I last wrote about content marketing for B2B software vendors in 2010 – since then some enterprises have made good progress with strategic use of content marketing. Unfortunately, many enterprises still don't understand why content marketing has value, and haven't figured out what to do.
The story still is this:
- B2B software Customers are becoming more proactive Buyers and have taken the driver's seat in buying decisions
- These customers want relevant, quality content to learn more about problems that matter to their companies and potential solutions to those problems, which may include the offerings of a particular B2B software company
And they'd like to learn about vendor solutions through honest, well-written content – instead of brochure-ware filled with "marketing" hype
- But many B2B software companies are not providing the content that customers want
A lot of data points show that for all types of companies there is tremendous content marketing activity going on now, as well as strong future growth potential:
- A recent report notes that U.S. content marketing now comprises a $40 billion industry
- About a quarter of worldwide marketing budgets are committed to content marketing efforts
- 60% of companies forecast increases for content marketing budgets by mid-2012
- According to Outsell, companies spend $67 billion annually on their websites, where a lot of B2B content marketing takes place right now
- A HiveFire study found that 82% of B2B companies were using content marketing – and the longer the sales cycle, the more use of content marketing
So why do so many B2B software companies struggle with execution and achieving beneficial results?
Symptoms, Root Causes and Steps in the Right Direction
There are many marketing-oriented posts about how B2B vendors are going wrong when it comes to content marketing. Most of what's called out is not surprising: failure to write properly on topics that customers prefer - added to failure to even find out what customers want to read; poor writing quality; non-engaging material; promoting brochure-ware instead of useful, thought-provoking material. There is also failure to understand how to match the right content to the right channel, and lack of knowledge regarding the channels that customer segments prefer for various kinds of content.
But these are mostly symptoms -- not root causes for the disconnect between B2B companies and the execution of a content marketing strategy for successful outcomes. One root cause: many companies have no cohesive long-term strategy for content marketing.
First, let's take a couple of steps back: if there's no strategy for content marketing, then it's likely that marketing is not positioned strategically in the enterprise with upper management backing. So it's not just content marketing that may be lacking executive buy-in at the top, but the overall marketing function. Unfortunately many technology companies continue to treat Marketing as an add-on silo'd function, or worse, as voodoo magic that can miraculously fix whatever is lacking from company offerings or hoodwink potential customers into buying the product, whether it's any good or not. In this ridiculous second situation (it happens more than we'd like to think), Marketing is of course the culprit to be punished if the "voodoo magic" fails to save the day.
Marketers were asked to explain what particular challenges they face within their own organizations. We noticed a number of themes running throughout their comments:
Getting buy-in: "Management patience - mgt needs to understand that in today's B2B environment it takes time to engage prospects. The prospect has a lot more power than they did in the 90's and 2000's."
Now, a couple more steps back and we're looking at: enterprises that are also lacking in integrated systems and processes for internal and external customer interactions; employees who have not been empowered/enabled to interact with customers; poor understanding of target markets and target customer roles; silo'd business functions; poor use of data assets. So before we can make the journey to a well-crafted content marketing strategy, upper management must make the commitment to the integrated enterprise that is customer-focused, market-driven, and process and data savvy. Overall strategies must reflect these tenets. Marketing must be included as part of overall strategy, and the value of content marketing to reach the customer-as-buyer must be given credence, support and enablement. Now we can set about creating an excellent content marketing strategy.
Bottom line: content marketing is not a short term campaign or project; it is a strategic commitment that impacts most of the enterprise.
Content Marketing: What It Takes to Execute Well
Why does it matter that technology companies implement content marketing? Software vendors should be neck-deep in content marketing if they are willing to take the right steps forward with the right strategic decisions in place. Content marketing (if done well) keeps the company focused on understanding and meeting the needs of customers – something these companies should be doing anyway, in every aspect of business. Align the business with Customer, align content with Customer. Content marketing is a natural progression from the recognition that the customer-as-buyer is more and more driving how and if sales happen; content marketing provides a dynamic way to connect to those customers. At a higher level, strategic content marketing is an affect of the enterprise becoming integrated and agile – hopefully of the enterprise becoming a "social business".
It strikes me that a strategic commitment to content marketing parallels the kind of strategy required to successfully implement and sustain good community management: dedicated team and participation of other enterprise teams, strategic backing from the top down, long-term commitment to the success of the community, allocation of healthy resources to ensure community success, strong integration with multi-channel customer service, and dynamic business processes. A vibrant community can also be seen as a stellar artifact of healthy content marketing.
An integrated content marketing strategy provides a single home base for all content so that real sense is made of how an enterprise is connecting with prospects and customers. The strategy for content marketing pulls together individual marketing programs and initiatives so there is potentially seamless transition for the customer from channel to channel. Connecting the tactics of marketing to a content strategy also makes it more possible to construct metrics that track the effectiveness of insightful content that can be tied to functions such as lead gen and sales funnel.
Customers know that B2B software vendors are in the business to sell products – customers want resources to figure out if a vendor's offering will answer their needs. And customers want to know if vendors understand their business problems, if vendors are thinking into the future. But the bottom line still is: the software vendor better have products worth buying and using.
All marketers have the opportunity to increase effectiveness, and they all can learn from the "best in class." Just as was the case last year, effective marketers spend more and are more strategic in their approach:
- They allocate 31% of their budget to content marketing, compared to less effective marketers who invest 18%
- They are 50% more likely to consider the "stage in the buying cycle" when developing content, whereas less effective marketers are less likely to tailor content in any way.
- They benefit from substantially more buy-in from senior members of the organization. Only 8% of effective marketers complain about lack of buy-in from higher-ups, versus 17% of those who rate themselves as less effective (though, on a positive note, this number has declined, dropping down from last year's rate of 24% for less effective marketers).
Content for the Customer-as-Buyer
è Content Value is strictly from the Customer POV
Just as the customer alone owns the customer experience, the perceived value of content solely rests with the customer. Learning customer desires for content is where a lot of time should be spent. Just like software solutions must be right-fit for customers needs, the same goes for content. Just as vendors should be segmenting target markets and target customer roles for being able to connect their solutions to customer needs, the same segmentation should be used for content. Decisions are then made: who are the key customer roles that are most interested in content at different stages of the buying cycle, what topics matter to them, what kind of content, where do they prefer to consume it.
è Insights, critical thinking and expert knowledge-sharing
Software vendors need to provide content about current problems and future directions for topics that matter to customers. With so much content available on the internet, writing about yesterday's issues is not engaging to most customers, unless yesterday's issues address problems still plaguing customers. Then the content should look at what might be done to solve those problems. Customers realize that technology is in constant flux, in good and bad ways. Helping customers to see into future trends that could benefit their businesses, and the potential gotchas of new technology, is likely to provide valuable content from the customer POV.
è Diversity of content
Content can be expressed in many forms, multiplied by many channels – which means companies really must understand for each target customer role what are the preferred content types and preferred channel for each content type. A matrix is now coming together for understanding and managing optimal communication with different customer roles. Mobile platforms present good but difficult channels that must be understood and handled well. Opportunities are increasing for more interactive components related to content. Creative, sophisticated approaches to most content should be considered – simplicity and clarity are other constructs to consider.
è Quality over quantity – and reliable continuity of quality content is vital
Customers and prospects don't want to waste their time on junk content or thinly disguised brochure-ware. Imperatives for effective content marketing artifacts are quality, creativity, hot topics, deep insights – essentially respecting the target audience by producing excellent work. Constant and reliable content creation is important, but what this means will vary by content type and channel.
There are a lot of reasons why content marketing doesn't work for some companies…But the biggest culprit (and it's not even close) is a lack of consistency, and, in some cases, a content stoppage. Research from IBM in 2010 stated that about 80 percent of corporate blogs never post more than five entries (hat tip to Rebecca Lieb). That is a truly unbelievable stat…
è People, money, time
Content marketing is sustained only by realistic allocations of resources: people, money and time in particular. B2B software companies should be tapping internal subject matter experts (SMEs), as well as external ones, to deliver the kind of content that customers want. Internal tech experts are also needed as reviewers and editors to ensure that content is accurate. Strategic-thinking enterprises cannot expect their employees to participate in content marketing on their own time or to work it into already busy work schedules, as a "sideline". Upper management has to make sure that content marketing participation for an employee is a recognized part of regular compensated responsibilities.
Strategy and planning to execute, and the responsibilities of creating relevant content must come from company staff:
Content marketing is brand marketing, cubed, and as such requires the full attention and supervision of your team. Prospects and customers now expect to engage with you— and by engage with you we mean get to know your brand—through your content. Creating content assets to support content marketing is a centralized strategy that relies on a consistent brand voice and vision to work. It's a bad habit left over from legacy thinking to allow your marketing organization to create content as one-off campaign or program assets without thinking of the broader implications.
Content for the Customer Journey
The customer journey consists of multiple touchpoints, which are all interactions with any and all enterprise functions, employees, and marketing / digital channels. They all matter – they are the milestones of the customer journey. Touchpoints are also components of multi-channel marketing, including content marketing, which has the challenge of nurturing and sustaining a unified customer experience across all channels, during the customer journey.
The hard work is taking what frequently is a collective of separate touchpoints and harmonizing the collective to enable excellent customer experiences. Orchestration and integration are key aspects of approaching a seamless experience across touchpoints – again this only works if the customer truly perceives such a unified experience.
The buying process for B2B software can be complex and involves multiple steps for the customer, both for arriving at a decision and for making the purchase itself. The "customer" frequently consists of multiple roles: techies (IT), line-of-business decision-makers, financial and budget managers, executives, and sometimes the actual users of the technology. (One of the flaws on the buyer side of the equation is too often the "end" user is left out of the decision-making process.) Content marketing has a fantastic opportunity to help potential buyer roles with the decision steps and foster positive experiences as part of the customer journey.
Work done for target customer segmentation and for mapping the customer journey is very useful for organizing types of content, and how and when content is made available to various customer roles and needs. Some content will be tagged to certain steps in the buying process. Some content will help existing customers use technology solutions for greater benefit and find out more that the vendor can do to help with business success. Some content is meant to pique interest for anyone unfamiliar with the vendor.
Developing several related pieces of content for a particular topic can enrich how content marketing aligns with the customer journey. People come back for the next installments, and the vendor can develop more in-depth coverage via different media and different channels.
Source: Content Marketing Institute
Delivering What Customers Need
The work to be done to understand how to deliver the right content to customers and prospects is the same work that B2B software vendors should be doing to deliver the products and services that customers and prospects want and need. The work being done to identify optimal target markets and customer roles for products should be extended to segmentation for content marketing purposes. In all of these cases the ultimate "product" for the customer should be high quality, reliable, useful, easy to put to work.
Content marketing cannot survive as a strategy in a vacuum. Nor can it have any impact if it is treated as a short-term project or campaign. Strategic content marketing is long-term, with continual development and evolution that parallels the changes that occur for the company, its target markets and customers, and other factors that impact software vendors. Orchestration and implementation of content marketing impact many groups in the enterprise, not just Marketing. The strategies for content marketing should be part of overall corporate and marketing strategies. Similarly metrics for content marketing should fold back into hierarchies of metrics for marketing and overall corporate measurements for achieving goals.
I have a confession to make: I am a Hybrid -- Hybrid Roles for Business Technology
About the author: Julie Hunt is an accomplished software industry analyst, providing strategic market and competitive insights. Her 25+ years as a software professional range from the very technical side to customer-centric work in solutions consulting, sales and marketing. Julie shares her takes on the software industry via her blog Highly Competitive and on Twitter: @juliebhunt For more information: Julie Hunt Consulting – Strategic Product & Market Intelligence Services