It's time B2B content marketing got real

 The Get Real Guide to B2B Content Marketing

The gurus say one thing. Your results say another. It’s time to get real about what really works in B2B content marketing.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that content matters in B2B marketing.

But for many, the words they hear at the conferences and on influential blogs don’t match up with what they’re seeing in their businesses.

Let’s take an example analysed by Mark Higginson in an article for Econsultancy. He focuses in on Amex’s Open Forum — a much-praised hub of insight and advice for small businesses. Their top post gets 17,346 shares — impressive. Until you realise that the average for their other 1,300+ articles is just 200 shares.

Of course, if that was an isolated incident, there’d be little to worry about.

A one off? Sadly not.

For example, let’s look at the fact that, according to research by Forrester, just 27% of senior marketers strongly agree that they’re seeing satisfactory business value from content marketing darling Twitter (Forrester’s Q1 2015 Global Social Relationship Platform Wave™ Online Survey).

Or take research from Vanson Bourne that shows that while 94% of IT marketers use social and 71% are planning to spend more on it, just 20% of IT decision makers use social to shortlist potential vendors.

Houston, we have a problem.

While the latest must-do activity changes, some things do not.

The overall objectives for B2B content have remained remarkably consistent in recent years. Technology Marketing’s B2B Content Marketing Report for 2016 shows the top priority as Lead Generation (55%) followed by Brand Awareness (38%) and Customer Acquisition (37%) — though, interestingly, Revenue is a poor 9th on 22%. Other research has reported much the same thing year on year.

So why is there such a mismatch between objectives and results?

Well it comes down to a few things — four to be precise.

  1. Strategy isn’t being approached in the right way, linking marketing to the wider business realities
  2. There is insufficient customer-focus (in a way that will lead to increased revenues and shorter sales cycles)
  3. Too many brands suffer from poor differentiation in the minds of their prospects
  4. And content marketing is prioritising content over marketing (and is too obsessed with the latest bright shiny tactics)

Marketing success = business success

While so much of the popular discussion around marketing today focuses on what marketers are doing (social, content, ABM etc), too little takes time to ground it on why they’re doing it. Or if it does, it tends to focus on the outcomes of individual activities (how many shares something got).

The reality, of course, is that marketing is a function of the overall business. Its role is to add tangible value. This can mean a number of things — growing brand, depositioning competitors, engaging investors, launching products — but ultimately they pretty much all come back to increasing or accelerating revenue.

This means that any content that doesn’t link to the wider marketing strategy and to delivering tangible business results will always be ineffective in the eyes of senior management.

Any successful content marketing approach will have customers at its core.

Let’s face it, creating empty, navel-gazing material is a guaranteed direct route to failure (even though a distressingly high number of brands who should know better still do it). So focusing on the customer will always make good business sense.

But it is one thing to reflect what customers find interesting but another to tie their interests and objectives with yours. So while many businesses churn out “interesting” top 5 listicles that may generate some clicks (sometimes lots of clicks), they’re failing to move the prospect towards a sale.

What will you teach your customers?

Research from CEB has clearly shown that being able to educate customers about their own businesses is a fundamental marker of success in B2B.

Those that manage this out-perform all others by a staggering margin. So when we talk about being customer-focused in B2B content marketing, we mean helping the customer achieve their key real-world objectives in a way that has a direct line to how your business makes money.

Importantly, this will often mean actively trying to persuade customers to stop doing what they’re currently doing and start doing something new. Or it will mean showing them fundamental issues in their businesses that they may be currently unaware of. Or it will mean helping them get unstuck from a situation holding their businesses back.

Attention spans are getting shor... ooh, look, a cat in a bow tie

Customers today, have frighteningly short attention spans. They’re busy. They have never-ending to-do lists and not enough time.

As a result, they probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the intricacies of a new ERP system or VoIP provider except when they’re in the final stages of a buying decision. This means that it has never been more important to develop a strong, differentiated brand. 

Creating meaningful differentiation means that, in that limited time a customer thinks about solving a particular problem, they’re more likely to think of you.

Buyers will assign more importance to things that are easy to recall.

It’s not only that customers are more likely to think of you if you have real differentiation, they’re more likely to think better of you too. This is a cognitive bias known as the availability heuristic. So, if they’re starting to research how to fix a problem in their business, they will gravitate to sources of information they can easily bring to mind.

This may be a media outlet: Didn’t The Register run and article on that recently? Or it could be a contact: Didn’t Sarah put in a marketing automation system last year? I wonder what she thinks. Or it could be a vendor: I’ve heard a lot of businesses like mine use Marketo, I’ll go check them out.

While ‘brand’ has become a somewhat unfashionable area of marketing, having a strong, distinctive brand has never been more fundamental to success. Whereas in the past, this would often be around elevating key attributes, today, it’s those brands that are associated with being the most knowledgeable, helpful and human that tend to stand out. That is, those brands creating the right kind of content.

Too many people get marketing strategy mixed up with executional tactics.

It’s why we see so many questions about the need for a SnapChat strategy, a chatbot strategy, a VR strategy. Let’s be clear: these are not strategies, they’re at most tactics and at least media.

Marketing strategy is the process of identifying meaningful business outcomes, making hard choices about what to focus on and outlining a broad course of action to achieve those outcomes.

Strategy is not about deciding how to best use social media, or whether to create videos instead of how-to guides, or how to structure a lead nurturing programme. These all come later (if at all) when the core strategic foundations are in place.

So when you read articles on B2B content marketing that start with the need for an editorial calendar, big red warning lights should begin flashing in your head. There are too many ‘comprehensive’ guides that pay little or no attention to content as part of a wider programme with tangible business objectives. They’re all about the activity rather than the outcome.

Getting real about B2B content marketing

The right content marketing done in the right way, works. It builds brands, creates demand and accelerates sales. What’s more, it can achieve all this without the need to play the long game that so many pundits claim — why run a marathon when you can sprint?

Thing is, once created and structured in the right way, this content can keep on performing week in, week out. What begins as a targeted outbound demand generation campaign can seamlessly become an inbound source of additional traffic and leads, or an on-demand triggered nurture programme.

And, by tracking results — qualified leads, pipeline, sales velocity rather than likes, shares, visitors — and running low-risk tests, you can continually tune your approach over time.

7 keys to real-word success

So what does it take to create the right kind of content marketing? Start with the following seven areas:

  1. Be clear about what success looks like in business terms and the role marketing and content can play in delivering it

  2. Focus on what really matters to customers within your sphere of influence (not what you wish matters to them) — don’t get side-tracked chasing clicks that will never turn into revenue

  3. Develop highly actionable personas — it doesn’t matter that the buyer is called Sue and likes Zumba, it does matter where she sits in the buying process, what she really needs to fix and what’s a deal-breaker for her

  4. Create cycles of content focused on the sales funnel — think campaigns first, triggers second and air cover third

  5. Focus each piece on the next behaviour you want to see from a viable prospect

  6. Invest in great writing that talks to customers in their language, not jargon-filled business-speak

  7. Measure and track everything, create low-cost experiments, adapt and refine for increased results

While this is by no means the whole picture, it does provide a foundation for B2B content marketing that delivers against the real-world demands of the business. It means that you can more closely tie your content marketing activities to actual results. Ultimately, it means you can create the kind of marketing that engages both customers and senior management.

The award-winning Considered Content

We don't usually go in for the whole chest-beating-trumpet-blowing-self-congratulatory thing. But if you'll indulge us, we're going to make an exception. That's because we've got some rather exciting news (for us anyway).

Last night, we attended the Recommended Agency Register Awards in London and walked away with the top award for Content Strategy in agencies of under 40 people.

What's particularly gratifying is that this is an award that is solely judged on client feedback—no dark room with other agency types deciding who they like. What's more, we were up against some much larger, more established shops (let's face it, most agencies are under 40 people).

Beyond the pure score, it's the verbatim feedback that's been so wonderful to receive. Such as...

"Considered Content has become the default agency of record for our US company, against whom any other provider is now measured. They've set a very high bar for professionalism, thought-leading strategy for B2B, and content creation and execution of end-to-end campaigns taking place in email, web, video, and educational materials."


"As a B2B marketer contracting with an agency, my requirement is for every sentence written to serve a purpose, compelling audiences to read the next; to provide a truly compelling answer to buyers' burning questions, and guide them to take action. Considered Content filters through the noise of all the marketing copy out there and makes every word count: lively, purposeful, results-oriented. "


"A combination of their professionalism and personalities makes this agency the only one a B2B brand need ever to engage. We started our partnership with them on a project several years ago and just kept re-engaging time after time. Even as different stakeholders have left our company, the first agency they turn to in their new roles is... Considered Content."


So we want to say a big thank you to all our clients who took the time to rate us, you are absolute stars. And thanks too to our industry partners and friends for your support and encouragement.

This is a really exciting time for us. We're working on a wide range of super interesting projects both in Europe and the US. And we're pushing ahead with initiatives that'll make us ever-more valuable partners in the race to increased revenue.

So thank you again.


(PS: If you know of anyone looking for an award-winning B2B content marketing agency, feel free to put them in touch)

The 4 types of B2B content marketing agency (and which is right for you)

B2B content marketing is a fast-developing discipline. While it's true to say that business marketers have pretty much always used content in some form or other (at least I struggle to remember a time of content-free marketing) the way it’s created and deployed today is tangibly different from previous eras.

It is also true that there are now tangibly different flavours of content marketing available (especially in business-to-business). Depending on your start point, objectives and general philosophy, you may take a very different approach to others in your industry. If you are running your entire content operation in house, this is unlikely to be an issue as it will be easier to take a slightly pick-and-mix approach. However, if you are partnering with a 'B2B content marketing agency', your partner's core approach will radically affect the kinds of activity you will undertake, the timescales you'll work to, and the kind of results you'll see.

To be clear, while we take a particular view on how content marketing should be done, there is no single right approach that applies to all B2B organisations. As such, the right agency for one client may be entirely the wrong one for another (even in the same industry).

In this article, we aim to offer a balanced view of the options open to today's marketers. While there are many slight variations on the types of agency you'll encounter, for ease of analysis, we've grouped them together into four main buckets. For each, we'll outline how they tend to approach content, why you might choose them, and why you might not.

 Inbound content marketing agencies

1. Inbound content marketing agencies

When content marketing really began to see traction as a new(-ish) way of marketing, it was inbound that captured most of the limelight. Driven by the clever folks at the Content Marketing Institute and the marketing machine at HubSpot, inbound is seen by many as the default way to do content marketing today.

The core focus of an inbound approach is that we should not market to people before they are ready. Instead, we should create content that enables them to find us when they have a need. In this way we will be more relevant to their needs and, subsequently, more likely to close the deal (after all, they will already see us as thought leaders in our space due to our content).

An inbound content marketing agency will tend to focus on blogging and articles as the core foundation layer for their activity. They normally operate on a monthly fee and work to an agreed editorial calendar. They will often create a core content asset and then re-purpose and 'atomise' it to make it work across multiple media and formats.

An inbound agency will measure and track content effectiveness through how well it performs in terms of the number of views and shares, and some will track this through to sales (especially where there is a marketing automation platform in place that is hooked up to the client's CRM system).

Many inbound agencies will have a heavy pro-social focus and will use social media to help amplify the content they create. In B2B, this will tend to revolve around Twitter and LinkedIn (although the more enlightened will also look at specialist communities).

In addition, some traditional search marketing agencies have moved into content marketing as the SEO space has become more difficult to compete within. For these, inbound is a natural focus (if geared more towards rankings than people).

Why should you choose an inbound content marketing agency?

An inbound agency will probably suit you if you are able to take a longer term view of your content programme. The approach works but it takes time — it is more of a marathon than a sprint. You will see increasing results as you create higher volumes of relevant content. It will also suit you if you plan to take the activity in-house at some later stage as an inbound agency will give you the running start you need to get some valuable momentum. Then, later, you can hire your own inbound team and transition it across.

It will also suit you if you believe that social media will be a critical driving force for your marketing in the months and years to come.

Finally, the monthly fee-based approach to charging means that you have a predictable recurring cost for all your activity.

Why an inbound agency might not be right for you

As mentioned above, inbound is about playing the long game. It is less suited to demand generation activity that revolves around quarterly performance. 

The kind of content inbound agencies produce seems to work better for smaller businesses, or those in niche industries. The tendency to focus on quantity and consistent posting schedules has led to variable quality in some areas (though the better agencies will be able to clearly demonstrate they can work to a high quality on a consistent basis). 

And the monthly billing, while predictable, can prove costly and restrictive in the long run.

 Outbound B2B content marketing agencies

2. Outbound content marketing agencies

Before we start this section, full disclosure: Considered Content is an outbound B2B content marketing agency.

Fundamentally, an outbound-focusedagency will take a campaign-based approach (even if these are always-on, perpetual programmes). Normally this will involve creating a number of content assets (often targeted at different stages of the buying cycle) and then promoting them via email, advertising and other paid activity. Many of these programmes will be structured through a marketing automation system such as Marketo, Pardot or Eloqua.

An outbound-focused agency should be able to structure the best flow for the campaign and know all the techniques for optimising effectiveness at each touch-point. They’ll also be able to plan out both calendared and triggered campaigns (or hybrids that have an element of both).

In addition to pure demand generation, an outbound agency will also run nurture and drip campaigns, using content to score and move prospects towards being a marketing qualified lead (MQL) that is ready to be passed to sales (along with all the history of the lead to that point).

While there will often be quarterly themes in place, outbound agencies tend not to focus on developing editorial calendars. Instead, the approach will work back from the specific campaign results we want to see within the specified timeframe.

Traditional integrated marketing agencies and account based marketing (ABM) firms tend to fall into the outbound category (though not always).

Why should you choose an outbound content marketing agency?

An outbound-focused agency will suit you if your key objectives revolve around demand generation and lead nurturing — particularly if you are quarterly-driven in terms of delivering results (the ability to clearly demonstrate effectiveness is a bonus for sales- and results-focused cultures). 

Outbound also works well for companies that have invested in marketing automation and need to plan and feed programmes. It should enable you to move your automation on from a simple email service provider replacement to a more intelligent system that can add increasing value over time.

If your agency works on project-based remuneration (vs open-ended hours-based billing) you should also be able to more accurately track expenditure against return.

Why an outbound agency might not be right for you

The key factor here is data. If your data is poor and you do not want to take steps to use third-party data or partner with a media owner, an outbound content agency is unlikely to be able to deliver the results you need. 

Likewise, if you do not have the ability to execute – either via a marketing automation system or using a combination of email provider (eg MailChimp) and landing page system (eg Unbounce) – then, again, outbound won’t be the way to go.

And if you’re fundamentally opposed to interruption marketing, you’ll be better off taking an inbound approach.

 Media-led content marketing agencies

3. Media-led content marketing agencies

Media-led content marketing agencies have evolved out of more traditional media buying firms. These agencies primarily work with media owners on a paid basis to create and promote content assets to the publisher’s readership.

The assets themselves may be developed by the publication/site’s creative and writing teams or developed as a piece of native advertising by the agency — one that looks and feels a lot like the site it appears on (very much like a modern advertorial).

Services will also include paid search and paid social placement (and all the planning and strategy that sits beneath this). There will often be an element of email distribution sent direct from the publisher who may also manage the initial leads this generates.

This may go further to include cost-per-lead activity where the publisher commits to a certain level of performance for a price agreed with the client.

Why should you choose a media-led content marketing agency?

If you do not have good data or are entering a new market segment, a media-led approach can quickly give you access to the people you need to get in front of. The brand reputation of the media you partner with can also deliver a halo effect around your own content.

If you are committed to a heavy social media element, a media agency will help you amplify your message with smart pay-to-play approaches.

Good media agencies will also be skilled in reporting and analytics, showing you the results you’re getting for your money.

Why a media-led agency might not be right for you

If you are partnering with a media publisher to host and promote your content, you will need to be comfortable with the fact that the destination for leads (and the value your content delivers) will be the media owner’s property in the first instance. 

As with traditional media, you are also dependent on the media owner’s audiences being as engaged and committed as they would have you believe.

Finally, media-led approaches can be an expensive option, depending on the publisher and the competitiveness of your marketplace. (This is less so for simple PPC-style and limited retargeting campaigns.)

 PR-led content marketing agencies

4. PR-led content marketing agencies

Public relations firms were one of the first to fully realise the value of getting content into the right hands — it’s pretty much been their focus all along. In moving more explicitly into the content marketing arena, they’ve taken their eye for a newsworthy story and applied it to content creation. 

PR-led agencies will look to blend their client’s objectives with what journalists and analysts will see as valuable for their audiences. Of course, the definition of a media channel is changing rapidly, so PR-led agencies will normally also include outreach to key influencers on social media as part of their approach. 

Good PR professionals are skilled at making connections. They will focus on getting into a meaningful dialogue with journalists and influencers (not just spamming them with pitches for their latest release). In doing so, they can create a valuable two-way conversation that will amplify results over time.

Why should you choose a PR-led content marketing agency?

PR-led approaches are particularly valuable to businesses that need to build credibility fast. The ability to have key influencers talk about your products and viewpoints in a positive way offers significant value. Likewise, becoming a go-to source for quotes from a key publication can turn your people into respected thought leaders.

This also offers a way to drive greater awareness of your brand and products within a tighter timescale than some other approaches (particularly inbound).

And the monthly fee-based remuneration offers a predictable cost model.  

Why a PR-led agency might not be right for you

Ultimately, PR approaches are highly dependent on the views and attitudes of journalists, bloggers, analysts and other influencers. Your message/content will always be filtered through the lens of what makes sense for them and their audience. Results are therefore more variable than for either media-led or outbound approaches. 

On the whole, PR approaches are better at delivering awareness than marketing qualified leads (though many PR agencies would probably disagree). So if you are lead generation focused, a PR-led approach may not be the most effective option open to you.

What every good content marketing agency should be able to do

While we’ve looked to highlight the relative strengths of different approaches to B2B content marketing used by agencies today, whichever approach you take, there are certain abilities that should be mandatory:

  • The agency should be able to understand your business, your markets and your buyers
  • They should have outstanding copywriting abilities — bad writing is where B2B content goes to die
  • They should be able to help you get to the core of your message and positioning (and give you a hard time if you aren’t sure yourself)
  • They should be clear about what success looks like with their approach (and be just as clear on potential stumbling blocks)

Ultimately, B2B content marketing offers a highly effective way of moving prospects and customers from ignorance to interest to sale. The challenge is find the right partner for your objectives, timescales and corporate culture.

If you think that the right approach is outbound, we’d love to talk. You can reach us at Alternatively, if one of the other approaches looks better suited to your needs, get in touch and we’ll introduce you to an agency we recommend.