Content marketing ROI and that dangerous sales-marketing gap

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed November 13, 2013
Content marketing is in peril of falling into a dangerous gap between marketing and sales. Here's why - and what to do about it.

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In my last content marketing missive, I took issue with a Forrester post that companies have (largely) solved the content problem but are struggling with the distribution of that content.  My position hasn't changed but I missed something critical along the way.

It's not what you would call electrifying work, but measuring the results of a good content strategy absolutely can be done. Contrary to the myth that there is no 'return on content', content ROI can be demonstrated to bean counters and senior executives.  The tools and analytics are there now. So what's the problem?

Why the sales-marketing gap hurts content

Content marketing is in peril of falling into a dangerous gap between marketing and sales. The gap is bad enough - even worse is when communication flows in one direction (from marketing to sales via lead information), when sales should be playing the defining role by shaping the prospect profiles that content is geared towards.

Hubspot's 2013 State of Inbound Marketing Report brings fresh data on this dilemma (For terminology mavens, I would define content marketing as the central component of an 'inbound' strategy, though the 'inbound' term can be deceptive given that a key objective is to get audiences to opt-in and then push personalized information back out to them).

As buyer personas expert Tony Zambito noted, Hubspot found that of the 3,300 surveyed (from 128 countries), only 24% of marketers had a formalized agreement for lead handoffs.

Needless to say, Zambito isn't thrilled with the low level of marketing-sales cooperation these numbers imply:

This can also potentially indicate content marketers are working in isolation when it comes to understanding the various buying scenarios and buying cycles of buyers.  Concentrating on the tactics of demand generation narrowly.   Forgetting the crucial value of well-placed content during the entire path-to purchase of buyers.  Meaning, content marketing efforts are only addressing half of the buyer’s story, which includes sales interaction.

Hubspot found those organizations that do establish shared marketing and sales responsibilities see marked decreases in their lead generation costs: 'The average cost per lead for marketers with a formal sales agreement is $24, versus $49 for those without.'

Buyer personas dictate organizational change

Advocates for buyer personas would take this discussion further than a cost per lead metric. Without precision on the personas the content is targeting - and the type of content needed throughout the sales cycle for each persona - the entire content marketing initiative is like a barstool on wobbly legs, threatening to take its sponsors down at any time. Zambito:

By understanding buying scenarios, you will better be able to collaborate with sales.  It starts with the CMO AND CSO making this happen.  The throwing over the fence of content for sales to use is not working.  Rather than focus on the “content pieces” sales needs from marketing, focus on what supports buyer goals, their buying scenarios, and helps them complete their path-to-purchase.

Hubspot is also all-in on the personas approach, going so far as to rearrange their teams' workstations around different personas. This is the kind of aggressive move that forces a culture change. In Hubspot's view, this change is about moving from a product focus to a customer focus. Once this change is underway, the right kind of content should flow: 'The heart of inbound marketing requires turning the lens away from a rigid, product-based strategy and toward solving your customers’ key challenges – and delighting them with insight and education along the way.'

Winning tactics

To ensure the type of cooperation that leads to content results, Hubspot advocates formal Service Level Agreements (SLAs) between marketing and sales, defining targets for the number of leads generated each month and how those leads will be pursued and tracked by sales.

An SLA approach makes sense. My add: the most effective marketing teams I have worked with don't just toss job titles and email addresses over to sales - they also take responsibility for initial lead qualification. Given that high performing salespeople are a beast to obtain, train and retain (especially in complex B2B industries), it doesn't make sense to waste a 'hunters' time on an old tire floating in the water.

When marketing teams pre-qualify the leads their content generates, they are forced into the ongoing communication required for such 'warm handoffs' to happen. Salespeople who might blow off or resist a 'buyer personas workshop' will happily share that invaluable info in bits and pieces - if the result is warm leads and less time calling the wrong people at the wrong time of year.

Final thoughts

Content marketing ROI is a frustrating topic for me. I appreciate the importance of quantifying the benefits but as someone whose career has been completely transformed (maybe even saved) by these principles, I have to check myself and recognize large enterprise have a different set of content obstacles.

When we frame the struggle for content ROI as part of a difficult-but necessary shift in how marketing and sales interact, the existential predicaments of so-called inbound marketers make a heck of a lot more sense. Add the shift from a product focus to a customer-driven approach and you can see the trouble companies are getting into (I regularly interact with companies that cannot give me compelling specifics on their target content audience and what that audience is looking for).

Reframing the content marketing challenges with sales-versus-marketing in mind, I'll rank them from most difficult to least:

  • creating truly memorable content that reinforces brand and expertise
  • bridging the sales-marketing gap for accurate personas and better/cheaper lead gen
  • establishing content marketing ROI
  • building a robust opt-in distribution platform
  • measuring/analyzing the success of content marketing campaigns

None of these are cake walks, which gives us some idea of what content marketers are up against and why they are struggling despite the happy hype wave. On the sunnier side, there are plenty of untapped benefits when it comes to content-driven sales enablement. Time to get to it.

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