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.

Lead nurturing and the role of active content in B2B marketing

Are you using active content in your B2B lead nurturing campaigns?

Are you using active content in your B2B lead nurturing campaigns?

B2B marketing is a long game. Unlike our B2C counterparts, few B2B purchases are a snap decision. No B2B customers wake up in the morning thinking, "You know what, I just fancy a new supply chain management solution, I'll pop down to Supply Chain Management World in my lunch break and buy one." 

Most B2B purchases take months (some take years). During that time all sorts of things can happen to derail the sale – changes of focus, changes in people, a simple change of mind by someone who matters. Keeping a lead moving towards a sale is a challenge for any B2B marketing department.

B2B marketing and the long sales cycle

In the old world of B2B marketing, many companies would take an approach based more on luck than strategy. They'd create an offer, shotgun it out to as many relevant prospects as possible and hope that a certain proportion might be in the market and want to talk at that precise time. It was a binary thing – either they were and could be thrown over to sales with high-fives all round or they weren't and it was on to the next campaign.

Even in this situation, it was easy to get caught out by surprisingly long sales cycles. I remember producing a direct marketing piece for a large networking business (back when men still wore hats and people did that sort of thing) which bombed. Died. A total write-off. Until six months later when the client could suddenly attribute a few million pounds in sales to leads it generated.

Lead nurturing has got smarter (kinda)

Of course B2B marketing has moved on (it has, hasn't it?). These days, we can be more intelligent about our lead nurturing campaigns. We can see how customers engage with our content, messaging and offers, and plan accordingly. We can produce different content for different stages of the sales funnel and drip-feed our communications over time. And we can use marketing automation to time and trigger communications.

But there's a problem.

Ok, there are a few problems, not least the fact that not so many B2B marketers run lead nurturing campaigns in this way as you might expect. 

But even looking at companies that do, all too often the content they use does not move their B2B customers and prospects onwards in the sales cycle. It either simply keeps them warm (and fuzzy) or tries to move directly to a sale before the customer is ready.

Is your lead nurturing content too passive?

You see this all the time. For example, in ebooks that are all very interesting (hopefully) but which end on a "If you want to learn more, give us a call." Of course, the argument for this is that these pieces are all about awareness. This may be true. But they can also form a critical part of your lead nurturing campaigns. So I'd prefer to have an aware and actively engaged prospect over someone who simply recognises my client's name.

For lead nurturing campaigns, this becomes even more important. It is easy for B2B customers to drop out of the funnel (to relapse as we'd put it). To counter this, each piece of lead nurturing content should be active. By this, I mean it should clearly sell the next desired customer action. 

Often, this will be to look at more content (moving from why to how to what). Sometimes it'll be to attend and event (either virtually or in real life). And at the very pointiest end of the funnel, it will be to contact sales (as long as we've sold the value of that engagement and sales has something useful to offer other than high pressure PowerPoint).

Planning active B2B content marketing

Now, one implication of this is that you need to have all the content for your lead nurturing campaigns pretty much ready to go when you start a campaign (especially if it's to be triggered by customer behaviour). You also need to have planned your content flow to match the sales funnel (as well as giving customers ways of cutting to the chase if they're ready). So you'll need to be quite structured in your approach.

But with these elements in place, you'll be in a better position to nurture your leads across even the most extended sales cycle.


Image by khyes

The content-powered salesperson

The content-powered salesperson

What makes a good B2B salesperson? Is it the most tenacious, who never gives up until they get the sale? Is it the one who reacts faster to solve a customer's problems? Is it the über-confident lone wolf? Or is it the one who focuses on relationships, making all the right human connections?

Many of us would say its this final one, the relationship-builder – especially in long cycle B2B sales.

In fact, however, it's none of these.

And the winner is...

The best salespeople – and, to be clear, by this I mean the most successful in generating actual sales – are the ones who challenge their customers' thinking and assumptions.

In probably the most comprehensive study of sales force effectiveness (over 6,000 salespeople across 90 companies), the Sales Executive Council has examined just what separates star performers from average ones – and to put this in perspective, we're talking about star performers who in complex, considered-purchase environments are out-performing the average by almost 200%

The results have been published in The Challenger Sale (which I wholeheartedly recommend). The research found that Challengers are by far the most likely to make up the star performing group (39%). The least likely? Our friends the relationship-builders (making up just 7% of star performers). 

The Challenger Sale.jpg

As the authors point out:

"Surveys of customers consistently show that they put the highest value on salespeople who make them think, who bring new ideas, who find creative and innovative ways to help the customer's business."


"What sets the best suppliers apart is not the quality of their products, but the value of their insight—new ideas to help customers either make money or save money in ways they didn't even know were possible."

So we can see, success lies, first and foremost, in having a business-focused conversation with prospects. A conversation that takes their thinking in new and interesting directions.

The role for B2B content marketing

These findings could (and should) have a massive effect on how we approach B2B content marketing. Companies may be creating great thought-leadership content to feed the top of the funnel. They could also be developing process-focused mid-funnel content to lead prospects toward becoming marketing qualified or sales accepted leads. But, all too often, they then simply throw these leads over the wall for sales to do their product thing. Job done.

In fact, the research found that Challengers need just as much thought-leadership material as their marketing-focused colleagues. As the authors point out:

"The thing that sets Challenger reps apart is their ability to teach customers something new and valuable about how to compete in their market."

This means doing four things:

  1. Focusing on the the unique strengths of your offering
  2. Challenging customers' assumptions – connecting your insights to their business
  3. Catalysing action by showing how the solution delivers against customers' business objectives
  4. Scaling the approach across customers so that it becomes replicable

Content marketing can help salespeople succeed in every one of these areas.

It can bring out your unique strengths in a way that's totally focused on what they mean for your customers' business success. It can help your salespeople with business-level insight they can use to have more profitable and effective conversations. If it is what we call active content, it can naturally lead them on to the next action in the sales cycle. And as a methodology, it can scale across segments and markets so that your salespeople do not have to reinvent the wheel every time they go in to a new meeting.

While most of the thinking around B2B content marketing focuses almost exclusively at the marketing end of the spectrum, it's about time we all focused a bit more on the sharp end of sales.


Image by Satomodel