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Why you can’t outsource thought-leadership – a plan for how to do it well in financial services

February 15, 2019

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Why your outsourced thought-leadership will fall short and how to collaborate with your content agency for results that cut through the noise

The challenge

We know from experience that the in-house marketing teams of many high street banks understand the power and value of thought-leadership to build brand within the industry. But many are frustrated by a lack of content agencies specialising in the financial services; they can’t find writers that know and understand financial services enough to create content that reflects what they want to say – especially within the constraints of compliance.

Barriers to success

The in-house paradox

Subject matter experts aren’t always great writers, communicators or creators of content – finding it hard to transmit their ideas and wisdom to others. Content directly from experts can be dense, hard to follow and take a certain level of knowledge for granted – as well as include grammatical errors or style and format that makes it hard to follow. This can result in opaque content that leans on jargon and can alienate key audience segments.

Another key part of the challenge for financial services companies with thought leadership content is resource: by their nature, subject matter experts are often ‘important people’ and/or ‘busy people’ and, as ‘non-writers’, being asked to write a white paper on moratorium underwriting, sub-prime mortgages or free-standing additional voluntary contributions may be met with a negative response. Reasons cited are often the value of that expert’s time or messages that hint at a subtext of ‘this isn’t my job’.

Content marketing agencies would usually not advise thought-leadership is created entirely in-house for other reasons: from the aforementioned quality of writing to tone of voice, brand positioning and messaging (too product-y, not product-y enough). Opaque, salesy, boring or self-aggrandising content that offers little value isn’t hard to find buried on the blogs of many company websites – and you have to look because it won’t have been re-shared to your LinkedIn profile by the dozens of people who read it and thought it was insightful. Ideas and expertise are only half of the thought-leadership equation.

The outsource paradox

So why can’t financial services (and a raft of other industries) simply outsource their content creation like so many lifestyle brands do successfully? As the banking professional indicated, it’s not that easy.

First, due to the subject matter, not just anyone can write knowledgeably about the topic – let alone create thought-leadership content that innovates, stimulates debate, guides, educates or comments upon industry trends and news. A key aspect of this is compliance, which most newsstand journalists have little working knowledge of and many will find frustratingly restrictive. This rules out most generalist writers or those with other specialisms who work in-house at content marketing agencies.

Some brands use freelance journalists from within their industry or related media to create content for the audience – those who not only understand the landscape but the rules and regulations of compliance that guide its comms. This can be a good fix, but journalists may lack the strategic approach to content that agencies have as well as omit important brand messages and positions (in some cases journalists will even push back against requests for certain topics/messages to be included).

The next best solution is content agencies using these specialist freelance writers to create content to specific briefs (based on the marketing/content strategy), threading in brand messages and positions to the final edit. Even this can become cumbersome as feedback on minutiae can bog down the process – the agency transmitting comments they may not understand between parties while the article’s cost rises and stakeholder buy-in wanes.

Many content agencies find themselves in a position where access to internal experts has been promised or is expected, only to have none granted, leaving the agency to source, blag and fudge it themselves.

Collaboration is the solution

Many in the financial services sector may think: ‘You’re a content agency, that’s why we hired you: to create the content. If our people were going to create it, we wouldn’t need you!’.

Your marketing agency or in-house team have created a compelling strategy to reach and engage your target audience with high-quality thought-leadership on key topics for key channels, supported by outreach and paid promotion on LinkedIn (or elsewhere).

Your experts know their subject: they know their discipline and how it fits in with what the company offers; they know what’s happening in the industry and they know what it means for your company and its customers.

The key is collaboration in specific aspects at specific stages – to fill the skills gaps of experts and content creators where needed, while allowing each to play to their strengths.

Companies must free up some time… not all the time, but some.

As explored above, you are unlikely to find an agency who can become thought-leaders in your industry for you (unless your industry is marketing…). What you need is a content expert to work with your subject matter experts. Your experts know their stuff, but your content agency are experts at content research, interviewing, structure, pace, tone, grammar, editing, positioning and sourcing any necessary imagery. This is the other half of the thought-leadership equation – delivery.

To tackle the paradoxes above, the recommended process below plays to the strengths of each stakeholder (content creator and thought-leader) while placing the (time and management) pressure on your agency.

Stage Client-side Agency-side
1 Agreement and sign-off of strategy
2 Creation of content plan
  • Number of articles
  • Dissemination plan
  • Wordcount
  • Initial ideation of article angles if topics have been defined (if not, collaboration with experts at this stage is often very effective – 15 minutes is usually enough to define an angle)
3 Article titles/concepts signed off
4 Full article briefs created, including:
  • Structure
  • Key messages
  • Graphics
  • Role of expert (interviewee, or to be the ‘author’ of a ghostwritten piece)
5 Subject matter expert assigned for each
Brief circulated to each (It’s always worth letting them know what will be required (30-50 minutes on the phone for a written article, two hours for video/podcast), why the content is being created and why their involvement is important)
6 Phone interviews scheduled with each subject matter expert. Phone interviews are better than email because:
  • Email is easy to ignore/delay
  • It will take less time for your expert to impart the knowledge vocally than writing it
  • Supplementary questions can be asked immediately by the interviewer
  • Interesting angles/ideas can often come from conversations that might not have come to light from editing an email
  • The writer can write the article in the tone of voice of the expert, bringing them and their thoughts to life
  • Experts and writers can often build a valuable rapport (improving productivity and discovering new angles)
7 Interview conducted by writer
8 First draft of article sent to expert for approval
9 Expert reads, comments, approves (pending amends)
Article goes to legal and compliance for approval
10 Amends made
11 Publish
12 Promote Promote

The benefit of this process is that what can seem like a daunting task to a non-writer (the blank page), is broken into manageable reactive tasks which decreases the likelihood of pushback and delays.

The impact on your thought-leader’s time can often be little more than an hour, leaving the heavy lifting to your agency.

In summary

The challenge

  • Create thought-leadership content to position your brand as experts and innovators

The barriers

  • Your experts can’t/won’t write and/or spare the time
  • Your content agency don’t know your industry like you do

The solution

  • Work to a creative process built around needs and time constraints: low impact on your expert while giving the content agency the small amount of access they need.

Get in touch if you want to position your brand as industry leaders and innovators by publishing high-quality thought-leadership.

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