In his 2006 book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson explores how technology has enabled many businesses to exploit tiny, previously unviable niche markets rather than chase the lowest common denominator mass markets. One set of such enabling technologies is what he calls filters, which give us the ability to easily sort through large amounts of information and find what’s most relevant. One of the most powerful and certainly most ubiquitous of such filters is Google. The World Wide Web and its first modern browser Mosaic brought us a world of tangled information. And then Google came along and organized it, changing the rules to many games including the game of how agencies and their clients come together.
Today if I want a question answered (‘What time is it in Dubai?’ ‘What is 4792 divided by 0.95633’ ‘What is the airport code for Bristol?’) I just type it into the Google toolbar in my browser and voila – the answer is presented. It’s pretty close to the world that science fiction writers imagined all those years ago. But beyond providing answers to direct questions, Google’s power has changed the way you go about getting new clients. Here are a few ways in which the people whose mission is ‘Don’t be evil’ have changed your game.
No More Lying About What You Do
I look back on doing business development for a generalist agency in a pre-Google world with a tear of nostalgia in my eye. In those good old days we could be anyone to anybody on any day. If the client was looking for an agency that specialized in festivals and events, that was us, and I would say so right at the start of the 75-page proposal. The next client wanted a firm with healthcare experience? We specialized in healthcare. It said so right in our proposal. We switched specializations often, sometimes more than once in the same day. And it was hard to get caught. As long as you didn’t run an ad claiming some narrow expertise, you were okay. We didn’t. Our competitors didn’t either.
Now you can’t get away with such finessing of your positioning. This is the simplest way in which Google and the web have changed agency business development. Two minutes into your first phone conversation with your prospect he’s on your website. (If he called you, then he’s already visited your site at least once.) If your private declaration (the words coming our of your mouth) doesn’t match your public one (the words on your website, your Linked In profile, your blog posts or any other trace of your professional life out there on the Web) then you’re done. In a Google world there is no more misrepresenting expertise or focus in private conversation. The truth is out there and can be had in less than a minute. This ability to filter through the many billion bits of data out there and find what you seek has more than anything in recent years forced firms to make the tough positioning decisions that many have been avoiding for years.
Specialists are Easily Found; Geography is Increasingly Irrelevant
For a long time now marketers have had extensive choice in marketing communication agencies. This choice gave rise to the search consultant whose job has always been as much keeping the hordes out as it was allowing the right ones in. But add the ability to filter through the hordes and now hiring an agency is a different ballgame. It’s far easier for a marketer to find, and sort through, the firms that are most relevant and discard the generalists. A specialist will almost always beat a generalist in the battle for the new client, and will do so while charging more. But until recently, specialists were rare and difficult to find. Not today.
Today, a large medical device company in Kansas City isn’t casting about the many generalist agencies within Kansas City looking for the best fit. While that VP of marketing may be considering some local firms, he is almost certainly considering firms that specialize in medical device marketing – firms spread throughout the country or even the world. Not so long ago, if yours was a sports marketing firm in Los Angeles it was probably difficult to make a name for yourself in East coast markets. Today such geographical differences are irrelevant. Now, thanks to Google it’s easy to be found in Atlanta, even if you’re in L.A.
The remaining barriers of geographic distance – the mental ones – have fallen or are now crumbling. Today clients will travel great distances for specialized expertise and will pay the premium in price and convenience if they think that expertise will bring them advantage. Your client down the street is considering a firm on the other side of the world. This easy accessibility of specialists is driving the demand for specialists globally, and it has made geography largely irrelevant.
Content is King
In the early days of search engines you could drive traffic to your site through such sneaky tactics as key word stuffing. Not today. Google’s search algorithms are so complex and rapidly evolving that it’s difficult to beat them. Organic search results now largely separate those claiming expertise from those proving it.
So how do expert agencies prove expertise online? They write, says Eric Holter, CEO of Newfangled Web Factory. ‘The primary focus of any agency’s business development efforts should be a content generation strategy: write and write often. Focus on writing extensively about your specialization – the medium can be a blog, a newsletter, whitepapers or a whole host of others – then work to build a deep repository of such writing into your site.’
Holter suggests that you organize such content in a manner that sees its titles and headings mirror the search strings your prospects are using. In this manner you will position your firm to Google, and the world, as an expert in your area of focus and your writings on these narrow topics within your specialization will come up high in organic searches.
Aggregating existing information is another means of building content, but experts write. Writing remains both the easiest way to convey expertise and the fastest way to build it. (If your specialization is branding or advertising, then you’re going to have a problem coming up with something that hasn’t been said already, and an even bigger problem in getting your content found among the sea of existing writing out there on these big, broad topics. In this way a weak or broad positioning is exposed once pen is set to paper.)
It is the building of this narrow and deep content, properly organized, that, more than pay-per-click programs, banner ads or any other SEO/SEM approach, validates expertise and drives relevant traffic to your site. Start writing.
A New Breed of Business Development Person?
This increased importance of content is changing the face of the person sitting in the business development chair.
‘Today’s business development person is half journalist, half marketer,’ says Newfangled’s Holter. ‘You have to be able to write, simply because it all comes back to content. When you’re blogging and participating in social networks, hopefully you’re referring to the content on your website, and that’s what’s going to drive traffic.’
The oligopoly of large global generalists will continue to offer safe harbor for the traditional business development types who trade on large rolodexes, personal networking and force of personality. But today’s success stories – the smaller independents that are narrowing their focus, broadening their geographic trading area and building specialized content deep into their sites in search engine optimized fashion – these firms demand a new set of online skills to compliment the already complex mix of sales, marketing and public relations skills that make an effective business development person.
In the March, 2007 issue of the Win Without Pitching Newsletter (The Right People On The Bus) I discussed how public relations becomes more important in the mix of business development skills as an agency increases its focus and climbs the ladder of lead generation. If you agree with my observations above that Google is forcing specialization upon you, geography is becoming irrelevant and content is now king, then you’ll agree that the basic PR skills of writing and connecting, along with a current knowledge of rapidly evolving online social media are becoming increasingly important.