In an interesting though at times over-excited Marketing Manifesto ebook Velocity proposes six B2B Staples, the first of which is content marketing.

Content has always been important to B2B, so why all of a sudden am I writing a blog post about it? For the simple reason that the business audience mindset has been shifting and digital content is the new brochure. 

Business customers are accessing more information online than ever before and using this to inform their buying decisions. A white paper from Enquiro revealed that over 70% of B2B buyers use a search engine at the start of their buying process and 75% B2B prospects click on organic results.

Stephen Powers explains in his Forrester paper The Seven C’s of Web Content Management that:

Consumers no longer interact with companies through siloed channels. Instead, they expect to visit a company’s traditional website one day, use the email channel the next, and use a mobile application on the third.

This applies to B2C and B2B. The challenge for the B2B marketer is to know how to tap into this information stream and use content to plug the knowledge gaps to help people, foster relationships and encourage conversion.

You need to cater for the needs of a diverse audience

Unless we’re talking low level purchases that are driven by established relationships, such as repeat stationary orders, the B2B buying cycle can be complicated.  

Usually there are multiple decision makers – it’s not unusual to have involved:

  • The budget holder – usually a board member.
  • Several influencers including external consultants.
  • The buyer & final decision maker.

Each person is likely to respond differently to your content.

For example, I know directors who ask their PA to research the market for them at the initial stages of a purchase; the PA is unlikely to have advanced technical understanding of products and services, at least initially (not meant to be patronising, simply an observation based on job role), so you need to write content that makes it easy for them to digest what you do and ascertain your potential fit as a solution provider.

Your content needs to be methodically planned to cater for diverse needs. That requires a mind map of how the different content assets at your disposal can be used across digital channels, not just your website, to satisfy the needs of each person in the buying chain. 

Every buying decision has a number of critical stages; points where the process either breaks down or continues.  

These stages, as Enquiro points out, arise due to risk. If a B2B buyer perceives too high a risk in pursuing a specific solution, they are more likely to abandon the cycle.

At each critical stage, information is king and your content goes a long way to deciding whether or not the barrier is overcome or it kills the cycle. 

You need to be found where people are searching

Luckily for your print costs, brochures aren’t as ubiquitous as they once were. B2B professional are turning more and more to Internet search engines to access information, both in the early and latter stages of buying cycles. The challenge is to know how people are searching. 

An essential part of a content strategy is the research into relevant search trends to feedback into keyword optimisation and content production. Search trends are dynamic, so you must have an ongoing commitment to optimisation to stay on top of changes in behaviour.

Some of the reasons search is key:

  • 70% of B2B buyers use a search engine at the start of their buying process.
  • You need to seduce influencers to help push them down the buying cycle.
  • Search trends evolve, you need to predict or respond to changes.
  • B2B buying cycles aren’t always linear, targeting key search terms enables you to stay ‘front of mind’ and reinforce your values through relevant content.
  • There is a tail to search. A sale might come four clicks down the line after the searcher has viewed multiple content assets.

Search is one way to put your content in front of B2B decision makers when they want it most. The challenge is to understand the techniques needed to:

a) Optimise your website technically to facilitate indexing/spidering by search engines e.g. dynamically generated sitemaps (XML and HTML).

b) Optimise your content to be visible for the most relevant search terms.

c) Analyse the impact of your SEO to determine how you can fine tune and improve.

You need to spread the gospel

And on the 7th day the content was distributed. There are so many distribution channels to tap into; it’s like a bee orgy in a honey pot. Gone are the days when large consulting companies mop the floor with over-priced inclusion in an industry directory CD-ROM.  

The ability to reach a large audience cost effectively via direct digital marketing is in your hands.

There’s a nice comment in Velocity’s Marketing Manifesto that reiterates the TED talk given by Simon Sinek about the power of a company’s beliefs: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”.

From my experience, this is essential in B2B markets, especially when it comes to purchases with either a long-term impact or that require strategic partnership. You need to translate the vision and values of your organisation into compelling content that will communicate who you are, what you do and why you do it.

This is more than the rather prosaic “About Us’ page on the website; it’s the tone & style of writing, the images you use, the catchphrases and soundbites that represent you in the digital world.

For example, Michael Feiner of AEPConvert has included a page explaining his company’s commitment to Charity partners. It’s all about showing your true colours and not being afraid to voice an opinion or two.

People like to pass your content around & sometimes gossip

Oh it’s a fickle world, is it not? Some of your business audience will throw your content around and discuss you with their colleagues/networks. Not all of it will be positive unless you’re a miracle worker and I’ve yet to meet one. 

You can’t force people to speak like your marketing team; however, with patience and passion you can influence conversations about your brand. You need to establish distribution channels that enable people to share content efficiently to enable discussions.

This includes:

  • Social bookmarking on your site.
  • Use of data feeds like RSS.
  • Distribution of content via your own social networks.
  • Using the B2B social networks of employees to spread the word e.g. posting useful information to groups on LinkedIn.
  • Adding informative rich media content to social sites like YouTube, Slideshare.
  • Using brand monitoring tools to identify conversations around your company and its products/services, get involved to influence the discussion and give helpful advice and information.

One challenge is to ensure you have the content that addresses the likely questions that will be asked during the buying cycle.

This content can be made available on your website and distributed across other digital channels. If you do your keyword research and optimise the content accordingly, you can rapidly make this visible for relevant online searches.

Key thought: your content isn’t just web content and statics asset like a white paper; it’s also the words that your employees can speak and write. How are you maximising the value and impact of these assets?

Poorly planned content campaigns can be costly

If you cock up your content distribution there are direct and indirect costs to burden:

  • Cost of resolving customer enquiries.
  • Brand damage caused by inconsistent messages.
  • Duplication costs of reproducing content unnecessarily.

This is where the tech kicks in. A core part of your content strategy should be the investment in a content management system (CMS) or Digital Asset Management (DAM) system that enables you to manage your digital content in all formats and control its distribution.

Most CMS systems provide in-built workflow that ensures content is received, edited and approved by the right people when required to support your business process. 

At the top end, enterprise solutions like Tridion enable automatic repurposing of content into multiple formats (e.g. email, in-store kiosk, offline ad) based on pre-defined templates as well as the ability to syndicate content across multiple versions of a website using global and local inheritance rules. 

My point is this: get your planning right and you can rapidly implement complex campaigns across multiple marketing channels/markets without having to rely on half a forest of paper and a mind-boggling Excel spreadsheet.

You can use tech & marketing to help maximise the impact of content assets. 

For example, a corporate video housed on your website can be…

  • Integrated into site search results for relevant keywords.
  • Promoted via email to your opt-in database.
  • Shared socially using social bookmarking.
  • Posted on a YouTube channel.
  • Blogged about.
  • Mentioned on social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook.
  • Included in a video sitemap submitted to Google for inclusion in search results.

And here’s one obligatory additional reason why content is important for B2B, just for luck….

Your competitors have access to all these tools too!

Ouch. And here’s the crunch for this digital content utopia: anyone else with a little bit of knowledge and time can do the same for your competitors.

If you’re not on top of your content creation & distribution, you will lag behind. If you have a gap at any stage of your customers’ buying cycle, the competition could steal them from under your nose.  

You have to think acquisition, retention and conversion and develop content that suits each stage.

Of course, there is a resource limitation and the need to prioritise. This is where web analytics, testing and optimisation come in. I always advocate measuring the impact of your content, which isn’t as daunting as it sounds.

So what do you think? How important is content to your B2B company? Please provide examples of B2B websites that provide, in your opinion, good or bad content? Or give me some analytics evidence to show it’s good/bad.