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Content: The Dirty Underbelly of B2B Marketing Automation

by: Adam Needles (@IBMforMarketing)
11 December 2009

Any time innovation advances the level of capability in one business discipline, the emergence of new challenges in other areas becomes inevitable. In order to continue to seize the benefits of this innovation, it's thus critical that we rapidly respond and adapt to these new challenges.

This reality has become more evident as I have spoken with a number of the nearly 500 B2B marketers who joined us at the B2B Marketing University series this Fall. Among the adopters of marketing automation, these marketers have made great strides in their ability to nurture leads and manage the marketing-to-sales handoff with B2B buyers. Laura Ramos echoes this on her blog: "[T]the benefits of adopting lead management automation are clear -- successful implementations enjoy more predictable deal conversions, faster sales cycles, and real alignment between marketing activity and sales results."

Yet with lead conversion rates increasing by as much as 2-3X post adoption of marketing automation, marketers' major challenges and priorities begin to shift. 'Demand generation,' broadly speaking, ceases to become the primary challenge facing B2B marketers at this stage, as it is now what they find themselves most successful at. Instead, a new set of challenges emerges, all related to 'feeding the (automation) machine.'

Chief among them is content.

Let me explain ...

Why is content the 'dirty underbelly' of marketing automation?

This reality is closely linked to the role that marketing automation plays in improving buyer engagement and in supporting overall lead management. B2B marketers face a growing set of challenges related to the modern B2B buyer; chief among them is the emergence of increasing buyer power and savvy -- something I've covered in past blog posts. This means B2B marketing and sales teams must become more 'buyer-centric' than ever before -- engaging in the right dialogue, at the right time, via the right medium. This new posture is critical to delivering the personalized engagement buyers now expect, and it helps to close a gap in our communication with buyers earlier in their processes, where they are more resistant than ever to speak with our sales team members and instead prefer to do their own research online and (increasingly) via social media.

Marketing automation platforms, thus, play a critical role in this new environment -- powering and scaling this new mass one-to-one engagement and enabling our communication with buyers to be more triggered (i.e., more based on buyer 'pull') and more anticipatory than ever.

The subsequent challenge lies in 'populating' the number and variations of personalized and targeted content necessary to build dynamic, anticipatory marketing campaigns. A full-fledged marketing automation platform enables you to build complex, branching, multi-path campaigns for multiple buyer personas, but you do the math. Let's say you have four major personas and each one has up to four different, iterative tracks and each one has eight major steps. Keeping it simplistic, that's at least 128 variations of content and information required ... just for the outbound nurturing campaign. And that's a conservative estimate. It does not take into account the additional complexity and depth involved across communication mediums -- ranging from inbound mediums, such as a blogs (which may number into the hundreds of pages/posts) to viewable and downloadable materials (which themselves may number a few dozen pages apiece). This also does not take into account the need for content to always be as fresh as possible.

The truth is, if you're doing marketing automation correctly -- i.e., if you've really shifted to a dynamic campaign mindset -- content, as a proxy for scripted dialogue with buyers, inevitably must be your number-one challenge, right?

But it is not an impassible challenge. The key is to stay focused. "More content is not what our prospects want, is it? What they want is to understand," argues Michele Linn in a post on the Savvy B2B Marketing blog. "This may seem obvious, but in the fervor to create content, I think it is easy to lose sight of this." The key also is to build content that is engaging and two-way. "Traditional marketing talks at people. Content marketing talks with them," explains Velocity Partners in The B2B Content Marketing Workbook.

How can marketers improve their development and management of B2B marketing content?

It's important that we 'rationalize' our content more than ever -- asking the question what content should exist in a given medium at a given time, based on the dialogue you should be having with a buyer (whether via a marketing or sales team interaction). I refer to this flow as the 'critical path' that buyers follow in their buying process, and it represents the most efficient and effective path to a buyer's ultimate purchase ... which we should build all of our content around.

To do this effectively, I believe there are six key factors you should consider when rationalizing your marketing content ... and shifting to a buyer-centric, anticipatory dialogue mindset. And I've highlighted insights from several content marketing gurus I follow, including Ardath Albee, consultant and author of eMarketing Strategies for the Complex Sale; Michele Linn, consultant and contributor to the Savvy B2B Marketing blog; Valeria Maltoni, marketer, blogger 2.0, speaker and the author of the Conversation Agent blog; and the folks at UK-based B2B marketing firm Velocity Partners.

What are the six critical factors in rationalizing B2B marketing content?

> Personas: This is the first critical step in rationalizing your content. Who are you talking to? What are your target market segments, how do you engage with these segments and what is the composition of these segments? More than ever there are groups of individuals involved with a purchase, not just a single buyer. Developing and targeting content requires a very clear understanding of the personas involved in your buyers' purchase decision.

Michele Linn comments on the importance of this step in her blog piece, referenced above:

[I]t is absolutely critical to understand who your prospects are. I'm not talking about grasping their industry or rattling off titles, but rather it's imperative to understand what makes them tick. (Of course, you may have multiple prospects, and you need to understand each thoroughly.) ... Once you have the picture of your prospect, you should create everything with this person in mind.

There is a lot more to be said about personas, although I've kept it intentionally brief here. For more detail into understanding and applying personas in marketing automation, you should check out this past post on my Propelling Brands blog that goes into (a lot) more detail. Also, you might check out this past post on this site that addresses "Four Keys for Success Using Buyer Personas to Focus B2B Marketing Automation Campaigns."

> Stage of buying process: This is the next important aspect of rationalizing content. Buyers go through different stages as they evaluate and make decisions about a major purchase. It's important to not only understand these phases but also to make sure that we have content appropriate to the information sought at each phase.

Michelle Linn, in another Savvy B2B Marketing blog post, notes that this is a critical factor not only for your content marketing strategy but also for ensuring that content is well aligned with marketing and sales roles in fostering the buying process:

Marketing, sales, and other key stakeholders need to take time to map out the buyers and stages in the buying cycle and then constantly create material that fits into this matrix. When releasing material to sales it should be very clear who the material is targeted to and when it should be used in the buying process.

> Nature of information usage: What role does the information serve with the buyer, and how will the buyer use it? "The trick to marketing that creates extremely high degrees of relevance for buyers is to answer their questions," argues Ardath Albee in a post on her Marketing Interactions blog. Valeria Maltoni adds in a post on her Conversation Agent blog, "Make the content useful so that it elevates the person who is using it."

Closely related, you also need to make sure that your own business objectives are clear and well-represented in your content. What business purpose does the information serve? What do you want to achieve? Understanding the dual purposes of both buyer and of seller are the critical components of getting your arms around information usage.

This issue of the nature of information usage is not only important, it also is where a lot of time and energy is wasted in content development. Many companies put information on Web sites, in press releases and in brochures without anyone asking the question how a buyer will use it. This is closely linked to the stage of the buying process but also goes a step further, and it is a critical factor to consider because it helps you recognize how far you actually need to go with information. If the buyer's question is simple and straightforward, why not make the answer simple and straightforward?

"How can you help?" explains Michele Linn in her post referenced earlier. "Let me be clear: This question is not, 'What do you do?' Rather, it focuses on how you can help your prospect, which should tie in to the previous question."

> Right voice: This one is simple to explain, but can be hard to apply. Quite simply, what is the right mix of marketing vs. sales voice for different content types? I think of the voice of marketing as being informative but not hard-selling, and I think of the voice of sales as being helpful but 'catalytic.' So how should this progress? When I think of how the voice of sales should be applied to content in the buying process it makes me think about the warmth of water if one were to swim from Antarctica to the Equator -- which doesn't immediately get warm, but warms up quite a bit over the distance. Likewise, when it works, the sales voice should just get 'warmer and warmer' until it's at the appropriate level, but you shouldn't force it, and it should never move faster than the buyer.

> Right channel: Research has shown that different channels are more appropriate for different phases of communication. For example, earlier in the buying process, B2B buyers tend to leverage social/inbound mediums and thought capital more. About a third to midway through the buying process -- once you've made a connection with a buyer -- outbound and e-mail communication becomes a critical link for nurturing. Once that buyer is a bit further into his/her process, industry sites and analyst reports become more salient. Vendor sites and product literature then is most effective later in the buying process -- much closer to when the purchase decision is made and when sales team members get engaged.

I put together the following graphic to help make this clearer as part of a talk I gave at this year's Dreamforce conference in San Francisco.


Click here to download a full-size PDF version of this graphic.

> Feedback/profiling: The final factor you should use to rationalize your content is to ask the constant question, 'Is this two-way?' Are you increasingly getting feedback on what your buyer thinks and how interested or not he/she is in you? And are you progressively profiling the prospect -- i.e., collecting more information on the buyer with each content-based interaction?

"Creating a content plan is not just about creating content that maps to stages across the buying process," explains Ardath Albee in another blog post, "it's [also] about planning your content to educate you so you can increase your relevance, hence their engagement with you throughout their buying journey."

Content development and management can seem like a daunting task, but if we rationalize our efforts against the buyer and think through the key factors outlined here, it's a lot easier to be targeted and effective in driving real and engaged two-way dialogue with buyers -- especially via our marketing automation platform. Given a buyer with more power than ever, this is what we need to be focused on doing as B2B marketers today -- driving buyer dialogue to increase upstream influence and ultimately to improve downstream conversion rates, and managing the hand-off. This is both our greatest strategic opportunity, and also our most significant logistical challenge. Marketing automation can play a key role as the technology catalyst to tie this dialogue together and to improve the hand-off, but success with automation requires having a smart plan for your B2B marketing content.

What do you think?

What are your specific challenges with developing content to power your marketing automation campaigns? How have you integrated your upstream/inbound content with your downstream/outbound campaigns and activities? Please share your questions and experiences around best practices.




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