A lot of conventional ideas around content marketing are just plain wrong when it comes to selling high-level professional services.

That wisdom as promoted by content marketing luminaries such as Joe Pulizzi and Marcus Sheridan can be summarized as four steps:

1. Create great content
2. Prospective customers searching online will find it
3. They’ll come to trust you
4. They’ll buy from you

This might work in selling low-level consumer goods, but is less effective in B2B sales, and particularly, complex professional services. Now, I do see a role for getting found in Google searches. For example, I’ve written posts about newsjacking (creating content that is based around news that matters to people in your market).

But I think that getting discovered by Google is of limited use in professional services, and in many cases, is actually something you DON’T want.

Why online search isn’t effective for reaching senior executives

To see why, let’s take a case example from one of my previous clients, UMA Engineering. Several years ago, UMA (since folded into a larger firm) won a contract for part of the refurbishment of Pearson International Airport, serving the Toronto, Canada area.

This was the biggest construction project in Canada at the time. It was also the biggest contract in UMA’s history, and involved tens of thousands of billable hours.

In awarding this project, did the President of the Greater Toronto Airport Authority open up a Google search box and type in “Awesome airport designers”? Maybe “Build airports cheap”? Uh, no.

The Managing Partner at UMA’s Mississauga (ON) office explained to me how they got the Pearson Airport job. It was through the resumes of three people that were included in the proposal document. These people just happened to be three of the leading global experts in airport design, who had worked on projects all over the world. In their narrow niche, they were rock stars.

And how did the President of the GTAA know to contact UMA? Well, he just knew. He had made it his business to know which firms were qualified to do the work, and the fact that UMA could make available to the project the biggest names in the business, helped build trust and seal the deal.

How did these rock stars give evidence of their star-like qualities? They’d published papers. They’d presented at conferences. They could point to case studies of their projects. Anyone who had heard of them could easily find evidence of their track record in making sure that airport projects were delivered effectively. This made them the safe choice (an idea I talked about in newsletter issue #19), so that the Board of the GTAA would feel confident that their career-breaking (or making) project would make them look good.

So does content marketing matter for professional services? Of course it does. That’s the whole premise behind Thought Leadership Resources. But to see how to use it right, a few points I hope will convince you not to put your faith too much in a Google search box as a way to lead the clients you want, to you.

Why you don’t want to come up in Google search results

You likely want to reach senior decision-makers in the organizations you want as clients. Of course, you may get some referral work from people mid-way up the organizational chart, but it’s much easier if you can reach the C-suite.

But going back to the Pearson Airport example, the President of the GTAA isn’t plugging broad search terms into Google to find people to design an airport.

So, who is conducting those searches? People you don’t want. Think about who might be searching for business professionals in your field, on Google:

Low-level employees: The top-level executives you want to reach don’t spend a lot of time Googling around for information. The lower-level employees, who don’t have the capacity to say “yes,” do have time for this.

Threefers: in many cases, a client will have a good idea of which firm is going to do the work, but they need three quotes to make it appear that they did a complete search. So the Boss says, “Go online and find two other firms to give us a proposal. We won’t use them, but we need three quotes to make me look good.” Do you want to be one of those “other two” firms putting time into a proposal if the project is already wired by a competitor?

Newbies: Anyone who is just starting out on their search, and nowhere near to making a decision, will be plugging general search terms into Google. You probably have no aversion to educating them, but you probably don’t want to spend a lot of time on consultation. Maybe some time, just not a lot.

Why you want to look good to someone who’s already met you

What’s a proper role for content in the marketing of high-level professional services? As the points above indicate, it’s not about getting discovered. It’s all about looking good to someone who’s already found you.

Here’s how that works. The Pearson Airport project happened before online search was popular, and before the rise of content marketing as an idea. But today, I can easily see the President of the Greater Toronto Airport Authority hearing that UMA had some leading-edge airport designers, and then Googling around to see if there is enough evidence of their expertise to make it worth a meeting.

Good marketing technique means being able to impress someone who’s already become aware of you, and is looking online to find evidence that you’re worth a closer look. This works because anyone considering a major (or even minor) purchase is going to do research online first. A widely-quoted figure is that in B2B transactions, 60% of the purchase decision is already made before the buyer even contacts the vendor. It could be that your prospective vendor:

• Met you at a networking event and was impressed (as I discussed in Post #9 about the importance of LinkedIn)
• Sat through a presentation you gave at an industry event
• Heard you interviewed on an audio podcast that is part of the morning commute
• Read an article that you published in a niche industry publication
• Heard about you via a referral

And here, even the smallest firms and solopreneurs can compete with content marketing behemoths, like the Boston Consulting Group and Accenture. You can put out content that your market finds useful, such as “trendspotting” content that shows your expertise and grasp of the big picture.

If it’s evident that you’re an expert in your chosen field, you can be assured that potential clients will get in touch.