Why search is so important for the executive audience

The other day, a colleague stopped by my desk and asked a question that took me aback: “Executives don’t really search that much, do they? That’s the domain of geeks, right?”

The question implies that most of my work has been misguided. I primarily work on sites built for the executive audience and I place search as the most important facet of content strategy for this audience type. I have written here and elsewhere that more than 85 percent of the executive B2B tech audience starts their journey with search and more than 70 percent of them continue to use search throughout the buy cycle. This information comes from numerous studies by Google, Tech Target and others.

If the premise of my colleagues’ rhetorical questions is correct, my work is a fraud. Also, if I’m wrong, site performance improvements I have seen over and over again using my methods are also a fraud. Fortunately, In the soul searching that followed his question, I have reassured myself. Not only do I trust the studies, but I have done deeper research on why executives use search so extensively to make purchasing decisions. I presented the research this summer at the Social Media Strategies Summit. But it bears repeating in this context. If you’re interested, please read on.

Search is the best way to learn new things

For as long as I have practiced SEO, pundits have been proclaiming the death of search. In articles too numerous to list, the self-proclaimed experts on the web have declared that users hate to search and they only do it because navigation is so screwed up, they are forced to search. My own opinion is quite the opposite: When users are presented with new information challenges and too many options to sort through one by one, they prefer to let the search engine filter them. It is simply the most efficient way to find new information. And it is getting better and better.

There are times when we prefer other ways of getting information. I use Twitter, for example, to get the best information on my area of expertise. If you follow the leading experts in a field, you are bound to get fed more information than you can possibly consume on a topic. This is what social media are best at: Helping you geek out on a topic.

But if you try to take a systematic approach to learning a new topic, you will miss a lot of information on social media platforms. First you have to know whom to follow, and that requires a degree of domain expertise. Once you follow the right people, you will miss a lot of information as it whizzes by like billboards on the Autobahn. This is where social media stumbles, and why executives especially like search. If you crack open the executive brain with me, you’ll see why.

Executives are generalists

Profile any senior executive and you will find one characteristic they all share: They have all led numerous diverse organizations. Executives climb the corporate ladder by moving from one organization to another and demonstrating leadership effectiveness at each stop along the way. To do this, they have to quickly get up to speed on the practices of the people they lead. Some of this involves trusting their people to help them get up to speed. Much of it requires research. In the digital age, where do they do this research? Search.

The executive understanding of the practices of their people is an inch deep and a mile wide. The more people that report up to them, the wider and thinner this understanding gets.

In contrast, developers and other geekier types (the people whom executives manage) are heavy users of social media. They learn from members of their communities the (sometimes closely held) tips and tricks of the trade. When I started in the tech field, forums were the places I would go to geek out. Now I just work really hard to follow the right people and publications on Twitter. And I try not to miss anything.

We are always learning new things, and for this we use search. Executives just have a lot more need of it than developers because they move around so much. When they make purchasing decisions, they don’t do it from an expert’s perspective using social media. They do it from a generalist’s perspective using search.