That was me in 1999, just after I jumped out of the best job I’d ever had in order to start my own consulting practice. Most of the jobs I’d done for one client, a global engineering firm, were small. I knew I could do more for them, but how could I convince them that they had some needs I could meet?
The answer wasn’t something I found, but rather tripped over.
I’d written what was in effect a paper for a journal serving the consulting sector, on how consultants can become seen as “gurus” (that was the term at the time) in their field. I had the article reprinted, and sent copies to several people I knew, including my main contact at the elusive engineering firm.
The effect was immediate – my contact suggested some major projects I could work on, and I’m still doing that kind of project for that same firm. The experience with major projects for that client gave me the track record, work samples and confidence I needed to approach other firms with major projects. Just that one paper, sent to one client, was the catalyst that got me into work that I still love to do.
This was all well before the rise of “content marketing” as a thing, and before that term was even coined and popularized.
But it pointed out to me the value of long-form content as a way to demonstrate expertise and build credibility, as a way to build a professional practice. What’s “long-form” content? Well, it’s any content you generate (generally in text form) that’s, well, longer than “short” content. Short, in this context, would be a punchy little article that you might get published in an association newsletter or website, or maybe a blog post.
Long-form content can be:
• A great way to demonstrate to current clients the additional value you can provide (hey, it worked for me…)
• Build credibility to “warm” prospective clients you want to work with
• Spread your reach into organizations that have never heard of you, and maybe you haven’t heard of them either (that could be an album cover).
I can think of four forms of what I’d call “long-form” content. So, from least-long to longest:
Professional or academic papers
Many business professionals want to promote the cause of human knowledge, and that’s a good thing. My paper on the consultants’ journal was that kind of article.
But from a business development point of view, this isn’t your best option. The only reason my paper worked was that the topic happened to be of interest to my main contact. Generally, your clients don’t care about the details of your work, which is one of my points in Post #42, “How case studies can hold you back in your career.”
But “getting published” in a professional or academic journal can be a good thing for three reasons.
• It forces you to think through your ideas in greater depth – and that helps you become stronger in your profession
• The peer review process can reality-check your ideas – it can be brutal process, but think of it as trial by fire
• You may get some referral work from it, from colleagues impressed with your insights
• It looks good on your CV and LinkedIn profile
The term “white paper” has gone through quite an identity crisis over the past few decades. Originally, the term meant a publication from the British government, setting out the official government thinking on a subject such as industrial policy. It was intended for discussion purposes, to encourage comments that would guide government choices. Come to think of it, that’s a rather nice idea, that governments in some countries actually care about what their people think.
The term has since been seized by the private sector, so that in a content marketing context it means thought leadership content, often a case study about an application of the company’s solutions.
That can be valid information. But in the IT sector, a White Paper has come to just mean a few thousand words of sales pitch. The content might be interesting to serious customers, but it’s not really about thought leadership.
The paper I published could be considered a White Paper, in that I photocopied the article from the journal and republished it (it’s “fair use” from a copyright point of view, I gave full credit to the journal, and it was my work anyway).
With today’s online options, most White Papers probably never leave the computer screen to appear as ink on paper.
Here’s how you can use White Papers as a way to build your client base, through showing them the kinds of work you can do:
1. Think of a problem your clients are facing, and to which you have a solution (see Post #28 for more on why your content has to focus on your clients’ problems)
2. Organize your thoughts, and then just start writing (maybe, instead of writing, it’s best for you to talk into a recording device and have that transcribed)
3. Develop an arresting title that is focused on your clients’ needs
4. Have the content formatted into a professional-looking document
5. Make the White Paper available on your website, add it to your LinkedIn profile, mention it in client-facing LinkedIn groups you’re part of, and provide a link to the paper
6. Maybe actually print it out and hand it to clients in meetings, or snail-mail it to them as I did
Another type of long-form content that’s seeing growing popularity is the electronic book, or e-book. The problem is that, as with White Paper, the definition of e-book keeps shifting. The way I see it, the term “e-book” has three meanings.
A print book, in pixels
At one level, an e-book is just a printed book converted to electronic form, so it is available on a screen. That screen could be on a laptop, an iPad or other tablet, a dedicated e-reader like a Kindle, or on a mobile phone.
If you publish a book (see below for more on that), you should have an “e” version of your book available; most of the commercial book-publication interfaces allow this. It makes the book practical for people who prefer their reading on a hand-held device rather than print.
A pixels-only book, in (mostly) text
At another level, an e-book is a short book that doesn’t see print – it appears in pixels only. It’s like some movies used to be “direct to video” in that they didn’t see release in theaters, just VHS and later, DVD. So, an e-book can be a short book. There are several available from Thought Leadership Resources (more on how that works, below).
It’s really important for you to have a great-looking cover for this type of e-book, as it is for the type described below. This is because the cover becomes the thumbnail image of the book. That's what people will see on your website or wherever you have your book stashed online. You need a benefit-oriented title for your book, and a catchy sub-title too, but the imagery is important for persuading someone that this is a professionally-done publication that’s worth downloading and then opening. So, go to a graphic designer for help
Lots of pictures/graphics
At a third level, an e-book is a graphics-rich exploration of a subject. With lots of white space and images, there’s less space for text, so that text has to be condensed down to the essentials you need to provide. To do this type of e-book you need a good graphics designer, someone who can take your ideas and express them in a way that gets your message across in a style that works for your audience.
An e-book is a good way to show thought leadership content. But at Thought Leadership Resources, we go further in using e-books as a way to build our community. It’s a common approach in thought leadership marketing. In this, the e-book becomes what content marketers call a “lead magnet” – “lead” being a sales lead or potential sale, and “magnet” being anything of value (the e-book) that would induce someone to provide their name and email address.
Here’s how it works.
We use our e-books to attract people to sign up for our weekly newsletter. The main approach is here, which has as a lead magnet a book called “5 Planks to Build Your Platform.” We have another e-book too, intended specifically for engineers who want to build their careers as thought-leaders.
These e-books are stored online, and through a service called Active Campaign people can sign up for the newsletter, and the PDF of the e-book gets sent to them automatically. It’s quite easy to set up, and there are free e-mail systems like MailChimp (which we used before switching to Active Campaign) to make it happen for you.
I’ve gone into the idea of book publishing in more depth in Post #12, “Publishing a book is easier than you think, if you start now.” As pointed out above, your print book should have an electronic twin.
In producing any of these types of content, it may be best for you to start small. My first book, published in 2002, was largely a compilation of articles I’d published. And some of the e-books are rewrites and updates of previous content. Probably, you’ll find it easier to develop your ideas through short-form content (blog posts, LinkedIn Posts, and short articles) first, before putting fingers to keyboard to build something longer.