4 Steps to More Effective B2B Content Marketing

Emily Sue Tomac
June 6, 2016

4 Steps to More Effective B2B Content Marketing

B2B marketing leaders and content marketing experts weigh in on challenges & changes in content marketing at the Marketo Marketing Nation Summit. They said content marketers should take action to improve their efforts and maximize content ROI, and shared tips for making Marketing messages more strategic, more relevant, more profitable, and more accessible.

The State of Content Marketing in 2016

Content Marketing Programs Have Been Adopted But Are Still Immature

Content marketing has grown in popularity as an inbound tactic for B2B marketers. The strategy involves using content to attract, engage, retain, and grow a brand audience by providing helpful information about topics that interest the brand’s universe of ideal customers. At the recent Marketing Nation Summit, Marketo’s user conference, there were several presentations by marketing leaders championing particular approaches to content marketing, as well as by software vendors like ScribbleLiveUberflip, and Kapost, and consultants who assist with content creation and program design.

During the Summit, TrustRadius Research interviewed experts and practitioners to get a pulse on the state of content marketing in 2016. These conversations revealed that although marketers are starting to use content more, effective content marketing remains a challenge. Defining the relationship of Marketing to Sales, determining the strategic value of content, and creating impactful content seem to be three of the biggest issues right now. Experts see content marketing as on the brink of change, but in order to become more mature and effective as a discipline, marketers will need to adapt their content mindset.

“Content has been embraced by marketers, which is awesome. But the flip side is that content isn’t always as effective as it could be. Based on our research, only 38% of B2B marketers really know that their content is hitting their objectives and actually driving business for their company. They said their biggest challenge is creating engaging content. How can you build content that’s going to engage the people you are trying to reach? How do you build audiences? Ultimately, how do you connect that to sales, to moving the needle in some way or another? For me, it starts with creating amazing content that your customers will find valuable. That’s a big pain point for marketers.”

– Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer at Marketing Profs

“In content marketing, we’re at almost the trough of disillusionment in the Gartner hype-cycle. Content marketing has become a buzzword, but it really hasn’t become accepted practice. Often the companies that say they’re using it are only using it tactically, because that’s the way marketing departments have been built. Marketing grew up as a support mechanism for sales. We created brochures; we stood at tradeshow events, and tried to get more leads for sales. That transactional position held by Marketing is still very much in place today. I think there remains a lack of realization about the ineffectiveness of content when it is used tactically. I think the change has to start with the CMO, but really it’s a corporate-wide problem: recognizing that content is a strategic asset, a financial asset with value that grows.”

– Michael Brenner, CEO of Marketing Insider Group

Peer Insights on How to Improve Content Marketing Effectiveness

So, if you think that content marketing is a powerful idea, but your current approach is not as effective as it could be, how can you improve? Content marketers shared their perspectives on how to make marketing content more engaging, better leverage that content, and ensure that content marketing programs contribute to the company’s bottom line. The key tips from the experts interviewed include: focus on creating strategic, better quality content; talk to customers so you can mimic their language; adopt measurement tactics that help you tie content back to revenue; don’t neglect content distribution.

1. Invest more in content quality and substance, because content is a strategic business asset.

Experts and practitioners advise their fellow content marketers to make messages more specific, authentic, and relevant to the target audience. Based on their experiences, spending more time planning different messages and content formats for different outlets, roles, and stages of the buyer’s journey is a worthwhile investment. They have found that creating better, more strategic content has made them better able to contribute to corporate goals.

“I boil my advice down into a three-word prescription: Bigger, Bolder, Braver. Bigger means to create context—don’t just talk about the product you’re selling, put it in a bigger context that people care about so that people can connect with it in some way. Bolder means being bolder in the story that you’re telling, really expressing who you are even if it means that your message may not be for everybody. Braver refers to a tone of voice. It means communicating in the way that’s going to differentiate you as a company that doesn’t make you sound like everybody else. For example, look around this tradeshow right now. I feel like most of these companies all sort of sound like one another. If you leave out the name, the message is always: ‘We run more targeted campaigns and have accelerated the sales funnel.’ As a value proposition, that’s too general. It describes 90% of the companies who are here.”

– Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer at Marketing Profs

“I think we’ve had to do some self-evaluation and realize that we don’t need to be so focused on predictive, predictive, predictive all the time. We need to be more problem-centric and write about the problems our customers are facing instead of what predictive is. That was a big revelation for us. Most of our competitors offer content like “FlipMyFunnel” and “ABM is here to stay” and “The 5 things about Predictive You Need to Know.” We started thinking about it differently and creating content such as “What makes an SDR great at their job?” Or “What Can B2B Marketers Do to Drive Efficiency in Marketing/Sales Alignment?” As soon as we made the shift our appointments and conversion rates went through the roof. Our deal cycles shortened and we’ve seen a huge acceleration for our business.”

– Sahil Mansuri, VP of Product Marketing at SalesPredict

“Over time digital marketing has become crowded and our audience’s attention span is run down. So, like many other B2B Marketing teams, we’re thinking about how to mix up e-books, whitepapers, infographics, and research reports with video content. At the same time, though, video can be hard to produce—we may need to work with agency partners, for example. We think webinars are a good alternative, because they’re live. [Full disclosure: Waas himself is a marketer for a webinar platform.] If we stumble, we make a joke about it and it actually helps with authenticity, whereas in a video we rehearse and edit out all of the ‘ums’ and such. Those features are part of being human. So we’re thinking about how to build a real connection with our audience, and leverage our own product to achieve authenticity and keep production costs down. I think other B2B companies also struggle to strike a tone that doesn’t sound like a total bore. Marketing content needs to show the human side of the business with real people involved.”

– Daniel Waas, Director of Marketing, GoToWebinar at Citrix

“Today still there is a tremendous pressure within companies, largely driven by C-suite executives and Sales, to want to talk about the company or product itself. It’s sort of a natural instinct. But in the Marketing sphere, that doesn’t work. If all we do is talk about our products and services, then we’re not really earning the right to have a conversation (especially at earlier stages in the buyer’s journey) with the types of communal council that we need to be targeting. Instead, we should be doing content marketing—consistently creating content that matches the buyer experience from beginning to close and beyond, providing information that is wanted and helpful to prospects and customers. Traffic, leads, revenue, and retention of existing customers all go up over time when you consistently publish helpful content on a regular basis.”

– Michael Brenner, CEO of Marketing Insider Group

2. Incorporate feedback from across the customer lifecycle to make the language of the content more effective.

Practitioners said that by talking to customers, prospects, and the target market at large, and A/B testing marketing messages at a linguistic level, marketers can be more confident about not only which ideas but also which words their audience identifies with. Marketing can also utilize internal resources, such as salespeople and customer success managers, who talk directly with buyers and customers at different stages to create more informed, engaging content. Some marketers are using customer-created content such as reviews to replace traditional marketing content like whitepapers and case studies, deploying customer language directly as a marketing asset.

“We have ideas around how we want to position our new product (which will help marketers re-use webinar content) and why we think it’s valuable—at a conceptual level that is already based on customer and prospect feedback. But we’re pretty close to having the product live, so now I’m trying to put that concept into words that resonate with a wide range of marketers. For example, here at this event I’m testing and honing our new messages. In every conversation I’m phrasing it a little differently and thinking, ‘Does it resonate?’ I think that’s the best way to learn. Once we’re in-market, we’ll learn more by A/B testing different variations of the same or similar messaging, and see how it plays out. That’s my longer-term goal.”

– Daniel Waas, Director of Marketing, GoToWebinar at Citrix

“Frontline employees, including Sales, Support, and Customer Success, are in the business of answering customer questions. If they bcc their answer to Marketing, Marketing gets a view on the dynamic of exchange—that is completely gold when it comes to architecting subsequent content plans. The voice of the customer, language of customer, and the literal objections that are actually coming up can inform new Marketing and Sales content. You might call it content democratization.”

– Lee Odden, Co-Founder and CEO at TopRank Marketing

“I think the more content that’s available on review sites, the less our audience is going to care about a data sheet. It’s much more important what our customers are saying about us than what we are saying about us. For example, our customer marketing team has to balance now—since we have so many reviews on TrustRadius, and they’re very authentic reviews, do we really need 20 case studies this quarter? Maybe I just create 3 really good ones and rely on the TrustRadius content for the rest. In my mind there’s a swapping of the content we create and the content that is already being created.”

– Michael Berger, Senior Director Product Marketing at Marketo

3. Don’t get caught up on leads, but do remember that content marketing has a revenue responsibility.

While lead generation can be one goal of content marketing (and of inbound programs generally), practitioners noted it is helpful to remember that the primary goal is broader: building a foundational relationship with your audience. While capturing a lead with a gated content form can help you put a contact into your nurture stream, some practitioners think that gating content detracts from its ability to foster trust at the top of the funnel. They said it’s important to sync up Marketing and Sales around goals and expectations for content marketing programs, and then track short-term success and long-term conversion.

Whether you use content marketing software, attribution tools, spreadsheets, or a mix of analytics products, balancing these goals can help you use content in a way that builds a stronger long-term pipeline and is more copacetic with the buyer’s journey.

“This whole system is based on gating content, capturing information. But our buyers, who are in IT and software development, don’t want that—I think most people don’t. Plus, it’s operationally inefficient. Many people just make up a generic name like ‘John Smith’ to download a whitepaper anyway. As a company and an industry, we need to do a major overhaul to un-gate content, open everything up and make it 100% permission-based so that only people who want to be contacted are giving up their information.  Moving forward, my advice is to focus on what your customers want, not on what the Marketing and Sales teams want. It’s hard though, because when the Sales team expects leads from a webinar, it’s hard to say ‘No, I’m not going to give you any leads because I’m un-gating that webinar.’ It requires a leap of faith. My prerogative is that buyers should get to know us and ultimately try one of our products. I think that after that trial we can ask for more information. There’s a balance there.”

– Bryan Semple, GM and CMO at SmartBear Software

“One of our directors sometimes cheekily says, from a tracking and a reporting standpoint, ‘If you can’t buy a beer with it, it’s not yet the right metric.’ I like that, because it reinforces for marketers that it’s not really about MQLs, it’s not about the pipeline, it’s about closed deals. Not everything is going to lead directly to a sale—with your social activity, your content programs, your top of funnel work, it doesn’t need to be direct response, but you needs to have the outcome in mind. Conversion tracking is important, because the number one metric should be Marketing’s contribution to Sales.”

– Matt Heinz, President of Heinz Marketing, Inc.

4. Distribute and amplify your content thoughtfully—make content convenient and accessible to your audience.

According to experts, content distribution is one of the most overlooked but vital aspects of a content marketing strategy. They diagnose a good message that fails to catch the audience’s attention as a common tragedy, usually due to improper timing, location, or forms of delivery. Practitioners suggest the best practice is regularly posting content to an owned website or other media outlet, or creating other materials that can fit in as a consistent part of the audience’s day. There are also other methods, like incorporating influencer marketing and SEO keywords, for extending the reach of content and making sure it does not stay siloed.

“With content marketing right now, B2B marketers need a quality play rather than a quantity play. However, this doesn’t mean they can ignore distribution.”

– Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer at Marketing Profs

“I often say the difference between just a piece of content versus content marketing is a brand-owned destination or media property. The undercurrent of rejecting ads and promotional materials is true for B2B as well as B2C. Creating media instead of interrupting media with ads is a better way to use ad dollars. You have to be consistently acting like a publisher and creating content that people want.”

– Michael Brenner, CEO of Marketing Insider Group

“Separate content from context. A lot of marketers do all the hard work to figure out the message, but then they just write PDFs and emails and blog posts and think they’re good. Once I’ve got a message, the question should be: how do I get that to my target audience? As marketers, we don’t put enough thought into that. It’s often why our content is ineffective; our delivery method fails to match the context. For example, in healthcare, hoping that nurses are going to read a 15-page whitepaper and follow our blog posts doesn’t make any sense. Once we get outside of tech, this is the kind of situation B2B marketers face. To share an example of effective content + context, we worked with an organic fertilizer company whose target audience was field managers in central California. They’re in the field and in their truck, literally. They’re not on email or social, so we sent them clipboards with built-in calculators, and some materials clipped to it. Our goal was to have a consistent place on the dashboard of their truck or in their hands.”

– Matt Heinz, President of Heinz Marketing, Inc.

“I think one of the big issues is that companies are spending so little on amplification during content creation; they’re spending it all on advertising after the fact because that’s simple and that’s what they know. But there’s a tremendous amount of reach left on the table by not incorporating organic amplification elements like influencer activation, SEO, and social optimization (such as which types of content do best on which social media platforms) during the content planning/creation process. I think companies should spend half on advertising and half on creation; not 70/30 or 80/20 like they do now.”

– Lee Odden, Co-Founder and CEO at TopRank Marketing

Different software products can help with each of these four steps (although not all of the marketers we talked to are using software in every piece of their content marketing programs). For example, review platformssurvey tools, and A/B testing and personalization tools can help with #2—using the voice of customers to create more relevant content. In terms of #3, some marketing analytics tools, usually those branded as attribution or marketing performance management, allow users to track the ROI of different initiatives including content marketing. Influencer marketing software allows users to identify relevant thought leaders and blogs/news sites that already have a respectable following, and search engine marketing (SEM) platforms allow users to boost content visibility in search results, enabling the amplification and accessibility described in #4.

If you are interested in learning more about specific trends in content marketing technology—“less crap, better Sales and Marketing alignment, and of course, personalization”—read more about product roadmaps and new use cases here. You can also explore user insights about additional content marketing tools like ion interactiveScoop.it, and Contently, or compare tools on our dynamic Content Marketing Software TrustMap.


About the Author

Emily Sue Tomac
Emily Sue Tomac is Senior Research Manager at TrustRadius, where she studies reviews, the technology buying and selling process, and buyers and vendors themselves. Her research aims to arm people with the tools and information they need to work better, smarter, and easier. She's on a mission to tell their stories, and drive change in how business technology is bought and sold. Prior to joining TrustRadius, Emily Sue worked on research in linguistics and the digital humanities.

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