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

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