How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

The Next Content: Convening Content

Once upon a time (say, from the dawn of the public information officer up to about six weeks ago), research-driven content aspired to be discussed.

If our content sparked some Twitter mentions, or a few longish response emails from Important People, or (gods be praised) some requests for a podcast or media interview, then that was a good day, if not a good month.

Discussion was success itself, not just a leading indicator. In any form, it validated our ideas, our research, our paradigms, our brand — everything. Or something.

The bankruptcy of this conceit (i.e., the spray and pray of it, the laziness) becomes obvious when you’re inside a crisis — when we are desperate to know just two things: a) is your content accurate? and b) does it matter?

Content strategy whose highest goal is to aspire to be discussed fails in this high-pressure environment, because it hasn’t interrogated itself deeply enough, with questions such as:

  • Can my content be a springboard for discussion — for an hour among really smart people?
  • If so, who is discussing your content, and with whom, and are these the right people to make something happen?
  • How are they adapting its ideas, applying them, modifying them, improving on them — i.e.,making them matter?
  • What are the results of that dynamic?
  • How can you catalyze these processes more efficiently and effectively?

When content aspires to discussion, we also tend to rely on variables out of our control to achieve that aspiration — on algorithms, news pegs and journalists’ news judgements. When we can secure a win, the cost of securing wins here is high, in time or other resources.

We now have an obvious alternative, of course: content designed to convene. Discussion as not the end point of a piece of content, but as the content itself.

We always had this alternative, but now — with the ease and zero marginal costs of convening staring us in the face — it is unavoidable. And if you’re uncomfortable with that fact, consider that it might indicate something — say, that you have a less than firm grasp on whether your content really matters.

Convening content — content created to catalyze discussion that you orchestrate, and whose discussion becomes inseparable from the content — inevitably creates better content because

  • It demands accountability — your content needs to lead to discussion, because you’ve scheduled a discussion to follow it;
  • It demands audience-first content — content that foregrounds problem-solution thinking: strong, clear arguments and a clear sense of your own POV;
  • It demands you have a fine-grained understanding of what you want your content to spark and with whom — because you are inviting them to the discussion;
  • It demands and creates a ready-made hive mind, if you set conditions for discussion correctly;
  • It demands and facilitates more granular measurement of the content’s impact beyond vanity metrics — because you are the facilitator of the convening and it’s your responsibility to follow up, inquire about applications and make connections.

What we used to call “the content” — to distinguish it from “the promotion” and “the reception” — now just kicks off the discussion. You use it to furnish an insight or set of insights that end in a draft frame for a current problem and part of a solution to that problem. The kickoff can be published as an op-ed, if you’re fortunate enough to land one. It can also be an email to your list, republished on your own site; or a Twitter thread.

You might think you have the whole solution in your kickoff. You don’t. Convening teaches you that. You have at best a part of the solution — a kernel, maybe a cornerstone. Your collaborators — the people you convene for the discussion — bring the rest.

The shallowest level of convening content is publishing something and then scheduling a webinar with your list for discussion. Deeper convening includes hosting a series of Q&As on subtopics of an umbrella theme, and/or inviting a bespoke roundtable of fellow analysts, experts, partners and prospects to share insights and best practices and debate conclusions from your content on the fly. The convening doesn’t have to be on Zoom; but it needs to be real-time.

Example: Azeem Azhar of Exponential View hosts Friday discussion boards on topics he’s introduced in his Sunday letters to subscribers. He also convenes State of the Exponential member briefings on special topics — such as this Wednesday’s on the hydrogen economy. He does this in addition to hosting his own podcast and writing the newsletter. Azhar clearly prioritizes discussion and community when crafting his kickoff content. He could go deeper with a bespoke convening (and he probably does but it’s hidden to me as a subscriber).

To understate: A convening approach is more than simply having a comments function or picking Twitter fights. It’s ballsy. It risks failure. It is also, I am coming to believe from the examples of my own clients, the future. It’s certainly white space — almost no one in the research world is doing it.

So while they’re spraying and praying for validation, you can convene your research content into action.