Thought Leadership Resources

#114 Problem children: when articles go bad

In his book “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell raises the idea that 10,000 hours of practice makes one competent at a task – whether it’s Bill Gates learning to code, or The Beatles performing outside a Hamburg stripper bar.


Having amassed well over 10,000 hours of experience in publishing thought leadership articles for my clients, I like to think that the process is pretty smooth. And it is, mostly.

That’s until three articles I worked on recently, for an engineering firm in the US, turned into problem children. They’re just not doing what they’re supposed to do, and getting published. I’ve been thinking of what keeps pushing these three articles sideways, and have some lessons learned. Here they are:

A problem that's actually hurting the people you want to reach

The first “problem child” article is about parking lots. Not a problem? Well, here’s what happened.

My client says that some parking lots fail to meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), causing legal problems. ADA has the laudable goal of making sure that public facilities, like stores and restaurants, are accessible to people with disabilities.

Parking lots come into play if the parking spaces aren’t designed or signed properly – and also, if the section of the parking lot designated as “accessible” exceeds a certain degree of slope. That makes sense to me.

However, what happens is that parking lots tend to not stay where you put them. They move. Particularly, they shift when the underlying soil compresses, so that a parking lot that started out with an acceptable amount of slope, won’t be compliant after it’s been there for a few months or years. So, some law firms send people around to restaurants, stores and other places, and see if the parking facilities are ADA-compliant. If they aren’t, a lawsuit arrives on the facility’s doorstep.

My client wanted to publish an article on this topic, and then describe some of the steps that property owners can take.

I pitched the idea to a publication for the restaurant sector, and they sounded interested, so we went ahead with it (I’ve described the article publishing process in detail here, in Post #18).

But after I sent the completed manuscript to them, they never responded. A couple of follow-up notes and calls later, and no response. So I sent the editor a note saying we’d be trying the article elsewhere. The editor of the “elsewhere” publication didn’t respond to the query, and I think that by now I’ve tried the idea out on about five publication editors. Just not a nibble.

This brings home some of the points in Post #49, on why your content needs to be on what prospective clients consider “Red Alert” problems.


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In thinking about it, none of the industries I presented the idea to – retail and foodservice – consider their parking lot to be an important issue. They’re more focused on revenue, product choices and staffing.

So this is Lesson #1: Make sure that the problem you’re solving for your prospects is actually hurting the people you want to reach.

Be sure that there’s a sense of urgency about the topic

The second problem-child article is about the management of wastewater from power generation plants. Geeky or not, it’s a real problem. All power-generation facilities use water in some form – whether it’s cooling water, water in their boiler that is converted to steam, or other processes. Generally, this water gets contaminated in some way, as part of the process.

It used to be that utilities could discharge this water from their plant outfall, pretty much untreated. Then regulations started to get more onerous, at which the civil citizen in me rejoices.

My client said that most plants just combine the various flows of wastewater into one, for treatment purposes – even though some processes add a lot of contamination to the water, and some add virtually none. My client’s view is that it makes sense for utilities to segregate their wastewater streams, so that the less-polluted water can get treated using low-cost methods, saving the heavy-hitting technologies for the most impacted streams.

I tried this article out on three different publications for the power utility sector, and couldn’t interest any of them.

In thinking about it, I think that the reason the idea didn’t get liftoff with the editors is that utilities just don’t feel the pain that comes from having to treat water at a higher cost than they could. This is partly because environmental regulations still allow them some pretty high levels of contaminant in their wastewater streams. But those regulations are getting tighter and tighter. A plant that is in compliance today, likely won’t be in a few years.

So I think it only makes sense to invest now on segregating water streams inside the plant. But that also sounds like spending money, and right now the regulations don’t require it.

So this is lesson #2 – make sure that if you’re seeking to help a client meet a future (not current) need, you’re able to show that even though it’s not a problem for them now, it will be. You need to demonstrate a legitimate source of urgency to the problem.

If you’re offering an opportunity, make sure it’s appealing

Post #24 goes into detail on the idea of “greed” and “fear” motivators for your content. Simply put, articles around “fear” are a way to show you can help your clients solve or avoid problems (as with the two articles described above) and those around “greed” are about helping them access an opportunity.

In “greed” articles, it’s essential to explain the opportunity well, deal with any objections that the reader or viewer might have, before presenting the opportunity. The third article idea is a “greed” article idea.

It’s about ways to find “beneficial” use for disused mine properties. Beneficial, in this context, is something that makes money. Most closed mine properties are a cost sink – there is an ongoing expense to treat the water that comes out of the mine and often contains salts and metals; there is often the ongoing expense to maintain the underwater tailings disposal facility.

But what if there were a way to make money from the disused mine, to offset those costs? That was the question asked by two of my clients – one an economic-development professional and the other a geologist who helps determine the best possible use for materials available on the mine property.

Their idea is to monetize the waste rock and other materials as construction materials, and the site as development property for industrial, recreational or residential use.

That’s a “greed” story in that it points to a way to gain a benefit – in this case, more money and possibly some risk mitigation.

It works for the mining sector, and so a mining publication was pleased to accept an article on this topic. But my attempts to interest other publications in this idea have not borne fruit. I’ve approached property development, municipal and regional government publications, and even one focused specifically on brownfields, to a dull thud of no interest.

I think that this is because while the mining sector saw this as a way to boost revenues on properties owned by its readers, the property development publications don’t see it that way. They don’t understand how a mining property could be a practical opportunity for them, in that many mining properties are located far from where anyone wants to live.

So, lesson #3 – Make sure that an opportunity that you’re presenting sounds accessible and attractive to the people you’re presenting it to.

To sum up: Hint: when deciding on topics for thought leadership content, ask yourself: What are the most pressing issues our firm’s ideal client is facing – and am I presenting a solution to one of those issues? If not, find a topic that does.

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Carl Friesen

Carl is the Founder of the Thought Leadership Resources and helps business professionals gain the skills they need to build their profile as subject-matter experts and thought leaders.

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