By Carl Friesen CMC
Business professional firms that want to demonstrate thought leadership need to be aware of the rapidly-evolving set of tools and techniques for presenting their ideas. Here is some of what I learned at the leading global event of its kind, Content Marketing World, 5-7 September 2012 in Columbus OH.
Content Marketing: How Can it Help?
To begin with, what is “content marketing”? The answer was ably and colorfully presented at CMW by Marcus Sheridan, who was until recently a quite normal installer of fiberglass swimming pools in Virginia and Maryland.
The way Marcus told it, in October 2009 the bottom dropped out of his world, as the global financial crisis caused his project pipeline to dry up. His company was soon facing financial ruin.
So, Marcus did what any reasonable Pool Guy would do: he started a blog. Not just any blog, mind you. He had a hunch that if he provided information that his potential customers would like to have, he’d become a trusted source of information — and just naturally, the person they’d trust when they were ready to install a pool.
So he thought of the top 100 questions his customers asked him, starting with, “How much does a fiberglass pool cost?” He went on to, “What is the difference between a fiberglass pool and a concrete pool?” and “What are the problems with fiberglass pools?” Markus’ frank and open answers to these questions made his blog a big hit with Google and other search engines, and soon his tiny company was at the organic top of many searches about swimming pools, well above results from major manufacturers.
Marcus Sheridan’s goal of becoming a preferred source of information on fiberglass pools was realized in full, and so was his hope of reviving his business.
This is the heart of content marketing, which means preparing “content” — useful, informative, no-sales-pitch information, and making it available to prospective clients. Once they’re persuaded your organization is a trusted source of information, it’s quite natural that when they’re ready to buy, your firm is the one they’ll contact.
How Content Marketing Protects Your Firm’s “Commodity” Practices
While this may work in the commoditized world of swimming pool installation, how well does it work in complex professional services? Very well, in some cases.
Many firms have high-profile practices that may be run as loss-leaders, to bring in the clients. To pay the rent, these firms depend on un-exciting, repeatable practice areas. But these practices are in most cases “commodities” — work that can also be done by many competitors.
Commodity practices face a constant barrage—
But if prospects and clients are convinced that your firm can add value, protect their interests, and decrease chances of unpleasant surprises (such as challenges from tax authorities and regulatory bodies), you have an advantage. Showing that your firm adds value, through the content it prepares, can help with that.
This isn’t new. But what came out at CMW was the rapid growth in ways to tie real, top-line results to content marketing.
For example, Marcus Sheridan said he can determine exactly how much each blog post has earned him. This is gleaned from analyzing which post someone read last, which caused that person to fill in an online form requesting a salesperson to call, and which of those calls turned into a sale. The blog post about the cost of a fiberglass pool, for example, has so far earned his company US$1.2 million.
He also said that he’s developed a greater understanding of how to make people more willing to buy. For Marcus’ company, the magic number is 30 — if someone reads over 30 pages of information on his company’s website, that person is significantly more likely to sign up for a pool installation. One of his goals, therefore, is to have enough information on his site to hold someone’s interest for at least 30 pages.
Beyond Commodity Service to Showing Thought Leadership
In an age of Twitter, one of the best ways to demonstrate the thought leadership your firm offers is through one of the oldest communications technologies: a book. But, as Jim Kukral (DigitalBookLaunch.com) pointed out, it’s a book with an Information Age spin.
To start with, Jim said, it’s probably not a physical product. As an author with half a dozen titles to his credit, Jim said that over 90 percent of his sales are in e-book form.
The “new” books are shorter, too. While a standard printed book probably needs at least 40,000 words to look respectable, Jim sells books in the 15,000 to 35,000 word range — something that a busy executive can download to a tablet and read during a flight or airport layover. They’re a tight, focused look at a subject.
I believe that there’s still a mystique and respect to be found in ink on paper. I’ve written three books of my own (one, “The Fame Game 2.0,” was published in 2012) and I find them good for demonstrating that I’ve got real knowledge that can benefit my clients.
But what Jim said about his process has implications for those of us publishing books to demonstrate thought leadership.
Topic: Think of the biggest problems your clients and prospects face. That’s what you write about. Anything else won’t have resonance with them, so they’re unlikely to read the book — or be impressed by what the author says.
Title: Jim recommended using Google search analytics to find the most-searched terms that are close to your subject area, and inserting those terms in your title and subtitle. Then, use Amazon to find books with similar themes, and borrow words from their titles.
Cover: You don’t need to spend a lot, but you do need to invest in professional design. This matters online too, as people really do judge a book by its cover.
Delivery: The process is getting much easier for publishing your book online through Kindle and other online formats.
Marketing: Leverage online media such as YouTube, Facebook and LinkedIn, as vehicles for videos about your book, chapter excerpts or a blog.
Keeping It Relevant to Professional Services
Much of what was said at CMW was relevant mostly to business-to-consumer (B2C) space.
For example, it was hammered into us that mobile is the Next Big Thing. But many mobile applications — like being able to find the nearest Starbucks with your iPhone — just don’t have parallels in professional services.
However, some trends are relevant to B2B professional services:
Go direct: It used to be that to get information disseminated, it was necessary to go through an intermediary: the news media. It’s now easy to bypass the gatekeepers to provide information online (as with the Pool Guy above). However, I think that in professional services marketing it’s still important to have that third-party stamp of approval. If you’re seeking to demonstrate your firm’s expertise, is it better to be able to say, “Our expert in this field wrote five posts in her blog last year,” or, “Our expert in this field published five articles in major international magazines last year.” But today, it’s essential to think beyond print, to a widely-respected blog, or a professional association’s website.
Utilitarian: Pool Guy’s success was due largely to the usefulness of the information he posted. Nobody else was publishing information comparing fiberglass pools with concrete pools, for example. But most professional firm websites are filled with ‘brochure-ware’— information about the firm and its people. This is nowhere as useful as what Pool Guy came up with. Particularly if your firm has commodity services, providing useful, relevant information that is accessible to search engines, is important.
Multiplicity: While many business professionals are comfortable with text — in the form of articles, white papers, newsletters and books — remember that text isn’t everyone’s preferred form of learning. Some users would rather absorb information visually (so, infographics work well), by audio (podcasts), or both (video). So, take the same information and turn it into other media, to get multiple benefits for your firm, and utility for the public.
One of the points raised at CMW was that while Google is the dominant search engine, the world’s #2 search engine is … YouTube. Someone looking for information on a topic is increasingly likely to type a search term into YouTube, looking for a video that will help.
The growing importance of online search in decision-making
Sam Sebastian, director of local and B2B markets for Google, said that consumer goods marketing used to have three stages: 1) advertising rouses the consumer to take action on a need; 2) the First Moment of Truth (FMOT) occurs, in the store — the consumer scans the shelves and makes a selection; 3) the Second Moment of Truth (SMOT) — the consumer opens the package at home and tries it out. For Sebastian, there is now a “Zero Moment of Truth” (ZMOT) — the consumer researches the product online before going to the store, or increasingly, actually in the store on a mobile device. If a product doesn’t have a good presence online, it will be bypassed for one that does.
In professional firms, I believe that there is an equivalent ZMOT — a potential client will conduct online research of a firm or individual, to see what evidence there is that this is the person to solve the client’s problem. This search involves what’s on the firm’s website, but more important is that third-party attestation referred to above. That includes the articles that the firm and individual have published in business and professional magazines as well as professional journals, speeches they’ve given, courses they’ve taught and other demonstrations of thought leadership.
Having good, useful content available online is vital to showing thought leadership.
Carl Friesen CMC, MBA is a Senior Associate with emerson consulting group inc. He is author of many articles on the marketing of professional services, has given over 40 presentations throughout the United States and Canada, and is author of two books himself: “The Fame Game,” and “Writing Magazine Articles.” To contact Carl, click here.