"Reach buyers with content." It works. I'd be passing the hat on a street corner somewhere if it didn't. So why do I get so frustrated with analyst firm models for "reaching the informed buyer?" And why do "B2B content strategy" webinars drive me nuts?
I saw it on another webinar this week: a content model that draws from the unimaginative standard:
->: awareness -> consideration -> purchase. Talk about "top of the funnel" and so on.
- Yes, content can be very effective in the context of lead gen, and engaging prospects.
- Yes, companies are getting better at deploying content throughout the customer lifecyle - a topic that diginomica contributor Barb Mosher Zinck has documented quite effectively.
Content marketing works quite well for these use cases - and brands are all over it.
So what's bugging me?
Lead generation content has diminishing returns
Lead gen content has diminishing returns. There are only so many webinars you can host. Only so many buyers are willing to taste your Kool-Aid at any given time. You can only optimize your site for SEO so many times. The rest of us aren't doing product searches; we aren't craving product slide decks for Friday night. "Netflix and chill" may be a thing; "slide decks and chill" isn't.
Last year, I watched a session where LinkedIn revealed their B2B buyer research: Only 1 in 5 buyers are in active buying mode at any given time.
- So why is B2B content so ineffective at reaching the other four? Why are we so ill-equipped to engage budget holders who are not cooperating with our "buyer's journey" maps?
- And why are we so lousy at engaging the many influencers and subject matter experts that impact B2B buying decisions - those who don't control budgets but who have the one thing we may not: the trusted ear of the decision maker?
That's why when I consume "content strategy" content, I'm always bracing for disappointment. I know they will gloss over these areas - the exact areas where so many brands are weak. I find this content weakness ironic. Nothing is better at earning trust with people you don't know than expert content - relevant content with an authentic, no-BS look and feel.
So you can imagine my surprise when I pressed "play" on a totally unknown podcast episode, Content Marketing Done Right, and heard Ben Worthen, CEO of Message Lab, speaking content truth - and backing it up with his own company's stats.
Message Lab on content marketing: "I only think about buying stuff 5% of the time"
At the 8:00 mark, Worthen talks up the importance of search presence for reaching buyers, and I started to yawn a bit. Yes, it's true, but that's well-trodden territory. But then Worthen shifts gears, lifting a page from LinkedIn's type of "1 in 5" buyer stat. Worthen uses the example of a manager re-evaluating their accounting function. What if they aren't ready to search for accounting software? What if they want to learn the best accounting metrics, and what leading enterprises are doing? As Worthen told podcast host Todd Kane:
I only think about buying stuff 5% of my time. The vast majority of my time, I'm thinking about other things. It may be ideas, topics, issues that I'm facing that are broader than, but are sort of related to the product. I run a business too. And let's say we needed to think about our accounting. There's issues like: are we doing a good job, are we paying attention to the right financial metrics? Do we need a different accountant? ' Should we have new accounting software' is only a small part of the things we would think about in the universe there.
So if all you're doing as a business [from a content perspective] is 'How to evaluate your accounting software,' you're missing many, many, many opportunities to engage with someone around an idea that you would generally have an opinion about, or a point of view that you could contribute about.
The people searching for the best accounting metrics for small businesses want something different. They don't want to be told what software to buy. They want an idea that's going to help them. They want information that's going to help them make decisions, and then solve a problem.
The most effective B2B content leads to "strategic conversations"
Pushing lead gen/branded content at that point is not only going to fail, it could turn that person off entirely. On the other hand, if you earn my trust now, I might buy from you later. Two years into diginomica, I sat in on a terrific presentation on running WordPress at scale at a local tech event.
When it came time to evaluate our WordPress providers, I didn't even bother with a search. I just called this expert. We didn't buy from them, but they were the only firm I suggested for our short list (diginomica runs on Drupal now, but at the time, the lead factored in). Worthen explained how this works:
If you're the one who's having that strategic conversation with them, then you're in a better position later on, when they're ready to buy something - not when they finish a blog post - but at a different point in time - they might be more likely to buy from you. But we believe first you participate in that conversation.
Why do companies overlook this? I guess they must figure: "We'll just wait until the buyer gets serious. Then our content will be ready for them. " That's flawed. Think about all the buyers that enlist a trusted advisor to help them compile a short list. Think it helps to be on that short list? Think it helps to be trusted by that advisor, and respected for your content? As I wrote back in 2014:
The goal of any sales cycle is twofold: 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 an 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.
"The idea store" - a different way of framing thought leadership content
What type of content fills this gap - and how do you produce it? Some call this "thought leadership" content. I've used the phrase too, though it's shopworn and limiting. Worthen has a different framework. He calls it the idea store:
We often use this metaphor of an idea store. Everybody knows what their product store is. You know what you're selling, and you know what's on the shelves. But if you had a different store, where all you sold was ideas, what would be on the shelves? What would the customer experience be?
One thing I like about this idea store metaphor: you must keep them coming back. Worthen:
How would you behave in order to turn people into repeat customers of your ideas, get them to come back and buy a new idea each time? When you're on social, you're sort of thumbing through your phone in a fairly passive mode. You're looking for something that captures your attention and your imagination.
Return to the accounting software example. When you're running around day-to-day, you need something different:
How to evaluate accounting software is not exactly the most inspiring thing in the world. Even if you're someone who wants to do that, you probably don't want to do it while you're waiting for the train. So what can you create that allows you to have a meaningful interaction with someone, that's providing value to them?
Engaging with content is powerful. But you still need to hook people in. That's where the temptation to hammer your audience with the hard sell is hard to resist. Worthen says that's tone deaf. At Message Lab, they do it differently:
What we're *not* going to do is hook you with an interesting article, and then have a CTA [Call to Action] somewhere in the middle, where it says, "buy a million dollars worth of software." First of all, sales cycles don't happen like that, at least in a B2B context. Secondly, if you're in idea mode, getting you to shift into product mode is really hard.
But you still need an action step. Message Lab's goal? Build an audience of subscribers:
We're trying to create opportunities to re-engage you around ideas, to get you to come back to the idea store, sign up for our content, our email newsletter, or follow us on social. We're trying to create the mechanisms so that you can get another one of our ideas.
But what about the bottom line? As Worthen told Kane:
Someone who has seen our content one time has less than a 1% chance that they're going to become a qualified lead. But by the time someone has seen our content three times, there's a 9% chance that they're going become a qualified lead. And if it's four times or five times [viewing our content], it just goes up and up.
My take - why "contextual trust networks" matter
Companies are leaving some of their best ideas - and their best content - on the table. In 2014, I proposed this content model change:
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)
Of course, you can now add a boatload of content needs tied to customer success, product renewals, improving support experiences, and so on.
But there were other problems with this 2014 model:
- It didn't encompass experts who influence buying decisions, but who will never be customers.
- As the media environment gets noisier, sustaining attention becomes more important than getting attention in the first place.
A breakthrough came during my talk with Robert Rose in 2016. I adapted his advice to build an audience of subscribers into a B2B context. This addresses both problems, to a point. I built on that in January's No, B2B and B2C content strategy are not the same - why the dynamics of attention for B2B content are different.
Surprisingly, as Barb Mosher Zinck has noted, brands are not prioritizing subscriber development:
What I found interesting is only a third (34%) is creating content to build a subscriber audience. But isn't content for brand awareness, educational content, and content that builds credibility and trust, the type of content you would create to build a subscriber audience? You are missing opportunities to get to know your audience and customers better if you aren't leveraging content to build a subscriber audience.
The inaction of laggards creates opportunities. An audience of active subscribers (as opposed to passive subscribers on huge/stale newsletter lists) is one heck of a corporate asset. But there is a higher bar: transitioning from an audience of subscribers into an active, opt-in community. That's a different conversation, but in my view, "community" means the users themselves take over a notable chunk of the heavy lifting, passionately creating their own content and becoming advocates - not necessarily of your brand, but how the community changed their careers for the better (and likely led them to many wonderful friendships as well).
For reasons I personally find unfathomable, the ROI of community is still questioned. Salesforce is one company with eye-watering stats on this topic:
Customers who complete the onboarding program and join the Trailblazer community (including Trailhead), buy, on average, twice as many Salesforce products and remain customers four times as long, producing significant overall increases for Salesforce in user adoption and LCV.
Most brands are not ready to embrace my exhortations that B2B marketers must become journalists, and salespeople must become advisors. But even if you don't follow that transformational rabbit hole all the way down, this "idea store" type of content provides a far better answer - especially for reaching budget holders who are not in buying mode. That's where earning trust begins - and where the right kind of content can help you.
There is also the hotly debated role of AI, content personalization, and automated content distribution. This centers around the elusive pursuit of context. I won't delve into that here, but you may enjoy B2B content has an attention problem - but the solution isn't real-time AI, it's subscriptions.
Full disclosure: diginomica's business model is obviously dependent on this approach, so I do have a dog in this particular fight. But before diginomica was an idea on our metaphorical napkin, I turned my stalled career around by producing exactly this type of content. I've seen the almost-mystical power of meeting people who seem like old friends - because we've passionately debated each other's ideas. Those conversations lead directly to projects - and buyers.
Some may object: "But Jon, this kind of content is hard to measure." Yes, the ROI of content marketing is never easy. But with the right analytics, URL tracking, and attribution models, this falls into the category of a solvable problem. I will give detractors this: this type of content strategy is the long game. But the short-term lead gen game is just that. Soon you will burn out your lead gen topsoil. Where does the next crop come from?
After listening to the podcast several times, I introduced myself to Worthen on LinkedIn. Where that will lead, who knows. But the content was compelling enough to spark action. That podcast worked better than any advertisement Message Lab could have blown budgets on. It worked better than an annoying pop-up begging me to subscribe, 15 seconds after I land on a web page for the first time.
Differentiating content is hard, but it's also energizing. I believe it can add sizzle and motivation to the entire content production process, which is good - because content will always be a discipline too.
End note: this article includes a number of bolded sentences for emphasis, including in quoted material. That editorial emphasis is mine.