By Mike Antonczyk and Matt Hirschland Ph.D.
We recently asked a group of enterprise B2B CMOs a simple question:
How do you rate the effectiveness of your content marketing efforts in securing business for your company?
What we heard surprised us – and the group. More than a third rated their investments as neither effective nor ineffective on this critical count.
In fact, for just shy of half the group (44%), securing actual client/customer engagement didn’t make it even as a top-three reason for investing in content development. Revenue-producing engagement finished a distant third place to “demonstrating our expertise” (2nd) and “building our brand” (1st).
Now, perhaps in the B2B environment in which a majority of these large companies operate (and spend millions every year on content), these findings should not come as a shock. But we then asked a second question:
What if we wanted the content we are all creating to be more sought after and directly connected to driving sales – what would we do differently?
This is where the discussion got interesting and holds lessons for all marketers regardless of where they serve.
First things first; what’s “content”?
What do we mean by “content”? Specifically, we are talking about those investments in intellectual property and knowledge produced by organizations for sharing and created to fulfill a business objective, such as driving action and engagement with existing and potential customers. Think of the tidal wave of newsletters, white papers, infographics, surveys, reports, and so much more that companies create today.
What’s driving content production?
The production of this content continues to skyrocket as companies of all types (B2B, B2C, B2G, etc.) acquire increasingly capable customer and client engagement systems.
For some, this is driven by investment in CRM and automated marketing systems, that enable more personalized content delivery.
Others prioritize deploying existing teams of in-house or freelance content creators: writers, recovering journalists, editors, videographers, and experts of all stripes, who are tasked with creating engaging and captivating “thought leadership” in digital and print formats.
For most, it’s a combination of the two because modern marketing systems rely upon, and are fueled by a very thirsty stream of – you guessed it – content.
This resulting crush of material being produced serves as a signal of its popularity among marketers and yet we’d argue that this growth is actually sowing the seeds of its own destruction.
Evidence for this comes from the most important arbiters – the very executive and other decision-makers that are its intended recipients. From this group, we regularly hear the same thing: “I don’t need more content. I am swimming in it. What I actually need are compelling solutions and people I trust to help me deliver them.”
And here lies both the problem and the solution that occupied our gathering of CMOs: A lot of content is created for the wrong reasons and by the wrong processes. Because of this, much of what’s shared often falls flat or outright fails for three crucial reasons:
- How it gets built
- Who builds it
- What is measured (in terms of impact)
Addressing these will help to better engage the eyeballs and garner the clicks, shares, engagement, and ultimately conversion in the form of sales. And it is the last of these – conversion – that we argue is the ultimate (but often most elusive) measure of success when it comes to content investments today.
You’re Doing It (Wrong)
How it gets built
Let’s start with the how. In our experience, good marketing teams are filled with tremendously creative and talented people. And yet they are often only as good as their proximity to end buyers. To be truly great, they need clear understanding about what products and services buyers actually desire. They need to know how end users talk about unmet needs, problems they face, and success.
Too often, however, marketing teams are kept at arm’s length from clients and customers because those relationships are the domain of those with practiced “client hands” or those with the direct sales, service, or product delivery relationships. As a result, this separation creates an unhelpful and critical “airlock” or gap between those who hold the relationships and the way content is built.
This gap means that instead of experiencing client needs first-hand, the very individuals entrusted with building compelling content must intuit or rely upon second- or third-hand accounts of what clients really want. This is where a significant miss occurs between what is desired and what is delivered. This is particularly acute across the B2B landscape, where organizational constructs amplify this gap because internal structures such as service lines, practices, or go-to-market groups do not align with the reality of how senior leaders actually run their businesses. B2C firms are often better at making this connection but can suffer the same shortcomings.
Who builds it
The second reason content often goes astray is a by-product of the how and comes down to who builds it. We see far too many instances where experts inside companies, extrapolating from small samples arrive at what they think all customers must need and want to know. As a result, short- and (especially) long-form content that is intended to have broad-based appeal remains too narrowly focused, inadequately capturing the imagination and reality of a broader buyer set.
As an example, a product manager will often see the problem his product solves as emblematic of the entire population of potential buyers, when that’s unlikely to be true. But he may focus an entire content campaign seeking engagement around that solution, aiming at all buyers, rather than a carefully selected targeted subset.
This begs the question: Why have one expert or even small group of experts think they know what customers want when you can actually know what they want simply by asking and involving them in its very creation? Real-world testing and pre-engagement with actual buyers is a powerful and often under-used tool by content creators.
A second component of the who question is often political in nature. It stems from the way that many companies assess and reward the creation of content itself.
For example, in many large professional service firms, creating content is a pre-condition for advancement and establishing recognized domain expertise. (This is the corporate version of academia’s publish-or-perish.) In smaller firms, this may play out as the CXO or senior leader who creates content that’s positioned as “thought leadership” when, in fact, it is not – but few are willing to question it. Yet how well all this is actually received by prospective buyers, or what it generates in terms of meaningful engagement and sales is often an afterthought. Furthermore, because of these dynamics, much content does not always align well with broader go-to-market messaging.
Imagine this scenario playing itself out across large, global firms with multiple and separate business units and product offerings creating more and more information, seeking to make a splash. The result is often unwelcome and unread contributions created for the wrong reasons, all adding to the growing wall of content noise.
Recent research by McKinsey, Forrester, and Gartner bolsters the importance of this conclusion, noting that consistency coupled with close and personal customer connectivity is the glue of long-term customer satisfaction. McKinsey sorts this into three types of consistency: customer journey and interactions; emotional; and communications. Content created by different groups with different goals usually fails the consistency test.
What is measured
Finally, what impact your content has and how this is measured has become increasingly problematic. This has been exacerbated by the move to digital delivery and engagement platforms. When we asked how our assembled CMOs assess the success of their content marketing efforts, the group listed their preferred measures (in order) as:
- Web visits and other traffic (downloads, views)
- Social media recognition (likes, retweets and similar)
- Direct client feedback
Here again the needs and perspectives of the very clients for whom all this content is purportedly being created comes in third place!
As engagement and access to content comes increasingly through digital means (click-through rates, web traffic, downloads, social sharing), many assess its impact through those same means. At face value, this makes sense but it tells only part of the story.
Metrics are powerful, which is why decision-makers like them. But alone – and absent context – they are the equivalent of the proverbial blind man trying to guess that he’s touching an elephant by holding only its tail. He may get lucky but he’ll make a lot of mistakes.
Take, for example, the excitement about the 2,500 downloads of your latest white paper (or article or infographic, etc.). However, if the vast majority of readers are not your customers or potential customers, but MBA students at a popular MOOC (massive open online course) who are using your findings for an assignment, you may have earned a lot of engagement but missed the mark. Well-crafted and well-used automated marketing systems can help shine more light on data stories such as these. However, many respected organizations (and the leaders inside of them) often draw conclusions about success and make further misguided content decisions based on metrics that tell only part of the story.
So What Should CMOs Do?
So there we sat, back at our CMO conclave identifying and discussing these very dynamics that have been driving, and simultaneously diminishing, the impact of our collective content marketing efforts. Still, none of those in attendance expected to slow or stop their efforts. In fact, all reported expecting the same or increased levels of content funding for the year ahead. At every turn, we asked each other the same question when it came to the how, who and what to measure questions:
What if we wanted the content we are creating to be even more sought after and directly connected to driving sales – what would we do differently?
The group’s answers repeatedly arrived at the same place: We collectively need to be better at incorporating the voice-of-the-customer into our content creation and advocate more for that which they desire most from us, and less for what we think they might want or have little evidence from them to support.
The often-stated claim from marketers and companies alike is that they put customers at the center of all that they do. This promise of customer-centrism is often repeated, but seldom practiced. Actually getting to the coal-face of customer needs and creating this type of proximity for marketers is critical. Those gathered agreed that in some cases this would be easy to effect. In other cases, like the more political aspects of who creates content and for what reasons, it would be more difficult.
In all, the group reached a strong consensus around the need to be more present during discussions with customers and clients. Doing so ensures that the very people for whom content is created have a central voice in its constitution – making it more likely to have value for them and be used.
Perhaps more importantly, being face-to-face with customers positions the marketing function anew as the home for customer insights, a springboard for new products and services, the center for powerful personalization, and the catalyst for tying it more deeply to revenue generation in noticeable ways. Compare this approach with the rest of what we’ll call the “customer-disconnected crowd” who will continue cranking out content and similar to that blind man with his elephant, who keep on guessing as they add to the growing and misguided wall of noise in the marketplace today.
*This article originally appeared on www.act-on.com