The prevailing wisdom (on many blogs at least) is that content marketing is essentially an inbound approach where, to succeed, you need to produce a high volume of quality content to attract people to your site. Once you have them, you then nurture them with more content to help them move towards being sales-ready.
So far, so good.
Except, while plenty of B2B marketers are seeing some results, too few are seeing the kind of results they want (and were promised by the hype). In fact, according to a study by the Economist, 40% of companies feel they aren’t getting the return they need from their investment in content.
In short, it’s time for an upgrade.
In this guide, we’ll focus on the five top uses of content in B2B marketing today. We’ll look at the basics you should have in place (the price of entry if you will). Then we’ll highlight what you can do to upgrade your approach (and your results).
Let’s get started.
Increasing demand is the number one goal of the majority of B2B content marketers so it pays to do everything you can to deliver higher quality, more profitable leads.
Lead generation is fundamentally about two things:
From a content marketing perspective, you start with the second of the two and work back. You begin by identifying what your prospects want to achieve (preferably using something like the Jobs To Be Done framework).
Importantly, you do not start with what you want to sell (hint: they don’t care what you want to sell). You show them that you can positively affect their business and help them achieve at least some of the stuff their bosses and shareholders judge them on.
To do this well, you need to really understand your customers and prospects. What matters to them? What are their days like? What drives them insane?
Next, you need to segment your market into meaningful groups (that is, groups that share common pain-points).
Finally, you need to create content that helps them address these pain-points.
Do the basics well and you’ll be in pretty good shape. But it can still be a little scattergun. So how can you take things further?
Firstly look at your data. While no company is ever 100% satisfied with their database, poor data can be crippling to content marketing success. You can produce the best content in the world but if the right people never get to see it, you’re wasting your time and money.
Chances are, you’re going to need to look at how you distribute your content. This will almost inevitably require some form of paid promotion (even social is fundamentally pay-to-play today).
Options will range across using core platforms such as LinkedIn to looking more deeply into specialist trusted sites and publications where your specific audience hangs out and goes for information. Partnering with a key media property to distribute your content can be a wise investment.
Secondly, look at the content itself. Sadly, too many companies still assume that their customers care about them. They don’t. This leads them to produce essentially self-serving product-led content that only appeals to those customers who are in the final stages of short-listing a solution. (Content which the Economist’s research found is a turn-off for 71% of business executives.)
Instead, look at everything from a religiously customer-focused point of view. What do they care about? What don’t they care about? What keeps them up at night?
Then focus all your efforts on helping them out.
(For extra credit – always make your content active. That is, have a clear idea of the next action you want the prospect to take and bake that into the core.)
While demand generation is increasingly number one on a B2B marketer’s list of content marketing objectives, it then raises the question of what to do with the leads once you have them. Traditionally, they simply got tossed over the wall either to sales (who complain about them) or resellers (who, all too often, ignore them).
The problem, of course, is that B2B sales take time (somewhere between six to nine months on average). No matter how good any single campaign, it’s rare you’ll deliver instant sales off the back of it (with the exception of lower cost items and some trial-to-purchase SaaS applications).
So what do you do with the ‘not right nows’?
Lead nurturing is by no means new to most B2B marketers. Traditionally, however, it was often something that happened on the sales side of the fence. In recent years, this has shifted. The criteria of a marketing qualified lead (MQL) or sales accepted lead (SAL) has become ever more stringent. This has led to lead nurturing now being a marketing responsibility for most B2B organisations.
On a very basic level, creating a drip marketing campaign for lead nurturing is as simple as finding reasons for maintaining regular contact with a prospect. This is often achieved through new case studies, some regular webinars and the obligatory monthly emailed newsletter. The idea, of course, is to simply stay top of mind until the prospect is ready.
This is borne out by different research which shows that on average a B2B buyer will consume around five pieces of content before they feel ready to talk to a sales person.
Better still (though still firmly in the basics) is to ensure you really understand the stages any lead is likely to go through on their way to becoming a sale after initial awareness. These will vary by company but as a rough and ready approach, you can look at interest, consideration, evaluation and, finally, purchase.
You can then structure your nurture campaign into communications that map to each stage.
As an early step towards better lead nurturing, we can, of course, use marketing automation to create automated nurture flows. This will enable us to trigger communications based on customer behaviours (or inactivity). We can then score these activities and build up an understanding of when a nurtured lead should be passed to sales.
We can look deeper into a prospect’s pain-points for each stage together with points of friction that may stop them moving forward. For example, in the consideration phase, prospects may have identified that they have a problem but not see it as urgent or important enough to warrant action. We could then develop content and communications to reinforce the fact that by not acting, they are harming their business’s competitiveness and losing revenue. (Note: this should be a zero-FUD exercise.)
We could also look more explicitly at behaviour. At Considered Content we use a behavioural change model that was originally developed to help people quit smoking (and which has been used for a wide range of behavioural change initiatives since). We do this because lead nurturing is fundamentally about changing behaviour – starting something new, stopping doing things the way you always have, overcoming barriers and inertia.
Different types of communication will unlock different stages of activity. So, for the ‘contemplation’ phase, a prospect will know they have a problem and begin looking for a solution. However, the danger is that they will do this endlessly. The solution is to engage them with more visceral, emotionally-led content. This will help provoke action. Then we also need to help them picture a world where they have overcome their challenges – making this as real and concrete as possible.
For each stage, we ask a number of questions:
(There isn’t room here to go into the full model. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to geek out over a bit of behavioural psychology.)
Marketing automation has taken the world by storm – especially in business-to-business. The promise is clear: You can now deliver more targeted, more relevant, more effective communications than ever before. Better still, you can automate virtually the entire process, freeing your time. And you’ll get all the data you need into what’s working and what’s not.
What’s not to love?
Well, the thing is, while marketing automation can deliver all these things, making it live up to the promise is not always quite so straightforward. There can be an expectation that you will end up with something like a big red ‘leads’ button that, when pressed, will automatically hit all your objectives. The truth of course is quite different.
As we mentioned earlier, the first thing to focus on is not the system itself, it’s your data. But let’s say your data is ok (not perfect but ok), then what?
First off, you should as a matter of course be segmenting your database. This sounds obvious but too many companies still use marketing automation as a batch and blast tool. Each segment should receive tailored messaging that talks directly to their most pressing pain-points. This is key in a complex B2B sale where you will often have business, finance and technology specialists making joint decisions – and this is before we begin talking about vertical segments.
You should be testing everything you send. From subject lines and calls to action through to offers and design, everything can be improved through systematic testing. Also, running low-cost pilots to small segments of a market or territory can offer important proofs of concept when you are exploring new messages and positions. And you are making all your emails responsive aren’t you?
Landing pages should be stripped back to focus 100% on the action you want to see. If this is to download a piece of content, anything that does not increase your response rate for that individual content item should be ruthlessly eliminated. Again, test different options – copy, design, buttons, forms – to discover the optimum combination that delivers the best results.
There are many, many ways to upgrade virtually every aspect of a marketing automation programme.
Personalise your communications. By this, we’re not just talking the “Hi Jason” kind of personalisation (it’s largely overrated).
Look to personalise the offer, the content, the reinforcement – everything.
It’s one thing to get a communication that says, “Hi Jason, download our free guide to CRM.” It’s another to get, “Hi Jason, download our free guide to CRM for content marketing agencies – a guide that’s been downloaded by 7 out of the top 10 leading firms.”
Score your prospects. Work with sales to understand what a buyer really looks like. Unpick the stages they go through from anonymous visitor to final sale.
Of course, no lead scoring is ever perfect, you will need to refine yours constantly as you learn more about how people buy from you. Place more value on how prospects behave than what they say – actions speak far louder than words. And make sure you have negative scoring in place – eg putting in penalties for inactivity over time or for visiting your careers page.
Group prospects into different tiers so you can segment communications both by where they are in the buying cycle and their likelihood of converting. Then, have a slick process for routing qualified leads to sales (or to your resellers) which has detailed feedback built in so no lead is ever left behind.
You will invest a lot of time and money into your marketing automation, so it pays to extract every last drop of value when you do.
We all want access to smart people who can give us valuable insights we can use to grow our businesses. While it is possible to find a technical solution to most business problems, getting real intelligence that will help you make a significant step-change is far more rare.
The secret to good thought leadership is contained within the title. Thought. And leadership.
The standard to aim for must be very high. You are competing not only with other vendors’ content but with mainstream publications and a never-ending number of extremely well-written business books.
At a basic level, you need to be focusing on developing thinking that moves things forward. Me-too material is better viewed as thought followership and will underperform across every metric.
More than this, your thoughts need to be relevant to both your prospects’ businesses and yours. When reviewing your content, look at it through a cynical customer’s eyes. Keep asking, “So what?” Cut out any fluff and filler – people simply don’t have time.
So you now have real thought leadership material that is cutting-edge and relevant to your customers. You’re now ahead of at least 80% of the market. But what about that final 20%?
A major step is to ground your thinking into everyday reality. Even if you can’t provide case study examples for forward-thinking ideas, you can still illustrate what putting your thoughts into action would mean. This will help readers move from abstract theory into real-life practice.
Look at commissioning original research. It doesn’t have to be crazy-expensive and can be used, re-used and repurposed across a variety of projects. It will also be some of the most effective content you’ll ever create.
Look at your tone of voice. Too many companies hear the term ‘thought leadership’ and assume they must produce something dry, academic and impartial. So they end up producing dull content that no one reads. Instead, think in terms of creating a manifesto. Pick a fight with old out-dated thinking. Take a stand.
Doing this accomplishes three things. It helps your content stand out from the crowd. It attracts like-minded customers who will be easier to convert and more profitable over time. And it dissuades those companies who were never a good fit for your business in the first place.
Sales enablement is a terrible term. Really. We should stop using it right now. While it’s well-meaning, it has become a lazy shorthand for the most basic marketing support – the kind of ubiquitous presentation and leave-behind combination that hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years. It’s no wonder that SiriusDecisions found that up to 70% of content produced by marketing is never used by sales.
So what’s to be done?
Firstly, understand that the line between marketing and sales is becoming increasingly blurry. This is a good thing.
Customers do not recognise this division when they purchase from your business (though they may when they choose not to). For them, the purchase journey is more dynamic, more seamless.
It is all about determining their business needs, assessing the available solutions and finding the right fit for their organisation. They should never feel the joins as they move from suspect to prospect to MQL to SAL.
This means that ‘sales enablement’ needs to take an end-to-end view of the entire sales process (not sweep in like Batman at the last minute to save the day).
The basics start with positioning and messaging. Too often, even today, marketing communicates one thing only for sales to talk about another.
Ensuring there is alignment between the two is fundamental to ongoing success. Importantly, this can’t be an imposition by one group on the other – it must be a genuine team effort. Where you are struggling, getting a third party in to help can often break down stubborn barriers to success.
From here, you need to understand and document all the key stages in a sale – specifically, the opportunity stages sales track in their CRM. Then, look at specific points of friction in the sales process – the places where sales get stuck, or go into reverse, or vanish from the face of the Earth. Next, work to identify the kind of content and tools that can help ease this friction to get the sale moving again.
Finally, determine what should be communicated by who and when. Effective scoring will help, of course, but this doesn’t have to be about the hard hand-off. For example, you may want communications from marketing to deal with higher level issues and be more ‘designed’ while those from a named sales person to be plainer and more granular. Both can be automated.
There has been some excellent research into what makes the very best sales people outperform all others (in many cases by ~200%).
The surprising thing is that it’s not all about relationships as many would expect. Fundamentally, the top performing sales people are those who can teach their prospects and customers something about their own businesses.
This has a direct bearing on how you can upgrade your sales enablement. However, it does involve a significant rethink for many businesses.
At its core, this means refocusing sales enablement materials away from being all about the product or service being sold, and placing the spotlight firmly on the prospect’s business and how you can help them achieve their goals. It’s a move away from what you want them to buy and toward how they can achieve the things they care about most.
Produce content that helps your sales people tell better stories. Not just the classic case study – ‘X company had a problem with Y, they fixed it with our product’. Instead, focus far more effort on telling stories about the core business issues customers face:
This is what prospects find really interesting.
Again, ensure all your content is active. By this we mean that each piece of content should have the next action baked in. Too often content can attempt to jump to a sale before the prospect is ready. Just as often, it can leave prospects in a ‘that’s interesting, so what?’ state. Yours should take its place in a carefully planned series of steps, each selling the next desired behaviour.
If you’re already investing in B2B content but not seeing the return you need, the good news is there are a ton of ways to improve its performance. Of course, sometimes it can be difficult knowing where to begin.
We start with a simple discussion – no PowerPoint, no big sales pitch – just an open conversation about the challenges you face.
Then, if we can help and there’s a good fit, we’ll go from there.
Drop us a line at email@example.com and we’ll set up a time.
Jason Ball is the founder and managing director at Considered. With a multi-decade career in B2B marketing, he’s worked with world-leading brands such as Adobe, Google, EY and Cisco together with niche specialists in technology, manufacturing and professional services.