These posts were motivated by a study from Nielson, The Role of Content in the Consumer Decision Making Process. To my eyes, Nielson's study looks like a helpful data point for understanding B2C buying behaviors. Unfortunately, even some people I consider savvy used the data as a reason to bash branded content, and head towards the flawed thesis that content marketing doesn't work because brands can't be trusted as media producers.
Six flawed points - rebutted
Hmm, where to begin? Starting with the first piece, the following statement is made: "According to the study, earned media – defined as content created by credible third party experts – consistently provided more benefit to brands than did user generated or branded content." Err - not so fast! What if the 'trusted' reporters are NOT product experts?
1. In the B2B space, peer reviews matter even more to the decision maker process than third party 'experts.' Most of the hands-on experts in the B2B space are not tech media writers. Third party coverage from media writers has impact, but a 'user generated' blog from a fellow CFO or CTO has superior buying influence. Oh, and did I mention that in terms of actual lead generation, email marketing and search still carry the most weight - not third party reporting? Guess what? Your search and email strategy is nowhere without your own content. (See my piece on Questioning B2B social media results).
Then: 'It’s devilishly hard to produce branded content that is truly credible.' Yeah, well, that's wrong.
2. It's not that hard to generate effective brand content - if the correct part of the sales cycle is targeted. True, those who are employed by the brand will find it difficult to offer broad analysis of their brand versus competitors, the way an analyst would. But that's not the only kind of content the sales funnel needs. (See my piece on mapping content to the sales cycle). Meantime there is a ton of truly shitty content out there on supposedly 'trusted' sites. Good content takes effort and imagination for anyone - don't care if you're a brand or a journo.
And: 'It’s little wonder that PR is behind the blockbuster headlines, viral videos and other content that fills our newsfeeds and floats to the top of search engine results.' Maybe. But not in B2B, where trending on Yahoo is not on the CMO's bucket list.
Fail less: map content to the sales cycleOn April 6, Copyblogger published one of the best content strategy pieces of the year, How to Decide…Apr 9 2014diginomica.com3. Your own employees and partners are the experts who can create the informational content that drives search and feeds PR. Third party reporters can't do that. Search thrives on addressing the frequently answered questions your buyers might have, posted on your own domains. Viral videos and trending topics have nothing to do with it. (See my piece, Digital update: the flawed quest for attention).
The LinkedIn piece quotes inPowered (who commissioned the Nielson Study) as saying, 'By beginning with a solid foundation of trust built on trusted content from credible, third-party experts, all other content will have a greater impact.'
4. Your own content strategy and brand community is the true foundation that supports third party coverage. Most brands lack the vast resources and outright sex appeal to count on third party coverage as the foundation. And even if third party coverage sparks interest, without a content-rich web site to draw in curiosity seekers through search, all you've accomplished is a drive-by branding mention. In the enterprise, without customer stories, your PR coverage is going to be buzzword-heavy and unconvincing. Brands can surface the customer stories reporters are looking for. (See my piece, the Forgotten art of the customer case study).
From LinkedIn: 'Credible content from experts was the only content type that performed consistently across all stages of the purchase process.' Unhelpful generalization.
5. Different kinds of influencers inform different parts of the buying process. Reporters might bring new solutions to light. Experts in vendor evaluation have a different role to play. Down the sales funnel, subject matter experts and their content factors in. Lumping these experts together (or excluding them because they don't fit into slots PR understands) is a blunder. (See my piece, Influencer programs - avoiding the big missteps).
Tom Foremski, a super-smart Silicon Valley blogging veteran, is not a fan of branded content. He seized upon this report and wrote, 'Although companies understand the part about becoming a media company they missed something very important: media companies don’t create media about themselves.' (emphasis his). Yes, but:
6. Companies still need to become digital publishers because traditional marketing is being filtered out. If your entire business model is ad-supported like a media company, then yeah - you don't need to write about yourself. You convert based on visitor counts. But: if your content is not the end game, but the hook that gets readers to sniff around your products (e.g. your true revenue source), then you DO need to create content about yourself. Because you know your products better than anyone else. It's completely wrong that readers don't want that type of content. They just don't want it forced upon them. (See my piece, Avoiding B2B marketing pitfalls).
I'm not concerned that companies will abandon content marketing. Despite the predictable howls of these pieces, that argument has largely been won - though the content ROI case still needs work. My worry is that companies will shy away from the real challenge, which is rising to the occasion of today's informed buyer:
- Content is not about marketing - it's about building communities and providing experts a platform that ultimately supports the buying process.
- Waiting till the purchasing cycle begins is way too late. Companies need to form relationships with decision makers well before they are overlooked during early research. That means creating content for the tip top of the sales funnel - content that has little to do with brand, and everything to do with industry expertise. Leaving that challenge to third parties is a mistake. If you can only have branded conversations, your marketing options are severely limited.
- Trust is not simply about third party editorial -it's about transparency, rigorous attention to data privacy, and easy-to-customize opt-in options.
- Use PR for the exposure you can't get on your own, such as placement on national media in relevant industry columns. Feed PR the customer stories you have surfaced.
- PR and marketing are not static terms to be bandied about - they are disciplines in flux due to the competition for attention, and the shift in influence from a handful of institutions to broader expert networks.
Instead of casually tossing around pretentious terms like 'owned' and 'earned', or idealizing one term at the expense of the other, we should be more concerned with what our specific audience cares about - or they will turn our volume down. Welcome to the opt-out economy.
Image credit: failure © olly - Fotolia.com
Postscript: a lower profile piece from February, How Content Influences the B2B Buyer’s Path to Purchase, is far more relevant to the B2B audience than the 'viral' pieces I critiqued.