How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

It’s Not Search Versus Social

All of the leaders of research-driven groups I’ve worked with over the last five years have two things in common (other than their work being based in research).

  1. They all live in social.
  2. They all find optimizing for search as appetizing and mandatory as cold creamed spinach.

“Search is over,” they’ll say, or might as well. “Everyone I care about is on Twitter, and I can reach them that way.”

Jim Thornton, who with his wife runs both the content strategy firm Content Audience and the marketing agency Inbound Found, has been writing about SEO to his email list recently, so I asked him to take on this question. Jim responded with this thoughtful, nuanced post that’s well worth your time.

Two assumptions you’ll notice right away about Jim’s analysis:

First, he assumes that you’re using both social and search as the top of a funnel that eventually will help you meet a goal for your business or organization — a funnel that usually ends on your organization’s website, in some sort of conversion (email or webinar signup, event registration, report download, etc.)

Second, he assumes that some piece of content that you’ve created is at the center of what you’re trying to accomplish on both social and search.

Problem: most researchers and research-driven organizations don’t behave this way on social.

They never think about social as the top of a funnel (say, for audience acquisition) that starts with their own content and leads to their own site. Or they do, but get caught up in the cocktail party/paintball tournament dynamics of the platform and aren’t committed to it.

Whatever leverage they manage to create on social — as Jim puts it, “branding, relationships, community, developing a following” — stays on social. That leverage usually doesn’t grow much, and is utterly dependent on its algorithms and your continued heavy investment of time and attention. Besides, social is structurally not proactive; it feels like a bit of a hack to try to be strategic on it, and nerds just want to be cool.

Sure, social’s network effects theoretically give you a potentially powerful opportunity to build audience. In reality, that potential is like the fruit tree and pool of water for Tantalus — always out of reach for typical research-driven organizations. Your ideas and causes are usually niche, not movement.

Meanwhile, people who don’t know you and whose questions you can answer are looking for you through search, which (as Jim puts it) “optimizes for expertise, authority, trust, relevance.” You know, the stocks-in-trade of research.

But in reading Jim’s piece, I’m realizing that search vs. social is how a deeper problem manifests itself for research-driven organizations. It’s not search vs. social. It’s funnel vs. no funnel, strategy vs. no strategy.

Academics who aren’t running a center can afford to wing it. But once you have have to start fundraising for a center or an organization and/or answer to a board, you will want to start expanding your audience. And a no-funnel approach will seem increasingly frivolous. 

(Note: In yesterday’s post, I wrote about a recent study in Science that looked how planting one trillion trees might sequester significant amounts of CO2. I inadvertently wrote “one billion” instead of “one trillion.” Apologies.)