Content marketing fever has swept the business world. According to the most recent survey of content marketing practices and trends among B2B companies by the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) and Marketing Profs, just under nine in 10 participating professionals said their organization uses content marketing, and three-quarters indicated their organization will produce more content in 2016 than in 2015. Furthermore nearly 30 percent of the average marketing budget is now earmarked for content marketing, and just over half of survey participants expect to increase their spending on content marketing in the next 12 months.
Unfortunately, however, increased attention to content marketing hasn’t necessarily translated into positive returns for organizations. In fact, the effectiveness of content marketing is on the decline. Just 30 percent of respondents in the CMI/Marketing Profs survey rated their organization’s use of content marketing as effective, down eight points from the previous year. In other words, in seven in 10 companies, content marketing just isn’t getting the job done.
This study clearly shows that marketers still have a lot of work to do to capitalize on content marketing’s massive potential. To that end, answering four key questions can help.
Do I have the right goals?
Survey respondents cited numerous goals for their content marketing efforts (Figure 1). The most commonly mentioned were lead generation and sales. Not far behind were lead nurturing, brand awareness, engagement, and customer retention/loyalty.
Figure 1: Most commonly mentioned content marketing goals
Few would argue that these are unworthy goals. However, one objective missing from the list—and critically important for many B2B segments—is the establishment of a thought leadership position in one’s chosen markets. Being seen as an expert is vital to differentiating a company from competitors, enhancing the firm’s brand, commanding a pricing premium, and providing a “safe haven” for buyers in times of economic upheaval.
For example, a B2B company’s offering and value proposition often can be quite complex and difficult to describe. That’s especially true in the case of companies that sell highly technical products that typical business professionals may have trouble fully understanding. Despite this, product companies’ marketing content often is laden with descriptions of an offering’s features and functions but is largely missing the key element that business buyers care about: how the product can benefit their company tangibly and financially. If a B2B company uses its marketing content to convey thought leadership—in other words, emphasizing how the company’s products embody the enterprise’s collective expertise in solving critical business problems—a product company can more effectively communicate the value its products generate for customers and, thus, connect with its target audience and move them to action.
In professional services firms, the challenge is equally difficult: how to describe and communicate what is largely an intangible offering, i.e., expertise delivered via people. With no product to “put through its paces,” a services firm has to rely on other ways to convince prospects that what it espouses—its advice—really works. Gearing marketing content toward establishing thought leadership, a firm can demonstrate its unique insights into a business problem its clients are facing, its experience in solving the problem with other clients, the results from those experiences, and the firm’s approach to doing the work. In other words, the firm enables clients and prospects to “sample” its expertise through its content, which can help clients understand the value of the firm’s services and significantly shorten the sales cycle.
Am I producing the right kind of content?
While survey respondents noted they have ramped up the creation of content in the past year, many still struggle to produce the right kind of content. To wit, 60 percent said producing engaging content is one of the biggest challenges they face (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Biggest content marketing challenges
One of the ways companies can address that challenge is by sharpening their focus on the quality of the content they produce. Quite simply, high-quality content is more likely to be noticed, consumed and remembered by the target audience.
What makes content “high quality”? There are many factors, but a useful guide to content quality are the following eight hallmarks that we’ve identified in our client work:
A critical enabler of such focus is a well-defined strategy and editorial mission statement that spell out exactly what the organization hopes to accomplish with content marketing and the topics and themes its content will cover. Yet the CMI-Marketing Profs survey found just 32 percent of organizations have a documented content marketing strategy and only 28 percent have a documented editorial mission statement.
In our experience, one of the best ways to ensure that an organization’s content is aligned with and supports the company’s overall business—and engages audiences with relevant, compelling ideas—is to take a portfolio management approach to content. This involves collecting, assessing, developing and writing about a balanced array of ideas to ensure that the company has the right mix between short-term bets (ideas ready to market now) and long-term bets (ideas needing more extensive development and investment). Doing so supports demand generation in the current quarter as well as over a year or multiple-year period—and, ultimately, enhances the effectiveness of and return on that content.
Am I using the right resources?
To produce high-quality, effective content, an organization needs a strong team with the right skills and capabilities. That’s especially true as companies continue to increase the amount of content they produce. But for many companies, hiring a full-time content marketing team may not be practical or even possible. Budget constraints, intense competition for talent, or simply a desire to remain organizationally lean and nimble may lead to gaps in a company’s content marketing resources that can prevent them from developing content that generates results.
One of the biggest such gaps we see is in writing talent: the people whose job it is to turn nascent ideas into compelling prose. Many companies opt to fill this gap by using external writers for content creation—either solely or as a complement to their in-house writing resources. Indeed, external writers can be important contributors to content marketers’ efforts, as they can help a company develop its publications strategy and editorial mission, serve as “editor-in-chief” to ensure content focus and quality, and provide specific subject matter expertise on pieces that require it. However, it’s critical that when using outside writers, companies make sure they carefully match the writer to the job. Many people from outside the writing profession believe “writing is writing,” but that’s far from the case. The writing skills for great website copy, brochures, white papers, books, news releases, proposals, advertisements and videos can vary significantly. Each requires distinct skills (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Matching the writing skills to the task
Source: Alterra Group
For instance, overtly sales-oriented pieces such as brochures and advertisements need writers who can spin creative, punchy, engaging copy that relies less on facts and more on flair to get the message across. More straightforward content such as short case studies and web copy require writers who can convey information with good grammar, proper sentence structure, clarity, and readability. Educational content, including bylined articles and other “thought pieces,” are best served by writers who can tell a logical, compelling story that doesn’t resort to breathless phrases or unfounded claims of superiority. And the most complex type of content—including research reports, major white papers, and books—need writers who are skilled at shaping ideas and concepts and have significant knowledge of the industry or subject matter on which they are writing.
Individuals who are retained for setting content strategy and direction should have deep experience managing a publications program, while an editor-in-chief must be adept at identifying and correcting flaws in logic, structure, and grammar while ensuring tight and compelling prose.
Am I using the right metrics?
One of the most intriguing survey findings involves measures. Just under six in 10 survey participants indicated one of their top challenges is measuring content effectiveness and 65 percent said one of their top priorities this year is gaining a better understanding of what content is and isn’t effective. Employing the right metrics can help.
What are the “right” metrics? Certainly, non-financial ones are important. Such metrics as website traffic, sales lead quantity, and sales lead quality can help marketers understand if their content is broadly resonating with their target audiences. But ultimately, the true test of content effectiveness is if it leads to business: people actually buying from the company. While an increase in eyeballs on the website or better sales leads are helpful, they don’t carry nearly the weight in the executive suite as business results such as sales do. Drawing a direct connection between content produced and sales generated illustrates what is genuinely “effective” in the eyes of customers and prospects, and helps justify further investments in content marketing.
Encouragingly, this year’s CMI-Marketing Profs survey suggests content marketers have gotten the message. In the past few years, survey participants were asked to indicate which measures they used, and most focused primarily on non-financial metrics: web traffic (63 percent) and sales lead quality (54 percent), followed by social media sharing (50 percent) and sales lead quantity (48 percent). Direct sales was cited by only 39 percent and, according to the study’s authors, that figure had been dropping steadily for four years. It was almost as if these data suggested content marketers were finding it too hard to tie their efforts to real business results, so instead, were basically giving up and focusing on secondary measures they could easily track and directly influence.
This year, the survey asked which metrics participants consider most important, and results indicate that business results are in favor (Figure 4). While sales lead quality was most frequently cited as important (by 87 percent), it was closely followed by sales (84 percent) and higher conversion rates (82 percent). Whether participants are actually using such metrics is not known, as the question was not asked. However, the fact that such a high percentage of content marketers acknowledge that financial metrics are vital suggests they are putting themselves in a better position to demonstrate their true value, and the value of their output, to the larger enterprise.
Figure 4: Most important content marketing metrics
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As the CMI/Marketing Profs research shows, content marketing among B2B companies is certainly on the rise. However, as they boost their attention to and investment in content, marketers need to make sure they are not generating content for content’s sake. Having the right goals and strategies for their content marketing efforts, using the right resources (including external providers) to develop the right kind of content, and measuring the impact of that content appropriately, are critical to the continued growth and value of the content marketing discipline.