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Thought Leadership Content Strategy: The Business Case for Your Brand to Publish an Online Magazine

Sometimes you have an idea that’s big enough to move markets. Create a space for your brand in a crowded market. Or create a new market force entirely. We’re talking about an idea that’s just too big to relegate to a channel on the company blog (though the blog might be a good place to float it for feedback). But it’s not clear where this idea belongs, until you realize that it can become a standalone campaign. And in today’s world, that can, and in the hands of a savvy marketing leader, often does mean a custom publication on the web.

So you have the idea. You’re pretty sure it should be surfaced (at least) in the form of a custom publication on the web. And now it’s time to rally your leadership around it. Now what? You need a business case. You need to prove to those who might not share your passion for the idea that it is worth investing in - that taking a risk on it giving the idea a platform and investing in it is a good bet.

At some point, you’re going to have to present your idea in either a PowerPoint or Word document. Here’s a good outline to work from (and feel free to add what you think is needed in your environment):

  • Overview of the big idea; what’s it all about?

  • Tie your idea to customer knowledge

  • Research the space around you, or the space you want to create

  • Evaluate believability - does your brand have permission?

  • Return on investment; what KPIs will be measured?

  • Realistic plan to build “version 1.0”

  • How far can it go? Demonstrate the idea has legs

Overview of the big idea. You should be able to succinctly express the unique idea or insight that is driving the strategy behind a custom publication. You’re creating a brand for your company to support, so it needs to be fully expressed and an overview of the reasons-why presented as compellingly as possible. What are the unique customer and marketing insights that call for this initiative and make it likely to succeed? Here you also can present the desired goal/end state and then recapitulate it at the end (tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them).

For our client Kodak, the big idea was that packaging didn’t have a career path and its clients and prospects felt unappreciated in their very important jobs. Calling for the creation of a new CxO position, the Chief Packaging Officer, created a powerful platform from which to sell packaging workflow software and other products and services.

When we built a publication for a regional lighting and plumbing fixture retailer, activating its b2b channel (designers) was key to extending its content budget (designers and brands provided a lot of content) and reinvigorating relations with the professional design community.

Tie your idea to customer knowledge. If you can point to specific insights that lead you to the idea of a campaign including a custom publication, you’re halfway there. What did you learn when you did persona interviews? What other insights have you gleaned from primary and secondary research? What are the unmet wants of this segment of your base? How can your content publishing initiative help your customers and prospects get what they want out of a project, advance their career or enhance lifestyle? Answer these questions to make your case powerfully compelling (and from this deep research into your customers and prospects other goodness will certainly come).

Research the space around you or create the space you want. How much “free space” is there in the category to do what you aim to do? In the case of our regional retailer, no one had anything like its ambitious online magazine and plans to activate the designer channel. What’s the competition like for the audience you’d like to build and influence? You don’t have to be the only voice competing for attention but you need to have confidence you can generate a meaningful audience that you can monetize (or otherwise convert or measurably influence) to meet your objectives.

Evaluate believability. This is a tough one for many marketers and organizations. You want to believe that you can make a “dent in the universe,” and that optimism can cloud your judgment. At the same time, some ideas need fierce and impassioned support to see the light of day. How not to be blinded by your passion and sell yourself into an idea you can’t back up? I wish I had the definitive test to share. This is a gut call… can we make the idea believable to enough people and does our brand have permission to drive this idea forward? I like to say that “self knowledge is in short supply.” Perhaps the answers lie in your persona research or other primary/secondary research at hand. Be prepared for the executive who is most likely to pour cold water on your ideas with as much backup as possible. Create the opportunity for a team of influencers and the approver(s) to exercise the idea, perhaps in a workshop environment.

Return on investment. We’ve all seen great marketing ideas killed pre-launch or within too short a time in the field. With thought leadership campaigns this most often happens because there is a gossamer-thin link between the activity and desired business outcomes. If you gain agreement on meaningful KPIs as part of the planning process, you’ll have a firmer leg to stand on when it’s time to go for budget for years 2 and beyond. Many firms can do lead generation on thought leadership. Plan for the content resources and marketing automation you’ll need to demonstrate achievement. Build a dashboard to share with your executive peers and leadership. If you need a content marketing ROI calculator, feel free to email me at and I’ll send you one of ours.

Realistic Plan for Version 1.0. It’s always harder than you think it will be to lift a completely new publication on the web or in printed form. Set objectives, timelines and budgets that will give you the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. Here’s an example: You might be counting on subject matter experts to contribute a set amount of articles per month. But what if they don’t. How will you adjust your content development plan or budget? If you go to freelancers, you’ll spend more than you thought. Or if you wait until the SMEs are able, your editorial calendar (timeline) is impacted. Planning for less than ideal outcomes will enable you to meet your KPIs. So build in some wiggle room.

Demonstrate the power of your idea. To show people how far your idea can go, build out some prospective extensions of the media property itself. Can it become a way to engage your channel as a way to distribute content to them, or showcase their capabilities and make the relationship stronger? Maybe you can extend the concept to live events that are either standalone or part of a larger trade show. Can you build a big enough audience to sell advertising? (Advertising is a term one can apply to in-house ads as well as taking hard-dollar revenues in for third-party sponsors.) And what about podcasts? Can you augment the text you’re creating with audio versions and reach a different and potentially more engaged audience? Finally, you might build the first leg of the campaign to support one division or product at your company. A successful launch of your online magazine can be extended to other products and services that are consistent with the mission of your site, and that should be part of the justification of the Version 1.0 project (and have these execs set aside future budget to have their content built and promoted). If you have the budget, do pre- and post-flight surveys to see how perception of your brand has changed. Oh and back to ROI. Always look at the potential and realized revenue and bang that drum. Plenty of good ideas without revenue are dead and gone. Plenty of so-so ideas that ring the register continue to live on and on.

Want to talk about building out and selling a thought leadership content strategy for your firm? Click here to access my calendar. Happy to help you exercise your ideas and share more insights from our experience. The content of this post is related to our six-step methodology to ensure custom publication success (we call it Content2Revenue and you can read more about it here). Learn more about how we used it to help our client Kodak generate leads and refill their sales pipeline following a bankruptcy filing. 

Download the Kodak Case Study


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