Unsexy, compliant and boring? The B2B content challenge
Content marketing gurus often focus on glamorous B2C examples, says Catherine Toole of Sticky Content. But what are the tricks to producing high-quality B2B content marketing?
So everyone’s a publisher now and don’t we know it. The Red Bulls and the Coca-Colas of this world have taken to this with aplomb. Global content mission statement? Check. Vast investment in cross-platform content specialists and their supporting agencies? Check. Quirky, seemingly-thrown-together-but-actually-rather-expensive viral campaign? Check. Chuck a fella off the edge of space and stream via your web TV channel? Check.
This is not the world in which your average B2B marketing professional operates. You try being quirky and viral when your product offering is highly specialist and complex, your sales cycle runs into years, and your prospects range from junior researchers to chief executives. Or, when you have to squeeze content out of reluctant yet verbose product managers, dodging legal and compliance bullets as you go.
So how can a B2B organisation - often with little editorial expertise in-house, limited content budgets and lots of internal resistance - respond to the constant demand for effective, measurable, marketable content?
Well, if everyone’s a publisher now, then perhaps we’d better start acting like one. With a bit of imagination and some old-school editorial skills, you can embed a process that will support your content development, no matter how seemingly unsexy the subject matter, or how reluctant your internal stakeholders.
Know what you know and stick with it
Google updates like Panda have put a new emphasis on the editorial quality of content as a key criterion in high search rankings. Google urges companies to focus on producing information that goes “beyond the merely obvious”. “Is your site a recognised authority on the subject?” it asks. Is the content “trustworthy”, useful, informative and “of substantial value”?
If you can’t answer yes to these, then maybe it’s time to identify your content niche. What do you know more about than anyone else? What can you talk about with real interest, credibility and authority? What does your intimate knowledge of your own market and buying cycle reveal about your customers’ information needs?
Your content niche may in fact be very small but whatever it is, you need to own it. There are some great case studies of companies that dramatically increased sales by simply being the most comprehensive and trustworthy resource for information on a highly specialist topic.
Seek out subject matter experts
All journalists have their little black book of contacts who can be relied on to comment on a story. Build up your own book of internal subject-matter experts - people who know a disproportionate amount about what you offer, or have useful insights into what makes your customers tick.
Often you’ll find these people in direct sales, account management, customer service, or hidden away in a technical role. Find them, convert them and allow them to provide you with a steady stream of expert ideas.
Subject matter experts don’t necessarily make great content producers, and if you make contributing content too much like hard work, your contacts will soon dwindle.
Explain that you’ll do an interview to gain the information from them rather than expect them to write anything. Invite your experts to a monthly brainstorm, or set up a shared drive for ideas. And get round the organisation in person, listening out for those watercooler anecdotes and throwaway comments that inspire the best ideas.
Establish an editorial calendar
No successful publication survives without a rigorous editorial calendar. This is an opportunity to be more strategic about your planning and to map content to your sales cycle, new product launches and industry events.
The editorial calendar is designed to stop people from producing poor-quality content in a rush, or in a purely reactive way. Calendars should be a mixture of push and pull: combining what your company wants to say and when (announcing a product upgrade, for example) and the information your customers need on the timescales they work to (for example, if it’s budget-setting time, you need to communicate proposed price increases).
Make it manageable
Sometimes content marketing plans fail because they are over-ambitious and unsustainable over time. Witness the weekly customer email newsletter with nothing of interest in it, or the website ‘news’ section full of six-month-old stories. Sustained, high-quality content production is hard work. We all focus on getting stuff up for launch, but you have to put editorial processes in place to ensure you can keep on publishing week in, week out.
A key trick here is to create very strong, repeatable content formats, which multiple authors contribute to and which can be chopped up and used across different platforms.
A downloadable buyers’ guide could be constructed in a highly modular way, so its component parts can be used and re-used in everything from your FAQ section to marketing emails to tweets. Certain content formats, such as Q&As or top 10s, are much easier for non-editorial people to write into, so develop them with authors - as well as audience - in mind.
Rule with a rod of iron
Traditional publishing operates according to a strict editorial hierarchy. In digital, we often practise content-by-committee, where a set of stakeholders can input changes into content as they see fit.
In order to control editorial quality, you’ll need the authority to enforce your formats and style guides like an editor would. By always measuring the effect of your content and publicising the results internally, you should be able to build a strong business case for leading and streamlining your sign-off process.
Managing internal stakeholders effectively means separating out what is useful factual or legal feedback from personal opinions on style and tone of voice. For this to work, you’ll need high-level buy-in and content champions in very senior roles that trust your expertise. Use them to give you the authority you need to overturn feedback which may damage the effectiveness of the content.
Have ideas. Lots of them
Ideas are the currency of the brave new content world. Recently I’ve seen three B2B surveys which cite ‘generating enough good ideas’ as the key content marketing challenge after budget and time.
Editorial people are constantly on the lookout for ‘ideas with legs’ - ones that will generate not one but several pieces of content. Look for content that can be broken down into series and episodes, or that will generate comments - which themselves generate more content ideas.
Formal brainstorms; listening in to customer calls; monitoring online forums; and competitor content analysis are all ways to get started. Sourcing a steady stream of strong ideas in your area of expertise will be the bedrock of your content marketing activity.
And you’ll find that when you keep it niche, sustainable and mapped to customer insights, it might still be unsexy but it will deliver results.
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