The future of b2b marketing online is open to interpretation, but there are a number of trends that are affecting how b2b businesses communicate online in 2017.
Growth in the amount of content and noise online continues to accelerate, there’s a bit of consolidation around major platforms (e.g. the big guns in social media), although the sheer volume of users means that even fringe platforms are important, and value continues to placed on really good quality pieces of individual content by Google and in the way that they go viral.
Businesses have also had to grapple with ensuring their sites are mobile-friendly and have a secure certificate in order to keep up with Google’s latest requirements. There is also the emerging threat or opportunity (depending on your viewpoint) that artificial intelligence might bring to the industry.
Charting a course through the choppy waters of online promotion in the midst of all these changes is difficult for business owners and marketers with so much else to do. But from time to time it pays to take a step back and re-evaluate your entire approach to b2b marketing on the modern web, in order to get a firm understanding of how to iterate your way to success.
The power of b2b content strategy
Content strategy is the name given to an array of tools, processes and approaches that govern how to create and publish content online. Think of it as a clear explanation of where you want to take your business online, and how to use that information to make better and faster decisions on marketing and communication activities.
Content strategy might be something you’ve never had to think about before in-depth. You’re not alone in that.
At some point during those hard (and good?) old days bringing the business from zero to one, you needed to start telling the world about what you were offering. This meant putting together a simple website and few social media accounts perhaps – maybe even a blog.
Over time, as you added new products or services, got better at explaining what you did, built a track record of success and a collection of information and resources to use for communicating to your market, the volume of online content you had put out there grew.
You also incorporated new online channels that all needed to be fed with content – maybe you started selling products on retailer websites or opened new social media accounts. From time to time big strategic changes also affected your online communication. M&A activity, pivots to new markets and maybe some serious failures or mistakes all have changed your online material.
Today you’re sat with a wealth of online resources and content that are organized in different ways and for different purposes. It is the job of content strategy to make sense of all of this, and create a more efficient and valuable approach to communicating online.
Good content strategy processes will help you to:
- Understand what content you have, where it came from, what it is for and who owns it,
- Develop a better content creation process to make everything more efficient,
- Better align communication across channels to make your online brand more cohesive, consistent and effective, and
- Manage all of the various moving parts of a modern business’ online promotion in order to scale professionally.
But content strategy alone isn’t enough. You also need to understand the set of processes, techniques and opportunities that go into faster and more reactive communication and marketing. For a strategy to work it needs to be deployed, and that deployment takes place in content marketing.
What is b2b content marketing?
The practice of content marketing is about creating something that is both valuable (i.e. worth consuming) and which serves a business purpose. If content strategy provides a clear explanation of where you’d like your business to go online, then content marketing is the practice of trying to get there – using flexible media to try and make the most of opportunities on potentially very short timescales.
Content marketing in a b2b setting is a little different than in b2c simply due to the education level of the audience. Chances are you are targeting decision makers in a few segments of the industry, and these people will have a certain background knowledge – so you need to be sure that content is pitched at the right level.
A simple example of b2b content marketing is creating a blog post based on a very topical news story in your industry and then relating this to your company in some way. That’s the sort of tactic that many companies employ and can see some success with.
Social media marketing is also a form of content marketing as you are essentially creating material that is useful or entertaining, but is also serving the dual purpose of raising the profile of and increasing exposure for your business. I’m sure these concepts aren’t new to you, and that you’ve come across plenty of more specific content marketing trends in 2017 that affect your promotion.
To improve b2b marketing online effectively and efficiently however we need to employ both content marketing and content strategy together in order to achieve the most success as efficiently as possible.
B2B content strategy + content marketing
The success of content marketing in promoting a b2b business comes down to how good the content is and how well it can be promoted to target audiences. Both of these practices can be enhanced through good content strategy, let’s break this down:
Creating great content
There are certain principles that need to be applied in order to create the best possible content for any given channel or medium. Text should concise, scannable and objective in nature, pictures should be clear and in focus, videos shouldn’t be jittery or have poor audio – there’s enough to discuss in all of these issues for another 1000 blog posts!
However, the biggest decision to make, the decision that will have the biggest bearing on the success of any individual piece of content, is what is it about? The topic and purpose have to come first – whether for a 29-part blog post series or a 35 second live video.
Making that decision absolutely relies on content strategy. The strategic goals and approach of your online promotion will help make a faster, easier and clearer decision on the topic of any piece of content, as well as inform what channel it should primarily be published on and what action it is trying to get the audience to take.
Only be clearly understanding what identity your business is trying to portray online, and what value you are seeking to add to the people following you, will you be able to create good content that is strategically useful in your marketing.
Promoting content well
As mentioned, the decision of which channel to publish content on is led by the strategy that the business has in place, and it’s a crucial part of successful content marketing.
Distributing content goes further than this however – there are a whole range of techniques available to try and get the right people, at the right time, to consume any piece of content; from the long-term effort of value-added SEO to manually emailing potentially interested parties.
Picking the right combination of distribution tactics, for any channel, is also heavily informed by your content strategy.
For example, if your plan is to target 100 key decision-makers at 8-figure market cap tech businesses based on the East Coast, then sharing several optimized pictures to a network of Pinterest boards probably isn’t going to cut it. Perhaps try emailing a detailed Medium post, which links to a white paper, directly to those in your target market that you already know.
See how a clear strategy can help you make much better decisions on content marketing practices? And how this up-front thinking can make your marketing work more efficient?
A match made in content heaven
Hopefully you’re now convinced that content marketing and content strategy go hand-in-hand. The terms are so often confused, and this is understandable as they overlap significantly – but think about them in terms of what decisions they help you to make and you won’t go far wrong.
Of course, you might one day be asked to produce a content marketing strategy – which seems like it would just confuse things further, but wait! It isn’t as difficult a concept as it sounds.
For b2b purposes, a content marketing strategy will simply be an extension of the overall content strategy – review how you describe your business’ online promotion goals and purpose (i.e. who you are serving, what you are helping them with online, what do you aim to get in return and who you want be known as online) and formulate a way of applying that to the content marketing.
The difference between the two approaches is essentially the fact that content marketing is much faster and more reactive – but the strategy that underpins that faster action needs to be aligned with the overall strategy of the business online.
For most small b2b companies the content strategy will define how the ‘static’ website operates (e.g. the product pages, company ‘about us’ information and similar material) whereas the content marketing deals with the ‘dynamic’ channels (the company blog, news section and social media accounts). That’s an over-simplification but it’s a useful rule of thumb to get a basic understanding of how the two approaches work together.
When you look at some of the standard practices of content strategy, it is easy to see how their results can be employed in content marketing initiatives, for example:
- Building audience profiles – an informed description of the exact target audience that you are trying to communicate to on your website will make it far easier to write blog posts for that audience,
- Managing content assets – an organized and accessible inventory of documents, reports, images, videos and other content assets will enable content creators to more easily use them in content marketing campaigns.
- Company SEO strategy – the set of keywords and phrases that your business is trying to build targeted traffic for online will absolutely help in the development of better content marketing. Content will need to use those keywords and discuss the same topics. The keywords can also be used in links and tags to help build the overall context of the site.
But it works both ways too. Insights and data collected during content marketing campaigns can also inform content strategy; giving you new ideas for static content or different approaches to communicating with your audience based on actually engaging with them.
For example, if you published a new piece of content on LinkedIn and managed to receive a number of comments from qualified people in the audience all referring to your service using a particular term, which you don’t use, it might be a good idea to review your own descriptions. You might want to update the static pages on your site, company brochures, and SEO strategy to start with.
This is a simple example but hopefully you’ve spotted the obvious requirement for it to work – in order for lessons learned during content marketing to be able to improve content strategy, you need to actually have a content strategy (ideally written down) in the first place!
There’s no good telling writers or marketers to ‘keep something in mind’ – that’s not what the pros do; that won’t cut it in 2017. An explicit, commonly understood set of strategic principles, even if they only cover your customer engagement at a very high level, is much easier to deploy against than a nebulous, general approach.
We’ll discuss all of this in more detail in future posts but for now, the take home message is that better online b2b marketing in 2017 and beyond will fundamentally rely on content strategy and content marketing working hand in hand – best of luck combining the two disciplines!
Also published on Medium.