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.

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.


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.


Image by Alberto Otero García