The innovative use of content is now key to reaching business customers–and many B2B marketers are embracing that reality.
By Peter Haapaniemi
Over the years, B2C and B2B marketing have been two separate worlds when it comes to custom content. In the consumer world, content marketing has often been innovative and edgy, with a constant eye out for the next big thing. Business content, on the other hand, has tended to be more deliberate and, well, businesslike. But all that is changing. Businesspeople—like everyone else—live in a world where tools and technologies are altering the nature of communications and interactions. And that in turn is changing the nature of B2B content marketing. “On the leading edge, there’s just some terrific work being done finding really compelling ways to tell brand stories and to create content that is extremely valuable,” says Tom Stein, president and chief creative officer at Stein + Partners Brand Activation. “We’re seeing B2B companies become the real innovators in the use of content as an integral part of the marketing mix—the multifaceted, multichannel use of content, in a multitude of formats, to really map to the purchase continuum, from awareness to consideration to actual purchase.”
At SourceMedia, the custom content group’s B2B clients are often willing to participate in initial meetings that are “wide-open strategic ideation” discussions “where nothing is off the table, where we throw out ideas that are maybe unorthodox to the client,” says Julian Orbon, senior vice president of custom media at SourceMedia. In meetings these days, he says, his group may be working not only with the client’s marketing staff, but also with “people with titles like innovation manager and senior VP of innovation—somebody who has been hired to think outside of the box.” And quite often the B2B client’s attitude is “maybe we haven’t done this before, but it makes sense—let’s take a leap and get it done,” he says.
That openness to new approaches is reflected in the shifting of B2B budgets from advertising to content, as well as content marketers’ increasing use of channels such as social media and mobile applications. “We’re going to continue to see a lot of movement in the B2B space,” says Elise Anthony, content development director at D Custom. When it comes to B2C versus B2B, she says, “there are no boundaries left.” In short, the B2B arena is now playing an integral—and even leading—role in the evolution of content marketing.
THE NEW B2B CUSTOMER
The B2B world’s approach to content marketing is changing for a number of reasons. Increased competition, combined with a growing understanding of the effectiveness of content as a marketing tool, means that there is more information targeting business customers, and marketers need to find new ways cut through clutter. Meanwhile, the expectations and needs of B2B buyers are changing as well. In particular, they have ready access to a wealth of information—and therefore, more control over the process of considering and making purchases.
“[B2B] used to be a sales relationship-based business. If you were going to buy a software system, you reached out to the same software person you dealt with in the past because you were comfortable with him,” says Andrew Gaffney, content director at Demand Creation Specialists. Now, buyers can find much of the information they need online, without relying on that salesperson. B2B marketers, Gaffney says, “need to meet that expectation and get that content in front of the buyer in new channels.”
At the same time, the sales process is not as linear—or simple—as it once was. “The older scenario was, put out RFPs, hear what all the salespeople have to say, and bring them in to do a dog-and-pony show,” says Gaffney. Now, the buyers expect to move ahead at their own pace, and in their own way. Typically, they’ll do so through a variety of sources, from white papers to websites to social media. There are often a number of decision makers involved as well. Overall, then, the B2B sales process “needs to be more conversational, with multiple touchpoints,” says Gaffney. “It’s really forced B2B marketers to be more proactive and creative about the kinds of tools and information they are giving the buyers.”
INTEGRATE AND COORDINATE
To reach customers in a competitive space and across multiple touchpoints, many B2B content marketers have been using a broader range of channels in a coordinated fashion. For example, over the last year, HVAC Learning Solutions (HVACLS), a division of the Lennox heating and cooling company, has worked with D Custom to increase awareness of the value of training among the company’s customer base of HVAC dealers. “We created a framework that included a blog and a strong social media presence, as well as their e-newsletter program. The content helps with some of their business challenges, such as how to make homeowners happy, how to improve their selling, how to stay on top of an industry that’s changing pretty frequently,” says Anthony.
“It’s working in very surprising ways,” she continues. HVACLS’ customers are quite mobile, often working in trucks on service calls. Many of them have smartphones and use them to engage with the content and the company. “They’ve really embraced Twitter and Facebook to respond back [to HVACLS],” she says. “So we’ve developed a strong presence and voice that is very personal and makes a connection which is very much like B2C, but it is with a B2B strategy in mind.”
B2B marketers are also combining and integrating various types of content to extend traditional vehicles and adapt to the needs of today’s B2B buyers. For example, Demand Creation Specialists is working with clients to provide content that “integrates video and PowerPoint and embeds other kinds of resources. So you might have a video of a talking head, with the PowerPoint next to it, and beneath that it has links to other information on the topic,” says Gaffney.
Gaffney points out that businesspeople often want concise content that can provide a quick understanding of a topic—but they also want to be able to access more information as they deepen their research. To do so, he says, companies can take advantage of increasingly interactive e-books or video white papers that include presentations that let buyers drill down to get a better understanding of key points in the paper. “It also allows you to pretty easily tailor content to segments,” he says. For example, a general paper on CRM could use the embedded interactive video presentations to provide a focused perspective on CRM for the financial services or retail industries.
Some B2B marketers are also using various content formats and channels that support one another. For example, HP Enterprise Services, a D Custom client, uses LinkedIn group pages to market its monthly webcasts for C-level audiences. Such support can even reach across the traditional lines between B2B and B2C. Texas Farm Bureau Insurance, also a D Custom client, publishes Texas Heritage for Living, a B2C print magazine. The company has launched an internal B2B electronic newsletter to help agents use the magazine to enhance interactions with customers. “We basically provide them with crib notes on what’s in the magazine and tips on how to use the story topics to spark conversations with clients. They may not have time to read the entire magazine, but this way, they know what’s inside,” says Anthony.
MAKING CONTENT VALUABLE
Beyond formats and channels, many marketers are exploring ways to make content itself more compelling for B2B buyers—and to a great extent, that means focusing on substance at least as much as style. B2B customers typically value good presentation, but they want the information being presented to help them solve problems and do their jobs. “I think there is a real recognition that the content has to be authentically good and authentically valuable,” says Stein. A number of brands, he says, are “improving the quality of what they are doing so that it creates the true engagement and true value exchange that are the promise and potential of content marketing.”
“You can’t just say, ‘buy this, try this,’” says Anthony. “You need to make sure that information that you are providing is credible and balanced, perhaps with third-party research and information. That strengthens and sometimes accelerates the buying cycle, because you’re providing the outside [perspective] that is very credible and strengthens your case.”
That’s an approach being used by Penton Marketing Services in the smaller seminars it conducts in cooperation with technology clients. “Content is critical for the in-person road shows,” says Michele Crockett, vice president of Custom Solutions and Content Services at Penton Marketing Services. Typically, these road shows feature a third-party speaker with expertise in the topic at hand, followed by a speaker from the client or sponsoring company. A meeting might target IT managers, for example, with a discussion on optimizing the data center. The third-party expert would discuss trends and the pain points that need to be addressed—content that is neutral and useful to the audience. That would then be followed by the sponsor’s speaker, who explains the company’s take on those issues and how its products address the problems raised by the first speaker. The two types of content dovetail, says Crockett, and “the audience sees the whole picture. It’s not so much a sales pitch; it’s ‘this is the problem that needs to be solved and I see how this product addresses that.’”
ON THE SOCIAL MEDIA FRONTIER
To help custom content clients provide valuable data, SourceMedia draws on research panels made up of hundreds of subscribers to its financial-industry publications. “They participate in an ongoing 12-month conversation about their particular market—banking, the investment advisor group, and the accounting group,” says Orbon. Using social media, these panel members explore the challenges facing their businesses. Through questionnaires and social media monitoring, SourceMedia can track issues and concerns among the group. The company can then distill that information and provide it to clients—helping to ensure that their custom content is relevant and useful.
Valuable, high-quality content is also the goal of PR Newswire, which is working with Stein + Partners on a program exploring the evolution of earned media in the age of the social Web. “The boundaries of ‘earned’ media are expanding all the time and creating a lot of opportunity for PR Newswire’s constituents—PR agencies, corporate communicators, marketers, and other agencies,” says Stein.
Working under the banner of “Earned Media Evolved,” and using the company’s “owned media” to drive engagement with clients and prospects, PR Newswire and Stein are essentially conducting research into the future of public relations, social media, and other earned media, and building thought leadership in that arena. The resulting insights, says Stein, are driving “a continuing stream of brand-owned content, including white papers, videos, e-books, and other formats.”
The research behind the effort “almost takes the form of investigative journalism, where we’re talking to practitioners who are in the mix and at the edge,” Stein says. In addition, PR Newswire and Stein plan to tap into the observations of attendees at an upcoming industry conference through a video stream. This content will then be used in various social channels. “We’re using owned media to paint the picture of the potential of earned media for our stakeholders,” he says.
BEYOND BUSINESS AS USUAL
It’s clear that many B2B marketers are exploring new territory in their approach to content. But that is not a universal trend. “Innovation is not ubiquitous,” says Stein. “It really involves the top 20 percent of the market. Most companies are in the middle and still grappling with issues around how to do the basics of content marketing better. That means embracing a holistic content marketing strategy that is enterprise-wide, having the policies that enable that and the resources to do that.”
As more B2B companies move toward that enterprise, innovation is likely to continue and expand. Indeed, the exploration of new approaches will be critical to adapting to the new realities of B2B marketing, says Anthony. “You no longer have a captive audience. You have a very liberated audience, and you have to compete for their mindshare,” she says. “Even if you are marketing a great service or product, you can’t differentiate it if your content marketing isn’t very innovative.”