5 UX principles that will improve your B2B content marketing

The UX of B2B Content Marketing

The UX of B2B Content Marketing

These days, many B2B companies will at the very least claim to be customer-focused. Whether it's in their R&D efforts, customer service or their marketing, most believe they put the customer first. The truth, however, can be quite different.

While there are many areas in B2B content marketing that aren't new, one that can bring marketers up short is just how pathologically customer-centric it is. Everything is geared to discovering what the customer wants pre-sale, and then giving it to them in a helpful, accessible (even entertaining) way. 

Of course it makes perfect sense: delivering the right message to the right customer at the right time is a core component of Marcoms 101. But all too often, companies focus on what they wish their customers want rather than what they actually want and need. As a result, their marketing lacks relevance and empathy – it gives the impression that they're simply not living in the same world customers are. And that's a direct route to poor effectiveness.

In a world awash with (pretty crappy) B2B content, brands that offer the best experience – delivering the greatest value when it's needed in the most easily accessible ways – will win. Yet the user experience (UX) of most B2B content marketing is often sadly ignored. Of course, across web development UX is now a pretty established (if evolving) field, so what can we learn from how UX professionals approach the customer? Here are 5 lessons for starters:

1: It's what the customer takes in, not what you put out, that's important

Effective communication is always about the recipient. What marketers want to pump out has little bearing if it is not what the customer wants or is ready to hear. It doesn't matter how eloquently you think you've articulated your value proposition, if the customer takes out something different, that's a fail.

2. Walk a mile in your customers' shoes

Empathy is critical to delivering a great user experience. Yet, too many marketers still focus on what they think their customers care about rather than what they actually care about. Sadly, wishing doesn't make it so. It's vital to park the corporate ego and focus on what really matters to your customers and prospects – what interests them, what they struggle with, what keeps them awake at night.

3. Focus on context

Different customers will have different content needs at different stages of the sales and marketing funnel. It's pointless focusing exclusively on products if the customer doesn't even know they have an issue. Likewise, it can be just as damaging to focus on a grand, all-encompassing 'vision' if all the customer wants is to be able to select the right product quickly and easily. So understanding and catering for variations in context is key. 

4. Limit choices and distractions

Content cramming is endemic in B2B marketing. Ebooks that end up as a hodge-podge of various ideas. Landing pages that offer 15 things to click on in addition to the call to action we're being judged upon. Emails with several irrelevant calls to action battling for attention. In the real world, customers have neither the time nor the patience for this and will reward it by simply going elsewhere. 

5. Make it easy for the customer to extract value

Customers have a default position that can be be summed up in the phrase: What's in it for me? So being clear about what your content offers and making it easy for customers to get what they need quickly and easily is fundamental to success. This will often involve taking a layered approach allowing the customer to go deeper as and when they want to. Having an easy, logical content pathway through the sales and marketing funnel will ensure customers can get what they need, when they need it.

We are, of course, only scratching the surface of what UX can teach today's B2B content marketers. But it's clear that by putting real customers at the centre of everything we do, we can ensure that our B2B content has greater relevance, higher value and increased effectiveness. And, ultimately, that's what it's all about.


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Crossing the chasm – meeting the challenge of mid-funnel content

Crossing the chasm – meeting the challenge of mid-funnel content

The brutal reality of B2B content marketing is that some content is simply easier to create than others. 

Most businesses, for example, have plenty (often too much) bottom-of-the-funnel content. They have datasheets and product guides coming out of their ears. Those companies who are beginning to get more serious about content and, particularly inbound marketing approaches, are starting to invest in more top-of-funnel material – the business- and issues-focused content that often manifests as ebooks and Slideshare 'rant' decks. These set up the 'why' of the argument: Why should the customer care in the first place? Why should the issue (let alone the product) get on their crowded radar?

Both top- and bottom-of-the-funnel content are relatively straightforward to produce. At the bottom, you need a good understanding of the relevant products and services and what they mean for potential customers. At the top, you need to understand the issues from your customers' point of view and be willing to take a stand, to articulate a viewpoint that differentiates your brand and creates empathy.

That leaves the middle.

Difficult, difficult, lemon difficult

Middle-of-the-funnel content (or MoFU as I recently saw it hilariously described) is tricky. Actually, tricky isn't really the right word. Unless by tricky we mean tricky in the way that cracking a safe is tricky. There are a thousand ways to get it wrong and quite a few will do more harm than good. As a result, this is an area that many companies (and content marketing agencies for that matter) shy away from.

Yet mid-funnel content is critical to overall success. It's the essential glue that connects the 'why' of top-of-funnel thinking to the 'what' of product and service. Too many businesses do a great job of thought leadership only to leave prospects floundering about what to do next (even when their datasheet library is fit to burst).  

Thinking beyond the B2B case study

Often, companies will look at their mid-funnel chasm and immediately reach for the case study. In this way, they rely on the old-school holy trinity of whitepaper for top of funnel, case study for mid and datasheet/brochure for bottom and sales enablement.

The thing is: mid-funnel content is not about format.

While case studies can plug the mid-funnel gap, all too often they are too skewed to product messages. The customer's issue is given a cursory glance in the first paragraph and this is then followed by a list of what they bought with some matching testimonial quotes. (Check out our article on case studies for more on making them work harder.)

The mid-funnel balancing act

If top-of-funnel content answers why? and bottom-of-the-funnel material answers what?, mid-funnel content must answer how? It must show how the customer can meet the challenges they face. Importantly, it must do so while focusing more on process than product. However, it mustn't forget product either – bear in mind that the ultimate goal of mid-funnel material is to accelerate prospects further down the funnel where they will want to engage with sales. 

Essentially, it's about balance. Think in terms of the classic 80:20 split – 80% process, 20% product – and you won't go too far wrong.

Some mid-funnel content ideas to get you started

So once you exhaust the humble case study, what else can you use to plug the mid-funnel gap? Here are four for starters:

  1. Workbooks – practical guides that walk the customer through the stages of meeting their challenge
  2. Best-practice guides – that aggregate the latest thinking on how to approach key challenges
  3. Diagnostic tools – that help customers analyse where they are and what they need to do next
  4. Days in the life – that provide a spin on the classic case study by showing a day in the life of a customer and how they are meeting their key challenges
And to be clear, each of the above needs just enough product or service. Just enough to make the link to show how much easier/faster/cheaper it would be to follow the same process while using our product.

While mid-funnel content can be difficult, the fact that it is a relatively uncontested area and has the potential to have a significant impact on overall success means that it offers real opportunities for B2B marketers willing to grasp the nettle.

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Image by Alberto Otero García

The Emperor's new content marketing

The Emperor's new content marketing

The Emperor's new content marketing

If you spend any time looking at the bit of the internet focused on B2B marketing, you won't be able to escape the hype and froth around content marketing. For many, it's the next big thing. In fact it's the only thing. In fact, if you're not doing content, what are you doing? For others, who've been around for a bit, content marketing is just a new name for some pretty traditional tactics. After all, they've been producing white papers, case studies and newsletters for years. So what's the big deal?

Of course, many of the traditionalists are delighted to now call what they've always been doing content marketing. Why not? There's more interest from management and more budget being assigned to content than ever before. 

For their part, the new B2B content evangelists are happy to ratchet up the noise. Especially as they tend to make their money either teaching people how to do content marketing or selling systems that support the process.

The truth, as is so often the case, is somewhere in between.

Is content marketing old news?

It is absolutely true that a lot of B2B content marketing uses many of the types of content that have been regularly employed over the last couple of decades or so. However, it does so while addressing one of the major issues that generally plagues B2B marketing – value.

All too often, traditional B2B content is (just between us girls) simply commercial messages dressed up in a content wrapper. It's spam in a nice tin. You know the thing. It's the case study that's a thinly-veiled product punt. It's the newsletter that's simply about account wins and new product launches. It's the white paper that's just a long-winded product description in a dull format.

As such, customers (being the smart people they generally are) see through this pretty quickly. Just as quickly (they're busy after all) they move on to something more interesting and useful. 

The real difference in today's B2B content marketing

The real key to the success of content marketing is not about format. You can have the best ebooks, the most sublime videos and the punchiest of case studies and still see crappy results. The reality is that all these will fail unless you shift your focus fairly and squarely onto your customers. Sorry.

B2B content marketing is not primarily about what you want to sell to customers, it's about helping them get things done. This might involve teaching them something new or challenging their thinking or giving them the tools to actually get stuff done. The point is: it's all about the customer first.

But what about making sales?

Now, if you read some of the blogs, you'll be forgiven for thinking that the move to content marketing means never trying to sell anything ever again. They give the impression that sales will somehow magically happen while you're having fun creating your latest groovy infographic. That customers, awed by your magnificent content, will beg you to take their business. This is, of course, utter nonsense. 

Strangely, some of the early blogs for companies who took this line are looking a hell of a lot more sales-focused these days. It's amazing what staring down the pointy end of an empty sales funnel will do for you.

So to be clear: B2B content marketing is 100% there to help you sell stuff. By mapping your content to the various stages of the sales funnel, you should be able to attract more prospects, accelerate their progress and close more deals. However, trying to do it with a tired old white paper that adds zero value to your customers' thinking is going to achieve nothing.

So maybe the Emperor isn't quite so buck naked after all.