B2B content marketing - from mediocrity to excellence

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 23, 2013
At every trade show I attend, I run into companies that have b2b marketing resources - but not results. Why?

B2B content marketing has come a long way from the 'WTF is that?' phase. Lately, I've seen pieces that lay out tactics for entire content marketing departments. Yet for every trade show I attend, there's a run-in with a company that has resources - but not results. Why?

The truth is they are stuck in some form of content marketing mediocrity. That doesn't necessarily mean their content is mediocre. It usually means that a key piece that ties it all together is missing.

Successful B2B content marketing requires two very disparate skills:

a. soulful/expert/human content that is hard for companies to create; and
b. ways to measure the return on that content and convert traffic to leads

As you might expect, enterprises have a much easier time with the measurement part than the human part. Fostering a genuine community around your brand turns out to be a heck of a lot harder than it looks - even those who pull it off often make a serious mistake in the process (read on). Content that is personal and relevant enough to pull readers is the starting point for community - that desirable  'stickiness' we are all after.

The good news is that the tools for assessing content effectiveness are getting more sophisticated by the day, and while some of the tools are costly, there are plenty of free ones that are way better than nothing.

I find that companies don't struggle with the measurement and analytics part - they just don't have enough traffic worth analyzing. If you're in a tools frame of mind, the Content Marketing Institute just published a post with a collection of useful content analysis tools. Social Media Today compiled 50 tools for social media monitoring, analytics and measurement.

Here's the steps to avoiding B2B content mediocrity:

1. Don't fall for the social media hype circus. Over-estimating social media effectiveness is a recipe for blah results. As I've written before, data indicates companies are learning this the hard way. In a recent survey I cited, InsideSales found that just 5% of those surveyed believe that social media is a highly effective method for generating leads.

We can speculate as to the reasons why everything from email marketing to webinars regularly outperforms social for lead gen, but I believe it's cart-before-horse problem: Companies that have figured out how to become digital publishers and use social media as a 'spoke' to drive traffic to their web site ‘hub’ are the ones experiencing the social media lead generation success.

2. Address the 'interest flow' problem. The reason Jack Lemmon presses Kevin Spacey for the Glengarry leads in the classic Glengarry Glen Ross is that he knows to grow his sales, he must get beyond the fishbowl of his established contacts. Content marketing operates on the same principle. The best approaches have a well-thought integration of three forms of content:

  • a. compelling 'free' content (this is the content most easily shared and most appealing to casual readers)
  • b.'free premium' content that sits behind a registration firewall that provide enough value to justify the time spent signing up for the content
  • c. product-specific content (demos, FAQs, customer Q/As and case studies) that are appealing to those who are moving from curious readers to interested prospects

Companies are getting pretty good at the 'free premium' content, but any kind of sign up process introduces friction that will be unappealing to readers who are not yet sold on your relevance. Another mistake is to either neglect case studies as archaic or to over-estimate their relevance to casual readers.

As I wrote in the Forgotten art of the customer case study, reference stories still have an important place. Indeed, all types of product-specific content is still useful, both for keyword search and active prospects. The mistake is pushing brand-laden content on social channels. Product pitches are a dirt-poor substitute for industry content that draws readers who aren't ready to buy.

Most companies are falling down with that outer tier of relevant and easily shareable content that Hugh MacLeod has dubbed social objects. In turn, the screws up the entire lead generation flow and botches up community before it can sprout.

For an example of a company that has nailed down this three layer integration, have a look at Hubspot. These inbound marketing specialists have really figured out how blogging fuels lead generation, and have the stats to prove it. Their 'free premium' content is well-integrated into their blogging academy and other resource centers.

And yes, social media would form the fourth layer outside the free content. Once the other three are functioning well, social participation is much more effective. By then, you have put a face on your brand, make that many faces - each having industry-specific conversations with their peers and sharing easy-to-consume content that genuine helps people.

3. Forget the content hierarchy - conquer the sticky blogginess. I have taken swings at 'content hierarchies' before. I used to like them; I'm still partial to aspiring to the top of the content pyramid with bigtime events like virtual tradeshows. But you can throw money at those - hire an event planner, pay speakers, make it happen. You can't throw money at blogging in the same way - thus the struggle for stickiness.

There are three forms of blogs that are useful:

  • company updates and news items (only moderately useful but will appeal to those drinking the Kool-aid)
  • how-to-guides appropriate to your industry
  • opinionated and creative 'industry leadership' content

'a' is the no brainer, though there is an argument for a separate blog or section for such news so as not to bog down the industry expert feed. 'b' is a bit easier because you can hire a good outside writer to interview your subject matter experts and post such content if your own employees are time strapped.

I continue to be amazed by how many companies haven't posted informative blog posts on the top 25 questions that readers type into search in their particular industry. I have had several clients that actually balked at doing this. They seemed bored by the seemingly dull practicality of such posts, content to publish on topics that aren't tied to their specialization. Guess what? The search traffic generated by authoritative reference content is anything but dull.

'c' is the hardest and most important. opinionated and creative content that puts a human face on your business and lends both credibility and personality is the gold. The huge catch? You can't hire an outside writer to do this kind of content (unless they are expert at ghost-writing for executives). You can, however, hire an editor who knows their stuff to pull the content out and get new writers launched. But you may need a corporate edict to get them going. Now you are on the slippery slope of culture change. That's why this stuff is hard. Expect your employee writers to need some coaching to purge the product pitches and techno-babble from their pieces.

Forget about making it work if you don't give folks some freedom of expression. A few guidelines, yep - but rigid PR restrictions will fail you here and muzzle folks into uselessness. Two of my favorites are Vijay Vijayasankar of SAP and JP Rangaswami of Salesforce.com. They have very different styles - Vijay writes many of his posts on his iPhone, I'm betting JP has a different form factor for his longer missives  -  but their content is creative, imbued with a personal style. You read those two as smart people with really good ideas. The brand sentiments that get worked in are mostly of the trojan horse variety - and highly effective for pulling in those 'Glengarry' type readers Jack Lemmon was after.

4. Don't overlook blog comments as a metric. At digninomica we have a number of ways to slice and dice our traffic. For me, one of the most important is blog comments. With media as hectic as it is now, every blog on your site is not going to get a big comment stream. But if you have hundreds of blogs and very few comments, something is seriously wrong.

5. Careful with virality and stirring the pot. Going for viral sensation is appealing and some marketeers swear by it. When your quarterly review is a month ahead, gimmicks that will blast out your page view count are tempting. You may be surprised that I don't take a hard line against these things, but they better be backed up by facts and feed into your expertise. Example: producing viral animal videos doesn't do anything for your e-commerce software. When in doubt, err on the side of credibility; play the long content game. Bean counting managers better understand it takes 6-12 months for a good content strategy to bear juicy fruit.

6. Don't put a wall between content and commerce. This is the most controversial item on the list - there is a segment of Internet culture that rejects the intrusion of commerce into community. But it's the future. What most of us object to are the nonsensical ads of the Facebook variety that have no bearing on our interests, or the interruption marketing pop-ups we have to force through to get to articles. On the other hand, contextual opportunities to sign up for webinars, upcoming events, or purchase premium products are considered value-adds by most readers - as long as they are relevant to the content on the page they are consuming.

If you separate the two, you could wind up with a thriving content site and a low traffic product site. That's a recipe for poor lead generation and revenue shrinkage. Just yesterday I talked with a major content site that made this mistake. They built a high traffic content site that has no integration with where all their commercial products lives. That makes no sense.

Now they have the monster task of merging the two. It's not the worst problem to have, but merging sites can wreak havoc on your search rankings. Get out in front and mix community and commerce from the get-go. Pay attention to visitor feedback and tweak the model as you go, but set the tone early. Imposing the merger later is not fun.

Final thought

We all have our off days with content that doesn't fly. And even excellent content can sometimes go unnoticed for whatever reason. But if you consistently post content that is informed by these strategies and infused with passion for your field, you're going to veer towards excellence - and results.

Photo credit: Excellent © DOC RABE Media - Fotolia.com

Disclosure: SAP and Salesforce.com are both diginimoica premier partners as of this writing.

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