Content As a Differentiator

Personalized and relevant content can help B2B companies stand out in a crowded market

By Michael J. McDermott

Colin Anderson Productions Pty Ltd/Getty Images

Success in marketing always requires the ability to overcome challenges. That's as true in the B2C arena as it is in the B2B world. However, B2B marketers face numerous challenges that their B2C counterparts do not. B2B products are often highly complex, buying-decision chains involve more people, customer bases are narrower, and purchase cycles are longer. At the same time, business-serving industries like technology and consulting services are crowded with participants and extremely competitive.

"For B2C marketers, emotion still drives purchase, and tuning your message to deliver peak emotional potential for your audience can have an impact that's quantifiable quickly," says Kevin Nabipour, partner and managing director of content strategies at Allison+Partners, a global marketing communications agency. "For B2B, however, nurturing cycles are long, and ROI takes time to cook."

What's more, the marketing function at many B2B organizations is not always the driving force it could be, thanks to a misalignment with sales.

To succeed in this challenging environment, B2B marketers must find ways to differentiate their products or services from the competition with tactics that are cost effective, align with the organization's overall marketing and growth strategies, and deliver measurable results to the bottom line. Many are finding that content — personalized, relevant, and properly distributed — can help them meet those challenges.


Widespread Usage but Spotty Success So Far

The vast majority of B2B organizations already use content marketing, according to the B2B Content Marketing "2018 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends — North America" report. More than nine in 10 say they use it as a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience. Fifty-six percent describe their organizations as extremely or very committed to content marketing.

However, many B2B marketers still have a long way to go in capitalizing on all content marketing has to offer. Only 24 percent rate their efforts as extremely or very successful, versus 74 percent characterizing them as minimally or moderately successful.


B2B Marketers Say Their Organization's Content Marketing Efforts Are Improving

Q. How does the success of your organization's current overall content marketing approach compare with one year ago?

source: 2018 Content Marketing Institute/MarketingProfs "B2B Content Marketing Trends — North America"

One factor behind the disconnect between high usage rates and perceived success may be the lack of a systemic approach to content marketing at many B2B firms: Just 37 percent report having a documented content marketing strategy. Thirty-eight percent say they have a strategy, but it's not documented; 19 percent don't currently have a strategy but plan to develop one within a year; and 6 percent intend to keep muddling along with no concrete plan for the foreseeable future.

"Content is an essential component of getting B2B buyers through their decision gates, particularly with complex products and services," says Kara Alcamo, VP of media and digital activation services at the digital marketing agency R2i. "Personalizing content throughout the funnel allows you to draw them in faster and then address those unique decision drivers to accelerate their path to purchase."


It's Getting Tougher to Break Through the Clutter

As more and more B2B organizations embrace content marketing, it gets tougher and tougher to break through the clutter. "There is more content being produced than ever before by marketers, so the need for true quality is an imperative," says Liam Moroney, VP of integrated marketing at NewsCred, an enterprise content marketing platform.

Creating content that does not have true thought leadership will only result in wasted effort, with no SEO value, Moroney says. He cites BuzzSumo data showing that only half of all content is shared four or more times across all main social networks — down 50 percent since 2015 — and a Beckon report that suggests just 5 percent of content pieces account for 90 percent of total content engagement.

Data is an important tool B2B marketers can use to create better, more effective content. Data makes it possible to segment accounts and personas, to understand buyers' needs and how and where they consume content, and to measure the actions they take after consuming content.

"Data can show what content formats, creators, and channels are the highest-performing," Moroney says. "Ultimately, these metrics help determine overall performance, provide insights into content strategy and distribution, and help to inform optimal CTA (call to action) location placement to drive conversions."

Data-based insights can also help marketers create more effective content for generating leads and accelerating the buyer journey, Moroney says. "In addition, marketers can show the monetary value of their content marketing program," he notes.


Bigger Organizations Face Bigger Challenges

All B2B marketers face challenges related to content marketing, but those challenges are amplified for complex B2B organizations such as PwC, the second-largest professional services firm in the world. Because it is a broad organization with many different types of clients, it needs to disseminate a wide range of information.

"We have to produce everything from highly technical content for our audit and accounts business all the way down to content on the business issues that our clients face today," says Reggie Walker, PwC's chief commercial officer, with responsibility for all brand, marketing, external communications, and business development/sales activities at the firm.

PwC's content has to align with the specific messages it wants to deliver as an organization. That means looking at what clients are saying their needs are, matching those needs to the capabilities PwC can provide, and finding the inflection point where content created around those variables can drive the organization's strategic agenda.

That's a tall order, and one of the risks it presents is dilution of impact from producing too much content. In fact, that was one of the first challenges Walker faced when he assumed his current role in 2016. "We were engaging in far too many activities in the marketplace at that point, and content was certainly no exception," he explains. "We were producing well over a thousand pieces of content a year, which is way too much. Even worse, not all of that content was really tied to our strategic agenda."

PwC has pared its old content library by almost 50 percent, but all of the current pieces are directly tied to its strategic agenda and its clients' interests.

PwC's tsunami of content was "drowning out our own voice in the marketplace," he says. It blurred PwC's identity, making it more difficult for customers and prospects to understand who it is and what it does. The solution was a strategy Walker calls "brevity amplified," which amounts to doing fewer things, but doing them better. It involves developing integrated marketing strategies that contemplate the right content and marketing activities and tying them directly to sales — and it's working.

PwC has pared its old content library by almost 50 percent, but all of the current pieces are directly tied to its strategic agenda and its clients' interests. "We know that these topics are important to our clients based on the conversations we have with them, and that's where we begin to drive the personalization, as well," Walker says.

When PwC is developing a campaign for the marketplace, the first things it looks at are what topics its target clients want to learn about, where they are consuming information, and how the brand can reach them with relevant information. Most campaigns are multiformat because information-consumption preferences vary widely. "We may have a certain number of video assets, we may produce very snackable content that we can push out over social media and that will link to a case study or a deeper thought-leadership piece on a particular topic. It all depends," Walker says.


Starting with Awareness, Drilling Down to Specifics

PwC's content marketing game plan starts with driving general awareness by making sure the brand's voice is heard in the marketplace. Its choice of distribution channels is data-driven, and the company is confident in its ability to get its content to targeted clients through their favored channels. It also relies on data to inform content creation that addresses issues of documented importance to specific clients, but it does so in a way that maximizes the content's utility.

"We want to develop content that we can slice and dice in multiple ways so we can use it more effectively, depending on the particular stage we're in," Walker says. "As we get closer to a sale, then it becomes much more specific to the opportunity itself, driving down into relevance based on a specific client and on an economic buyer."

Content personalization and relevance are critical to PwC for two reasons. First, business decision-makers' time is limited, and they don't want to waste it on information that is not relevant to them. Second, "as an organization, it's our job — and our clients expect us — to know as much or more about their business as they do," Walker says. "We have to be able to produce content that is relevant to our clients because it communicates that we know them, that we understand their business issues, and that we are respectful of their time. Of course, it must also align with the message we are trying to push into the marketplace."

PwC's approach to content marketing has become much more data driven over the past two years. It has narrowed its focus to fewer but more relevant channels and only engages in activities it can actively measure (such as paid social media campaigns to better target key audiences). As a result, it has seen a 250 percent increase in engagement with its content. While Walker is quick to point out that such a dramatic increase will surely flatten out over time, he's confident that PwC has hit on a winning formula.

"We're producing content now that's much more relevant, we understand who our economic buyers are, we understand better what their issues are, we've done a better job of linking it to the solutions that we are driving into the marketplace, and we have it in the places where they're consuming content now," he says. "It's not just any one thing, it's all of those things together that are working to drive the increased uptake on our content."




Top B2B Content Formats

An overwhelming majority of B2B audiences consume business-related content online at least once a week, according to a recent Clutch survey. Search engines (87 percent) and social media (85 percent) are the two most common ways they encounter business content, and the top five online content formats for B2B audiences are blogs/articles, reviews, product descriptions, videos/webinars, and case studies.

The most popular reasons audiences consume business content are to stay informed about business and industry trends (45 percent), to decide whether to purchase a particular company's products or services (20 percent), and to research a company's products (19 percent).

Riley Panko, who is responsible for creating Clutch's own content and increasing its visibility across search rankings, says the keys to staying ahead of the game are ensuring that content is the most in-depth, helpful, and well-researched that you can make it. "B2B marketers who try to cut corners with low-quality, irrelevant content may succeed in the short term," she warns, "but they are not setting themselves up for long-term success."
— M.J.M.


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