There’s a lot of clutter in the B2B content marketplace. It’s not easy to cut through it to get your content noticed. For example, “How to prepare your business for a recession” gets 26,000 returns when searched for with quotes and nearly 17 million without. Many of these articles say the same things, such as reduce inventory. That’s a recommendation advisors have offered for decades.
Harvard Business Review says in its submission guidelines for authors, “New ideas in management are rare and precious. So if you’re writing about a well-worn topic, we’ll be looking for a unique argument or insight.”
But how do you say something new in a crowded marketplace on topics that have been written about thousands of times? Although consultants always say business is changing, it actually only changes around the edges. Inventory is inventory; you gotta have it; too much is a problem, especially in a recession. That’s always true and always will be. Here are some of the techniques we use to develop more valuable insights:
1. Narrow the Scope
It’s tough, for example, to write something new about stopping people from counterfeiting your goods (1.8 billion returns). Typical recommendations include reporting retailers selling fakes to the authorities and hoping they’ll be able to stop them. But that’s just playing whack-a-mole. The counterfeit supply chain remains intact, and the fakes just pop up somewhere else.
Although it’s difficult to say something new about the topic of counterfeiting, it turned out that it’s not that hard to find something new to say about a slice of it.
One of my favorite articles we wrote for a client was about how to stop counterfeits by addressing their packaging. That may not be as exciting as cops rounding up seedy-looking crooks on corners, but it turns out to be more effective. The author, looking at fake drugs coming from China, suggested finding out where the packaging has been printed (that’s done with a microscope and microdots) and having the police shut down the printing operation, which they will if you give them the evidence. That disrupts the supply chain, and using that approach, counterfeiters have been put away for a long time.
In that case, the author came to us with the story. But often, an author doesn’t know that his proposed solution has been aired many times. Or he does but thinks he needs to be seen as saying something about it and doesn’t realize that peddling shopworn goods does him more harm than good. So, narrowing the scope can help him find a new angle.
2. Focus on the audience
Ask your author, “Who has this problem? Which organizations? What types of executives?” “How do your clients describe their problem?” “What are they doing that isn’t working? What are companies hoping to achieve when they come to you?” If you know who you’re writing for, the problem and the advice will be more targeted, making it feel fresher.
Here’s one article we wrote for an HR consulting firm. As the head of marketing for the firm put it, “We started off wanting to write a white paper about our 30 years of experience building high-performance leadership teams. But no one is impressed if you try to be a know-it-all about everything. So, eventually, we narrowed the article’s focus to CEOs, and then further narrowed it to CEOs of private equity portfolio companies.” An article derived from the paper ran in HBR and has been widely read in the PE industry.
3. Work from client examples
Sometimes, the author doesn’t have a novel POV but has relevant experience with clients in the field. If she can relate a couple of cases, even if her solutions are not new, her experiences will be unique. That will make her article interesting (because the cases are real) and credible (ditto), not just theory.
In this article, the author presents two examples of the application of advanced robotics: the first for cleaning a client’s high-tension power cables and the second for sustainably disposing of waste from their facilities. Both of these applications are proprietary, so even though the technologies have been written about elsewhere, the story is still unique (and therefore interesting) and conveys the author’s expertise.
4. Be counterintuitive
Ask the author, “Everyone thinks X. Where are they wrong? What are they not thinking about?” “What is the best argument you can think of for why this isn’t true?”
If you’re doing original research, ask questions that might elicit surprises, follow the data, and keep an open mind. I’ve written about this before. And yet, in a recent study, we initially thought the results told us what we expected: companies that are best at staffing their digitalization projects are better at training and educating their people. But when we looked more closely a month later, we realized that wasn’t what the data was saying. Those companies that staff more successfully are better at incentivizing their people, but they are only marginally better at training them. Interviews confirmed that people are using online facilities to educate themselves, so companies needn’t. That story ran in HBR.
Some myths persist for decades. These days, it’s a cliché that businesses should embrace disruptive innovation. However, many firms have deeply embedded infrastructures, cultures, and practices that serve them well and would be difficult, pointless, and possibly damaging to change. FedEx, for example, probably doesn’t need disruptive innovation or to fear it; it needs to keep expanding and defending its enormous assets. In the research that underpinned that HBR story, we found that, indeed, few companies are using digital technology to disrupt; the vast majority are using it to improve specific parts of their operations.
5. Challenge the author
Ask, “How is what you’re saying any different than what everyone else is saying?”
One author we assisted is an expert in diversity and inclusion and wanted to write about ways organizations could improve the diversity of their workforce. Diversity has been written about extensively, but the inclusion piece, what happens after the workforce becomes more diverse, is less well understood. In the resulting article, she focused on inclusion. If a company hires people from groups that have previously not been represented, but they find themselves excluded or alienated from the organization’s culture, they won’t stay long. And often, people from minorities will hide those things that make them different, making it more complicated to help them fit in.
HBR has a high bar for originality. But that story was sufficiently novel, practical, and substantiated that it ran there, too. All it took was finding a different angle to attack a problem that has been written about to a fare-thee-well. Finding that angle isn’t always easy, but it is worth it.