Your thought leadership content efforts – your blog posts, articles, speeches and others – should have one main purpose: to put you in position to sell. That’s what it’s all about. I think that there are four main ways to do this, and these four ways form an upside-down pyramid.

1. Most of your content should focus on client problems, in client-read media

The topmost layer of the pyramid includes all content that meets two criteria:
  1. It shows your ability to solve some of the most pressing problems faced by your ideal clients; and
  2. It’s presented in media that are likely to be accessed and trusted by those ideal clients (Blog Post #34 talks about how to find the right publications to reach your niche market). It includes speeches and workshops in events attended by your market, content posted in their LinkedIn groups, and guest appearances on their podcasts and blogs.

This type of content is in the topmost layer because this is where the bulk of your thought leadership content efforts should be focused.

This assumes that you already have a good idea of the markets you want to pursue, and the clients you want to serve. I’ve got some ideas on how and why you need to narrow your business focus in blog post #11. But that’s something you need to decide for yourself. This blog is all about helping you get where you want to go, after you’ve decided where that is.

As an example, consider a project I worked on with an industrial hygienist in Singapore, who focused on health and safety issues on board ocean-going ships. He met Test #2 above – he had a clear ide of whom to reach – ship-owners – and I could help him reach that market through an international shipping magazine based in London. So, that was covered.

My industrial hygienist client also met Test #1. He had a clear idea of how he could solve the problems faced by those ship-owners, and this had to do with asbestos on board ships. For decades, he told me, asbestos was considered a wonder material – it was fire-retardant, so it worked for everything from the sheathing for steam pipes to the brake pads for the anchor windlass. Then, proof started to arrive that asbestos was cause of particularly vicious and untreatable form of cancer. Ship crew members cutting into asbestos sheathing to repair pipes were exposed to a dreadful heath hazard.

So, the International Maritime Organization (I hadn’t heard of them either) set standards and a schedule by which all owners of ocean-going ships would have to have their vessels checked for asbestos, and if the material were found, an asbestos management plan developed.

Considering the number of ocean-going ships in the world, and how many of them contain asbestos even if they’ve been certified as asbestos-free, this was a huge opportunity for my client. He could point ship-owners to the IMO legislation, and the sanctions for non-compliance, to get them to pay attention to his ideas on how they could meet the new rules. It was a classic “fear” type message, as I’ve discussed in blog post #24, “Show how you solve client problems, with ‘greed’ and ‘fear’.

Why should this type of content – focused on pressing client problems, published in media where they’re likely to see it – be your priority? Well, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, it’s got the best chance of helping you get more of the work you want to do. In choosing your media well, you can target the clients who have the money to hire you.

So why do so many engineers and other professionals produce content that doesn’t meet the two tests above? I can only think it’s because they haven’t thought it though strategically.

2. Some of your content should polish your credentials

A second type of content, lower down your priority list, is one that is particularly popular with some engineers and other technical professionals. It involves academic and professional papers published in journals or your own professional media. Many of these publications are peer-reviewed. 

It used to be that I saw little value in professional publishing – in the view that almost no clients read such publications, and the author is just helping her or his competitors take advantage of the author’s hard-won learning. To top it off, such publications are hidden behind paywalls to the extent that the author often has to pay hundreds of dollars to access their own work.

But what’s made me change my mind is the growing role of LinkedIn for helping clients choose service providers. Clients who meet you in person, or who hear about you through a referral, are likely to check you out online before continuing the relationship – and your LinkedIn profile is likely the first place they’ll look (as discussed in blog post #9). Having an impressive array of peer-reviewed, published journal articles is, well, impressive.

Also, such publications look good on your CV or resume.

This world is changing, with many business professionals bypassing the print journals in favor of writing for highly-specialized blogs that carry papers, which are then reviewed on an informal (but sometimes no less brutal or effective) basis in the Comments section.

Other media in this category would include speeches and workshops to your own professional organization – such as if my industrial hygienist client in Singapore were to do presentations to conferences of industrial hygienists.

Newer media would include webinars done for your own professional body, or guest appearances on podcasts or blogs.

It’s all part of reassuring a potential client that you have the experience, credibility and gravitas to be the “safe choice.”

So, professional publishing in journals, as well as papers delivered at professional conferences, have close-to-zero chance of being read or heard by potential clients. But because they help position you as a recognized authority in your field, they are important. Just not as important as the first type of content, so if your objective is to build your business, stay with the first type of content above.

Now, I realize that many business professionals genuinely want to “give back” and further the cause of human knowledge. And maybe they just like showing off how clever they are. These are quite okay as motives – but from a business development point of view, they don’t do as much.

3. Boost your client, through a case study

A third type of content is something that boosts the profile of your client and makes them look good to their peers in their industry. Anyone in business will understand that providing something the client finds valuable, helps you get return business. So forget about the sports events tickets, and focus on adding some real value to your client.

This is done through the case study. Like professional papers and conferences, I once thought these have little value in building a professional profile. Two main reasons for that:

Clients don’t care how you do your work. That’s why they outsourced the work to you instead of learning how to do it themselves. Having a blow-by-blow description of how clever you are, bores them.
• Case studies show your ability to do the kind of work you’ve been doing. But they don’t help you get opportunities to do the kind of work you want to do, so you can grow.

But case studies do have a role to play, as I discussed in our very first blog post, “Why case studies are best if they make your client look amazing.” And that is the key. Case studies will further your business best if you make your client, rather than you, look like the hero.

There is some value to using case studies in the light of filter #2 above, if they boost your professional chops.

But in general, case studies are more likely to actually come to pass if you:

Involve your client in the idea right from the start
Co-author or co-present with your client.
• Get the material presented into one of your client’s conferences or other events, or publications – that way they get a chance to look like a hero in front of their peers

4. Make the world a better place, through your ideas

Presentations, papers, articles and other thought leadership content that you do in order to make the world a better place, can be a wonderful thing. I’m reminded of the voices of expertise that are calling for action on climate change, the need for public infrastructure renewal, and improved water quality for every human around the world.

This fourth kind of initiative, which we can call public-service content, can show you to be someone with a conscience, an understanding of the wider world, and good to have one one’s team. Those are all good things.

It doesn’t do as much for your career as does the first type of content listed above, but it does help make the world a better place.