Over the last 7 months I’ve been very focused in my research on the dynamics of how B2B marketing is changing — particularly the increasing importance of developing buyer-centered marketing strategies and programs. (In fact, this week I’m speaking at a B2B Magazine event in London about new ways to drive B2B e-mail marketing programs based on behavioral/implicit factors, versus standard demographics.)
The broader evolution of B2B marketing has been accompanied by new challenges and opportunities, and in some cases these have driven the emergence of completely new marketing disciplines.
Content marketing is just such a discipline. Whereas marketing content has always been with us, I submit that modern content marketing is something altogether new — an evolutionary approach to engaging buyers with buying-stage-relevant information and a response to several rapidly-changing B2B marketing dynamics.
What has led to this emergence? And what are the implications for this new discipline?
There are a lot of moving pieces, and this post will detail some of the key dynamics. Yet it’s important to couch these dynamics in the macro environment of the shift in power from buyer to seller. You’ve probably heard me tell this story before: First, the Internet changed the nature of buyers’ access to information, which changed the nature of their relationship with B2B vendors. Second, this evolution led to a new Web 2.0 phase, where B2B buyers “… use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations,” as explained by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff in Groundswell. This shifted power away from vendors, toward buyers. Third, B2B marketing organizations — responding to this power shift — began fighting back — leveraging the same Groundswell approach and technologies to engage with buyers when and where the buyer now prefers, with information that is of relevance at that moment in time — which is where we are today.
Successful B2B marketing has become anticipatory and serendipitous, rather than forced and interruptive, and it focuses on the information needs of the buyer at each stage of his/her buying process, while being aware of the channels and peers buyers will turn to for insights and advice.
It is in this environment that the new discipline of content marketing has emerged.
How has marketing content changed, and what is content marketing?
Given this environment, your marketing content today must do much more than merely incite awareness or interest on the part of the buyer; rather, it must put the buyer at the center. C. Edward Brice, SVP of Worldwide Marketing for Lumension, commented on this in a recent interview on the Savvy B2B Marketing blog:
[C]ompanies have to engage differently with prospects. They have to stop focusing on the sales cycle and instead focus on the buying cycle. This ultimately means that companies need to understand prospects and customers to a greater extent, including how that individual wants to buy and what information they need at particular points in the buying cycle.
It is in this context that ‘content’ has taken on a new meaning. Content represents critical information, conveyed on specific topics, delivered via specific channels and in specific voices that align to specific phases of the buying cycle. What is interesting is that this type of interaction is what you might have once thought of as dialogue with the sales person — except in this context it is dialogue being managed by a marketer (and intermediated by the Groundswell community). Fortunately, the scope and sophistication of platforms now available to marketing organizations — particularly the coupling of CRM and marketing automation — enable us to power this pattern of mass one-to-one marketing in a scalable and efficient fashion … we just need engaging content … right?
So marketing content is no longer tactical; thus, ‘content marketing’ has emerged as a new strategic art in the battle to drive buyer-centric marketing. Content is no longer the static prose of taglines and brochures; rather, it is the connective tissue of a new era of ‘bottoms-up’ B2B marketing … and powers buyer dialogue.
For a specific definition, content marketing guru Joe Pulizzi (Twitter: @juntajoe) offers in this blog post: “Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”
While content’s role has increased in importance with the emergence of content marketing, at the same time it has become a major challenge for many B2B marketers — especially when it comes to powering their marketing automation campaigns. In fact, in the recent “2010 E-mail Marketing Benchmark Report” from MarketingSherpa, content relevancy was named as the number-one challenge for e-mail marketers — especially B2B marketers. (See graphic below; used with permission.)
What are the key dynamics shaping the new discipline of ‘content marketing?’
It’s clear that content marketing has emerged as both a major new opportunity and challenge for B2B marketers. So what does this mean for B2B marketing organizations, and how do they respond? To answer this question, I think it’s first important to dig into the specific dynamics that are shaping the current evolution of content marketing.
Based on my research, here’s what I believe is supported by current, defensible data and the opinions of thought leaders focused on this topic:
> Buyer education is increasingly self-directed and conducted online, via a variety of digital channels: This is the logical outcome of the evolution described above and was a key point of synthesis from my previous Propelling Brands post on how the B2B buyer is changing. In that post, I pointed to a growing body of research — mostly from Enquiro, author of The Buyersphere Project; MarketingSherpa, author of their annual B2B ‘Benchmarking Report; and analyst firm Forrester — indicating that the nature of B2B buyers is in fact shifting in this Web 2.0 environment. B2B buyers are more than ever preferring to conduct much of their buying process on their own, and “B2B buyers are increasingly turning to online sources, earlier in their process, to research purchases before ever calling a ‘live’ sales rep,” as I noted in that post. Essentially, buyer education is occurring via Internet-delivered content — on blogs, on Web sites, via social media and via traditional e-mail, but sans a sales person.
Since then I’ve continued to find data points that support this observation. Most recently, I was reviewing research by the Information Technology Services Marketing Association (ITSMA — which puts out some great studies — BTW). Their report, “How Customers Choose Solution Providers,” published this past September, looks at the nature of B2B buying decisions within IT organizations. According to this report, nearly two-thirds of buyers conduct their own research and then contact the vendor, not vice versa. (See graphic below; used with permission.)
> Purchase decisions incorporate more peer input than ever — increasingly accessed via digital means and led by the buyer: The Groundswell has had a two-part impact on how decisions are made. First, content and insights from peers are leveraged more than ever, and second, that collaborative decision-making process has become requisite for any major B2B purchase.
C. Edward Brice, cited above, commented on this in his Savvy B2B Marketing blog interview:
Today with the Internet and Web 2.0, friction is practically non-existent. Word of mouth flows freely. People are extremely informed because information is available anywhere. For example, according to TechTarget/Google research, the primary source of information about products and services is someone’s peers and colleagues. People place more trust in those sources than in the company itself.
This is echoed in the ITSMA buyer research. It shows that peer influence far outweighs other information sources, and social media increasingly represents merely another channel for accessing the insights of industry peers (also noted in the previous ITSMA chart ). (See graphic; used with permission.)
Gone are the days when a sales person, working with a single buyer, could solely influence a sale. Today, a vendor must contend with the ‘savvy B2B buying unit,’ as I like to refer to it. This is evident in data from MarketingSherpa’s “2010 E-mail Marketing Benchmark Report.” No B2B purchase is made without the input of others, and the larger the purchase, the larger the group evaluating the decision. (See graphic; used with permission.)
The ITSMA research also notes that B2B buyers increasingly leverage social media content as a virtual proxy for direct peer input, and it points out that a significant proportion of B2B buyers are actually leveraging this type of insight in their decision-making. (See graphic; used with permission.)
Meanwhile, the volume and proportion of user-generated content to the total Internet marketplace continues to grow. A year ago, eMarketer predicted that the number of US user-generated content creators would grow from 82.5 million in 2008 to 114.5 million in 2013, and that the proportion of total Internet users participating in user generated content would grow over that same period from 42.8% to 51.8%.
> Traditional media venues have lost their power and are declining in numbers: The indicators are everywhere that the Groundswell has had a tandem impact on traditional media outlets. If people are shifting where they consume buying-oriented information, and preferring to leverage new outlets and peer insights, then something’s got to give — and it has been traditional media for the last decade. A September report by UNITY: Journalists of Color noted that 35,885 journalism jobs had been lost over the previous 12 months (via the PDNPulse blog).
This trend has been dramatic in business and industry publications. American Business Media reported in December 2009, “Total b-to-b spending after the first three quarters of 2009 (tradeshows, print, digital) was $15.1 billion, reflecting a decline of 19.3% versus the same period in 2008.”
Given shrinking traditional venues, B2B marketers have subsequently been forced to figure out how — more than ever — they can ‘go direct’ to buyers. This was made clear in a recent report released by the Custom Publishing Council:
Marketers poured more money into branded content in 2009 than ever before … . [The study] showed that total spending on branded content was over $1.8 million per company … . Even allowing for the addition of new categories, 2009 spending was double that of 2008 and the highest amount since the CPC began conducting the survey in 2003.
The most significant data point in the CPC report was the increasing proportion of marketing dollars being spent on content being created directly by B2B vendor organizations. “Of the average overall marketing, advertising and communications budgets, branded content accounted for 32% of funds. This is the greatest ever proportion of overall funds dedicated to branded content. The previous high was in 2007, with 27%.” (See graphic; used with permission.)
This shift mirrors data MarketingProfs published about a year ago — when we were already beginning to see signs that B2B marketers were shifting their media mix to vendor-produced content. In the study, “B2B Marketing in 2009: Trends in Strategies and Spending,” corporate Web sites and e-mail — both vendor produced content — were expected to play an increasing role (with blogs trailing not that far behind). (See graphic; used with permission.)
We also have seen further evidence of this in MarketingProfs’ most recent study, “The State of Social Media Marketing,” that cites online content as the leading paid tactic B2B marketers are leveraging today. (See graphic; used with permission.)
> The new yardstick for content value is whether (and how) it provides a buyer with leverage to move his/her buying process forward — i.e., it must be measured more from the buyer’s needs than from the vendor’s needs: “Think of today’s marketing mantra as, ‘Tell, don’t sell,'” comment the folks at Media Logic in a blog post last September. “The key to successful lead generation in this market is engagement. If we can get our best prospects to converse with us, chances are we’ll be able to get them to identify themselves and move them to close.” This means meaningful content that makes the point of engaging buyers with the questions and issues the buyer has on his/her mind. (And — BTW — when you know the content a buyer is consuming you also have insight into where (s)he is in the buying process, which I’ll touch on below, and this helps you even better segment and target your content.)
This correlates to the data noted previously from the CPC. Their research shows the number one reason a company would engage in producing its own content is to ‘educate [potential] customers’ — cited by 54% of marketers as their primary purpose, and nearly twice the proportion of any other response.
Producing ‘good content’ thus means covering the full range of the buying process — not only syncing with buyers once they’ve raised their hands and indicated their interest, but also further upstream as they are framing up how they might approach their purchase. Chris Koch (Twitter: @ckochster) of ITSMA explained this in a post on his blog:
Marketers are engaging with buyers too late in the game. Long before they begin thinking about buying anything, customers are trying to sense the next issue or problem that they will face in their businesses. They are conducting research, looking for thought leadership, talking to people, and looking for examples that will help them clarify their next move. Marketers need to get involved at this stage–long before a buyer approaches them with an RFP.
These people are not leads. They are researchers looking for content. This requires that marketers become educators and facilitators, actively helping customers articulate a need they may not have known they had. Not until the buyer has identified a need and wishes to make a purchase can marketing move into lead generation mode.
Of course, many marketers do some form of demand generation today. But to take advantage of the epiphany phase, marketers take those efforts to a higher level.
Producing ‘good content’ also means covering the full range of buyers’ interests — i.e., every question they might have before engaging with a sales person. C. Edward Brice offered a thought-provoking insight into this reality in his Savvy B2B Marketing blog interview:
Competitive comparisons are some of the most heavily searched terms. Most companies didn’t grow up in the Web 2.0 world and because of that, competitive comparisons make them nervous. But buyers are searching for that content in their buying process. Either someone else gives it to them or you can. There’s a way to compare yourself to the competition in a professional manner, without disparaging those other options.
> Modern digital marketing and communication platforms enable us to connect the dots — so we can both target content delivered and observe buyer’s consumption of content in a one-to-one fashion: This is the last piece in the equation and the ‘qualitative’ dynamic among my other data-centric dynamics. It also is the new key to connecting content marketing to both efficient sales conversions and increased customer lifetime value. The other factors speak to changes in the world external to B2B marketers, but as I noted earlier, marketers are increasingly leveraging the same Groundswell technologies to connect the dots and succeed in the new era of Buyer 2.0.
To be clear, there is a critical symbiosis between marketing automation and content marketing. One cannot live without the other. “Marketers agree that ‘content is paramount’ to feeding the demand management process, for initial prospect acquisition and for nurturing buyers through the purchase process,” comments Laura Ramos of Forrester in the Silverpop-sponsored research paper, “How Managing Leads Pays Off In A Stronger, More Qualified Pipeline.” I also detailed this reality in a recent post on the Silverpop Demand Generation blog that examined, “Content: The Dirty Underbelly of B2B Marketing Automation.”
On the flip side, marketing automation platforms also allow us to keep track of content viewed and downloaded and map that back to a specific prospect and their ultimate purchase decision. Observing aggregated actions help us to identify the critical paths pursued by specific buyer personas — i.e., the common paths of engagement with our promotional resources — and this helps us to better tune the information we develop and the channels we leverage for delivering content marketing. “There is no substitute for studying buyer behavior in good B2B marketing,” also notes Ramos in her paper.
The results of behavioral data in response to content consumption are significant. They help us better score and route leads by understanding where a buyer is in the buying cycle: “By tracking a customer’s engagement with content, we actually have a very good idea of their position in the sales cycle,” comments Blake Hinkley in a post on the Marketing Lab blog. Hinckley refers to this as ‘passive profiling,’ and notes it is a better picture of a buyer than the information offered on registration forms.
The nuances of mapping content against the buying cycle — and using it to assess the maturity of a prospect in his/her buying cycle — also helps us rationalize choices about how we track and assess the use of content. For instance, when should you require registration to access your content? Michele Linn (Twitter: @michelelinn) tackled this in a post on the Savvy B2B Marketing blog, titled “Lose Control”: “My third ‘ah ha’ moment came this week when I read a fabulous post from Chris Koch that made the point that we should consider someone’s place in the buying cycle when deciding if we should require registration and determining how much information we need.”
How can B2B marketers be successful with content marketing?
I hope that my analysis of the dynamics that are shaping the direction of content marketing helps you get your head around this (r)evolution. At any rate, understanding these factors is helpful in understanding the advice that many out there are offering on smart content marketing strategies. There is so much more to cover, but I think the key is to be grounded in what is really going on — which is critical to making smart choices about your own strategies and tactics.
For next steps, I’d first recommend following some of the content marketing experts out there — i.e., the good ones. In addition to the thought leaders and research I’ve cited above, I also follow Ardath Albee (Twitter: @ardath421); Valeria Maltoni (Twitter: @conversationage); and Stephanie Tilton (Twitter: @stephanietilton). (And for more on ‘B2B marketing 2.0 luminaries to follow in 2010, check out this Propelling Brands post.) These are all smart people with great insights.
Second, I’ll follow up this post with another one (either here, on Demand Generation or on the MarketingProfs Daily Fix — or maybe all three — to be linked here). My follow-up post will provide some thoughts about how to get in the ‘content marketing mindset.’ So stay tuned …
[update] Here is a link to my follow-up post on the Demand Generation blog, “What are the keys to finding success with B2B content marketing?”
What do you think?
Did I hit all of the major factors shaping the direction of content marketing? Please add your thoughts on what is driving this (r)evolution.