It used to be that darkening the skies with sales reps, albeit expensive, was the best way to grow a B2B company—more feet on the street equaled more opportunities. But in a world where prospects hide behind caller ID and email, it’s the organization who has the most valuable content for prospects shopping online for solutions that wins.
That’s actually good news for small and midsize companies who could never afford to compete with the huge sales teams of market leaders, but the key to making content marketing work as a prospecting tool is that it must lead to sales conversations.
That continues to be the missing element for most B2B companies that are unsatisfied with their content marketing efforts to date, so let’s get back to real business problem you’re trying to solve.
If marketing owns the branding and awareness function at the top of the funnel, and sales owns presenting and closing near the bottom of the funnel, you’ve still got a big piece missing in the middle—where the leads actually become sales conversations.
For the companies that successfully fill their pipelines with new sales opportunities, we’ve found that there are 7 common attributes.
Attribute #1 Content maps tightly to the sales process.
Articles, videos, white papers, webinars and infographics that identify high-probability pains that your prospects are trying to solve work very well to get the attention of early stage buyers.
But before you start assigning blog articles to your employees, take a step back and analyze what content you’re going to actually need:
1. Top of the Funnel Content. What types of content get people’s attention and generate curiosity at the top of the funnel?
Remember, at this stage of the funnel, it’s not about you. It’s about a likely problem that they have. If they have that problem, or think they might have that problem, they’ll want your content—no doubt. But they’re probably not ready to talk to you.
2. Middle of the Funnel Content. Once you’ve got some engagement, how do you get them interested in talking to a sales person?
At this stage, the prospect is most likely going to want to consume more content at their own pace, on the device that they prefer, and at the time of their choosing. So make sure that they can do just that. Some if it can be automated, and some requires a very soft push in the right direction—It’s called nurturing and that doesn’t mean you should push for an appointment yet.
But once they understand that you “get” them, (they see you as a trusted source of educational material), now you’ve earned the right to advance that conversation and turn it into a sales conversation.
This process varies by individual, and unfortunately there’s not a neat and predictable way that you can map out the process in a flow chart, which is why it’s important that you publish content in a format that easy for them to navigate on their own.
3. Bottom of the Funnel Content. This is where your good, old-fashioned sales process kicks in, and the content developed here should support it every step of the way. For example, ask your sales people what objections are they hearing regularly and develop content that answers it.
This is where you can use your sales brochures, case studies, ad slicks and websites that talk about you and your product.
If you’ve got the high probability pain points mapped out, it’s easy to create a framework that serves as the foundation ongoing content production that map to all stages in the sales funnel—and here’s the kicker—it will be content that they actually want.
All the while, you’re leading them with content to the point where they’re ready to talk to a sales person—sneaky! (Not really. It’s the same process that happens face-to-face with a highly trained sales rep—we’re just trying to replicate that process digitally).
Attribute Number 2: Top of Funnel Content usually lives in a blog and is used to drive traffic.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t have videos, infographics and Youtube channels and a resources section of your website—those are all good ideas. But the transactional content needed to publish and use for campaigns should live in a blog for one main reason: search engines prefer it.
The reason they like it is because it helps generate more organic content in the form of commenting, liking, and sharing. The more people interact with the content, that’s going to tip your hand to Google that this is valuable content. People don’t like sharing and making comments on invaluable content, so if there’s a lot of interaction, Google understands that people dig this and it’s important and valuable and therefore they’re more likely to send you traffic.
Blogs are also great for incorporating visual, written and video content all in the same article. Imagine a blog article that has photos, charts and graphs and embedded videos all in one. That’s not only good for SEO, but it’s also good for engagement and generating a positive experience.
Attribute #3: Content is available and distributed in multi-media formats
Not everyone has the same preferences and habits for content consumption. That should be obvious, but clearly that message has failed to reach many B2B companies today that are producing one-sided pieces.
We’re all heard stories about “the death of” this or that, such as “no one reads articles anymore and that everything is moving to video.” Others will say “I hate video and think all content should be in the form of infographics.”
Personally, I like scanning articles before playing a video to get a sense of whether or not it’s going to be a waste of time watch it all the way through.
The lesson here is not that you have to create content in any one specific medium. Because everyone’s preferences are unique, that means you really need to be creating written, visual and video content that can be consumed on any platform, on any device or on any channel. There just isn’t another way around that.
Attribute #4: Content is published on a regular, predictable publication schedule.
There are daily newspapers, blogs and TV shows. There are monthly magazines, newsletters and webinars. There are annual research papers and benchmark reports.
Any of these can be really great content marketing assets that will generate leads but if you think about what you’re trying to do, which is to engage early stage buyers who are not necessarily in the market, and you want to keep them engaged until they are in fact in the market, you need to keep them coming back if you plan to get on their short list.
That’s not a one-time touch, and you must train them on what to expect.
Where it’s true in some cases that more content can be better, quality will always trump quantity when it comes to creating a loyal audience who looks forward to your content regardless of the means by which they receive it. They need to be conditioned on what to expect.
Attribute #5: Content is distributed throughout multiple channels
The secret is out on content marketing, and the reality is that this is how we all need to be approaching marketing these days, especially in B2B.
To make matters worse, the Field of Dreams “Build it and they will come” approach isn’t working out very well in today’s sea of content. There’s so much content to compete with that getting found is a much, much harder proposition.
I’m not saying that posting to your website won’t help drive traffic. It can. But publishing an article on a topic like “bending the cost curve in healthcare” is competing against tens of thousands of really great pieces of content that have been published since the affordable care act has been passed. Some of these companies have gigantic budgets to work with, so good luck getting on page one of Google if that’s your strategy.
You’re really going to need have rich content that has been developed for very specific niche audiences and promote heavily through social media, email, and possibly paid search.
I realize that a large focus has been on inbound (Thanks, Hubspot!), and that should absolutely be our goal, but the competition is so high that if you can’t afford the six to 12 months that it’s going to take to build the inbound audience, you may need to consider paid search to drive traffic to your content.
And just like people are going to have preferences for the type of content they want to consume, they’re also going to have preferences as to the channel. Some people will prefer email, where others may rely on social media.
Only relying on one channel, it really is unconsciously making the choice to disregard prospects that prefer those other channels.
Attribute #6: Conversions and calls-to-action for highly valued assets that help define highly qualified leads.
Conversions to high-value gated assets seems to be the biggest failure point when it comes to content marketing for lead generation.
You may be creating some really good content, but without calls to action designed to convert those anonymous visitor into known prospects, all that money being spent on content generation will result in marginal branding and awareness, and that’s not enough. Not that there’s anything wrong with branding if you can afford it, but most companies live a little more hand-to-mouth and they need to generate leads with their content.
The trick here is create a compelling call to action for someone who just read a thought leadership article on topic XYZ. Remember that at this stage, you don’t have enough information on the prospect and it’s not likely that they’ll be ready for a demonstration or to talk to a sales rep.
Remember that these are early stage buyers who are only interested in content at this point, so an offer for an infographic or a white paper may be something that they’d be willing to give up their contact information for, which allows you to then continue nurturing and then another time down the road when they’re ready they’ll talk to the sales team.
Take note however—offering a purely product or sales oriented call to action, just because they clicked through and read an article or blog post is putting the cart before the horse, and your outreach will probably fall flat on its face.
Do use premium content assets like white papers, infographics, webinars, etc. to convert anonymous traffic that’s generated by more top-of-funnel and campaign content.
Attribute #7: Good use of marketing technology to automate what we can
There’s no technology that is going to completely eliminate the need for a professionally trained sales rep, especially in the complex-considered purchase in B2B. But technology certainly can be used to nurture prospects and let sales reps know which prospects are most likely to engage based on their content consumption and digital behavior.
Marketing technology should be used to make sales reps more productive, and I would add that their role becomes more important than ever before.
You probably need fewer highly trained reps with bigger quotas, but that means that we’ve dramatically increased what we need from them.
There’s endless amounts of information about why you should be using marketing automation, and we don’t need to go into best practices around lead scoring, nurturing, progressive profiling, sequencing, and so on.
But we need to come back to the reason that you’re doing content marketing in the first place, which is to generate leads for sales. Or put another way, we’re trying to replicate digitally the sales conversations that reps used to be able to get on their own by making cold calls, going to networking events, and so on.
The only thing that you do know for sure about that prospect is the content topics they are interested in. Therefore, you can make a reasonable extrapolation about the high-probability pains that they likely have.
With that knowledge about their pain, some good content, and marketing automation technology, you can then nurture these early stage buyers until they’re actually ready to talk to a sales rep.