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.

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Image by khyes

You've got a marketing automation platform. Fantastic. Now what?

You've got a marketing automation platform. Fantastic. Now what?

On the delivery side of B2B content marketing, few recent developments have had quite the effect of the rise of marketing automation. At least, of the promise it offers. Today, B2B marketers have a wider choice of platforms than ever – from Eloqua and Marketo at the top end through Silverpop and Pardot and on to the lower cost, but still perfectly capable, Hubspot.

The appeal is clear. The ability to have a single platform to deal with virtually all interactions over an extended B2B sales cycle is incredibly seductive. The chance to serve up different experiences based on customer behaviour should make our content more engaging and effective. And the opportunity to virtually set-and-forget whole campaigns should make everyone's lives easier.

Of course, back in the real world, all too often things aren't working out that way.

Just like email (but more expensive)

Over the last couple of years I've had numerous meetings with B2B marketers who have bought into the dream without really understanding what it will mean on a day-to-day level. They find themselves in charge of a incredibly powerful toolkit but then struggle to make anything with it.

The result is that, for all the talk of self-running marketing machines, more often than not marketers end up doing little more than running the same kinds of basic email campaigns that they did before with broadly the same results (except that it's cost them more money). 

Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of marketing automation. For B2B marketing it is almost certainly the way forward. Where we are now is simply the pregnant pause before the main event. 

So what are some of the main considerations you should factor in as you move ahead with marketing automation? There are many, but here are three for starters:

You're going to need way more content

It's no surprise that the rise of marketing automation is happening at the same time as the rise and rise of content marketing. While content doesn't require marketing automation, marketing automation certainly needs content if it's to deliver on its promise. This is clearly evidenced by the sheer volume of content (much of it very good) that the automation vendors put out on a regular basis. Importantly, you'll need content at each stage of the buying cycle as well as for each major segment you target.

You'll need to get serious about buyer personas

Who are you really selling to? By this I don't just mean 'IT managers in mid-market companies across the UK, France, Germany and Spain'. What are they like as people? What is motivating their current actions? What behaviour do we want to see from them? What's stopping them behaving this way? While it's important not to get silly about segmentation, being able to talk to key groups differently and meaningfully will be critical to the success of your marketing automation efforts.

You'll need to think about both calendars and triggers

While there is still a lot of one-off content marketing happening, most B2B marketers are realising that over their extended sales cycles, they're going to need a more consistent on-going programme of activity. This is leading to the more widespread adoption of editorial and activity calendars to give more structure to a brand's communications and messaging over time. Of course, a marketing automation system also gives you the opportunity to deploy triggered activity (if a customer does X, they then get Y). This means you can more accurately identify where a prospect is in the sales cycle and deliver active content that leads customers and prospects to the next target action. While a calendared campaign can often be re-used as the basis for a triggered approach, both need planning in advance.

Marketing automation is, of course, a huge topic – one we're certain to return to many times. It is set to become the default for how B2B marketers deploy more relevant, compelling and effective campaigns. The challenge is to go into adopting the technology with eyes wide open.

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Image by Klearchos Kapoutsis