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Your audience's opinions abut your content depends largely on their expectations, but few B2B marketers think about managing expectations around their content marketing.

For a few years, the Honda Jazz (Honda Fit in the US) topped the JD Power customer satisfaction survey. But very few people, not even its most enthusiastic owners, would go so far as to say that the Jazz was the best car on the market.

Instead, the Jazz earned its top rating because it was the car that most exceeded its owners' expectations. People who buy the Jazz don't expect it to be sporty or luxurious or elegant. They expect it to be functional and good value.

In fact, it's just a little bit better on almost every measure than most buyers would expect it to be. The Jazz succeeded in getting people to expect less, and then it delivered more.

That's a recipe for success in B2B content marketing, too. Get it right and you'll earn a reputation as a producer of top-quality content. Get it wrong and you'll find your audiences dwindling and your content brand losing its mojo.

So one of the most important dimensions in content marketing is the art of managing expectations: making sure that your audience knows exactly what it's getting before they download that eBook or watch that video.

The idea is simple. You need to think about the person the content is aimed at (am I breaking some kind of B2B law in not referring to this as a 'persona'?); then you have to do two things:

  • Signal to your target audience that this content is for them.
  • Signal to everyone else that it isn't

The first is pretty obvious. If it's a best-practice guide for web designers, make sure it doesn't look and sound like a strategist's vision piece.

The second is a little less intuitive but just as important. As a marketer, your instinct tells you to get the largest possible audience for each piece of content. More downloads means more pats on more backs. Resist that instinct. Attracting the wrong readers will work against you in the long run (and probably even in the short and medium runs too).

As content marketing gets more sophisticated and granular, we're all busy 'mapping' our content to stages of the 'purchase journey' (ever get caught using marketing jargon in a civilian dinner party? Embarrasing or what?). That means your content will become more and more targeted along dimensions like buying stages, job titles, levels of experience, geographies and customer relationship status.

And these are precisely the dimensions you need to manage expectations around. If a piece is for techies, don't sing your dirty little siren song towards CEOs (you'll only frighten them). If it's for owners of small businesses, don't push it at IT people (if anything alienates an IT person more than lightwweight marketing-speak it's lightweight marketing-speak masquerading as data).

If you manage expetations effectively, your chances of delighting your audience will multiply by as much as four to six times (feel free to quote that statistic,  just don't mention the fact that I made it up).

And if you fail to manage expectations, your chances of pissing people, and personas, off will increase too. (And none of us wants angry personas wandering around the web shaking their little virtual fists.)

So how do you manage expectations?

Your tools here are limited but important:

  • Your title 
    Make sure it sends 'this is for you' signals to your audience. 'Ten SEO Tips for Busy Marketers' signals one thing, "Reverse Engineering Google's Algorithm" sends another -- though they could both be slapped on to the cover of the same piece (one of them would be the wrong title). 
  • Your sub-title
    Going the evocative route with your title -- "Badda-Bing!" – sends a signal too. An attitude signal.

    That can be important, but you'd better bring it down to earth with a more explicit sub-title like "Double Your Klout Score in Five Minutes a Day."  (I confess, I'm evangelising this practice so I can avoid all eBooks about Klout scores).

  • Your content descriptor 
    A 'workbook' (Like Velocity's own Content Marketing Workbook) says it's a roll-up-your-sleeves document. A 'manifesto' says it's likely to be an opinionated, unseemly rant (like our B2B Marketing Manifesto. (Neither of which I'll link to here because it would be crass).

    A 'white paper' says it will be a brochure disguised as a technical document (or, god forbid, a real technical document – and that's the problem with white papers these days).

  • Your landing page 
    Maybe yor best opportunity to manage expectations by telling people exactly what they'll find when they enter their details, open up their cookie jar and download your important, nay, seminal, opus. Or your 'quick and easy, cut-out-&-keep fridge poster'. 

    Your landing page is where you suck in your real prospects and filter out the numpties.

  • How you promote your content
    Your emails, PPC ads, tweets, Facebook posts and comment spam (surely 'blogger engagement') send signals about your content. So send the right ones.
  • Where you promote your content
    Don't post a link to your 'funny' viral on the po-faced Linked-In group. (And by the way: it's not that funny).
  • Your introduction
    You may think it's too late to start to manage expectations in your eBook's introduction but actually, it's one of the most important places to do it. In fact, the primary job of the introduction is to manage the reader's expectations and set them up to be pleased by your content.

These are the places where expectation management takes place -- because these are the places where people will pick up your signals (intentional or un-) about:

Who this is for - the target audience signals.

What it's about – beyond the topic, you need to signal breadth & scope.

What reading it will be like – signals about attitude, energy, length, writing style, visual interest...

How authoritative it will be – signals about depth and rigour (shoot-from-the-hip blog post or results from your 6-year research study?).

Why anyone should read it – benefit signals.

And stuff like that.

All of this may seem obvious to you (smart ass). But, in practice, very little thought goes into actively managing expectations in B2B content marketing. And it just might be the second biggest reason that content fails in the marketplace (the first is that it sucks).

The moral of the story? Create the very best content that you can. Then make sure you manage people's expectations around that content, so the right people consume it and they're dellighted they did so.

That's how you build a great content brand.

Doug Kessler

Published 19 October, 2011 by Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler is a founder and Creative Director of B2B marketing agency Velocity and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

19 more posts from this author

Comments (4)

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Nick Stamoulis

"your content will become more and more targeted along dimensions like buying stages, job titles, levels of experience, geographies and customer relationship status."

While more targeted content may get less eyeballs, it's getting the right eyeballs at the right time, and that's what prompts people to act. You want to create content that meets the needs of your target audience every step of the sales process and pertains to their unique needs.

about 5 years ago

Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler, Director at VelocitySmall Business Multi-user

Exactly, Nick.

BTW - I think my post may conflate two things: targeting clearly and managing expectations.

Both are important. One benefit of managing expectations that I didn't mention is that it allows you to do some pieces that are not full-blown, intensively-researched content – but still feel good about sharing them with your audience.

As long as you signal what each piece is meant to be.

about 5 years ago

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Holly Simmons

Great advice. I've found many of my clients have a difficult time understanding the concept of signaling who the content is "not" for. Many times they believe that everyone should want their white paper, and they don't want to limit their reach. They fear missing potential prospects, so they want to dilute the message. What's your experience with this?

about 5 years ago

Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler, Director at VelocitySmall Business Multi-user

Same here.
No one wants to actively discourage a reader, but it's always best to use a filter as well as a magnet. It helps everyone.

about 5 years ago

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