Thought Leaders: Don’t Play in Traffic

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Christopher G. Fox

Does it make sense to chase “traffic” as a goal for online content? Quite often, the answer is no. This may seem a contrarian point of view on the topic, but in the domain of thought leadership, traffic is relatively meaningless as a goal. 

As I work with thought leaders who have compelling, innovative points of view on their area of expertise, the question of getting more traffic to their website inevitably comes up. The logic of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has wormed its way into many people’s consciousness when thinking about digital content.

Here’s the thing though – becoming a thought leader does not mean being found more often. It means being searched for more often

That’s not to say it’s a bad idea to follow a few simple best practices for certain types of content, but it does flip the script. Thought leaders want people to search for their name or their company. That search is much more meaningful than coming up on the first page of search results when someone searches for a particular phrase.

There are several reasons why playing in traffic works counter to the goals of a thought leader.

  • Your goal as a thought leader is to articulate a point of view and convince readers of its validity.
    Piling keyword phrases into your content, matching titles to common search phrases, and other tactics of writing to feed algorithms often get in the way of making a clear point in an effective and readable manner.
  • Thought leadership means introducing new thinking into your industry.
    As such, people are not looking for that thought leadership in advance. Until you advance your point, there’s nothing for them to search for. It’s new and different. Playing in traffic means putting yourself on already well-traveled roads.
  • The products and services of a thought-leading company are typically high-stakes decisions.
    As a result, they require building a lot of trust. People might be willing to buy a tool or household product because it came up ahead of others on a search page, but they aren’t going to transform an essential element of their financial infrastructure using something that came up on Google. Discovery via search is just not a meaningful step in the buyer’s journey in this case.
  • Not all traffic is created equal. Not all searchers are buyers.
    If people do happen to come to a specific page on your site, in many cases, their intent is informational rather than commercial. There are no guarantees that they even reflect the audience that you intend to influence with your thought leadership. Therefore, doing anything purely for the sake of traffic is only loosely related to any broader and more strategic goals.
  • Not all traffic is monetized.
    This point is a corollary to the point above. How much does a high volume of traffic mean to your business in and of itself? If you can monetize page views, it makes real sense. If you’re running a recipe site that makes money with advertising, you want to be a top result when people search “how to make mac and cheese.” That drive for numbers has infected a lot of SEO thinking. It doesn’t apply to thought leadership, however. If you’re describing a specific nuance of the global payments infrastructure, for example, high numbers have no inherent value.

None of this implies that thought leaders should ignore or even flout every principle of page quality that a search algorithm might include. Some principles, such as well-structured content, fast loading pages, still make sense. It makes sense to follow them not because algorithms care but because people do.

In fact, Google claims that it has designed its algorithms to measure the things that matter most to users. It’s probably true. But what happens is people with an SEO mindset start to think of ways to game the system, or they make blanket statements about traffic generating criteria that undermine what thought leaders actually want to accomplish with their content.

So, what can you do instead of “playing in traffic”? Think community building, think targeted placement, think cultivating targeted lists, and above all, think reputation. 

Reputation always beats traffic. Don’t chase traffic that’s already on existing roads. Instead, become the topic that people search for.

I’ll cover further detail on these more effective thought leadership techniques for financial innovators in future blog posts.

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