Content and B2B inbound marketing is consistently ranked as one of the best ways to generate organic, inbound leads. Everyone in the B2B space and their grandma seemingly has a content marketing strategy.
Isn't it time you hopped on board too?
Well, not so fast! On one hand, we have statistics from CMI that say 88% of B2B marketers use content marketing as a part of their overall stack. Yet, try and search for content marketing ROI statistics or figures, and you'll come up with nothing.
Is content marketing really all that?
In short, yes it is. The longer answer is more complicated. Content marketing isn't suited to every business out there. Before embarking on a content strategy, here are 5 questions you must ask yourself.
Is Your Product a Good Fit?
As Google's search algorithm grew more complex in the previous decade, content marketing became a legitimate means of driving traffic to a web page. Companies could simply talk about their products, line up their keywords, and the result was instant traffic!
A side-effect of this was the rise of marketing agencies who preached the gospel of content. Given the marketing industry's propensity to exaggerate everything, it's safe to say that we've lost context around the subject of content marketing.
The fact is that some products aren't a good fit for content marketing.
For instance, if your product handles a ton of proprietary information in a highly secretive industry (looking at you MSPs for institutional finance!), content marketing is at best an addendum to your in-person and event-focused marketing strategy.
In such cases, whitepapers play a role, but there's only so much you can talk about before you hit the proprietary wall. You can talk about your product's benefits, but you can talk about how you're awesome only for so long.
Take a step back and evaluate whether you can dissect your product (or service's) features in detail. If not, don't bother making content marketing a huge focus.
Are You Patient?
ROI in content marketing is a tough topic to address. Content marketers like me write a lot about how you can't measure it and why this isn't a problem. If you're even the least bit skeptical about content marketing (and marketers in general), it's easy to think you're being taken for a ride.
However, the fact is that content marketing takes time to develop. You'll spend many months publishing content and won't see a tangible return. The issue with content marketing is that despite belonging to the digital realm, it doesn't lend itself well to many aspects of digital marketing.
For instance, a PPC ad's effectiveness is easily measured and quantifiable. Marketers can zero in on their CAQ and determine their margins, down to the last cent.
When moving from this world to content metrics, it's easy to paint content marketing as lacking coherence.
If your higher-level executive team doesn't believe in content marketing, forget about it. If those teams require concrete metrics and dashboards indicating progress all the time, then content marketing isn't going to fit your company.
Irrespective of which approach (outbound or inbound) is the best, content marketing doesn't work without top-level buy-in.
Even with buy-in, it's important to frame content marketing the right way. The best analogy that I give my clients is to liken it to word-of-mouth marketing. Back in the Stone Age (anytime before the interwebs), businesses relied on providing great customer service that moved customers to spread the word.
How can you measure the ROI of word-of-mouth campaigns? It's impossible. Content marketing works the same way. You'll know it's working when you see a constantly rising stream of mentions, shares, and leads.
Help your audience, and they'll help you. If content marketing has an ethos, this is it.
Metrics and machine-like stats don't fit into this picture. In our current world of algorithms, this narrative doesn't mesh with broader themes. Everything is becoming more machine-like, except content marketing. It's the only outlet you can use to appear human. Use it well and be patient.
If you need instant results, content marketing could work. However, it's not the best marketing method for these situations.
Can You Back it up?
Content marketing is great! All you need to do is publish some helpful stuff and then sit back and count your cash, right?
Not even close!
Content marketing complements other arms of your marketing strategy. Sure, some companies rely solely on publishing helpful content, but these are exceptional cases.
In reality, you'll have to back content marketing up with a sales team that is aligned with your marketing team. Sales demos will have to reference the content you've published. In the B2B world, sales and marketing teams are often misaligned, and no amount of great content will increase sales in such scenarios.
Service-based businesses typically suffer from not backing up content with processes that increase sales. For instance, a B2B SaaS consultant might publish great content, but if they don't back it up with regular attendance at conferences or network references, they're not going to go too far.
In such cases, content often becomes the scapegoat, and the "no ROI" argument pops its head. The real culprit here is the lack of processes, not content marketing.
Another example of companies shooting themselves in the foot is by promising the world via their content and then discovering they can't deliver.
Needless to say, this isn't going to do their credibility much good. Great content marketing revolves around honesty.
Skip the BS and get to the point.
Help your audience, and the rest takes care of itself, assuming you have the right processes in place.
Do Your Customers Need it?
Every market is different, and consumer attitudes change with it. For instance, content marketing works brilliantly in Western markets.
However, try generating leads via content in the MENA or South Asian markets, and you'll be pulling your content writer's teeth out in no time.
The fact is that customer needs trump any fancy strategy you have in place. Many B2B SaaS companies expand beyond their home markets to these "content-inefficient" markets and find themselves in deep excrement.
Content marketing is not a silver bullet.
If your audience doesn't bother reading content, then stop publishing it. If your audience doesn't read trade publications, stop shoehorning your CEO into them. Focus instead on the methods that do work and give you what you want.
From personal experience, in-person calls matter far more in the MENA region than in traditional Western markets. Call it a quirk of human culture. In the former markets, content takes a back seat and serves as collateral to sales calls. In essence, sales teams assume the marketing burden.
In the West, this equation is flipped. Sales teams' roles are minimized in the buyer's journey thanks to a high degree of self-driven consumer research. Needless to say, here's where content marketing shines.
Content uniformly builds authority in all markets. However, the degree to which it penetrates your customer's consciousness varies.
Knowing your customer extends well beyond creating some fancy strategy or using data to build a persona. Marketing teams often get lost in the weeds trying to develop great personas to market content to, without realizing that the persona prefers to talk to a person due to cultural norms.
Do You Know Where and How to Begin?
The final question to ask yourself is whether you know where and how to begin with this whole content marketing stuff. It isn't as simple as hitting publish on some blogs you've written, as you can see. You must create a framework, a calendar, and pillar clusters that make sense.
The fact is that setting up a content machine is far tougher than maintaining it. The resources you need to get things going can be overwhelming.
Content marketing is the marketing equivalent of the old "measure twice, cut once" adage.
You need to plan a lot, a little bit more, and then adjust to whatever comes.
SEO optimization gets thrown around a lot, and this is true in B2C-focused products. B2B is slightly different, and monitoring secondary conversations is more important in this context.
For instance, a B2C prospect will effectively tell Google what their problem is, and you can mine keywords to understand their needs.
A B2B prospect, however, isn't searching for solutions to enterprise issues on Google. They might search for tangentially related topics, but their issues surface in Quora and Reddit discussions.
In-person conversations in conferences and online discussion rooms are where real problems come to light. Thus, SEO is important, but it isn't the same as speaking to your audience in the B2B world.
The bottom line is, take the time to plan your content team's structure and how it gels with the rest of your marketing plan.
The last thing you should be doing is hitting publish on a few pieces of content and then trying to wing the rest.
Proceed Slowly, but Surely
Content marketing demands patience and a long-term approach. It requires you to view marketing in a different light from what you might traditionally be used to. Inbound, as a strategy, is a great tool to build credibility.
However, its rewards aren't free.
Companies that patiently build processes that back their content are the ones that succeed.