Working with B2B technology companies with complex sales cycles I often their idea of content is very “Me! Me! Me!”-centric. And it’s common for them to struggle with seeing salesy talk or understanding why it’s bad. I get it. It’s hard for us to see ourselves sometimes when all we want to do is tell how great our product is. However, the readers we want to talk to see that style as disinterested in what they are really asking about. How we approach them is being examined under a microscope…theirs! Addressing their most compelling questions fully is vital in building credibility with them. You can’t establish trust by being an ad in content marketing clothing.
I think Luke Cope makes the dissimilarity clear in his article “Why Your Branded Content Shouldn’t Always Be About Your Brand.”
Content Marketing Institute
Don’t Get Content Marketing Confused With Advertising
It’s an easy mistake to make, and we all think we know the difference. Advertising is a method of selling a specific product or service range, whereas content marketing consistently targets a relevant consumer audience with engaging, helpful, and/or entertaining content and encourages them to take action.
So why is it important to create content that is not self-promotional? Why can’t you just write about how wonderful your product is and how well it solves the reader’s problem*? The answer to those questions is simple: people go through several stages of understanding when doing online research for a problem they’re trying to solve. You need content that speaks to each of those phases in a style that demonstrates you a knowledgeable subject matter expert, and objective information that helps them make smarter decisions.
- For simplicity I use the word “problem” to describe the reader’s motivation, but not all informational quests are trying to solve a pain-point. Often a better description might be seeking a positive benefit, like an experience or product/service that brings joy, happiness, time/money savings, pleasure or other advantage/perk.
Instead if the content’s tone when they ask, “How do I X?” is “Buy Me!” you lose any credibility and trust you could have built. If you create content for those basic stages, and save the Me! Me! Me!-centric stuff for stage 3, where the reader wants to hear all about you.
Customer Journey Centric Content Marketing Framework
While each person’s journey is unique, you can use a simple framework to align content to a prospect’s search mindset. The three research stages that most folks tend to follow are 1) What’s The Deal/Problem? 2) How’s This Problem Being Solved?
“My lemons have black brown splotches what is it?” (1st Stage: What’s The Deal/Problem?)
This is where I am trying to figure out the issue. My lemons have yucky spots. If you are in sales you might be asking, “What’s stopping my territory from growing?” In manufacturing it might be, “Troubleshooting quote to order processing.” This is exploratory. Think of content for this stage as a big hairy FAQ. For other brands it might be trends, or insights to a quickly changing marketing place. Question to ask yourself: “How to potential customers learn about this topic now or self-eductate? What can we write that is relevant to their informational need, aligned with our brand’s value proposition, and genuinely helpful/useful to the reader?”
“Best treatments for citrus black spot is a fungal disease?” (2nd Stage: How’s This Problem Being Solved?)
At this point I have a basic understanding. Now I want to understand what others are doing. If that’s the question I am asking Google, I want to try to avoid wasting my time and money on stuff that doesn’t work. Is methode X better than Y? For my sick lemon tree it might be, “Most effective methods for treating citrus black spot? For our sales rep it might be, “How do successful sales reps grow their revenue?” For our manufacturing manager it could be, “What are best practices for streamlining quote to order system?” For other searches it might be things like, “What are the pros and cons of different approaches?,” or “Current research on X?”
“Organic fungicide for citrus?” (3rd Stage: What’s The Smart Solution For Me?)
At this point our potential searcher/customer usually has selected one or two methods based on what they learned in stage 2. They now want to know: who’s the “best” vendor for those solutions. This is where you get to talk all about how you have the smartest, safest, most effective, best value widget, but you must provide proof. Case studies? Testimonials? Use cases? Research that shows why you are the right choice. It’s your turn to shine. Why are you the stupid simple obvious choice to solve the prospect problem?
You’re Selling To Different People With Different Roles and Needs
Harvard Business Review reported that CEB’s study showed that B2B sales have an average of 5.4 decision makers are involved before the deal closes. The first thing I ask a new client is who they sell to. You can have somebody who’s going to use the product, you can have somebody who’s tested it out, you can have a recommender someplace in there, and you might have influencers, too. Or maybe it’s someone who signs off on the budget. They can be the same person or have a combination of roles. Once you understand what their needs are day-to-day, and who will eventually need your product, you can make information and knowledge relevant to who they are.
A simple B2C version of this is Home Depot. They give classes every week on a project that is relevant to a homeowner, such as how to re-do your kitchen or your bathroom. They don’t sell these classes – they give them away free to people who want to learn how to do these things. This gives Home Depot a phenomenal chance to engage with these people and give them a positive experience.
Companies pay tons of money for commercials and other kinds of interruption-based advertising to try to get a tiny share of your mind. At Home Depot, customers are coming in and spending a number of hours with them, hearing their name and interacting with them.
Now, you might say, “Well, that’s a B2C.” However, I do the same thing for my B2B work.
A client of mine offers big data analytics for sales teams. We found that the people who buy his software are senior sales executives. Often the money comes also from the CMO, but the people who use it and recommend it tend to be sales reps. By looking at this kind of ecosystem of who’s involved in the purchase we can provide useful information that’s relevant to them doing their job before they need us. For this client’s customers, the information focuses on how to be smarter about sales.
So we created a sales knowledge hub where people could get articles and content about selling more products and how to be smarter about the whole process. It’s an opportunity to engage.
The same strategy can be mapped to any sales process. If it’s your own money you are very protective of it, but if it’s your company’s money, you aren’t worried about the money as much as you are about losing your job because you made the wrong choice. About 77% (seventy percent) of B2B buyers have already made their shortlist before they contact the sales rep. Now, if that doesn’t send a chill down a marketing director’s back, I don’t know what will. So how do you create an opportunity to get your product in front of them?
By providing information to them before they make a purchase decision – before they even need you. If you create content that goes beyond the traditional marketing crap-speak, if you create content that truly has value – that’s insightful, honest, knowledgeable, and helps people do their job better – that’s what makes people like and trust your company. We all have our lie detectors that can spot self-serving material. No one really reads marketing stuff except the people who write it and approve it. And that tends to be dreck. And yet we have an opportunity.
We all know what good writing is; that’s the stuff we read on airplanes on our own time to educate ourselves or help our careers. I work with a lot with CMO’s. For my own business, I write a blog from which I don’t specifically get leads. But it makes people aware of me. I’ve targeted senior marketers and the issues that they have. Most CMO’s tend to talk among themselves because they don’t have a lot of resources about the big issues that they face.
So I have an opportunity to use my blog to meet these people, have great conversations with them, educate myself and educate others. Blogging and sharing your expert information is not giving away anything for free. It lets people know they can trust you. Even though they use the information for themselves, that’s okay. Because you want people who will need you when they’re ready. When they’re not sure how to get to the next step, they may pick up the phone and call you. So it’s really important to understand who’s buying a product.
The original version of my article was first published in an eBook edited by Jay Rosenberg and Trish Wend of The Quant Method. They reached out to me awhile back and asked that I contribute to a eBook on marketing strategies. The above was inspiration for this article.