Breaking through the B2B content noise - how a few pros get it done

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed April 25, 2017
The B2B content game is getting harder to play. The tools are better, but the noise volume is deafening and audiences are distracted. Now's a good time to revisit what works - here's what I learned from three pros who got results.

B2B content strategy is facing a contradiction: The "martech" tools for tracking content are more sophisticated, including better attribution tracking.

We have analytics tools galore, and minor progress merging them into a viable stack or dashboard.

Bad content -> lousy data

But without effective content, there is no data. Or: without earning attention for that content, there is no data. That leads us back to the grinding questions:

  • What constitutes great content?
  • How do we produce sticky content at scale? What scale do we need?
  • How do we define engagement around that content? (are we chasing "clarity metrics" or "vanity metrics")
  • As major publishers capitulate to Facebook's platform, do we do the same? If our posts get ten times more views on LinkedIn, should we bother with our own blog?
  • How do we balance "distributed content" versus the tougher job of getting folks onto platforms where we control the presentation, landing pages, etc?

In my diginomica content strategy series, I've hit on these topics from many angles. Now I'm going to tighten it up. I'll begin by looking at three B2B pros who use content to "punch above their weight," not just in terms of branding, but business results. As we go, I'll extract some lessons.

Lemkin of SaaStr - "Mediocre content does not perform"

To say that Jason Lemkin, founder of SaaStr and the SaaStr VC fund, is punching above his weight would be an understatement. His small team puts up raw content numbers that would make larger content teams question their will to live. In his recent post, 50,000,000+ Views Later: What I’ve Learned About Content Marketing, Lemkin explains how his team did it. That includes building up his annual SaaStr Annual Conference, which projects to bring in 20,000 SaaS founders, VCs, and execs in 2018.

Lemkin's post is unusual in this genre; his honesty about what hasn't worked is rare. He even includes his own sponsors:

Mediocre content does not perform.  Contributed articles and boring sponsor posts on are read by very, very few folks.

He's open on his uncertainty on what drives the massive conference attendance:

Interestingly, we don’t really know why folks come to the SaaStr Annual.  The only source of ticket sales that is material is our newsletter list, but at only 30,000 subs, it’s not really enough on its own to drive the 10,000 attendance in 2017 and certainly not big enough to drive a 20,000 person event in 2018.

Paid marketing isn't worth the cost:

 Paid marketing doesn’t materially perform, and is expensive.

That doesn't mean content is a cure-all. Blogging on has waned in effectiveness:

As a group, direct traffic to has declined over the past 24 months — substantially... But far fewer people go straight to blogs.  As you probably could guess.  See, e.g., why Mark Suster moved to Medium for his blog.

Lemkin hits on which channels are working best. Twitter works to an extent but only with a certain volume of followers. Podcasting has been very effective for SaaStr, but Lemkin warns of the effort and production costs (video got less traction).

Yes, there is a B2C flavor here. SaaSy startups have broad consumer tech appeal. A 20,000 person conference is more of a low ticket/high volume game than most enterprise-level B2B pursuits. Lemkin doesn't get into the issues B2B marketers are most concerned with:

  • understanding which content converts
  • tracking how visitors become audiences, become subscribers, then become customers

I'm assuming, for example, that SaaStr's content and events have led Lemkin directly to significant business opportunities and clients. How that works for him would be a useful follow-on. Most B2B companies don't need the raw volume numbers Lemkin has achieved to get a business result. The big B2B issue is getting the right people to pay attention.

When I analyze a company's Twitter presence, for example, I look harder at who is actively responding to the tweets than the number of folks following. But that reflects a B2B bias towards reaching key influencers rather than fretting over viral head counts.

Mayfield of Pingpad - "There are too many spammy approaches"

Ross Mayfield brings a different take in Content Marketing Isn’t Marketing Content. Mayfield, co-founder and CEO of Pingpad, is also deep into the SaaS market. He's learned plenty in prior roles, leading marketing at Socialtext and also during his time at Slideshare. Mayfield points to the problem of market noise, cluttered by spammy content:

In today’s SaaS market, one thing stands out, nothing. There is too much noise. Standing out and engaging customers is harder than ever. And there are too many spammy approaches that hurt the brand and drain lead quality.

Content clutter leads enterprise marketers down a path of viral temptation. "Desperately seeking attention" might be one way to put it. But Mayfield says: don't be distracted from your purpose. Double down on what works:

Your goal is to connect with the right customers, and content is the connector.

Mayfield makes a point I haven't adequately covered:

The most important work you can do is to develop a brand narrative. Not just a story for how pieces of content string together in one quarter, but from the start of the company to the near future.

I call this a "rootable narrative." If the brand is the concert, the content are the songs. You might love a particular song, but you get religious about a particular band when you relate to their story.  Some brands have inherent advantages here. I just wrote about IHME - it's easy to root for their non-profit mission to share public health data.

A musical act, whether its Tool or The Beach Boys or Lady Gaga, also has an advantage - particularly when a culture or lifestyle shifts from the band to the audience. Most brands outside of sports and entertainment don't have that, but they can learn from it.

Big, for-profit companies have a tougher time with brand narratives. Apple is sexy, but I don't see many Verizon t-shirts around town. The solution usually lies in creating a more authentic/human touch. Then the story can be told.

Mayfield's got practical tips, such as content scheduling. His advice on multiple content formats ties into my piece on customer use cases as the bedrock for one of your two main branches of content.

Mayfield closes with two points. One I completely agree with:

Content now includes live experiences. Look to broadcast on FB Live and other apps whenever there is an appropriate setting to share a brand experience.

Another way of framing it: how can we keep the momentum going from our annual trade show? Done right, live experiences can rekindle that event spark.

I take issue with Mayfield's other point:

Customers are increasingly sensitized against registration to acquire content. Form-gating content is less effective now, so use it sparingly. Like once a year.

He's right that forms are usually way too complex. In most cases a very simple form is enough; more data can be acquired via subsequent "value exchanges." When done right, content-for-reader-data is a valid exchange that advances your analytics cause. In theory, you can then personalize your offerings, and hopefully convert more prospects.

What Mayfield is onto here is that UX is becoming the key content driver. Billions of people think nothing of logging into Facebook everyday. Isn't that a form of registration? Absolutely. But the login is (usually) simple, and the value exchange is - as much as I hate to admit it - worth it for most. In other words:

  • Don't think in terms sign up forms, think in terms of easy, app-like experiences (see: Email marketing isn't broken (yet), but Copyblogger found a better way).
  • Earn audience data gradually as value is exchanged (sometimes called "progressive sign up").
  • Make sure you have content for all types you need (free, sign up, pre-sales). Factor in that free/ungated content has a huge edge for social sharing.
  • Don't ask for more sign up data than a particular piece of content is worth to your audience.

Warfield - turning readers into customers

Bob Warfield knows more than most about success in B2B. A self-described "serial enterpreneur," Warfield shared how content drives the success of CNCCookbook (Warfield is CEO). Reflections on Six Years of Content Marketing in a Bootstrapped Startup reveals how content can draw audiences into an expert niche. Or, as he puts it:

I’ve accomplished marketing goals all by myself that a lot of top marketing people would love to recreate.

I don't have to pull the steps out of Warfield's process. He did it already:

I owe my success to my ability to write software, but just as much if not more to my ability to do Content Marketing.  It’s been my magic bullet, and it works something like this:

  1. I give away valuable content about CNC, the market I’ve chosen to be in.

  2. People find the content via Social Media, Search Engines, and Referrals as other sites link to CNCCookbook.

  3. They visit, consume the content, enjoy it, and pass on the word.  I can’t claim it’s viral, but it’s pretty darned good.

  4. As they become regular readers, they’re exposed to content about the kinds of CNC problems my software solves.  It’s fairly low-key, and I try to avoid ever being spammy. Eventually, those customers that have the same problems take a free trial of our software.  If they like it, they buy it, and I get to repeat the cycle for others.

There you have it. Of course, most B2B companies are not as narrow in focus and CNCCookbook. But you can roll this out over multiple verticals. Warfield also has good advice on how curating others' content can bolster your efforts. (see my piece, Turbo-boost your curation).

The quick wrap

These three approaches reduce the problems of content noise and limited attention. Instead of judging each content piece as a winner or loser before we spray out another, we focus on how content can build into topic authority - and into communities we join/create/facilitate. If we do this right, our content has a longer shelf life. We can repackage and polish it, as we debate with those who share our obsessions.

Not all questions have been answered, but I'm out of space and time. We need a clear definition of "mediocre content," for one.  I'll pick this up soon, including an update on the informed buyer and what they are looking for.

Revised 8am UK time, Wed April 26th, with a number of small tweaks for readability.

A grey colored placeholder image