Fail less: map content to the sales cycle

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed April 9, 2014
Free content versus paid content is the wrong argument. Mapping content into the sales cycle is what really matters.

Male Hand Holding Christian Compass
On April 6, Copyblogger published one of the best content strategy pieces of the year, How to Decide Which Content to Sell and What to Give Away for Free. I disagreed with a big chunk of it, but that's why we're here - right? My biggest gripe: lack of relevance to B2B scenarios where obtaining data freely given (aka 'opt-in'), is usually more important than charging for content. Then there is the all-important matter of mapping content into the sales cycle - something copyblogger alluded to, but didn't nail down.

Disclaimer: paid content issues are different if you are in the pure media or research business. When your entire business model is content, that's a separate set of concerns. For B2B types, charging for content is typically secondary to charging for more lucrative products and services. I've seen companies in this situation hold on to charging for content till the bitter end, not realizing their content would have been far more valuable driving community and obtaining opt-in customer data. But we'll get to that.

The case for free

Chris Garrett of Copyblogger kicks off with a review of what free content can do for you. Here's the Cliff Notes:

  • Free content can attract your specific target audience ('the more content you have out there in the open, the more opportunities to reach your prospect exist.')
  • Free content encourages social sharing of your ideas
  • Free content can connect you with peers
  • Free content can inform the audience of your value
  • Free content can position you against competitors
  • Free content will not just educate, it will also show your uniqueness
  • Free content can answer objections
  • Free content can show proof and results

myPOV: So far, so good. Garrett makes a critically important point about how good free content builds trust, and puts a human face on your company - something many enterprises struggle with: 'In general, we prefer to work with people we actually can stand being around. That means establishing your personality in addition to your credentials.'

Garrett ties this into addressing objections: 'Answering objections also demonstrates your empathy — and the service provider who best shows they understand a prospect’s problem tends to be the one who gets the business.' Yup.

But then Garrett says: 'Free content can give a 'free taste' that builds desire for the full meal.'

And this is where we fundamentally part ways.

Don't pull a content tease

Nothing alienates prospects more than the content tease, where an enticing link leads to a sprinkling of content and a paywall blocking satisfaction. The 'content tease' is a fail.

I advise the opposite: give your audience an entire, full meal. If they are fully satisfied, they are likely to share that awesome experience and want more. Once you've given away something of complete value that burns your expertise into the minds of your audience, they will be very open to paying you for even better experiences, products and outcomes.

Garrett goes on to list the content you can (maybe) charge for, arguing that people will pay for valuable content pieces like e-books, or  - even better- experiences. He's right: you can charge for many of those things - if you couldn't, trade show culture would be dead by now.  I recommend a different method:

  1. Divide content into one of three categories: free, 'free premium' (content that requires some data exchange/opt-in to consume) and paid content. (Again, unless you are a research entity or married to the content business, you will not have anything in the paid content bucket). Anything that requires sign up or paid info should be rigorously tested to be as frictionless as humanly possible - I would compare against Kindle purchases for a benchmark of how easy obtaining such content should be.
  2. Map that content to the proper phase in the sales cycle.
  3. Publish as much of it as you can, adopting a content process that is less 'big bang' and more 'chip away the stone.'

Map your content to the sales funnel

Here's how to map content, from the top of the sales funnel on down:

1. Your broadest target audience: This includes influencers who will never buy from you, subject matter experts who may never buy from you, future prospects who don't know about you and even prospects who are actively annoyed or hostile towards your brand based on past spamming or past bad experiences. This audience includes those who would gain greatly from your industry and tech expertise - if you are able to get the experts inside your company to share it (or help produce it).

Type of content this audience responds to: 'Thought leadership' content on innovation or industry concerns, which includes only a passing reference to your own products/solutions (if that). Also: how-to pieces that are broader and not brand-biased, such as a 'how to choose a cloud provider' that objectively reviews the pros and cons of AWS, Rackspace, etc.

Forms of content: Flexible - could include podcasts, videos, blog posts - even webinar replays posted on YouTube, but content in this part of the funnel MUST be free and must not be brand promotional. That means NO annoying pop-ups begging for an email newsletter opt-in. Also: third party reporting of your products/solutions could be another exception here, especially if it is a neutral/respected industry observer (such brand coverage doesn't alienate prospects if they respect the third party doing the coverage). This is the beginning of the branding process, but the emphasis remains on giving away things that matter - some market branding is a happy byproduct.

Data collected: None (except maybe cookie-informed Internet traffic patterns). One possible exception: an online course of significant value that is not product-centric could work here, and some data could be collected from that sign up, but again, don't let your hunters have it without some filtering.

2. Those who respect your thought leadership and don't want to miss any future content of this type: This is similar to the above group, except this audience is a little further into the sales funnel (though don't ever tell them that!). By now they respect your brand as an industry expert with savvy customer know-how that you are good at sharing without pushing for a sale.

Type of content this audience responds to: Same as above, but with one exception: they are willing to do what I call 'soft sign ups' to follow and track you. That means subscribing to an email newsletter, following on Twitter or LinkedIn, liking on Facebook (though that will have little traction due to Facebook's revised newsfeed algo), subscribing on YouTube, commenting on your blog posts via log-in. And yes, subscribing by RSS, which is not dead. (By the way, if you have a better phrase than 'thought leadership', I'm all ears.)

Forms of content: Flexible, can include white papers and webinars as long at the sign ups are quick and simple and the data is collected with transparency/disclosures on future use (not to be sold to partners, etc). And: as long as those longer-form content pieces like webinars have almost no promotional slides.

Data collected: Light, such as email address, maybe company affiliation. Social log-ins might collect more, but the key is this data should NOT be handed over to the sales team for 'hunting', as nobody is considered a prospect yet.

3. Those who are now interested enough in your company to learn more about how your solutions are different than others: These folks may not be ready to buy, and they may not even have a budget. They may even be influencers who will never buy but who are more valuable to you if they are up to speed on your products. These folks will need heavy qualification by your sales team to avoid nuisance calls (potentially marketing or pre-sales can do some filtering here and help weight the prospects appropriately). Bottom line: good news - you have achieved enough perceived value that folks are willing to share more data (transparently) if you can lead them to better experiences and know-how. And yes, they want to learn about what you do.

Type of content this audience responds to: Content pieces that blend industry know-how with product information. Classic example is a webinar that shares broader market information and then closes with a ten to fifteen minute product demo. Pieces that contrast your solutions with competitors can work too, as long as they are fair-minded. The focus is more on functionality and education. Some light how-to content may work here. In some cases, case studies are interesting to this group (but usually not). They might also be open to regional industry events that include thought leader content in addition to product discussions. White papers and even e-books may work well here.

Forms of content: Deeper divers, webinars, longer video discussions, informational content, interactive demos. Caveat: Be very careful with blog posts for this group. If your blog contains brand-centric content, you run the risk of alienating those who are following you in the first and second group higher in the funnel. There aren't easy ways around this - I sometimes recommend a separate 'news' section, or a content library. If you have enough rich content, that library can even contain a free sign up for access - a major milestone if you can pull it off. Just be very, very careful not to post much of this content on your corporate blog. This is the biggest content mistake B2B companies currently make. Turning your industry content blog into a brand news outlet will ultimately crush your content sales funnel and discredit the trust you are attempting to build. Find another approach - even a separate web site with a separate product-focused blog can work better, once you have the dedicated community to support that option.

Data collected: Heavier, including full contact information and mailing address, job titles, mobile phones. Vigorous transparency and disclosure about how that information is used is a must, and notification options on how and when such individuals want to be contacted. Again, hunters need to be kept at arm's length for most of these prospects, until they can be qualified.

4. Those who may someday buy your products or become experts in them: The sad thing: the content of most B2B companies lands in this bucket. Which would not be so bad if the companies in question weren't delusional enough to think that their brand-is-awesome content works for the other three groups on the list. This group is a group your hunters can contact. You have the data on them and it's time to form relationships with them. But: some of them will be more practitioners and better for the partner channel, and some of them won't feel like buying - yet. So this is still a group for relationship-building sales.

Type of content this audience responds to: Almost anything, but informational content is better than brochureware. How to videos, instructional courses that include product tutorials, frequently answer questions, detailed help and support documentation - all is fair game. Multi-media content should be repurposed onto informational web pages in text form for search. Case studies are vitally important to this segment - the more, the better, in every region and industry you are targeting. It's easy to screw up a case study by not including hard numbers (see my guide). Note that case studies are a crucial foundation for a customer advocacy approach that documents outcomes and makes those customers available to a broader audience (reporters, webinars, etc) to share their stories.

Forms of content: All of the above, with my caution about ruining the blog still in effect.

Data collected: All the basic info your sales team will need to qualify this person, though they will again have options on what they choose to share (I would keep required data fields to a minimum, but at this point, you should have provided enough value to earn info like job titles and mobile phone numbers).

5. Active prospects: This is a subset of group four, and a happy subset it is. It's those who are actively evaluating solutions, including yours, and have a budget to boot. Most companies don't need my help with this part, but I would strongly recommend to that the salesperson work advisory-style, and be well-versed in the art of dealing with the informed buyer.  At this point, the content and experiences served up to the prospect should be customized/referred by the person building the sales relationship.


B2B content strategy is useless without building trust through high-value free content and without putting the willing exchange of data for content in the center. So many content mistakes come from either mapping content to the wrong point in the sales cycle, or unintentionally spamming audiences due to ignorance or arrogance about the limits of brand wonderfulness.

One of the central problems I had with the copyblogger piece is the priority placed on precious content that needs to be gated and protected. If I stated in this blog post how much intellectual property I believe companies should give away, readers might be alarmed. I worry for those who follow Garrett's advice that 'free content shouldn't be too complete.' Intellectual property stagnates the second it is released, protected or not. Sure, patent it and trademark it if you like. For some, litigating such things is part of the business model. But protecting information isn't much fun these days.

The best protection against intellectual property degradation is to create more. Giving away kickass content can be a tough pill for the old school to swallow - I learned this the hard way myself. But then you realize that the discipline of free compels your team to constantly create more and better content, which in turn generates far more valuable data on your customers. And you do it by giving customers what they want - better experiences. (Content might also be software and apps and other social objects, but that's another post).

Strange how it works, but it does. Yes, there are tough questions on content ROI that must be sorted - something I have covered in my diginomica series on content strategy and will return to again. For now, I'd suggest reckoning with the power and limitations of free, before free does the same to you.

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