How to gain a competitive advantage through your content

We are all looking for a competitive advantage, and if you’re fortunate enough to be selling a completely unique product from a well-known firm to a needy market, you probably don’t have to be very good at marketing to be successful. 

But B2B companies have found success in content marketing, and they’re upping the ante. The competition for your prospect’s attention is only going to get worse, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get in the game—you just need to find your competitive advantage. 

Look for what your competition is NOT doing and go deep

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, he talks about the story of Vivek Ranadivé, a famous software CEO in Silicon Valley that also coached his daughter’s junior basketball team to a national championship. But what makes his story unique is that his team was not made up of all stars. In fact, many, including his own daughter, had never played the game before. 

As an immigrant from Mumbai, Ranadivé was puzzled by the way Americans played basketball. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A’s end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. 

The basketball court was ninety-four feet long, but most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet. 

This paradigm meant the ‘good teams’ had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end of the court. 

The problem was that Ranadivé’s players weren’t tall and they couldn’t shoot or dribble well, so they wouldn’t be able to compete in the traditional way, so he decided that his team would play a real full-court press, 100% of the time, every game. They wore out, and I suspect freaked out, their opponents and ended up at the national championships.

How does this apply to finding your competitive advantage in marketing? 

First, we need to realize that the sales and marketing game in large part is still being played in the 24-foot portion of the court, even though companies have shifted resources to content marketing and social media selling, because they are still are executing 2005 marketing and sales process strategies even though the tools are current. 

But they’re ignoring the changes in our underlying business and buyer behavior as a culture.

For example, companies create content on their blogs and websites, and then use social media to distribute that content—but all they’re really getting out of that is branding and awareness, which is what we did as marketers in the 90s

When marketing provided “air cover”, sales reps used to be able to generate their own leads. It's not that buyers ever wanted to talk to sales reps, but it was the only way they could learn about best practices and solutions available in the market. 

That’s why marketing’s job was to create awareness through one-to-many mediums like trade shows and advertising. A well-trained talented sales rep could easily fill her calendar with new opportunities using the phone, knocking on doors, and asking for referrals. 

I think that an awful lot of us growing up in sales probably just thought we were awesome at prospecting, but in reality it was the buyers who needed information from us and that was the real reason we were successful generating our own leads.  But as most of you know, the world has changed, and the internet is crushing a sales rep’s ability to generate their own leads.

Today, marketing still owns the brand, but knocking on doors really isn’t an option in a world of unmanned reception desks, branding and positioning efforts won’t achieve the appointments it once did. That also goes for phone calls since 85% of all B2B phone calls go to voicemail, most of which don’t get returned. Sales reps are starving because they can’t do it by themselves anymore, and it’s up to marketing to get them involved in qualified sales conversations.  

Buyer’s have significantly more control than they used to. They start with an anonymous Google search which leads to the consumption Whitepapers, webinars, videos, blogs, and articles as buyers. They learn what’s available in the market, self-diagnose their own problems, and prescribed their own solutions.  

It’s not about one-to-many anymore because it’s disruptive, it’s about one-to-one. Whether that happens digitally, in person, or a combination of the two is irrelevant. 

Think about how your own buying journey has changed—we avoid ads on television (or pick up our smartphones when they come on), we’re blind to banner ads on websites, we delete email pitches that ask for a meeting, and we don’t tolerate cold calls (and in fact, most people actually HATE when someone calls them on the phone now). We’re never farther than arms length from our phones, and if you don’t create some sort of curiosity in your headlines and body copy, you are invisible. 

Yes, use content—but give the reader something interesting. Something of value that helps them perform their jobs more efficiently. Following up on link clicks with "buy from me now" messages also doesn't work.

Growing revenue still comes down to having qualified sales conversations, but marketers need to be starting and continuing as many conversations digitally as they can, because unless organizations step into this digital void and engage these anonymous buyers, sales will miss out on deals they never even knew were going down in the market.   

Again, this is where the 70 feet on the court is—the gap where sales reps used to have real conversations that must now happen digitally. It is this change that is driving a merger between content marketing and lead generation today.

But, marketing is still taking too simplistic of an approach. Publishing a piece of content like a white paper or info-graphic and gating it behind a form to create the lead for the rep may be an effective way to catch name, rank, and serial number of the prospect, but it doesn’t produce leads that are ready to talk to sales. 

I’m not against good content sitting behind gates—we do it all the time for ourselves and our clients (like this) But effective lead generation and filling this void in the funnel takes much more. We need to look at all of the conversion points to create a competitive advantage with content.

So what’s the competitive advantage at the top of the funnel? 

There are hundreds of ways to get your content found but I would put all of them in the three major buckets: email, social, and search. Whether it’s pushing content out or trying to get prospects to come to you, these are merely starting points to a conversation. 

By definition, a conversation is a two-way activity that will likely include several digital mediums. So the question for 2016 is not which channel you should use but rather how to create content people will want to consume regardless of how they found it. 

To the prospect, either you are creating content they find (and therefore find you) or you don’t exist to them. So, create lots of content that aligns to the keywords they’re searching for, for each type of problem you solve, for each stage of the funnel. And make sure that content lives on pages that Google can find.

To demonstrate, we set up a study where we built a library of content including white papers, articles, videos, case studies, and infographics and used all of the modern tools to drive engagement with the content:  email, social media, ad retargeting, and SEO.

We then directed a small team of business development reps to follow up on all types of leads to measure the conversion rates of cold leads, newly generated MQL’s, and warm MQL’s that had been nurtured over time.

We further defined these lead records by placing them into four buckets.

  1. Cold leads were simply lead records stored in the database that had no digital activity that we could verify. We called those “Suspects”. 
  2. Next we wanted to break out the concept of a marketing qualified lead into more granular categories. I think most sales and marketing teams would agree that an MQL meets certain demographic criteria and demonstrates a minimum amount of engagement such as a campaign response but we created a bucket called MQL3 to track those leads that met the ideal prospect profile standards but had a very minimal digital activity such as an email open but no click through on the offer or web page visits but no form conversions to download content.  
  3. Next we split the remaining MQL’s into two categories: MQL2 and MQL1.  MQL2’s where what you may call “newly minted” MQL’s as they just clicked through on email offers or downloaded web content
  4. MQL1’s had been engaged over a longer period of time clicking through on multiple email offers or several website visits consuming lots of content over time through continued nurturing after their first conversion point.
Marketing Qualified Leads

The results, while directionally intuitive, were meaningful. The business development reps called into a pool of 18,000 leads and over two months and had live phone conversations with 1,216 of them with the objective of setting an appointment for outside sales rep at which point they would become an SAL or a Sales Accepted Lead.

What we learned:

  1. An MQL3 was 124% more likely to convert into an SAL than a cold Suspect. 

  2. MQL2’s were 321% more likely to convert. 

  3. And MQL1’s were in astounding 878% more likely to convert into an appointment then cold suspect. 

Now I know most of us are not hiring sales teams to cold call these days… But the data is astounding and business case clear that producing additional content to nurture marketing qualified leads has huge payback.

MQL to SAL conversion metrics

So what’s the competitive advantage in the middle of the funnel? 

Don’t stop short by simply publishing a white paper and put it behind the gate to create leads. That’s a great starting point but producing additional content to further nurture those leads will have a dramatic impact on which ones actually turn into sales opportunities.

digital sales conversations

Finally, let’s take a look at the bottom of the funnel and see how content impacts the final decision buyers make.

For the most part, content creation for the bottom of the funnel does not need explanation—it’s the 24 feet of the court where content marketers already have a lot of experience in creating materials, i.e. sales collateral, case studies, product demos, etc. 

However, it is important to note that at the bottom of the funnel, buyers still rely on content like never before for making buying decisions and they don’t perceive a difference between “the marketing department” and “the sales department” when they engage with you. 

From the vendor’s standpoint, we frequently get wrapped around the axle thinking about who found the lead, who did the most work, who had the most impact on the deal, who close the deal, etc. While there is nothing wrong with putting both sales and marketing on quota to hit objectives, we can’t forget what this looks like from the buyer’s perspective.

Buyers experience ONE BRAND from every interaction with people and content whether on the phone, tablet, PC, voice-mail, G2M, or face-to-face. When they are online, they don’t think to themselves “gee, I am now dealing with the marketing department” and when in a meeting, whether phone or face-to-face, think: ok, now I’m dealing with the sales department.” Both are true but to them, it’s one single brand experience. 

So what’s content’s impact on closed business?

I’ve taken example from one of our clients looking at actual closed business year to date ending in Q3 of this year and broke all of the deals in the three buckets: 

  1. Marketing sourced deals, where the time date stamp of content engagement preceded the opportunity creation date.
  2. Marketing influenced deals, opportunities are where the opportunity was created and then there was content engagement after that opportunity began.
  3. Sales sourced opportunities are where there was no documented marketing engagement of any kind… Essentially these are deals the sales reps ran and prospects and no other engagement with the brand.
results of marketing sourced opportunities

The first thing that jumps out is that when the prospect finds us through content marketing, close rates are nearly double that of which sales reps run the cycle alone and the prospect doesn’t consume any content.

The next to take away, and we see this frequently with our clients, is that the biggest deals are in fact started by a sales rep, but the prospect soaks up everything they can get from our client: sales rep time, content, campaigns, etc. 

I don’t think the take away here is so much what can marketing do to increase deal size so much as it is a reflection of what buyers expect. If you are making a small purchase from the vendor, you likely have lower expectations of what you want from them and making a decision. But, if you are making a large purchase, she will likely take many more things into consideration and therefore be much more likely to consume content. Lots of it. And if you don’t provide that content… They may just go to the competitor who does.

Creating competitive advantage starts with creating content that gets found. 

1. Identify the keywords your prospects are searching for and produce content aligned to each pain point and stage in the buying process. 

2. Make sure that content lives on search optimized pages regardless of what channel you’re using to drive and get it with the content. 

3. Don’t rely on a single transaction of someone filling out a form to get a white paper and think you’re done with content marketing. Conversion rates climb dramatically when you continue to nurture with more content. 

4. Measure the pipeline impact to know where you can optimize your content. You may be surprised to learn where your content is that in the most value.