Insights

B2B buyers need thought leadership and content marketing

April 29, 2014

If you are a B2B business, chances are lead generation is amongst your key objectives? That’s what we hear repeatedly from marketing departments, anyway. Interestingly, generating leads also turns out to be one of the most challenging objectives. B2B buyers are reluctant to be reached by traditional sales channels, but thought leadership and content marketing can bring them closer to you.

Buyers browse too

One key reason generating leads is a challenge is quite simple: Your customers are doing fine without you. Not that they don’t need your product or your services, but they manage perfectly well without you telling them about the star quality of what you sell.

In other words, contact opportunity for traditional sales force tactics (i.e. personal interaction) is reduced. Instead, B2B purchasers increasingly serve themselves in the early stages of the purchasing decision cycle using digital channels.

What it means is, that professional buyers wander the web a good deal before engaging in purchasing talks with any vendor. Almost 9 out of 10 look for advice before choosing what vendor to talk to. According to the 2012 Buyersphere report, 2 out of 3 of these begin with Google, but it now seems buyers increasingly go directly to a supplier website - at least this is preferred by 47% over the 29% using search engines (Source: Buyersphere report 2013). Does your website address your customers' need for advice?

The buying cycle

Just like the rest of us, your customers are more knowledgable and empowered than ever. They control the relationship with your business, and have turned the tables on the sales cycle, making it the buying cycle. Incidentally, a cycle that – on average – will be 57% completed before a sales person in your organisation is contacted! (Source: The Digital Evolution in B2B Marketing).

Getting the attention of your buyers is proving increasingly challenging - but content will help them find what they they're looking for and position you as the provider.

Social media increasingly influence the purchasing decisions. Although still ranked behind web search, vendor web sites and peer/colleague recommendations, more than half of those using social media for research reported browsing existing discussions to learn more about the product in which they had an interest (Source: B2B Buyer Behavior survey 2014).

Professional network tools like LinkedIn and blogs are the most influential, followed by video content and presentation sharing like Slideshare (Source: B2B Buyer Behavior survey 2012).

Content marketing

What you can do to address this shift in buyer behavior, is to take a structured approach to your digital content. 82% of senior executives says content is a significant driver of their buying decisions (Source: B2B Buyer Behavior survey 2014), so it's no surprise lead generation is a primary objective of content marketing for B2B marketers. For buyers in general, the breadth and the relevance of the product information is among the most compelling elements of the chosen vendor's website. But more interesting, buyers also emphasize the educational value of that information (Source: B2B Buyer Behavior survey 2012).

This means buyers are looking for more than information. They are looking for knowledge. In fact, the company’s involvement as a thought leader in industry online communities, blogs etc. is cited by buyers as a differentiating element (Source: B2B Buyer Behavior survey 2012).

Thought leadership

One key driver for content marketing can be thought leadership within your industry. As a thought leader you must be able to provide the answers to the biggest questions on the minds of your target audience, as suggested by Vice President of SAP Global Marketing, Michael Brenner, but to really lead the thought and profit from this leadership, you must provide a re-contextualisation of your customer’s industry challenges.

One of the most interesting sales books in recent years is Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson’s The Challenger Sale. Among five different seller profiles, their research proves the Challenger as the most effective – outperforming Lone Wolves, Hard Workers, Reactive Problem Solvers, and Relationship Builders altogether.

What characterizes the Challenger is his or her deep understanding of the customer’s business. Challengers use this knowledge to.. well, challenge the customer, to push the customers’ thinking and teach them something new about how their company can compete more effectively. This means the Challenger must know the customer’s business even better than the customers know it themselves.

This echoes emerging trends within content marketing where thought leadership is a key component. Thought leaders set the agenda in much the same way the Challenger reframes how their customers’ think about their own businesses.

Lead generation

In order to meet the needs and requirements of customers, increasingly serving themselves in the early stages of purchase, B2B industries have to move away from promotional, inside-out oriented content and demonstrate a deeper understanding of their customers’ true pain points, guiding them towards new mind sets and solutions. Your content must stop talking about your products and services, and instead focus on consultative elements, contextualising your firm’s knowledge of your customers’ industries and business.

Do you know what insights you can put in front of your customers that can reframe the way they think about their business? How they operate and compete?

With thought leadership and content marketing initiatives you can get there. As a thought leader, you're putting your self on the line. Literally – because firms aren’t thought leaders – people are! And customers don’t buy from organisations; they buy from people. Is your organisation ready for this?

Lead nurturing

Most of the prospects coming to your site are not yet ready to buy. Actually, a whopping 79% of marketing leads never convert into sales – primarily due to lack of lead nurturing. Compare that to the 45% lift in lead generation ROI that organisations that nurture their leads experience over those that don’t (source: MarketingSherpa).

This calls for a structured approach not only for generating leads, e.g. using content for marketing purposes, but also for nurturing those leads all the way through to sales, deepening engagement and building relations. There are numerous tools to help you automate many parts of this engagement process: What data to use for profiling, how that data will trigger what type of content to be displayed or what email to be sent.

Personalised content has impact on both engagement and on ROI. Most effective on both are social graph data, purchase history, explicit user preferences, and user behavior on digital asset (Source: Econsultancy & Adobe Quarterly Digital Intelligence Briefing, June 2012). Personalisation is an element in most companies’ digital strategy, yet only a minority is actually doing it. Are you?

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Here's how to get started:

Define and prioritize your target audiences: How well do you really know your customers? Do you talk with them? Do you work with the data in your CRM? Lock Marketing and Sales in the same room for a full day workshop to begin with. Consider creating personas or other scenario-based approach to leverage full value.

Map out buying cycles and touch points: Do you know the purchasing cycle of your most valuable customer profiles? Have you identified your channel ’hot zones’ where your customers are open for engagement? Is it on LinkedIn? Professional communities? Twitter? Email? Or through the smartphone?

Identify appropriate content formats: Look at your audience as well as your organisation’s skills and resources when doing this. Will your customers benefit from blogs, webinars, white papers, customer cases etc.? And do you have the people and resources to engage with your customers through these?

Create and consolidate your organization’s knowledge: What are the key questions your customers need the answers to? What is it your customers don't know they want to know about their business? Establish task force(s) or communities of expertise with your most knowledgeable employees across your markets. Let them empty their brains and feed the result into your established formats, repurposing and customizing the core knowledge for use in specific channels at specific stages in the buying cycle.

Work actively with conversions: Conversions are not only when people check out their full basket! Used as conversion threshold, Most Wanted Responses can be used to effectively signal lead quality. When you know what you are doing, consider structuring your customers’ interactivity with a lead-scoring model that will quantify lead quality and enable better measurement.

Measure lead-to-sales throughput: You will need this to calculate cost-per-lead and ROI.

Automate: Consider using marketing profiling and automation tools inherent in most engagement platforms today. But remember to learn how to crawl before you embark on the walking bit.