Combining the Power of Technology and Relationships

Few studies have been as illuminating as IBM’s 2012 ‘Leading Through Connections, in which 1,700 CEOs revealed the main issue keeping them awake is not the chaotic economy – it’s technology.

Of all the external forces that could impact on their organisations over the next three to five years, 71% of CEOs list technology as the most critical. And if you are expecting the financial crisis to come next, you’re wrong – it’s relationships.

Of course, the word ‘relationships’ is not used. Instead, 69% of those asked cited ‘People Skills’ as their secondary concern. Throughout the document, the word ‘relationship’ only crops up several times, despite the spotlight being on “connection”, “engagement”, “collaboration” and “partnership”. But they are talking about relationships. And so are we. And so are you, all the time, throughout your organisation. You just didn’t realise what immense value that touchy-feely word possesses.

‘I didn’t know you knew each other!’
According to Ginni Rometty, President and CEO of IBM, businesses are responding to the connected economy by recognising the “potential of recent advances in social media and analytics to reimagine connections among people”. CEOs are grasping technology’s power as ‘an enabler of collaboration and relationships’.

Yet, statistics describing the sources CEOs cite as key to sustained economic value flag up a startling discrepancy: companies are not linking technology and relationships in an operational or strategic way. The top two sources were ‘Human Capital’ (71%) and ‘Customer Relations’ (66%). ‘Technology’ and ‘Data-Driven Insights’ only ranked 6th and 8th.

It is naïve – and dangerous – to approach these core elements as separate entities; to assign them to separate departments; to imbue one, as these statistics suggest, with hierarchical priority and resources over the other. Passionate SEO speakers, like Trond Lyngbo, often bemoan the reduction of SEO to number-crunching for tech guys. Intelligent SEO that moves beyond keywords and rankings is firmly rooted in Maslow hierarchy and principles of applied psychology that should see it firmly embedded in the work of your senior marketing and leadership teams. As Lyngbo says: “When SEO consulting is grounded in psychology and strategy, the entire method has more punch…It can harness synergies with marketing ventures like social media, public relations and more.”

Soon, this won’t be such a radical idea. As CEOs predict, in three to five years the digital world will dominate planning. Don’t be one of the companies leaving it too late, still treating these two key components as different ends of the see-saw. Make no mistake: when packaged together, technology and relationships form the fulcrum on which the future of your business will balance. And the sooner you start streamlining your organisation to reflect this, the more poised you are to drive outperformance.

Don’t be the last one at the party to find out about their relationship.

How to Turn Your Relationships into Business Success
Now you are in on it, here are five reasons to put relationships at the heart of your business development…

1) Clean, Lean Relationship Machine
Traditional SEO or PR agencies sell you access to their relationships, or build relationships on your behalf. The last thing they want you to know is that you already have relationships that are really useful. A leaner approach not only makes good business sense, it demystifies the SEO process and imbues it with a transparency that supports sustainable, ethical development of your company. In a study of Fortune 1000 companies by Booz Allen Hamilton and the Kellogg School of Management, research showed that the top companies were more relationship-focused than sales-focused. Building new relationships is massively important, and there may be benefits to outsourcing at times, but harnessing your own existing relationships compounds the significance, authority and longevity of the linkage, leading to more meaningful outcomes. As one of the CEOs interviewed in the IBM study, Hartmut Jenner of Alfred Kärcher, advises: “You can copy products, but you cannot copy…relationships”.

2) Leveraging Your Existing Assets
What do you think are your most important relationships? It is not a comfortable question – particularly in a meeting that you expected to focus on data and analytics. We have become squeamish about the r-word. We prefer ‘networks’, ‘affiliates’, ‘members’ or ‘links’. At the other end of the scale, social media parlance over-uses the word ‘friend’. It has even taken on new currency as a verb. What if we started talking about being “relationshipped” in business terms, in the same way as being ‘friended’ on Facebook? What would ‘being relationshipped’ entail?

It could be the CEO flying to New York and taking an old friend out to lunch, the MD commenting on her favourite online journal, or the marketing team following 300 people on Twitter. It could be the whole organisation listing their most-viewed websites, or discussing who they went to college with. It could be your company hosting a seminar day for key stakeholders, or inviting a blogger to design a product with you.

Let’s return to the opening question. Like the CEO squirming in front of me, you’d be forgiven for asking what this has to do with SEO. As CEO Si Conroy, founder of, has been finding out, it has everything to do with SEO. Surprised to learn that the enquiry included both reciprocal and non-reciprocal relationships, Si made a list of all the sites he regularly visited. Ethical SEO conducted analytics to assess each site’s strength and priority, before working with Si to develop strategies for capitalising on them. Harvard Business Review was the primary target. Until now, Si’s relationship with HBR was one-sided – regular reading and frequent fantasising. He had to let them know he existed. He began by writing a well-crafted comment in response to one of their reports. A short while later, they emailed to inform him that they admired his comments so much that they wanted to publish them in the print edition.

This doesn’t mean everyone should start leaving comments on the HBR site. But it is worth considering which high-value, relevant sites you frequently visit and planning how you capitalise on the time, energy and schema you have already invested in that relationship. Failing to consider existing relationships could undermine your whole SEO strategy. I’ll never forget working with someone for almost a year, building towards exposure on a certain high profile website, before finding out they went to school with the site-owner. The client just hadn’t thought it was valuable information.

3) Google Likes You to Have Friends
SEO is all about relationships. Put simply, Google likes you to have friends. It mirrors real life in assessing your popularity in two ways: quality and quantity. If you heard about someone whose friends included Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, you would think they were pretty trustworthy, right? Same if Google sees your name appear on sites it esteems. It also likes low-level volume, just as if you’ve got a lot of friends telling you John is a good guy, you’re more likely yourself to like John. The more Google trusts you, the more visitors it sends to you – the greater chance you have of achieving your goals.

Google likes the word ‘relatedness’. When we are mapping out your existing relationships, we think about what they talk about and how they talk about your business. The more related the better for Google. Then we combine the power of relationships and technology. A lot of metrics can be used – and this can be entered into in much greater depth – but, for now, one of the simplest ways is Moz Rank. This tool provides one effective method of calibrating trust: Relatedness x Moz Rank = SEO value.

This has to sustainable – we are not talking about ten guest posts a month, because that is going to implode soon. It has to be an online-offline mix, and it has to come from you. Intelligent SEO helps you not merely with volume, but also quality of visitor – the best starting point being your existing relationships.

4) Yes, I Mean Real People Too!
The stalwart motto “It’s not what you know but who you know” may have been sullied recently by sinister old boy networks and a certain Cotswolds village, but let’s be clear – that’s not bad relationships, that’s bad business. Familiarity is a valuable currency, even more pertinent offline.

When asked by Ethical SEO to identify his key relationships, the MD and founder of Crunch, Darren Fell, took a completely different approach to Si Conroy. We used his session to explore his LinkedIn contacts and other people he knew. We quantified his current level of engagement on a scale of 1 to 100 and extrapolated value for each one based on prioritisation, web presence and relevance. This exercise was then repeated throughout the senior team and wider organisation.

Quantifying your relationships is becoming increasingly salient. A new score-based address book utility, out this month from Cloze, rates your email contacts based on when and how you communicate with them. It grabs data from Facebook and LinkedIn to tell you what people are doing and highlights relevant excerpts from your email history. It even flags up the high-rollers for you when you haven’t responded to their message.

Why is this offline connectivity so important?

  • Creating advocates
  • Creating disruptors – fresh stimulation from unconventional sources
  • Creating partners

Seeking out potential partnerships should be an aim of all employees, not just the execs, and you should encourage cross-pollination of peer connections with other agencies. For instance, a senior sales person at an international VAT consultancy had relationships with 11 separate contacts from a global oil client going back many years. We suggested they team up with their colleagues in marketing to plan how to get one of those contacts to introduce them to the oil company’s PR team, with the aim of commissioning joint research with mutual benefit.

5) A New K.P.I
Wharton Professor David Reibstein stated in ‘Connecting Marketing Metrics to Financial Consequences’ that over 50% of the value of the Fortune 500 was made up of intangible assets. Relationships are the most valuable of those assets. However, unlike other forms of capital, relationships have been perceived as too abstract to quantify, monitor and manage. This is not true. Whilst they may not be formulaic, by combining them with technology it is possible to use SEO to develop a new KPI for this touchy-feely stuff and model the impact.

Make Friends, Make Money, Be Happy, Make More Friends. . .
As a sales tactic, this is a slowburner. What I don’t hear very often is:

– “Oh Robin, didn’t I mention? I’m best friends with Richard Branson.”
– “Great, give him a ring and ask if he’ll paint your name on an aeroplane”…

But while the approach of CEOs to SEO has not yet embraced relationship-building, sales and marketing models have changed radically to incorporate the integral importance of relationships. We have moved away from the volume-based impersonal marketing funnel to holistic alternatives like McKinsey’s ‘Loyalty Loop, with its Bonding and Advocating elements. Microsoft Advertising has just unveiled its ‘Consumer Decision Journey’, which recognises the role of social validation and feedback (largely through social media) in brand sales and success. Natasha Hritzuk, global director of insights and analytics, explains there’s now a “final phase, where I buy something and like it but am not genuinely satisfied until other people validate for me that I’ve made the right purchase”.

This relationship-sales matrix applies equally to your SEO strategy and how Google views your business – validation followed by a boost in your popularity. Failing to prioritise such processes will leave you lagging behind the competition. The principal response of CEOs to technology is fear – fear they will fall behind as a company, fear they lack skills as an individual, fear of the unknown. And what better poultice for knotted brows than a friendly face? Digital development need not be scary if you start with the familiar.

Start right now.

Sid E. Fuchs, President and CEO of engineering and technical services company MacB, says he built “long-lasting relationships by focusing on the passions and interests of the people I meet”. One of the resounding messages in his book ‘Get off the Bench: Unleashing the Power of Strategic Networking Through Relationships’ is: “When you need a relationship, it’s too late to build it”. Don’t expect a hasty press release sent to the Harvard Business Review to be picked up when you most need it to be. Start thinking about that relationship today.

And if you’re still not convinced – ask 1,700 of the world’s leading CEOs.