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Effective B2B content marketing - answering the tough questions

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed December 4, 2013
With 2013 closing out, now is a good time to review the toughest B2B content marketing questions.

Effective B2B content marketing is pretty freakin' difficult. On the plus side, it's powerful. Oh, and it works - which puts it way ahead of spammy email promos, snooze-button press releases, desperate and fleeting attempts at virality, social media PR flailing, and pouring money down advertising and SEO sinkholes.

Since the launch of diginomica, I've aired out a series of content marketing missives that try to go beyond the easy answers. Each piece is standalone, but they fit into a flow and with any luck will lead the reader somewhere in 2014. With 2013 closing out, now is a good time to review the toughest content marketing questions, and roundup some articles you may want to bookmark.

"Content marketing is time consuming and difficult. So - why should I bother?"

Answer: because the sales cycle has changed. Prospects study market trends, research products, and narrow purchasing decisions online. Forget for a moment how content impacts search visibility. Companies sought out for their industry content establish trust (and earn opt-ins), putting them in a much more powerful sales position.

Resource: Brian's Sommer's The Right/Modern Way of Marketing. As Sommer puts it:

Buyers of consumer AND business products/services have always wanted more knowledge about the things they’re shopping for as knowledge provides them negotiating power, deeper insight into alternative solutions, etc.  The fact that buyers always wanted this but seldom possessed it is due mostly to a lack of a platform for disseminating information. Now, we have that platform and it is the Internet. Smarter firms are really tweaking the kinds of information they place on the internet, the form (e.g., video) it takes and more... If your firm is solid but it's losing out more and more to competitors who are better attuned to the buyers out there, there's a good chance that your internet content/assets are insufficient or out of touch with the data needs of modern buyers.

Context: Sommer is not writing from a motivational speaker pedestal. He's out there in the B2B field, sense-testing these principles with clients. When he cautions you'll lose deals without compelling content, I'd heed the warning. I explored the impact of B2B decision-making in my first piece, Avoiding b2b marketing pitfalls.

"We don't have unlimited resources. What kind of content should we create?"

Answer: the kind that establishes your industry expertise and draws from your field experience. This is a tricky answer because the longer version involves an inventory of your content assets and a focus on filling your firm's content gaps. But I am continually surprised at how many firms do not have dedicated content addressing the top 10 to 20 issues their prospects are most interested in.

Resource: Why are 76% of content marketers forgetting sales enablement? by Tony Zambito. The best resource for your editorial calendar? Your own sales team. As Zambito bemoans, it's a simple truth that eludes too many marketing departments. Use your sales team to develop your buyer persona, and use your buyer persona to dictate your content agenda. Zambito:

I have witnessed marketing departments working feverishly to understand buying processes and buyers on their own.  Gathering “intelligence” and creating buyer personas on traditional sales intelligence facts – as if this sales intelligence were newfound revelations.  Doing so without the collaboration of sales.  Only to later find out sales has built a repository of such intelligence and the “insights” they provided were in fact old style sales intelligence.

Context: Developing buyer personas is something Zambito has covered extensively on his blog. Sommer also hits on the value of pulling your editorial agenda from sales in the second half of his 'new marketing' piece. Sommer echoes Zambito's point when he writes 'It’s so obvious and, yet, so rarely done.'  He jams the point home with 'Guesswork has no place in a ruthless, competitive market.' I also covered the baffling and costly sales and marketing content disconnect in Content marketing and that dangerous sales-marketing gap.

"Original content - fine. But how do I prove the ROI?"

Answer: You must, and you will. The tools are there - implement them. Honestly I'm not the most patient person when it comes to content ROI - particularly because some of the most potent tools - e.g. Google Analytics - are free. Bottom line: you can prove the ROI of content. Where firms get into trouble is when they are financially empowered to produce content, often as part of a spastic "we need to get on social media!" campaign. In a blur of enthusiasm, they go out and produce that content with a varying degree of effectiveness. After the bluster, a more difficult meeting occurs where executives request content ROI numbers. Whoops.

So, you put in the measurement tools, and you do it from the beginning of the content effort. Then you'll be ready for the inevitable 'show us the numbers' meeting. There are multiple components to content ROI. Bottom line: virtually all action items on a web site can be accounted for. There should be multiple ways for visitors to engage with your company, from simple email signups to webinar registrations to free product downloads. All those can be tracked and measured via agreed-upon metrics. That's the short version.

Resources: One of the best pieces on content marketing ROI is Prove Content Marketing ROI to Your CEO: 4 Values to Communicate from the Content Marketing Institute. The piece includes content metrics including results for the most important metric when the branding smoke clears, 'cost per lead.' A recent crushpath piece, 5 Easy Metrics for Your Content Marketing Program, adds more resources and tips.

My content pieces hit on ROI but none have focused on the measurement tools because frankly, that's the easier part. It's a grind but we are not lacking analytics and measurement tools, nor is that where most companies falter. Most companies falter with content because the content they are pushing is brand-drenched 'preaching to the choir' dross that gives Kool Aid to the Kool Aid drinkers, but earns no meaningful traffic or new prospects to measure.

I've seen back end analytics on some brand-pimping sites, and believe me, they leave a lot to be desired. As Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute wrote, 'When we create a piece of content that is about us vs. an educational post, it only garners 25 percent of the average page views and social shares our content normally drives.'

"We produced some content, but it didn't work. So - is it ok to focus on Twitter and Facebook?"

Answer: no. The easier part of this answer is deconstructing B2B social media for its own sake, something I have already done in questioning B2B social media results. (Social media should be the last phase of a content and engagement strategy, once you have content to share and leaders prepared to openly share and interact around that content). The tougher part is addressing why content initiatives (sometimes) fail. There's no blanket answer.

Some, including a Forrester analyst, have blamed poor distribution networks. I took serious issue with that in The great content marketing debate: distribution versus greatness. It's true that a big built-in audience is an asset to fresh content pieces. But the real problem is the competition for attention in the distraction economy. Some B2B companies have recognized the attention problem but assumed that the way to combat it is by trying to make something 'go viral', or by flirting with sensationalism via ridiculous headlines like Size Matters on Valentines's Day.

Great content in the B2B space doesn't come off as desperate for attention. Why? Because it's rooted in confidence that sharing sought-after expertise on a consistent basis will build an opt-in audience. That said, the frenetic pace of media has changed the terms: unless you are a pure media company, it's much better to put out one truly outstanding piece of content a week, as opposed to several decent ones. Joe Pulizzi, the founder of the Content Marketing Institute, calls this 'epic content,' as in the title of his new book, Epic Content Marketing: How to Tell a Different Story, Break through the Clutter, and Win More Customers by Marketing Less.

Resources:  Pulizzi has blogged on epic content previously. For a flavor, check out The 6 Principles of Epic Content Marketing and Marketers' True Competition, and Why You Need Epic Content. The latter is provocative; Pulizzi argues we are not only competing for attention with our direct competitors, but with all media, including live sporting events, or Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. As I see it, we need to earn those B2B eyeballs with a combination of authority, authenticity, and indispensability (e.g. 'I count on your content to do my job better, or make sense of news that directly impacts my work life'). Pulizzi's challenge to content marketers:

Before your next planning meeting, disregard what your competition is creating and distributing to your customers. You are better than that. Be what they want to engage with over everything else. It’s that kind of aspiration that will give you the vision to put a plan and team together that will truly make a difference.

Final thoughts

That's a good sentiment to wrap 2013. I didn't dismantle SEO myths in this piece (short version: great content is 90 percent, SEO around 10 percent - though that 10 percent does matter). If you're fighting the pressure to spend 'SEO Guru' money on an underperforming site versus investing that money on brilliant content instead, then check out my comments on SEO in this piece and, in much more detail, in A Defiant Guide to SEO for SAP Web Sites, authored several years prior. And: here's a link to the content marketing pieces I have written for diginomica, in chronological order.

Looking ahead to 2014, I have some juicy content themes not yet covered, so stay tuned. I hope you've enjoyed the pieces and thanks for invaluable feedback shared to date.

Image credit: Doubts © olly -

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