as to be more affordable and less of a commitment than Rung 7’s full-on subscription.

Not all ladders are equal.

The price of admission ladder shows all possible payments paid by an audience, though each website or content provider’s actual model will vary. If you discover and immediately fall in love with a newspaper’s online site you may only traverse rungs 1, 2, 3 and 7. B2B websites not equipped with e-commerce functionality may only build out rungs 1 through 4.

Implications for marketing.

Understanding the costs your audience pays to engage with your content can be helpful in a number of ways.

1. Design a sturdy ladder. Figure out which height you would like your audience to reach and make it as painless as possible for them to get there.

2. Don’t leave money on the table. It would be a shame to leave data unused in your web team’s closet. Do you have a robust and compliant data collection system in place? Crunch it for more insight about your clients and prospects.

Does it make sense to think about free/paid content engagement as a series of costs paid by the audience? Have you seen something similar? Can you think of other uses for the price of admission ladder?