B2B Buyers are changing; we are all publishers now - answering the top audience questions

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed August 14, 2018
Summary:
Recently I put my content strategy for the B2B buyer to the live test. The audience had some terrific questions. Here's a rundown of the event and the top questions asked - with links to audio.

man-with-change
I love to put ideas to the live audience test, without notes or slides. On the issue of reaching the B2B buyer - the topic of my diginomica informed buyer series - I got that chance at a Massachusetts podcamp. A podcamp is an unconference inspired by the podcasting genre, so I also taped the session.

At the podcamp, you pitch your session on a sticky note, so everyone can see the title. You're allowed to walk out of sessions at any time. I didn't lose anyone this year; I must be getting better.

How relevant is this podcamp chat? It's a fair question, given my audience was made up of small business owners and practitioners, with one medium-sized business. As it turns out, concerns about reaching buyers are very similar to that of the large enterprises diginomica focuses on. The difference comes down to tactics. In particular, how those tactics are operationalized.

Certainly the software used to manage customers and content is different. The issue of culture change to achieve what I'm about to lay out is universal, but probably tougher in larger companies, where the project failure stakes are more complex, if not higher.

But one big honking theme stands out across B2B companies of all sizes: earn your buyer's trust, and you have a big edge. I believe content is a big part of that edge. But - there's more to it.

How to reach the B2B buyer - an overview

Here is a brief overview of the principles I outlined, followed by the toughest questions I got from the audience.

1. Buyers are changing across industries - the decision-making process varies by industry and company size, but as a rule, B2B buyers are more informed. They conduct more of their own research and have sharper BS filters against marketing blitzes. They value informative content over sales platitudes. The impact of peer reviews is another example of a more empowered consumer - and a more social/networked buyer.

That shift puts pressure on sales, marketing - and the entire business - to be more customer and content-focused. One common mistake? Targeting the buyer too narrowly.

2. You don't just want to reach the buyer, but the community around the buyer. That includes influencers and subject matter experts who impact the buying decision. That also includes audience members who will never buy, but who influence the buyer.

3. Break down the marketing wall - don't just market to the community, become a part of the community. Earn your place in the buyers' trust network - through topic authority and freely shared content (not just your own content, but thoughtful curation and distribution in your community/vertical).

Great content via topic authority is hard. But you still have the problem of content distribution, and the more fundamental problem of earning - and sustaining - attention. Buyers are distracted; earning attention is tougher; buyers spend time inside massive walled gardens like LinkedIn and Facebook that are beyond your algorithmic control. Search still matters, but counting on audiences to remember you amidst the noise is now naive. Therefore, the goal for reaching buyers is:

4. Build opt-in audiences/communities via the content that buyers care about, thereby earning trust and credibility. Opt-in is a value exchange that (should) build trust as buyers invite you into their notification streams and inboxes. Become a part of the communities you serve. And, as folks opt-in, they are sharing data that allows you to better understand their needs and what moves the needle. This is done through a combination of free (searchable/shareable), sign-up, and/or paid content - preferably multi-media.

Mapping content to the sales cycle and so-called buyers' journey is still relevant, but only to a point. Buyers journeys are hardly linear, and you want to reach buyers whether they are in buying mode or not. That means being perpetually relevant by sharing industry info that matters.

Sum: you want to be searchable, subscribable (opt-in), social (accessible and relatable), and measurable (measure the results of your efforts and make course corrections). I am skeptical about social except as the last step after shareable content is created. At that point, the advantage of social is less about pushing content, and more about being accessible to those who have questions about it - from a position of topic authority. Accessibility and transparency matter for trust.

5. Earn and maintain your topic authority with two main kinds of content. I've detailed this before, but the two main types are: so-called thought leadership/opinion content which advances the conversation in your industry and gives you a relatable voice and personality (yes, larger companies can do this too).

And: helpful content that shares your customers' experiences, founded on a bedrock of customer use cases and testimonials. You can even get your customers involved in sharing that content - if they are passionate about what you've done for them. Use a "hub and spoke" model to share and distribute content. Usually, your own web site should still be the hub, even if a couple of the social media spokes are crucial.

That's the cliffs notes version of what I've broken out in prior articles. So what were the top questions from the audience?

How accessible should you be?

The first point I was challenged on: being socially accessible can be a time suck. How can you put out great content and run your business, when you're bogged down replying to emails and social postings?

Good question. All good content strategies must be sustainable. The answer: remain accessible (and make sure your subject matter experts are accessible also). But: take advantage of content formats that allow you to round up frequently asked questions and share them with your audience via FAQs, blogs, and webinars.

Be wary of in-depth content responses to one individual (e.g. email) unless you can repurpose it for others. Set reasonable response and content expectations and honor them. Consistency trumps a frenzy of output. Communities don't need another burnout.

Does social media really impact the B2B buyer?

And: isn't there a diminishing return on time when you invest across social networks? Great point. We must have an intimate grasp of the community we are serving and where they are hanging out. For most B2B companies, LinkedIn is the most relevant network to be a part of, with Twitter taking on importance for larger scale events or hashtag discussions. Facebook usually less so, except for consumer/lifestyle brands.

I probably over-emphasized social in this session, because most Podcamp attendees are looking for social media know-how. But in most B2B fields, email is still the superior marketing channel that puts butts in seats.

However, few folks want to discuss topical content via email replies. And who wants a private discussion on a topic your whole audience cares about? That's where social pays off. It's true that most B2B buyers are not active socially. But those who influence their decisions often are. Understanding the network that impacts your buyer is vital to your social strategy. It's usually a mistake to market to one buyer persona, and not to those they network with and trust.

We shouldn't accept a naive push to up our social game from social media gurus. Not all social efforts are created equal. If you're just posting blog links to LinkedIn, you might not get the same traction as if you posted original content to LinkedIn. And if you have a LinkedIn group with 10,000+ people, your ability to reach buyers is much greater. Allocate time accordingly. But always take into account who is replying and opting in, not just how many are viewing. Vanity metrics are mocked for a reason.

What about spam and security filters blocking your content?

sticky-note
My official sticky note for this session

This is a tough one because often the issues are beyond your control. Example: you have to be a pretty special company to have a direct line to Google if they are shunning your opt-in newsletter into a spam folder.

Corporate firewalls can also block content, including content that connects to social networks or contains links. Corporate precautions against viruses and malware are making content distribution more of a pain.

This uphill reality - one more roadblock in the struggle for attention - doesn't invalidate the power of content, but it does underscore why you want a passionate audience and an active community around your work. Those folks will respond to your troubleshooting questions ("did you get our email?) because they are willing to go the extra mile to get your stuff.

That's why you want to put a human face on what you do. Being solely reliant on an online presence limits your content effectiveness. In this case, the attendees' company was not putting on events or presenting sessions at industry events. Those are important for solidifying relationships. They also provide ideal opportunities for discussions about which content is reaching your audience and which isn't. In this case, it sounded like the attendees' own firewall was part of the problem.

That's another part of the culture challenge. The alternate title for my session was: “Buyers are changing -  sales and marketing must change too." The implications of those changes is a theme I'll return to. But a little content birdie told me my colleague Den Howlett is cooking up a piece on this very topic, and last I checked, he was a pretty good chef. Stay tuned.

End note: this piece is part of my ongoing series on the informed B2B buyer. You can also check out the full podcast discussion, Reaching the informed B2B buyer (and their networks) - an informal podcamp session with Jon Reed.

Updated 7am UK time with a number of links to prior pieces for more context on each point.