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As content marketing goes mainstream in B2B, it's becoming something of a religion. And like all religions, a lot of it is based on articles of faith that are handed down, tweet by tweet, until they're considered gospel.

To question them is to risk being denounced as a heretic and made to do any of those horrible things religions do to their heretics (many involving fire or flaying or feathers).

I'm not in the market for a flaying or a feathering but there's one article of faith that I'd like to challenge here.

The one that says, "Content marketing is not about you, it's about your customers. Great content marketing is as far from old-school, interruption-based, broadcast-style marketing as Jamon Iberico is to Pepperami".

Let's pick that one apart...

First, a disclaimer.

At Velocity, we were evangelising content marketing back when the dot in dotcom was actually made of wood. And a big part of that evangelism is focused on tearing B2B marketers away from their brochures and data sheets and get them talking about issues their prospects actually care about.

So we understand the need for the above statement. The only problem is: it's not true.

Today's content marketers act as if there are two kinds of content: the holy stuff that suppresses its ugly sales agenda; and the dirty stuff that comes right out and talks about actual products (gasp!) and benefits (cover your ears!) and reasons to buy (dial 999!).

I understand why this purism came about. We pioneers of the new era of content marketing have been fighting centuries of old-school, interruption-based, broadcast-style marketing (we could pick apart this trinity of pejoritives that's always connected to bad old marketing, but that's for another post).

So to win some space to create issues-led thought leadership, we had to completely reject the promotional stuff. As if this kind of content is a whole different species.

But it isn't a whole different species. Content is content. Every piece falls somewhere along the Promotional/Altruistic spectrum, but it's still one spectrum. To your prospects, it's all just content, stuff you want to say to them. So the 'article of faith' is counter-productive and based on lies.

The big lie behind it is that 'pure' content marketing is all about the prospect and not the marketer. Bullshit. We're here to sell something.

Good content marketing recognises that we don't have to close the sale every time we talk to a prospect, but selling is still the not-so-hidden agenda. And the reader/buyer is totally aware of that.

They may appreciate that we're suppressing the urge to sell in order to explore an issue but they still know that, in this scenario, we're the marketing predators and they're the wildebeest.

Now let's zoom to the other end of the Promotional/Altruistic spectrum: overtly promotional content. If content marketing is about using your expertise to help your prospects to do their jobs (as good a definition as any I've seen), then your data sheets qualify too.

If you really believe that the products you sell play a valuable role and will truly help your customers succeed, then a well-written data sheet summarising your features and benefits is valuable content.

If you don't believe that your products are worthwhile, then you've got much more important problems than the purity of your content marketing. Stop reading this and go find a better job.

So non-promotional copy is actually promotion in sheep's clothing and crass promotion is actually useful content. (Break out the fire and the feathers).

That doesn't mean that all content is the exact same thing. Different kinds of content are suitable for different stages of the 'purchase journey' (why do I hate that particular bit of jargon so much? Maybe because it implies we're all packing lunches and skipping along the road to a new ERP system).(Anyhoo:)

  • Issue-led thought leadership is better for the earlier stages. It encourages the reader to lower her anti-marketing barriers, then whispers your propaganda into her ears.
  • Promotional material is good for the later stages. When you've got your prospects to accept your world view; you've earned the right to tell them about yourself. So tell!

Why is it important to unite all of your content into one strategy?

Three reasons:

  1. Because it brings your more promotional content into service in your content marketing strategy – instead of velcro-ing it to the naughty step.
  2. Because it connects your thought leadership content to your sales funnel – instead of letting it float out there in the land of the fairies.
  3. Because it's more honest – selling and marketing aren't dirty. They're what we do. Our prospects know it and they don't mind -- as long as our products are worth their time.

When we do a first content audit for a new client, we always include all the promotional content in it. This raises eyebrows. But a sound content marketing strategy has to be built on all of your content and cover the entire Promotional/Altruistic spectrum.

Content marketing no longer has to fight for budget in most B2B companies. It's as mainstream as websites. But that means the pendulum is starting to swing back a bit.

Ironically, we're seeing more old-school, interruption-based, broadcast-style marketing -- only now it's being used to promote content instead of products. It's a good thing.

Pendulum swings are often corrections. Content is content. Embrace your data sheets (just don't thrown them in the faces of people who know nothing about you).

The B2B Content Marketing Best Practice Guide provides a framework for evaluating your current content marketing process and will help you make the most of your content in the future.

Doug Kessler

Published 29 February, 2012 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

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Kay Ross

"We're here to sell something." Amen!

over 4 years ago

James Perrin

James Perrin, Digital Communications Specialist at Feefo

It's a really exciting time for content marketing right now, but in order for it be really effective, there needs to be a good strategy behind it. It's so important that B2B Content Marketing not only informs or entertains, but actually shape people’s conversations. This way, social media will play a huge role in shaping the content that businesses produce. Some big brands like coca-cola are producing some fascinating content strategies at the moment, so defiantly worth keeping an eye on. Good post by the way, cheers.

over 4 years ago

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Ardath Albee

Hi Doug,

Thought provoking as usual, but I'd say that all B2B marketing content is promotional.

Content "promotes" our expertise, our ideas, our products, our events and (as you point out) our content. And it should. There's no reason why B2B marketers can't talk about their products - it just resonates better if they're talking about what their products enable rather than droning on about feeds and speeds without context.

Content marketing is a big investment. If you cannot tie it to revenue at some point, there's a problem.

Just stirring the pot :)

So perhaps the difference you're talking about is between soft-sell promotional content and hard-sell content? Or am I splitting hairs? :-)

over 4 years ago

Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler, Director at VelocitySmall Business Multi-user

That makes sense Ardath.
I'm just railing against the idea that 'pure' content marketing is a different species from promotion.
I do agree: it's all promotion.

over 4 years ago

Maria Morais

Maria Morais, Customer Engagement & Commerce Retail Lead at IBM

I agree that marketing should be part of any business development strategy these days. People engage with content that they think is interesting, so if a company needs to sell (and I think every company needs...) it's absolutely essencial discover the 'purchase journey of their target audiences and produce engaging content during the process. It's all promotion and that is absolutely fine! Thanks for this article Doug.

over 4 years ago

Jeff Molander

Jeff Molander, CEO at Molander & Associates Inc.

In my experience and based on my own research effective content marketing is not tied to revenue so much as it is designed to produce it from the start. I discuss numerous examples in my book. Soft sell, hard sell... I don't see why making a distinction is really needed, Ardath. What's needed is a new perspective on "content marketing": That is, an *old* perspective. We've known how to reliably create behavior for a long time now. We're simply being told by "experts" (that love to create faux "newness") that some kind of mealy-mouthed, softer "branding" type of content marketing is just as effective or all that is needed to induce a lead or sale. Best of all they get away with calling this idea new.

Good content marketing recognises that we don't have to close the sale every time we talk to a prospect, but selling is still the not-so-hidden agenda. And the reader/buyer is totally aware of that.

Sound familiar? It's called an infomercial (or as the Europeans call it "Home Shopping").

Bravo, Doug. This is some of the smartest, useful commentary I've seen on the subject in a long, long, LONG time.

over 4 years ago

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Jennifer Juckett

IMHO Content Strategy should include a healthy combination of: 1) Sales items 2)Industry items - sharing studies, takes on XYZ idea or post by others, education, etc. and also 3) Personal/Human Nature. This could mean a bit about philanthropy, or the people/culture of organization. Helps with recruiting not just sales, too.

over 4 years ago

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Joe Pulizzi

Hi Doug...always appreciate your perspective and how much you contribute to the industry...so thank you.

I would take Ardath's stance that all content marketing is marketing. Early stage content marketing doesn't mention the product much or the story won't travel. Later stage content marketing (ala your data sheets) should heavily mention your products and services (because that's the stage they are in).

This is all part of the content strategy.

Doug...love your point on the "not-so-hidden" agenda. When your customer actively engages in your content, all the while knowing that you are selling them...now that's some good content marketing. Consumers are smart. They get it. If we're transparent, they are okay with it too.

Finally, I've been reading a lot of posts lately about taking sides. I get it. It happens when an industry starts maturing. It happened with email a decade ago. It's happening with content marketing now. I appreciate the debate and the "black and white" mentality because that means people are starting to take content marketing as a serious business strategy.

I guess our little industry is starting to mature after over 100 years. Go figure.

Doug, thanks!

over 4 years ago

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Jonathan Salem Baskin

Great insight here but not sure I agree with it. "Content" is to marketing what "food" is to restaurants. It's a descriptive of a placeholder, not an activity and certainly not a specific 'thing.'

Imagine a world in which marketers only communicated information to the marketplace that helped people make better purchase decisions. Imagine further that it wasn't necessarily funny or sexy or even memorable (though it could be any to all of that), but it had utility and authority.

Couldn't brands SELL THE HELL OUT OF EVERY TIDBIT OF IT?

I think we talk about content and communications that have no direction to sales because we haven't come to terms with the fact that people don't believe or need much of the crap we produce. So to opt-out and say the solution is to avoid selling, or come up with complex math to make the case that we're doing so indirectly, is perhaps an overly complicated response?

How about we make sure what we're sharing with the world is truthful and useful. And that's the stuff we put through a megaphone and yell it at the top of our lungs?

Selling isn't bad. Bad selling is bad.

over 4 years ago

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Dan Fielder

Some really good points here. In b2b a product or solution can be so complex that even those tasked with marketing it struggle to really understand its subtleties. Where the purchase decision is shared between various players, with different levels of understanding, over a lengthy period of time, then (essentially sales) content that actually educates prospects about what you do and why they need it is a vital part of the mix. But the way this content is presented can still learn from a more editorial approach - beenfits not features, user needs and scenarios, user-friendly formats and so on.

Content needs to speaks to roles and functions as well as phases in the journey too: the C-level wants the business case, for instance, while the technical officer wants the data sheet (and would be worried if this was replaced by something too 'editorial').

Clearly branded content/content marketing etc is not a new thing, though there does seem to be a growing interest, especially in the US and in b2b. And what is perhaps also new is the consumer's / prospect's buy-in to the content marketing trade-off: they get the useful info, the business gets the sales/promotional messages across, however subtly or directly. But what will get always people's goat is nakedly promotional content that masquerades as editorial without adding any informational value.

Dan Fielder, head of content, Sticky Content Ltd

over 4 years ago

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Dan Fielder

Some great points here.

Sometimes the most useful content you can put in front of prospects is indeed about you - especially in b2b, where the offer is often complex, and people need to be educated as to why they might need you, how your offer fits into their market etc. But even here, the content can be user-focused rather than self-involved - focusing on benefits not features, user needs and scenarios, user-friendly formats and layouts etc.

Content needs to be mapped to roles and functions as well as phases of the conversion journey too. The C-level might want the business case and the technology/market landscape, for instance, but the technical offcier wants the technical datasheet (and would be worried to see this replaced by something cuddly and ''editorial').

Clearly content marketing/branded content etc is nothing new, but what does seem to be new is a greater buy-in on the part of audiences to the trade-off it implies: they get the useful info, you get to put your sales / brand message across (however obliquely). Nothing wrong with interruption or pure sales content, of course, but people will always be annoyed by nakedly promotional material that masquerades as editorial but adds no informational value. That's what will give content marketing a bad name and burst the content bubble, as some are aleady predicting.

Dan Fielder, head of content, Sticky Content

over 4 years ago

Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler, Director at VelocitySmall Business Multi-user

Great comments.

I do think, as Dan says, there may be a content bubble inflating right now.

I can't see content marketing going away -- it makes too much sense. But it will get harder and harder to earn those downloads and views.

That's a good thing. The bar OUGHT to be high.

over 4 years ago

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Una

Hey nice writeup!! I have been looking at more and more posts and
discussions like this on my own quest, trading can test us at the best of times but internet sites such as this help ease the pain.

over 3 years ago

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