Content matters for B2B customers

Content remains a critical tool for marketers. To help you understand which content can help you sell to your customers, we distilled key learnings from some recent surveys and studies on business-to-business (B2B) content.

Content matters in the sales cycle

Customers see your content long before they talk to you. Only 25 percent of buyers revealed their interest in a product or service to the vendor early in the sales cycle. More than half of the respondents in one survey said that they viewed at least three pieces of content before talking with a salesperson.

Savvy marketers have a strategy for producing content that targets specific phases in the sales cycle.

Customers prefer certain B2B content types

The studies we looked at included a variety of content types, from white papers and case studies to podcasts and webinars. Customers have their own preferences, so most content types are beneficial to some portion of your audience. But marketing budgets are limited. To get the most bang for your buck, studies show that you should focus on these types of content:

  • Blog posts
  • White papers
  • E-books
  • Product and datasheets
  • Infographics
  • Webinars
  • Videos
  • Interactive tools

Blog posts and white papers are widely read and frequently shared. Business customers report reading white papers frequently and at more points in the sales cycle. In a 2015 study, 83 percent of business buyers reported reading a white paper in the last year. Webinars took second place, followed by e-books, which 68 percent of buyers read.

Choosing the right content type is half the battle. It’s equally important to present each type of content when it’s most valuable.

When is B2B content consumed during the sales cycle?

Not all content is not effective at every point in the customer journey. The studies clearly show customer preference for different types of content at different stages. Based on our review, here’s when you should use each type of content:

Content type for each stage of the B2B customer journey

Like all of us, your customers are inundated with content and have limited time. So keep it short, especially in the earlier phases. The further that customers move down the funnel, the more time they are willing to invest in content. Mid-size business and enterprise customers consume more content than do small business customers, and decision-makers spend more time with content than do influencers.

How do people find and share B2B content?

Most business customers find content through search. If you want to make it to the consideration phase with your business customers, search engine optimization (SEO) is critical.

Sharing is also a powerful tool. If your content is compelling, readers share it through email and, less often, on social media. LinkedIn is the top social media site for content sharing, followed by Twitter. Provide an easy way for customers to share blog posts and other content using all three methods.

Interactive content is increasingly important

More and more companies are creating interactive content, such as SlideShares, calculators, and assessments, among others. Interactive content takes more time and money to develop, but it also helps you stand out from the crowd: customers perceive it as more valuable. According to the B2B Technology Content Survey Report, “Seventy-three percent say a high level of interactivity somewhat or greatly increases the influence of content.” And, according to the Demand Gen Report’s 2014 B2B Content Preferences Survey, “Buyers are increasingly relying on infographics, videos and other interactive content, such as ROI calculators and assessments, as they make their buying decisions.” Maybe that’s why marketers report moderate or high conversion rates for interactive content 70 percent of the time, versus only 36 percent of the time for passive content.

In the first two phases of the customer journey, you can use interactive content to help customers understand that they have a problem and that your product or service can be the solution. The key is to keep interactive tools general and helpful, while making customers aware of your product or solution. Also, give them a clear next step in their journey. Expect to see increasing uses of interactive content—and increased competition to develop new, more engaging and informative formats.

Most of all, be useful

Buyers want useful information that’s pertinent to their phase in the customer journey. In the early stages of the journey, they continue to report that too much content is marketing-focused and product-oriented, rather than general and helpful. Even further down the funnel, it’s important that your content stays informative and appropriately biased. Nobody expects a company to talk about its products or services without highlighting the strengths—but a pure marketing pitch is a big turn-off.

Not surprisingly, 97 percent of buyers gave more credence to peer reviews and user-generated content. Barring that, in the early stages, buyers prefer content that is backed up by research. So in the early stages, provide valuable information in a short, easy-to-digest manner. Keep it informative and useful, as you help prospects move through the sales cycle, increasing the product focus and level of detail at each stage.

And if you want help developing content or a content strategy for your company, reach out to us.

Brick LayerIf you’re even slightly familiar with search engine optimization (SEO), you know that SEO requires constant and steady work, like laying bricks, to drive and keep your page high in search results. It takes time and consistent effort to rise in the rankings and to stay there. You also understand the importance of creating good content focused on the right topics and keywords, plus the need to acquire authoritative backlinks.

Build a well-structured site

For a site to be found in search, the search engine’s online robots must first crawl it—that means the robot walks through all of your site pages to create a map, and it categorizes the contents of each page. Your site structure and form can make this much easier:

  • Create discrete pages, each focused on a single, specific topic that corresponds to users’ specific keywords/searches. This allows the engines to clearly know which pages should surface for which keyword search.
  • Use a broad-to-narrow approach, if necessary (that is, a broad topic page that links to pages on narrower sub-topics).
  • Avoid creating more than two levels of folder structure. Instead, keep the site structure as you flat as you can, placing the most important pages closer to the root.
  • Create a clear navigation structure. This is better for usability anyway. Basically, if showed your menu structure as an outline, would a random person be able to understand it? If so, chances are that the search engines will, too.
  • Make it easy for engines to map your site by providing an actual map for them. See http://www.sitemaps.org/ for information about sitemaps.
  • Consider also using the schema element to tell search engines about your site structure. For example, if you run a restaurant, your schema would have sections for menu, hours of operation, location, reviews, and reservations. If you use the correct schema elements, search engines can actually display all of these items right on the search results page.

Use correct semantic structure

In addition to creating a logical site structure, make sure that you use the correct technical tagging and methods. To some extent, your site needs to speak the language of the search engines. Be sure to:

  • Use clear page-naming conventions. Pick your structure, and stick with it. Make sure that you use real-language URLs, even if they are wordy. Someone reading the last part of your URL should know what the page is about, such as /creating-videos-with-adobe-premiere-on-mac.
  • Include any blog or related assets as a subfolder or subdomain, so that they accrue SEO benefits to the home domain. For example, our blog uses www.ronline.com/blog, accruing SEO benefits to the main site at ronline.com.
  • Use valid, semantically correct HTML. Errors in HTML can cause the engines to bypass a page or to lower its ranking. For example, all headers should use header tags (such as H1, H2, or H3). The engines look for these tags and check the keywords in them to help determine the main topics on the page.
  • Where you use images, always add alt text. Since they can’t read images, the engines use the text as a proxy to determine what the image is about.
  • Include a Title and Description metadata tag on every page. They are critical to search results.

Keep important content visible on the page

Images, videos, widgets—we pack a lot into our websites. But not all of these are visible to search engines. Problems result when key information—information that could help with your ranking—is buried in a format that search engines can’t plumb. Here’s how you can avoid problems:

  • Don’t embed text in images. For example, if you have a header with your tagline, and the header is an image, Google and Bing can’t read the text in the image. So, the tagline is lost to them.
  • Similarly, don’t bury important information in Flash, Silverlight, or videos.
  • If you use widgets to pull in content, try to ensure that the content is considered “on the page” rather than embedded. For example, JavaScript-dependent content can’t be indexed. If the content is not in the page’s raw HTML as served up by the server itself, that phantom content won’t accrue SEO benefits to your page.
  • If you have dynamic content or links that are accessed via JavaScript, provide an alternative HTML structure just for search engines that allows them to find your content without executing JavaScript.

Build for measurement

As you know, SEO is an ongoing activity, and you need to be able to track how you’re doing and to make improvements where necessary. To get basic reporting, add analytics to your site:

  • Properly install Google analytics and/or another analytics package on the site and its pages.
  • Set up goals in Google Analytics, based on your business needs and site design. You might want to measure, for instance, how many sign-ups happened on forms and to track the paths the users followed before completing that action. Goals help you do this.
  • If you’re redesigning an existing website, gather any baseline data from previous versions of the site, for comparison purposes.
  • Make sure assets on subdomains or folders use the same analytics code, so you can trace traffic from them.
  • Set up regular reports that you can analyze at least quarterly.

Put the user and content first

SEO is important, but all of Google’s and Bing’s search algorithms are designed to surface the right content at the right time. That means that, first and foremost, you need to provide good content on specific topics. Most of us can’t sacrifice usability for SEO:

  • Include pages that cover specific topics and questions that your target customers will search for, within contexts relevant to your business goals. For example, if your customers will be asking “How do I?” questions for which your product or service is a solution, add pages for those questions.
  • Write helpful content, and write it well. The search engines penalize pages with typos and poor grammar. Guess what? So do users.
  • Make sure the structure supports copious cross-site links. Cross-links (links between pages on your site) are good for SEO and, when chosen well, they also support the readers’ search for additional or related information.
  • Design the site for regular—preferably frequent—content updates. The search engines credit websites that are kept up-to-date. When you update your website with current content, you also increase the chances that people searching for the latest info will come to you.
  • Provide and share content that others want to link to. This gets to the backlink issue. Ideally, you want pages on your website that provide information or entertainment valuable enough that other authoritative websites or bloggers link to them. That will greatly help your ranking.
  • Practice good, audience-focused writing techniques. Write for your audience, using the terms they understand. If you’re doing that right, your pages have a better chance of appearing when the right keywords are searched. If you need some help, you can also use Google’s tools to research keywords for your industry.

To achieve high SEO, there is a lot required on the content side of the equation. Build that content on a solid foundation using these basic steps and watch as, over time, your site gains authority and improved ranking in search.

Picture Frame

Creating engaging content remains one of the biggest challenges for content marketers. Although quality writing is certainly key, you really need to start by picking the right topic. If you want to create content that interests and captures the attention of your customers—and benefits your business—look for the intersection between your products/services and customer queries.

Most marketers tend to write about their company, products, or services. That’s because, as a marketer, you want content that helps your business. You aren’t writing for fun.

It’s true that you might be able to draw tons of readers by writing about the hottest celebrities, but if you provide plumbing services or business intelligence tools, your posts about Justin Bieber probably aren’t going to get you sales.

The key is not to write about your business (most of the time, anyway). Instead, write about topics related to your business—topics that interest your clients and highlight your expertise.

Assuming that your content marketing efforts are focused on lead generation, moving potential customers toward a purchase, and supporting existing customers, identify topics by listing your company’s products and services. I find it easiest to list them in a matrix and then brainstorm from there.

Content Marketing Topics Table 1

Phases of the Customer Journey

Next, consider the phases that a customer goes through on the journey toward a purchase. (Some are more relevant than others for your customers, and you can add any that are specific to your business.)

  • Awareness of a problem, need, or opportunity. The customer realizes that she has a problem or an opportunity. Or maybe you need to help her realize that fact.
  • The search for a solution. The customer wants a solution to the problem or a way to take advantage of the opportunity, and he starts looking into the possibilities.
  • Comparison. The customer becomes aware that there are multiple products, companies, and solutions, and he is deciding which one to pick and why.
  • Validation. Your product, company, or service is a leading candidate in the customer’s mind, and she needs to validate that you are a good choice (and to be sure that there aren’t any showstoppers). In some cases, this happens before the customer actually makes a purchase. In others, it’s the final step before he contacts you to get a bid or to begin more formal, in-person discussions.

Add these phases as columns for your matrix.

Content Marketing Topics Table 2

Continuing the journey with customer-focused questions

Now, ask customer-focused questions to help fill in the table. This is where it gets tough. It’s why we often use personas at this stage and why people hire consultants to advise them. The trick is to try to forget the kind of business you are in and your specific role. Instead, put yourself in the customers’ shoes and ask, “What problem does my product or service solve?” “What need does it serve?” or “What opportunity can it offer?”

Then, for each product/service and each phase in the matrix, ask:

  • What triggers the customer to begin this phase? For example, which situations cause him to become aware that he has a problem or to begin actively searching for a solution?
  • What questions does the customer have about the problem, need, or potential solution at this stage? For example, if your product is a marketing automation tool, in the search phase, what questions do users typically have about the capabilities of automation tools?
  • What information might the customer be seeking, about both the problem and the solution, at this stage? What data do they want to see?
  • Who else is involved in the decision, and what information do they need? If your services or products are travel-related, who else might your target customers consult with or have to make arrangements with? If yours is a business-to-business (B2B) company, does the purchase require IT or management approval? What would these people need to know?
  • What information might help the customer to move from here to the next phase? Ultimately, you hope this lead will move on to the next phase. What information or tools can you provide to help them do that?

Content Marketing Topics Table 3

Paving the way with adjacent topics

Lastly, for lead generation, it’s also helpful to ask yourself, “What topics are related to my products and services which are also of interest to my target audience?” Take this blog post, for example. The service I’m focused on is “content marketing strategy,” which Resources Online provides. But I’ve identified adjacent topics of interest to content marketers, such as writing engaging content, creating good headlines, strategies for sharing content, and others. All of these topics are related to content strategy and are important to the audience I’m trying to attract.

Knowing my audience, I could even go broader. Content marketers often are “marketers” who have added content marketing to the mix. So any topic about marketing stands a good chance of attracting these folks (or those considering the profession) and would be fair game for me.

Add the adjacent topics to your matrix, with the product they pertain to. You can merge the phase cells for each row and use that space to include any additional information for the topic.

Content Marketing Topics Table 4

This matrix approach can really kick-start your list of topics to write about. Next, take the list and look at it from an authoring perspective and a search engine optimization (SEO) point of view, to identify themes and keywords. This allows you to build content pillars with subtopics, along with the queries and keywords to focus on. From there, you can plan out a full editorial calendar. You may even be able to write about Justin Bieber after all.

Customer Journey Processes

You’ve done thorough research on your customers and invested considerable time and money to design a great customer-facing website and apps. You’re generating leads. But now what? Are your leads dropping into a black hole? Or maybe your marketing automation system nurtures them, but you have no idea how your customers fare after they purchase the product.

More and more companies are interested in taking a holistic view of the customer journey, because doing so can pay off in greater conversions and repeat customers. But supporting the customer journey requires back-end systems and processes that enable effective gathering, updating, and sharing of customer information to track the client through the entire journey.

To accurately do so—and to apply the information to improve your bottom line—you need to use the same methods for your internal systems as you do for your customer-facing systems. That is, you should conduct thorough research and apply user-experience (UX) principles to the design.

You may find that doing your internal design is actually more complicated than designing your website or customer-facing applications. It involves multiple departments, each with different goals and processes, and often with different systems of record. So, here’s a basic process you can follow:

Identify the corporate customer touchpoints, and involve the department stakeholders

Start with an assessment of the customer touchpoints—the customer’s intersection with different departments. You should be able to map the customer journey and identify each point where someone from your company interacts with the customer, either virtually or in person. That includes everything from emails sent by marketing automation systems to user registration of a product to customer service feedback. Use this process to create a customer journey map with departments identified at each relevant stage.

Based on that analysis, you’ll know which teams you should involve in your design project. Consider any team whose work affects prospects, is involved in sales, or supports customers after they have purchased. Get at least one representative from each team to participate in the project. As with any project, you need knowledgeable representatives who can speak for their team and who see value in the outcome of this process.

Determine goals

A critical component of user-centered design is identification of each audience and its goals. For the purposes of your internal UX project, consider each department as a separate audience and assess the goals of each one. You’ll want to look at the goals the department has for its work with customers, in addition to the goals the department has as an entity.

For example, when it comes to customers, support may be focused on satisfactorily addressing customer questions in a timely manner. As a department, though, it may also have a goal of reducing the cost per incident. It’s important to consider both when designing solutions.

When you complete this step, you should have a list of customer and department goals for every department or team that interacts with the customer. You can combine this information with your journey map to show the goals of each department by customer stage and touchpoint.

Focus on the customer information

Because you are trying to improve the tracking and exchange of information about customers, focus now on that information. For each touchpoint, identify:

  • Input: What information does the team have or gather about the customer?
  • Use: What does the team do with the information? How is it used by this department?
  • Output: Where does the information go and how is it used by other teams?

Keep in mind the goals you listed. As you assess the information flow, ask yourself what information the team could use that it doesn’t currently have access to. Also consider what information other teams could use that this team is gathering or could gather at this stage in the customer journey. This can reveal additional opportunities to better support your clients or to meet internal needs.

Assess the current systems and tools for storing customer information

Now, look for gaps and integration opportunities. Where is information not being passed? Where do you need to integrate systems to exchange information? Where can you make process improvements to better support the customer?

Don’t forget departmental goals as you do this assessment. Some improvements may not benefit the customer but will help improve internal business outcomes.

With the information you’ve gathered, you should be able to create a diagram showing a complete picture of the customer journey and the internal supports for it. Your map can include all the data you’ve gathered about the inputs, uses, and outputs of customer information at each stage and by each department. On your map, make note of the different tools and databases that store and manipulate information at each stage. Your map will then show the gaps where information isn’t being exchanged or used effectively because of disparate systems.

Using your map, you can develop a plan to standardize or integrate the different systems. Of course, your ideal solution may be one centralized tool that all departments can use. That’s often not feasible, though. More likely, you’ll make targeted improvements to integrate specific applications and databases so that they can exchange key information.

Design your systems like you’d design your website

If your solution involves building new applications or intranets, consider spending the extra time and money to do a good design for those tools. Just as customers are more likely to use your website if it’s well designed, employees are more likely to use internal applications that are well designed.

Treating your internal tools project like a customer-facing project does require more time and more money. In the long run, though, a good, user-centered design approach can definitely pay off.