By Carl Friesen published June 9, 2013

Why SEO May Be Irrelevant When It Comes to B2B Thought Leadership

thought leadership-airport designIt had potential to be the biggest long-term project in the history of an engineering firm that had seen more than its share of impressive projects. As a national firm, UMA’s survival depended on large, multi-year engagements to keep its staff as billable as possible.

The bespoke opportunity was part of the expansion of Pearson International Airport — Canada’s largest. The Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA), the facility’s owner, had bet its future on this expansion to turn Pearson into an international gateway. UMA was bidding to design the “ground side” — the approach roads, parking, and other facilities.

UMA’s office manager told me that the deciding factor in his firm’s getting the job was that its proposal included the CVs of three highly skilled professionals — world-renowned thought leaders in the niche field of airport design. Having these professionals listed in UMA’s proposal reassured the airport authority that the project would benefit from world-class expertise.

This meant that the livelihoods of dozens of UMA’s engineers, landscape architects, lighting designers, and others — who did the less-skilled but essential work over the next five years — resulted from the reputation of just three key professionals.

Strategic sales don’t depend on search results

But how does a self-proclaimed “expert” in an area such as airport design get accepted as such by others? It needs to go well beyond a CV with a title that reads “Airport Expert.” That expertise has to be demonstrated, and this is where B2B content marketing comes in.

But not in the way conventional content marketing wisdom would have it. That wisdom says that if your organization has enough content online, a prospective client conducting an online search will find it, and will (hopefully) be impressed by your organization’s mastery of its subject matter. That works in many consumer products and services, but it doesn’t necessarily apply to big-ticket B2B transactions like multimillion dollar engineering projects.

To see why “getting found” online is not an important objective in large, strategic B2B sales like these, consider how a client like the airport authority would come to accept that UMA’s airport specialists had the capabilities to succeed with the project. Did the president of GTAA sit down at a Google search box and enter a term like, “excellent airport designer” or “awesome airport access road layout“?

Probably not. That’s because the GTAA president’s job depends, in part, on knowing how to find an answer to the question, “Who’s at the top of this field?” Subject searches are relevant for a businessperson choosing a photocopier or other small-ticket item. But this isn’t necessarily the case for a major, bet-your-career decision like choosing the right firm to lead a high-cost, multi-year project.

Working with the “complex” part of complex sales, not against it

Does this mean that UMA’s thought leaders could depend on their connections in order to land this kind of project? No. Content that drives thought leadership plays a huge role in the strategic B2B sales process — not so much for getting found, but rather for making your company more attractive to potential customers who are already aware of you. Here’s why.

Any major complex sale involves convincing a wide range of stakeholders that the decisions being made are in the interests of all. In the case of Pearson airport redevelopment, that included the federal government (which regulates air transport in Canada), the Province of Ontario (which regulates ground transportation), and the government leaders of several cities in the area. Some of the biggest stakeholders that needed to be convinced were the airlines, freight carriers, restaurant operators, and retailers whose rent and landing fees would form much of the airport’s income.

Virtually all large sales like these are complex — whether it’s an airline deciding on its next multi-plane order, a gas utility choosing a contractor to lay a pipeline, or a hospital deciding on an MRI system. The job of the salesperson or sales team involved in these complex sales is to understand the needs and priorities of all those stakeholders, and then convince them that the proposed solution would meet as many needs as possible. Even if the decision is ultimately up to one person to make, that individual knows that many people will have to live with the results of the decision.

In the Pearson Airport example, the GTAA’s management team had to convince all stakeholders that the project would be in good hands with UMA. This “convincing” process goes well beyond a good letter of reference. It requires demonstrating the knowledge, insight, and expertise your company claims to have — something that the thought leadership content you produce can achieve handily.

Most of my clients are like UMA in that they deal in complex sales, and they find that demonstrating their thought leadership is essential to gaining credibility. But I don’t think the goal of my B2B content marketing strategies is to help them get found online. Rather, my mission is to help businesses look more appealing to prospective clients than all the other companies on its consideration list.

What kinds of content demonstrate thought leadership? There are many, but three formats stand out, in particular.

1. Academic and professional journal publishing: Much of the heavy lifting in advancing professional fields, such as medicine, engineering, consulting, and law, comes through academic and professional journals. Even though these publications may be read only by a tiny readership that mainly consists of fellow professionals, getting published in peer-reviewed journals is one of the most effective ways to demonstrate thought leadership.

This rarified world is changing quickly, though, and many professionals cannot wait for the leisurely, months-long peer review process often required by journals to publish their ideas. Fortunately, niche industries are moving toward posting content in blog form, with blog readers’ comments serving as an acceptable peer review process. These comments go well beyond the value of a Google+ “+1” or a “Like” on Facebook. The professionals who post their thoughts are staking their reputations on how accepted and valuable their views and comments are in their industry.

2. Publishing on client-facing media outlets: I don’t write articles. Only papers,” one business professional told me recently. He saw little need to get his ideas into media that are read by potential clients. But I think that publishing your firm’s insights and ideas on accessible media, such as trade magazines and websites, well-regarded blogs, and other relevant professional outlets is an important way to demonstrate that your firm is credible and can offer quality solutions.

3. Public speaking opportunities: Being invited to present a paper at a professional conference is a public acknowledgement of your company’s thought leadership, to the extent that many professionals invest a significant amount of time in developing presentations and convincing relevant conference planners to add them to a speaking roster.

In addition to professional and academic conferences, some industry association luncheons, breakfasts, and other less formal events can be worthwhile speaking opportunities, as well. For example, webinars are becoming increasingly popular for reaching narrow, niche markets — and as a bonus, your webinar presentation can be archived online for later use in your content marketing efforts.

Indeed, search engine optimization still has an important role to play in the marketing of high-end professional firms. But for most of my clients, who have expertise in niche fields like remediation of contaminated soil, managing stakeholder relations for planned wind farms, and climate-change adaptation for cities, it’s not about “getting found.” It’s about “looking good” and “looking credible” to clients that are assessing the expertise of potential service providers. In many cases, it’s also about convincing others of the wisdom of choosing a particular provider. Having quality, credible thought leadership content is essential to making that happen.

Looking for proof of the power of thought leadership content? Get a first-hand view by attending the leading conference for the content marketing industry: Content Marketing World 2013

Author: Carl Friesen

Carl Friesen uses his background in journalism to dig for “the story” to develop content that will show his clients in their best possible light. Many of his clients are business professionals who need to show their expertise to people in their market. Carl is Principal of Global Reach Communications, based in the Toronto, Canada area. You can follow him on Twitter @CarlFriesen.

Other posts by Carl Friesen

  • Pontus Staunstrup

    Thanks for an interesting read. One observation I have is this: when helping companies that make complex deals in B2B I try to cover as many bases as possible. Thought leadership is important, so is documented previous experience, authority on subjects etc etc. But Search and Social media can play a part here as well, so why not include this in your strategy as well. What’s your take on this?

  • Mike Bailey

    Carl, you make a number of excellent points about Thought Leadership. What are your thoughts on the increasing reach of professional social networks – LinkedIn in particular – where influencers and thought leaders spend an increasing amount of time in the spotlight?

  • Jamie Carracher

    “It’s not about getting found. It’s about looking good and looking credible.

    I would argue these are both the same thing. All the content you suggest creating will leave a digital trail. That trail, which most people will find through search, is what gives the thought leader credibility. I actually think search is highly important in the B2B setting, especially in industries that are niche. Oftentimes those industries don’t have trade magazines or even blogs devoted to covering their experts and issues. Sure, if you’ve been around an industry awhile, you probably know a lot of the players. But you won’t know everyone. At some point, a search engine will be required, regardless if you’re trying to “find” someone or just figure out if he or she has street cred.

  • Naomi Garnice

    Great article, Carl. You bring a good point into play — search results don’t lead to sales relationships, but meaningful, relevant content does. I like the idea of working with industry publications to tell a story about the company and make customers feel a part of it; that’s definitely important!

  • Jason Small

    Interesting and worthwhile read. Definitely agree with the sense of prioritization your communicating: SEO vs the other approaches is really not an equally valuable effort. Thanks for the article.

  • Lee Odden

    First – great tips on building thought leadership.

    Second, I’m not following the logic, “getting found online is not an important objective in large, strategic B2B sales. And then, “the GTAA president’s job depends, in part, on knowing how to find an answer to the question”. That’s an unfortunate contradiction.

    How can you “look good” if no one involved in the buying cycle (or the media for that matter) can find you?

    For example, search Google for “remediation of contaminated soil” and there are over 1 billion search results. The first page is a cornucopia of useful information from scholarly articles to videos to industry press. At the top are companies in the business of providing soil remediation services.

    If search visibility is in no way important to establishing credibility with niche B2B industries, then no one would be searching, right?

    A quick check of Google’s Keyword tool shows demand for hundreds of variations on “soil remediation and testing” for queries at different stages of the buying cycle:
    soil testing 110,000
    what is soil remediation 14,800
    soil testing companies 1,000
    soil remediation companies 200

    Using data to identify search demand for niche topics seems a more reliable decision making process than dismissing a tactic out of hand based on – a contradiction.

    Another consideration is the effect of search visibility for members of the media doing research. Discovery of subject matter experts and story sources via search is a daily occurrence. Inclusion in industry trade publications is highly credible. In fact, many B2B buyers will read thought leader content or trade publications and then Google people, companies and topics to drill down.

    Search connects people with information at the moment they need it most. Deciding to ignore that seems perilous.

    Again, great tips on building thought leadership, but why invest in thought leadership content and then dismiss making that content easy to find?

    • Pontus Staunstrup

      Lee, you’re making a very good point here. This is exactly what I was trying to get at when I left a comment here earlier. Why invest in thought leadership when it will only be visible late in a purchase process, and not in the early stages when search and social are playing key roles – in complex B2B sales as in everything else. Thanks for elaborating on this.

      • Lee Odden

        Thanks Pontus. I think Carl’s comment above about his understanding of search explains the disconnect.

  • Cindy Woudenberg

    Great article….however ALL content should be titled with the customer/reader in mind – and that includes using keywords (aka SEO)! Even Carl’s Title that “SEO May Be Irrelevant…B2B Thought Leadership” includes keywords! If you want potential customers and readers to find your article, you should use keywords in the title. Even Academic and Professional Journals use titles and some basic SEO to “push” their content out to the online. Speakers use keywords (aka SEO) in their titles as well to draw interest in their presentations. This is a great article for looking at pushing content through to the correct channels, but the opinion that SEO is Irrelevant (Or may be irrelevant) is off course.

  • John Mihalik

    Hey Carl, this is a really great article. My key take away is that content matters to a varying state in all stages of the customer acquisition process, not just getting found.

    For a large complex sale, I tend to agree that getting found in search in likely secondary to providing engaging and beneficial content that makes a customer feel good about actually buying. Getting them across the line is crucial when big budgets are concerned.

    Great job by the way on your headline. It’s a great controversial grabber that converted me to a commentator! 😉

  • Carl Friesen

    Having listened to Marcus Sheridan at CMW 2011 and 2012, I’m well aware of the power of search. I think it’s particularly important in categories where the prospect only buys the product or service infrequently, and that applies to most people buying swimming pools. But there are clearly categories in B2B where the prospect’s job includes being well versed in the product or service. So, to use Lee’s example about contaminated soil, any property developer who works on infill properties can be expected to know something about the various remediation technologies already. But in these complex sales, that developer will need to convince others, including financial sources and insurers, that the remediation technology and remediation firm chosen is the right one. That’s where having good content available is important. Sure, it needs to be written with SEO in mind, but its primary purpose is not so much to attract newbie customers with the message “contaminated soil can be fixed” as it is, “we’re the right choice of firm to fix your impacted soil problem.” It’s not a question of ignoring search, as it is the emphasis on how the content is organized and presented.

    Mike Bailey makes a good point about LinkedIn. In a recent post on CMI, I discussed how LI can be a great vehicle for one’s content. But as Mike points out, the groups on LI can also be influential. I haven’t had much success with them from a marketing perspective, but I think that people in some niche areas find them a good way to reach a narrow market. Publishing content through LI groups, with links back to one’s own site, is a good way to reach really narrow groups, as Jamie Carracher points out.

    • Mical Johnson

      Carl, I couldn’t agree with you more. In my experience the higher the ticket item and longer the sales cycle the less important SEO becomes. I’ve found that in general the people making these decision reach out to the personal network which they have spent a lifetime developing and find qualified candidates. They will then go verify that information on the web, but generally with some sort of branded search term such as a company name. The website/blog do play an important role in that process but SEO generally plays only a small part if any at all.

  • studiumcirclus

    This is actually very insightful. There are actually SEO tactics which tie-in with this viewpoint.

    In SEO you can actually run campaigns almost fully based upon higher conversions for existing customers, clients or those aware of your brand.

    You take a good long look at your existing ‘traffic-from-keywords’ or TFK (metrics visible in Google Analytics) and attempt to widen the existing search-related pathways (rather than creating new keywords, or starting out with KWR).

    You examine the landing pages (from Organic Search) and write new Meta Descriptions for those pages. This can alter the SERP text for those landing pages, making them more attractive to people already seeing them through search!

    You can also alter those pages to convert better, create more content for those pages (try to ‘earn’ links for them) or make use of various released schemas to add authorship-avatars or company logos to your SERPs.

    Conversion-based SEO is a thing… Anyway; I’m rambling! Apologies…

  • Andy Crestodina

    I appreciate the perspective, but I’m not sure I agree. SEO is mostly about taking the extra step while writing to align your topic with a keyphrase. I’m not sure why a thought leader wouldn’t do this.

    Sure, there are times when you can’t find a relevant keyphrase, or it doesn’t feel right to include it. But generally speaking, if you take the time to write something, why not take the time to optimize it? It’s a skill, but it doesn’t cost anything.

    Thought leaders need to promote their thinking or no one will follow them. Search is just another way to bring visibility to content.

    I write 80-100 articles per year. Around two thirds are optimized. About half rank on page one for popular phrases. The visibility, follows, subscribers, leads and awareness that this brings me priceless.

  • Carl Friesen

    John, good to see you pulled out of your shell enough to comment 🙂 as interaction is a big part of content marketing.

    OK, search does matter. I agree. As Andy says, it doesn’t cost anything to write the text with some keywords and other essential SEO. I think it’s a question of how you organize your thoughts and present them — it’s not so much around ‘getting found’ by a newbie you’ll then need to educate about your product/service, it’s around ‘looking good’ to someone who’s an informed and serious buyer. I have a friend who helps employees and ex-employees transition to new opportunities, and his business lives or dies according to his search rankings. Not all businesses are like that. Yes, it’s good to make your content search-friendly, but it doesn’t have to be the focus in all circumstances.

  • Stuart Clark

    Having worked with a B2B supplier to banks, our SEO efforts weren’t to drive traffic for low search volume terms rather to boost the prestige of the supplier. They were already an industry leader and the number of searches were minimal but instead they needed to rank high on page one to demonstrate they were a thought leader.

    Naturally content and other channels were also vital, but SEO was also a key part in their maintaining their place.

  • Louise jones

    Excellent article

  • Carl Friesen

    Louise, Thanks. I appreciate that.

    Stuart raises an important point — that for a company already in a dominant position, it’s still important to look good in search rankings. Their customers need to defend or justify their continued use of the known supplier — because it’s pretty certain that there will be upstart or disruptive competitors wanting to take their business. So, the dominant company must still produce content that demonstrates why it deserves to be still considered Number One. That means producing new thought leadership content in a continuous stream. Any thoughts on how to design content for this “staying on top of the heap” strategy?

  • Nick Stamoulis

    I find overall when promoting my SEO firm in an ultra-competitive B2B world, thought leadership content goes very far. However, I will say it all depends on who your target audience is (for potential clients). For example, my firm targets mid-sized companies, so speaking at conferences doesn’t provide a decent ROI for us. Every time I have spoken at an industry conference, I find that the audience is comprised mostly of SEO professionals and larger companies that would never be a good fit as a client for us.

  • Carl Friesen

    Naomi: Industry publications are my preferred way to help my clients
    reach niche markets. While the print publications are showing surprising
    resilience in the face of the “print is obsolete” message, it’s
    increasingly important to make sure that the content is available, not
    locked behind a subscriber or paywall. My question, is, does it still make sense to try to get content published on sites that are inaccessible to search engines, given that the subscribers to those sites are more likely to be serious prospects, not tire-kickers?

    Jamie, Pontus, Yes, after
    writing the article and reading the comments, I agree that search
    matters. I think it’s a question of emphasis, and for this reason I
    think that for showing thought leadership it’s important to have the
    content in a medium with credibility — ie. a respected publication’s
    website, or credible third-party blog. Many would-be thought leaders
    don’t take this extra step of getting their ideas into media that
    already have a brand and credibility, making the effort well worthwhile.

    is another tool, as Mike indicates above, for showing credibility. This
    is partly because googling just about anyone’s name will bring up their
    LinkedIn profile at or near the top of the results, and as I mentioned
    in a previous post on LinkedIn as a content vehicle, that profile had
    better have good evidence of credibility.