I've been wrestling with this for a while, trying to build a conceptual bridge between two prior pieces: Informed buyers and the crisis of tech differentiation and Fail less: map content to the sales cycle. I'm getting closer - maybe the savvy reader/commenter (that's you) can push it further along.
It boils down to this: Most B2B marketers are whiffing on the most important content for the buying process. Paradoxically, to solve this problem, they have to step away from the classic sales cycle. That's a mouthful - let's see if I can get there.
Heavily-branded content fails to extend reach
Imagine, if you will, the highlight of a busy tradeshow - a small dinner with trusted colleagues. I don't know about you, but the best show dinners I've attended are a mix of customers, partners, vendor executives, and influencers of all stripes, from reporters to the more exotic variety. What do such gatherings have in common?
- an environment of trust, fueled by unfiltered viewpoints with reduced BS
- a mutual respect of the knowledge/experience of all parties
- a recognition that all present are committed to solving enterprise problems
- good humor and a willingness to stray off topic rather than be a corporate mouthpiece
- an unspoken agreement that no one will flip into hyper-sales pitch mode
But then the show ends, and the focus shifts. The shame of it? The right kind of content could further these 'trust networks' and draw new stakeholders into the conversation. Yet B2B content rarely does so. And the price is paid in lost sales prospects - here's why.
Thanks to the concerted efforts of those like Brian Sommer who have made the case for the informed buyer, content marketers are starting to grasp the necessity of stocking their web sites with informative, search-friendly content with the keywords that map to their products (and buyers' interests). Progress? Yes. But: mapping content to the sales cycle, while a smart idea, is typically flawed - because the sales cycle itself is changing.
The buyer's journey starts before keywords begin
Have a look at the proposed sales cycle in this piece on mapping content:
The well-meaning thesis of content mapping is that content needs to be searchable/findable for the research-oriented buyer conducting online searches. Some refer to this as the 'buyers journey'. That's not wrong. But: the buyer's journey starts before awareness. I think we can agree that 'awareness' refers specifically to product and brand awareness - the same topics that would be off-putting in excess at the virtual dinner table.
Consider a different buyer's journey, with an added early dimension:
1. Contextual/trust networks - that arm executives with the know-how and peer insights they need
2. Awareness of relevant brands and products (increasingly driven by the buyers' online research)
This should ring a bell with those who often find themselves well into a trusted relationship before the buyer finally asks, 'So what is it you actually do?' or 'Can you do for me what you did for so-and-so?'
The goal of any sales cycle is two fold: to avoid being eliminated, and to reach the narrowed consideration stage where you can pitch your wares and/or advise on future spending. In this new cycle, there are actually two places you can be eliminated: a buyer could get enough trusted advice from colleagues to skip a chunk of the research phase, or, more likely: a buyer would not short-list you even if she found you online, because you had not established the trust embodied in stage one. Another unsavory possibility? Your product is 'discovered' during online search but has already been criticized/dismissed by others whom the buyer trusted during the first stage. Or: a trusted advisor is asked to short list products for the buyer and you have failed to engage with that advisor or earn their respect.
Build virtual trust by sharing industry know-how
So how do we solve this problem? Well, I wish I could say it was hand out bobbleheads of your most popular executives. The answer lies in content that is far more difficult for marketers to create: genuine 'thought leadership' that advances industry conversations one or two levels above product reviews. It's a lot harder than it looks. But it's becoming a core part of differentiation. That means getting subject matter experts out from under the product hood and sharing content widely. Sommer nails it down:
When a firm can offer up a team that includes a published subject matter expert, how can some undifferentiated, unoriginal competitor stand a chance? They can’t. Businesses buy people first, teams second and the firm third when it comes to services. You can shout all you want that your firm “hires the best people”, “delivers value”, etc. but that is all noise and comes off undifferentiated to most service buyers.
I realize that some are repelled by the 'thought leader' phrase and to be fair, it is a hack phrase. I'll keep looking for a better one - perhaps the bland-but-accurate 'industry conversations' is better.
More to the point, if you're with me so far, how does one create such content? I won't do the full run down in this post, but here's a few tips:
- Broaden the target audience.
- Empower your internal experts to share and engage.
- Compile data points that add to your authority on industry trends.
- Create kickass content - quality always wins the tiebreaker over volume.
- Let the content be easily shareable and fuel social engagement both online and at events.
- Plant the seeds for a culture of passionate debate and knowledge-sharing around your industry and innovation sweet spots.
Broaden the target audience does not mean go viral with cat videos. The industry focus remains. But: the target is no longer just the enterprise buyer, but everyone around that informal gathering table. Here's how I defined the 'broadest target audience' in the content mapping piece:
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.
Yes, the ultimate decision maker remains at the core. But this type of content design involves several personas, all of whom are constantly talking to each other in the real world. In this model, your so-called 'thought leader' content might go in areas as diverse as LinkedIn, guest columns on prestige web sites, or they might become conversations in industry-specific forums.
This is not keyword-rich content in the same way that more product-oriented content is anyway, so it can be posted wherever the conversations are happening, with contextual links back to your web site hub where more product and keyword-rich content lives.
These links to deeper product pieces (which in turn link to sales demos and so forth) represent exactly how the buyer would engage with you in person, digging further into your specifics as their respect for your work lined up with their buying needs.
Wrap - for now
For a good review of the steps to creating so-called thought leader content, check this piece out. And here's some more ammunition on the informed buyer. We could also extend this from content to other 'social objects' as well as code repositories and downloadable software utilities. That's a conversation for another time.
Most folks who preach on this issue refer back to a well-hyped book called The Challenger Sale. I'm not 100 percent on board with everything in the book, but the idea of a salesperson challenging a customer to compete better, informed by industry know-how, is directly related to this topic, and just as disruptive to sales as these ideas are to marketing. Maybe marketing and sales need each other after all.
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