Content is still king.
The idea of content marketing isn't a new one. Back in 1996 Bill Gates was one of the first people to coin the ‘Content is King’ mantra for an essay title in which he predicted:
“Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the internet, just as it was in broadcasting. If people are to be expected to put up with turning on a computer to read a screen, they must be rewarded with deep and extremely up-to-date information that they can explore at will. They need to have audio, and possibly video. They need an opportunity for personal involvement that goes far beyond that offered through the letters-to-the-editor pages of print magazines.”
That was written 23 years ago but Gates's predictions have proven uncannily accurate. The 'telling not selling' principle of content marketing has now been accepted and adopted by most progressive brands and businesses. Key to successful content marketing is that it must be interesting, engaging and valuable enough to grab the user's attention and stand out from the almost overwhelming volumes of information out there.
Content marketing is especially relevant for B2B organisations. The level of sophistication and intensity may vary, depending on the size of company and the resources available, but the opportunities for content marketing are applicable to any sized budget. However, evidence shows that the majority of small businesses aren't investing in content marketing, demonstrating that there may be some misconceptions about who it is relevant to, and also that small businesses often under value, or simply don't recognise, good content. We've often heard B2B clients say things like 'but what we do isn't interesting' and 'we've nothing to talk about' but when we dig deeper we find that tends to be a combination of 'familiarity breeds contempt' - just not identifying interesting subject matter because you see it everyday so become a bit blind to it - and then uncertainty about how to make it engaging. This generally needs either an angle, a bit of 'spin', or an addition, such as an image, infographic or video, to bring it to life - ideally both.
This is where an external agency really helps, by the way, both to identify what is widely interesting subject matter and then to sprinkle that bit of 'magic dust' on it, with some great copy, new photography, design an infographic or shoot some video.
When executed well, the commercial benefits of content marketing are numerous:
- It can be used to strengthen positioning by communicating values, skills and knowledge.
- It increases the chances of a business being found by its target audience and lead them to more information about the company's brand, products and services.
- It's a great way to engage with decision-makers during the buying cycle and the lapses in between - stay on their radars.
- It can help drive targets to take action and make contact.
- It communicates internal knowledge to a wider audience and position the business as an expert in that field.
- It delivers value by supporting the sales pipeline and then to increase conversion.
Adrian Michaels, director of content marketing firm FirstWord Media, says that above all, “the digital revolution has enabled companies to talk directly to their audiences, all day long if they want to. From customers and suppliers to business partners and investors, employees and future employees… all of these distinct audiences can be reached via regular content in a way that was never possible before.”
This does require a certain level of discipline and some structure, and Michaels stresses that, “B2B audiences expect businesses to have regular content online nowadays, and for example, a company website can’t look out of date anymore. More obviously, Google rewards the publishing of fresh content and search engine results pages will naturally reward content that is fresh and recent. So, businesses today have little choice but to do content marketing, whether they want to or not.”
Many larger business now have content marketing teams, which are evolving within businesses and agencies alike, particularly as this sector of marketing continues to mature. Many B2B businesses are experimenting with a variety of different structures, which often depends upon the maturity of the content marketing programme and resource in place, and how it aligns with business objectives. But the principles, including planning and strategy, are equally applicable to smaller businesses and they naturally need to fit with the resource available, be it in-house or outsourced. A content marketing strategy can be as simple as writing a blog article once a month, posting on Linkedin once a week and emailing a newsletter once a quarter - start with something that's achievable and scale from there. Remember; it's more important to distribute good content than just to post for the sake of it, so if you've really nothing to say then don't. Your content strategy should include a defined set of subjects, such as expert comment, business news or CSR activities, and a library of these can be built up and then dipped into.
It's important to measure what content actually engages the target audience, but digital channels make this very easy. You'll soon see what works well with likes, click-throughs and hopefully contacts. Increasingly, data and analytics are fueling the content marketing process, from the insights at the start, through to performance reviews of the content once it has been published, so that adjustments can be made at every stage. Data is also critical for measuring the success and impact of the content, and the ROI it has generated for the business.
“You really need to identify from the offset what your objectives are and how to measure them. The first step is engaging with your audience by talking about a subject they’re interested in, and then step two is evaluating what this engagement means against your objectives, and for the business.’’ Simon Cliffe, Director of Branch Road.
In terms of getting results from content marketing, our experience reinforces the importance of quality and especially the value of originality - something new and different always has the most impact. For example, we posted a video piece about the design and development of our Craft Beer Bar Sherrigton's on Linkedin, this received thousands of views and hundreds of likes and dozens of comments, just because it was a bit different to what's usually posted on Linkedin. It's important to say that the media itself was strong too, being a well produced piece of film.
Video is increasingly the predominant media. According to a recent study by LinkedIn, the majority of B2B marketers have come to view video as the most important and creative content format around. Simon Cliffe, Director of Branch Road, says: “Nowadays people have less time for words. Words are still very important, but when you’re making primary contact with people, and particularly a B2B audience, you want it to be easy because they’re busy and they are being bombarded with so much content and so many opinions. Good video content cuts through that straight away. Video works across blogs, it works across social media and it can work on LinkedIn. By telling very succinct short stories on video you can be driving people down the funnel and encouraging them to go and find out more about that story.”
The optimum length of a view intended for a B2B audience can vary, depending on the type of video being created, but in general, shorter is better. A recent study found that videos under 90 seconds see an average retention rate of 59%, while videos over 30 minutes retain only 14%.
Video length should also be customised to the platform being used. HubSpot analysis found the ideal video lengths to be 30 seconds on Instagram, 45 on Twitter and 2 minutes on Facebook and Youtube. B2B videos tend to take one of the following four formats: client stories or testimonials, ‘how to’ instruction videos, product demos, and ‘explainers’ which seek to clarify a niche subject area.
Alongside originality is specialist knowledge. This is often under-valued within businesses - just because you know it doesn't mean your audience does - and it always creates high quality content. Justin Pearse, a partner at Bluestripe Media, says that with the B2B space being awash with content and information, thought leadership is a very effective way to gain impact. “What really matters to B2B audiences is coming to understand their industry or specialism more deeply. If you can create content which is easy to access, clear to understand and simple to gain insights from, and can be translated into something that is immediately actionable at work and enable an individual to do their job better and make more money, you will have built some positive emotion between the business and the reader.”
Blogs are often the best place to publish articles, the long story, then use news stories or posts to drive traffic. A blog is generally the cornerstone of a good content marketing campaign but establishing a blog is no small undertaking, effectively making it necessary for the business to become a publisher, but when done well, it can be an incredibly worthwhile investment of time. Ultimately, when a new blog post is published, it creates a new opportunity to get found in search engines, shared on social media, be linked to by other sites, and get a new person to interact with the company.
The quality of any B2B blog content needs to be good, aswriting about difficult or technical subjects isn't always easy, and then you need the know-how to edit the content and ensure it meets the high standards needed to gain attention. Frequency of blog content is also an important consideration. According to research by HubSpot, the more blog posts companies published per month, the more traffic they saw on their website. Companies that published more than 16 blog posts per month got almost 3.5 times more traffic than companies that published up to four monthly posts. “Great content is made up of a variety of formats, blogs, long-form articles, infographics, picture galleries and social media posts, catering for different appetites and attention spans at different times of day. Building up a body of high-quality content will also give you a back catalogue of evergreen pieces you can repurpose or repackage in the future, for example to tie in with particular events.” Adrian Michaels.
In B2B marketing, a common mistake is to focus on the product first, before the audience. This can result in a fragmented approach with lots of content talking to the same audiences, separately, often delivering conflicting information. Until recently, Cisco’s B2B content marketing was a case in point. “Like many large B2B companies, we focused on product marketing, and each business unit would market to customers on their own. To be fair, they thought about the customer, and understood the customer, but only from the very specific lens of their product,” Bob Meindl, Marketing Director of Cisco. The solution, for Cisco, was to reverse its content marketing framework and create an audience-first model instead. The process now starts with a detailed analysis of the audience before any content gets created.
"Think about what your audience is really passionate about because at the end of the day a B2B audience is still a human audience. We often talk about the idea of a B2B audience being B2H, which is 'business to human'. It is important to consider what your audience is loving and interacting with daily and then shape some content to fit that. if you were to only go down a very traditional route of looking at B2B channels, you would end up in that world where all you are looking to create is factual, highbrow, whitepaper-led content." Vikki Willimott, Global Head of Content and Publishing, Hill & Knowlton Strategies.