The two non-negotiable principles of B2B content strategy

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed June 14, 2016
The B2B content game is pretty darn hard - but it's also the best way to earn attention while building buyer trust. These principles provide two ways forward into content authority.

two pipelines
Marketing is about attention. "Digital marketing" didn't change that. Once we have achieved attention, we can think about:
  • branding
  • opt-in/subcriptions
  • community/engagement
  • lead generation
  • embedded e-commerce/purchase

B2B companies have learned the hard way that attention is fickle. It's sustained attention from the right audience that matters, not viral tricks or a splashy ad without context.

And despite what content advocates like me might imply, content is just one way of earning attention. You can still buy attention also, though buying attention is getting tougher as audiences develop a "don't bother me unless it's relevant"/ad blocking mentality.

Content authority doesn't just earn attention - it builds buyer trust

In a B2B context, earning attention is appealing because as you earn attention, you are also building trust - a fundamental ingredient in enterprise buying. Sure, you can pay for content in various ways. But it's the content you create that truly earns content authority, as in: "let's talk to these experts before we go forward with our CRM/ERP/cloud project."

Content authority is a terrific way of:

  • earning attention from the right audience
  • building relevance and "mindshare" with that audience, leading to trust
  • becoming a part of that buyer's network of advisors (a topic of an upcoming piece from me)

"Organic" content is also great for punching above your weight when marketing budgets are tight. But that may be illusory. Content always exacts its toll - if not in time, then in money.

For those of us who create content all the time, we forget it's not that simple. In recent talks with readers and clients, I've been reminded of a fundamental truth: B2B content is hard. Why? Because the two core principles of an effective content strategy are each hugely challenging:

  1. A bedrock of content drawn from validated customer case studies.
  2. Content created by experts at all levels in your organization.

From case studies to advocate marketing

The case study component is essential - without an effective customer case study program, it's impossible to write about customers in ways that include validated project results and benefits. Customers case studies fuel content throughout the sales cycle, providing the basis for webinars, event presentations, blogs, media promotions and so on.

I've covered the art of the customer case study in detail. I think it's obvious why this one is tough for organizations. Even if you have rabidly happy customers, it's not easy to get results out of their approval hoops and into print. Ask any marketer; they will show you gray hairs they acquired during case study revision and approval cycles.

I've looked at how customer case studies can be integrated into advocate marketing, where customers become a structured part of a marketing program, energized to advocate on your behalf. That's great, but it doesn't get you out of the discipline of case studies. It's the case studies that prove out your ROI, which gives customers the confidence to share those results without worrying if they are speaking out of turn with their own PR/legal.

Content by internal experts requires culture change

The second principle - content created by experts at all levels in the organization - might be even tougher. I see marketing departments trying to create and fund their own content. It works - sometimes. Too often, it's overly polished crud that doesn't have the feeling of authenticity and knowledge sharing.

There should be folks on the marketing side who think like editors and create like journalists. They can tap into your subject matter experts who are too busy to write their own blogs, interviewing or videotaping them instead.

But there is a deeper problem here, and it's a cultural one. Subject matter experts are not used to thinking of themselves as marketers. They may have a distaste for marketing, or claim to be too busy. But anyone who is an expert in your organization should be producing content. I'm sure some marketers just spit out their coffee. But marketers can't earn attention without the help of their subject matter experts.

Companies tackle this on a couple levels: we've all seen "thought leader" types, executives empowered to blog/speak on industry trends. And we've seen technical experts contributing to open source projects and technical communities. Both are valuable; what's missing is everything in between. Everybody who is good at anything in your organization should be producing content. As long as it pertains to your industry/authority area (so yeah, the bookkeeper may be off the content hook, and maybe the carpet cleaner, but that's about it).

I've had some amusing reactions when taking this position. Many companies claim this is unfeasible. But if you want to earn attention through content, your culture must reflect free sharing of know-how. That knowledge sharing also impacts enterprise buying, where subject matter experts have a "bottom up" influence on purchases.

It helps greatly if you already have clear social media guidelines. If your experts know that what kind of content they can freely share, and what they can't, that's a big help. Some companies still have their employees on social lockdown. But social media is more than a water cooler in the sky. It's how employees build their professional expertise through the content they share and learn from. The lines are too blurred now; you can't stop employees from being social without hurting their network, and thus their knowledge sharing and acquisition. It used to be we could approve LinkedIn use but prohibit Facebook. Now it's all a work/life mashup.

Final thoughts - for now

Granted, there are companies that have a different culture and/or strict compliance guidelines. Their rules on sharing content are rigid for a reason, and beyond the scope of this piece. But most organizations have plenty of room to build on these two content principles. Yet they are not doing so. Yes, it's hard-ass work, and yes, there is process change involved. Marketers have to eat a hearty slice of humble pie, and realize they have loads to learn about creating authentic content. But if they can set egos aside, their ability to distribute that content, facilitate its production, and properly analyze the results are still incredibly valuable.

Expert content still has be to mapped to the sales cycle, and tied into community building and lead gen metrics (e.g. attribution - another sticky wicket). The form that content should take will vary just as much as the tone (micro-blogs, videos, podcasts, webinars).

But if you think about content strategy from these two distinct directions, you'll be in a much better position to earn attention. Buying attention is also a lot easier with validated customers and vocal experts at your finger tips (example: it's much easier to line up paid white papers, analyst day events, etc).

I'll return to the topic of buyers' networks in a follow-on piece.

End note: If you want more drill down on different issues, check out the 50+ pieces I have written for diginomica on content strategy.


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