I dealt with this subject in Blog Post #16, but the idea is so important I’m now writing about it again, using a case study. This involves some technical information that probably doesn’t relate to you at all, but it’s a parable that you can apply to your own situation.
It involves a consultant we’ll call “Janet,” who advises her clients on a rather narrow field, generally called “thickened tailings,” or “paste.” Tailings are the sand-like waste product of the mining sector, produced when the mill grinds the ore into small-enough fragments that the target mineral can be extracted.
These tailings can be harmful to the environment if the trace metals and salts in them are left exposed to the air. One way to ‘immobilize’ or hold in place the tailings is by mixing them with chemical reagents to produce “paste,” which has a consistency like toothpaste. Once the paste dries, it hardens so that the environmentally-damaging materials are locked away safely.
For years, Janet had been managing paste projects for the mining sector. But, the mining sector is a boom and bust industry, and was in deep “bust” mode. It was hard to sell paste projects when mines were closing, and the starting of new projects being delayed.
So Janet found an opportunity in a totally different industry segment – coal-fired power generation. This industry, along with the airborne contaminants and greenhouse gasses it emits, produces a huge solid-waste problem in form of coal ash. Janet thought that there was good opportunity to be found in immobilizing coal ash in the same way that tailings are immobilized, through paste technology.
The idea had already been tried, but it was at that uncomfortable in-between stage between having a few success stories written up in technical journals, and being applied in large-scale by power companies.
Approaching a narrowly-focused publication
In order to reach the intended market – managers of coal-fired power plants in the United States – we first had to find a vehicle, and we did it in a narrowly-focused publication that’s read by the power sector, specifically the coal-fired power sector.
One problem – this publication is even narrower in focus than that, focusing on what is called “beneficial use” of coal ash. “Beneficial” in this case means making the ash more valuable; something that can be sold for profit, rather than being just a cost to be managed. I went into the concept of “fear” versus “greed” in Blog post #24. If you take a look through that post, you’ll understand that an article for this publication would have to take what is normally a “fear” concept (threat of regulatory sanction if the coal ash were not disposed of properly) and turning it into “greed” – changing the waste product into a resource.
As it happens, there are already quite a few uses for coal combustion residuals such as turning the gypsum in the material into construction drywall, and for mixing into concrete as a replacement for some of the sand.
But “paste” applications of CCR would be quite different, a whole new use for the term “beneficial” that the editor might not have considered before.
Look for applications that are close to the planned use
My next step was to prepare a concept for an article, which would be of interest to the readers of this narrowly focused but exactly-on-market publication. It included convincing the editor that a wider definition of “beneficial” was warranted – beyond physical products that could be shipped in a rail car, like gypsum for wallboard, or raw materials for concrete.
In this, we were working with the news-business principle that a story must have aspects that hit close to home for the intended readers.
It included another application from the coal sector -- a project I’d helped Janet write about, ten years before. The story was about the underground workings from a mine that had closed in the 1960s. The town that had serviced the mine was transiting into a high-profile tourism and vacation-home destination. However, its new future was clouded by the old coal mine workings, which were gradually collapsing deep underground, which would have imperiled the foundations of buildings on the surface.
Janet’s group had injected paste into the underground voids to fill them up, so construction could proceed safely – a shining if unorthodox example of how to improve a product for beneficial re-use, in this case a development property.
We also found examples of coal ash being processed into paste, proof of the idea that the application worked in coal ash as it did in hard-rock mine tailings.
So, while this article is still in process as I write this, I think we have a good chance of convincing the editor that the story is relevant to his readers.
Looking for early-stage adopters
You won’t be able to convince all of your clients with this type of approach, but you may convince some of them.
Many consultants think that their clients are interested in trying out new ideas. That’s rarely the case. Clients want ideas that have been thoroughly tested and tried out by someone else. But there are some people who, by nature are more interested in innovation than others.
That is the spirit I was looking for in this case. Thickened mine tailings can be stacked to create artificial landforms, just as municipal solid waste is often stacked to form amenities like golf courses and ski hills. So in this article proposal, I talked about an expanded definition of “beneficial” use for coal ash -- re-creating the surface of the paste mass for other purposes including parkland, golf courses or residential development.
Learning from other sectors, industries, or cultures is never easy. But I like to compare this to a Star Trek concept – the Federation and the Klingons. There’s distrust between the two groups, but they do learn from each other. There’s technology transfer, but also transfer of ideas.
Consultants can show their clients about technologies that work in other applications, through good content strategy. If you can do this, you may well live long and prosper.