Sales literature, demo videos and case studies – good content has always had a place in B2B marketing. But modern, digital and data-driven content has impacted companies beyond the marketing department. Companies can build relationships on a brand level while still retaining the personal touch; they can nurture trust and loyalty, differentiate themselves in a noisy marketplace, and gather invaluable insights to inform strategy at a business level.
It seems a lot to demand of one marketing channel, but when done right, content really can be that powerful.
Buyer behavior has changed
In the B2B sales process, the balance of power has shifted. Approaching companies for an estimate used to be one of the first stages of sourcing. Today, B2B buyers are 57% of the way through the purchasing decision before they talk to sales teams [mycustomer] – if they do at all. 59% of B2B buyers preferred not to have to interact with salespeople at all. [intelligenthq]
Buyers today have huge amounts of information at their fingertips, wherever and whenever they choose to search. That information doesn’t just come from vendors: customers voice their opinions on review sites, blogs and social media. And depending on what field you’re in, you may find government bodies, scientists, researchers and industry associations chipping in with their own content.
Just as we expect more as consumers, businesses are also expecting more and the buyer-vendor dynamic has radically altered. Customers expect to be listened to, from the way brands communicate with them right through to product development and the launch of new features.
Offering real value to your audience
Great content isn’t simply something that gets read. Great content captures the audience’s attention and imagination in a way that changes their behavior and makes them actively come back for more. To do this you have to offer something of value.
Most content seeks to provide value in the form of insight. This is because insight:
- adds evaluation and context to the facts or data to create a deeper and more rounded offering
- helps audiences understand the meaning behind the figures and to build a picture of how it is practically relevant to them
What’s more, insight could be as simple as a table comparing product features with those of a competitor; it could be as complex as a white paper report on industry-wide trends. Whatever insight you leverage, customers should leave your content feeling as though they’ve learned something, associating your brand with high quality and expertise.
Thought leadership positions your company (or an individual within it) as an expert in their field and a forward-thinker: someone who is intelligently considering the important issues before anyone else. As such, their insight is particularly valuable.
Thought leadership can be an extremely effective form of B2B content marketing. It builds trust and credibility with audiences and it opens up other avenues for marketing. Thought leaders are often invited to guest blog, comment on news stories or speak at events, putting you in front of new audiences.
But it is also a difficult tactic to get right. You must present a depth of knowledge that no one else has, either by already having that knowledge, or by commissioning targeted research. You must be able to second-guess the issues of tomorrow. You must have the skill or charisma to convey your opinions in an engaging way. And finally, you’ll need to spend time raising your profile by writing articles, joining in debates in forums and social media and guest blogging.
What content should you create?
When you first start creating content, you’re often bursting with ideas. But creating content that is high quality, meets your needs and those of your prospects, and is consistent on a long-term basis requires a strategy.
If you don’t have a content strategy, don’t feel too bad. According to Kissmetrics, while 94% of B2B marketers use content marketing, only 44% have a documented strategy.
Strategy means defining what you hope to achieve from your content marketing and laying out a plan for making it happen. While the ultimate goal is usually more sales, your content will work in many ways to support your overarching objective. Some content is there to raise the profile of your company or product, other content may hope to build a mailing list or social following, while others will directly address the sales funnel.
Equally, your content has to have a value for your audience. The best content is something which actively helps your customers do their job better. Whatever you are creating, it’s essential that you always remember you are writing for an audience, not for yourself.
Start by defining each of your audiences. Don’t make the mistake of assuming you only have the one – it’s estimated that 48% of B2B purchases involve more than four individuals [intergage]. Each of these have different roles, different interests and different capacity to influence the purchase decision. They may even have different preferences for content format or channel. Therefore, each one needs to be addressed separately.
Arm your prospects with content that helps them sell change internally
One good way to think about your customers’ requirements is to think about who their customers are. This is both in the literal sense, of the people they are trying to sell products and services to, and also in a wider sense. Everyone is trying to impress someone, whether that’s a line manager, a board of directors or voting shareholders.
This presents a fantastic opportunity for content marketers. If you can provide content to help them do their job better not only do you sell a product, you create trust and goodwill with that employee. You’ll be on the way to creating an advocate.
For example, if your product will help them cut costs, provide data to back up that claim and as far as possible, customize your figures to that specific company. If your product will make processes more efficient, explain the knock-on benefits in terms of reduced workload, improved turnaround and ultimately cost benefits. If your product makes their product better, describe how their customers will benefit.
At the same time, try to understand which of your competitors they are speaking to. You should know the competition well enough to know what selling points they will focus on and where your own strengths are. Think about how to counter their arguments in advance, and which individuals in the sales process you will need to win over.
Produce content around each problem your audience faces
Once you know your customers and your customers’ customers, you’re in a great position to start producing targeted content. Make a list of the questions you are regularly asked and all the sticking points your sales team have come across. Research what people are talking about on social media, what people are searching for, and what your competitors are talking about. Group topics into themes or stories. Think about how your audiences’ needs for content will change over the course of the sales process and make sure every stage is covered, including post-sale.
Ensuring you are producing content that your customers actually want is an ongoing challenge. Marketers often lack direct contact with customers and it’s easy to find yourself making assumptions. For example, a study found that while only 18% of B2B marketers thought product demos were effective, 31% of B2B buyers found them useful [LinkedIn]. The same study found that while marketers may be keen to explore more innovative forms of content, what buyers really want is simply detailed product information and help with best practice.
Using this content in the sales funnel
Of course, content doesn’t just have to solve your customers’ problems: it also has to benefit your business. Irrespective of what your company does or sells it will have something resembling a sales cycle, and all your content should work towards assisting customers through that process.
If you haven’t already defined your sales funnel, document the key stages your prospects go through on the way to becoming customers. Look at how they typically interact with you or your marketing at each stage.
For example, the earliest stages of awareness and discovery are likely to be internet based, and you will be trying to attract their attention through paid promotion or SEO. Content will focus on their problems and their impact and the benefits of solving them. Content will also look to raise the profile of your brand so that you are at the forefront of their minds later down the line.
In the interim stages, prospects will be aware of you and may have joined your mailing list or follow you on social media. They will be looking at the pros and cons of various options. Remember that for many prospects, not buying anything is one of these options. Your content will be focused on explaining why they need to take action, why they need to buy your type of solution, and describing the benefits. It will look to address the concerns of all the different roles involved, from the user to the budget holders to department managers.
At bottom of the funnel, the prospect has decided what to buy and is drawing up a list of potential vendors. Your content needs to sell your solution and your company over your competitors. For example, even with comparable products you might offer better after-sales care, or you might be more highly regarded in the industry. Reviews and third-party case studies are particularly useful at this stage. Remember that prospects may well be talking directly to your sales team. There may be potential to give sales advisers additional information, for example data that is too sensitive for general release.
While the traditional sales funnel often ends here, content marketers also need to consider after-sales communications. Focusing on sales is a short-term strategy, and marketing to existing customers is far more cost-effective than acquiring new ones: by some estimates, as much as one-tenth [Great B2B Marketing]. The lifetime value (LTV, or CLTV) of a customer is an important metric to be aware of. Once a prospect has become a customer, the nature of your communications may well change significantly in terms of tone, message and frequency.
Your content strategy must address the entirety of this process to be effective, which is another reason why having a documented strategy is so important. Prospects may not move through the sales funnel in a simple, linear process; they may get to a certain point only to stall for months or years. The only way to make sure all the possible requirements are covered is to create a comprehensive roadmap.
Once you’ve mapped out your content themes and outlined which topics to tackle first, you’ll need to think about how to present each story.
Don’t assume that B2B buyers just want text. According to Think With Google, 20% of B2B buyers watch videos as part of the purchasing decision, and 20% watch over an hour of content. Videos focusing on product features are particular popular, and inspired viewers to subsequently start discussions with colleagues and look for more information.
Another study, this time by Smart Insights, found that 37% of B2B buyers committed more than half hour of their time to webinars. However they also spent time on third party reports, case studies and whitepapers. For B2B buyers, it’s common to look at a number of different types of content in the search for information.
You will have a number of channels and content formats to play with so make the most of the positives and negatives of each one. Match the content format:
- to its goal
- to its place in the sales funnel
- to the primary distribution channel
Consider which channels your customers will be using. Why not try repackaging the same information in different formats and watch the metrics to see which one performs best?
How much content do you need to produce?
For many marketers the rule of thumb is “more content = better”. But too much content will overwhelm the most enthusiastic of buyers. The amount of web-based content available to buyers is increasing all the time, but large amounts of this is simply poor quality.
Most of us will have, at one stage or another, landed on a page that is badly written, incorrect or simply incomprehensible. According to marketing expert Neil Patel, 60% of B2B marketers create at least one piece of content each day, but 16% of them admit they are not very good at it. This means audiences are being subjected to huge volumes of largely poor quality and untargeted content.
If you’re lucky, your prospects will simply ignore your bad content. A more serious possibility is that you will actively push them away, leaving them feeling that you don’t understand them or their requirements.
In short, effective content is better than volume.
At the basic level, you need to make sure that all stages of the content funnel are addressed for each of the relevant buyer personas. You must have content that:
- addresses all the key concerns and questions about your product
- content that supports your sales teams
- content for each of your email lists and social media channels
This sounds simple, but this can represent a large amount of content in itself and reaching this position can represent months or years of hard work.
How much you are able to create on a daily or weekly basis depends on a number of variables, including your available resource. Don’t commit to a weekly newsletter or daily Facebook updates if the only way to meet that promise is for standards to slip. Quality, consistency and delivering on your promises are the most important things.
You should also be continually reviewing your older pieces, particularly those which have performed well, to update and recycle them. While a lot of content has a short shelf life, high quality “evergreen” content should form the core of your strategy. Although these pieces should be periodically refreshed, they will remain largely unchanged and will create long-term value for you and your prospects.
How to make your content stand out
It is increasingly difficult for marketers to make their voices heard. Not only are there genuinely competitive stories, there is also a huge quantity of cheap, low-quality noise. So how do you differentiate yourself?
Search Engine Journal suggests we think about the “true value” of a product. We don’t buy a product because it is innovative, or even because it is better than the competition: we buy it because of what we want it to do and how we hope it will change our lives. There is a definite place for product features, particularly in B2B, but we also need to describe how the prospect’s work life or business performance will be better once they have purchased.
Content marketing is all about telling stories, and Content Marketing Institute suggests we think about the “angle” of each story.
- What is the hook at the center of this campaign?
- What is it about this piece of content that is going to interest the reader and inspire them to read on?
Different voices can help too. By inviting customers, suppliers or commentators to collaborate with you it can give a fresh perspective to your content; without having to break your brand’s consistency. Within the B2B landscape, influencer marketing can be incredibly powerful as it adds credibility to your brand and helps you reach new audiences.
However, if you really want your content to take off you may have to start paying for it. Great content does not always rise to the top, and promotion and distribution strategies are having an increasing impact on the success of content. For example, the average organic reach of social media posts has been declining for several years [business grow], partly because of the volumes of free content now being published. Most platforms are monetized by advertising revenues, so it’s unsurprising that sponsored content can outperform the free competitors. The detailed targeting options available mean that you can put your message in front of the right people at the right time, without wasting budget on irrelevant views.
Testing and measuring content
One of the key differentiators between modern B2B content marketing and traditional marketing output is the data we now have access to. If you aren’t constantly assessing how your marketing is performing, you are shooting blind and ignoring a hugely valuable resource.
The challenge for today’s marketer is to make sense of that data. There are dozens of types of metric available for each channel, but not all are going to be relevant and it’s easy to get lost in the numbers. Unless you are lucky enough to have very large audiences, the data on individual pieces is likely to be too small to be statistically significant.
What constitutes success will vary from company to company. ROI (return on investment) may be at the forefront of senior executives’ minds, but it is difficult to tie individual marketing outputs to sales and organic content can take a long time to deliver results. Depending on your marketing plan, it may make more sense to link campaigns or entire channels to ROI and monitor individual elements or assets with KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).
As well as board-level data, you need to monitor which individual pieces are performing and understand why. This data may not ever be reported outside the marketing department, but it’s vital for you to get this feedback in order for your content marketing efforts to improve. As well as monitoring performance metrics, you can also run tests to see if layouts, keywords, colors or formats affect the success of your work.
While it’s easy to look for data in the numbers, don’t forget that soft forms of feedback are also valuable. If you’ve provided a whitepaper or user guide to a customer, ask them their opinion. Get feedback from the sales team about the effectiveness of the literature they use.
No matter what the source, all the intelligence you gather is valuable so make sure you document the lessons you learn and incorporate them into the next generation of content. Companies, products and industries don’t stand still, and the only way for your marketing to stay relevant is to keep evolving it. This requires constant monitoring, refinement and improvement.