Letting go is sometimes the hardest part of content marketing.
If you’ve ever founded a company, been a CMO or helped build a brand, you know the feeling. You’ve devoted so much time, energy and creativity to animating the brand you’re bringing to market. You’ve outlined the values your company represents, you’ve created a founding narrative that connects with people, you’ve made an unassailable case for how your product is going to revolutionize the lives of its users.
You’re seeing the big picture as clearly as anyone possibly can.
Then, some content marketer comes along and says: “Let’s do a series on industry trends. This will help contextualize your product for potential users and introduce it to a much wider audience.”
The pitch lands with a dull thud. It’s one of the most mundane things you’ve ever heard. “Industry trends?” you think to yourself. “Can’t they see what we’re building here?”
There is a disconnect, but it’s not a misunderstanding about what you’re building or an underestimation of your passion. Rather, the disconnect comes from the fact that content marketers owe a primary duty to your audience, the people who would buy from, cheer for or otherwise be interested in your company.
It is important to honor a founder’s passion for their business — and for us to channel that energy into the content we write — but ultimately content marketers are hired to serve a brand’s audience. Once your company sets down the path of growth and user acquisition, your brand must yield to the practical, everyday needs of your audience.
Don’t worry. All that careful brand-building will bear fruit at a later point in your audience relationships. For now, though, you need to have conversations about the things they care about on their terms. That’s what I mean by “letting go.”
Content Has Two Very Narrow Goals
Content either informs or entertains people. In B2B verticals, the goal should be to arm people with knowledge that will help them do their jobs better and achieve their ambitions. That’s it.
This rule applies whether you’re targeting Jeff Bezos, lifestyle entrepreneurs or entry-level specialists at Deloitte. People in a B2B audience have a bunch of work stuff they need to get done, and they only want to hear from companies that can help them with that list of responsibilities.
So, show them how to get their work done more quickly. Show them how to impress their bosses. Show them how to land more paying clients.
If you’ve built a product that can do any of these things, then you can speak to these goals from a position of authority. Do that often and do it well, and you can earn the trust of your audience. Earn their trust, and you can start to tell brand stories.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. At this stage, your brand is merely a promise that you know how to help someone achieve their goals at work. That promise is why they’re reading your content. They’re not ready to cheer your Series B round or watch your behind-the-scenes Instagram Stories yet. Their practical needs are still driving your relationship with them.
An Engaging Content Campaign Puts Your Business in Context
The content marketer’s job is to understand what those needs are and to find compelling, helpful ways to speak to those needs. That’s why we like to talk about things like contextualizing your product within a broader set of industry trends. We need to baby-step potential customers up to the big picture you’re seeing.
Internally, our team talks about “onboarding,” and as overused as that metaphor is, it’s pretty apt here. We ourselves have to get on board with a client’s mission before we can walk audiences up to that big picture. This requires research, and lots of it.
Here’s the skeleton outline of our onboarding process:
- Discovery. We talk to the client about their company’s mission, their business model and whom they intend to sell to. The mission and the business model inform our approach somewhat, but mostly we focus on what kind of customers the company wants to reach.
- Mapping. We explore the world in which an audience’s needs live. This includes what their jobs are, what challenges they face, what companies are already speaking to them, what publications these people are reading, what people have influence in that space and what competitors are doing to get their attention.
- Keyword research. We look at the keywords the client wants to compete for, what other keywords are available and what opportunities we can seize to drive organic traffic.
- Topic generation. The research goes to our team, and we spend several hours researching and pitching topics that speak to the audience’s needs. Keywords might factor into this process, but our team mostly focuses on entering into conversations where there are plenty of influencers we can connect and network with.
- Content strategy. Finally, we curate this list of topics, identify some of the best influencers, and sketch out some themes that we can speak to week after week. We then present this information to the client as the framework for an editorial calendar.
By the time we actually start writing, then, we will have mapped out the relevant universe for a client’s audience. We will know what issues they care about, which of those issues dovetail with the client’s product or services, and what influencers we need to connect with to get content distributed to the farthest reaches of the audience’s universe.
It’s within this context that we try to create helpful and engaging content.
What a Strategic Content Campaign Looks Like
Plenty of companies are finding ways to turn their brands’ promises into helpful content. Below are a couple of examples of companies understand the value their products create, and they translate that value into tactical advice that resonates with their target audience.
Full disclosure: These examples came from me opening Product Hunt, selecting a “Best of 2018” list and clicking through the websites of the B2B products. Not deeply scientific, but my methodology did provide a nice snapshot of how scattershot startup marketing can be, even in B2B verticals.
Companies use Slab to create employee manuals, internal onboarding documents, style guides and any other repositories of information that team members would need access to. Users can edit the documents in real time, and there are tons of integrations for speedy workflows.
Who would want a product like this? Executives at growing companies whose needs for internal documentation have outgrown what Google Docs can handle.
In recent months, Slab has begun to address that audience with a series of blog posts about CEOs, their styles of communications and how they build internal cultures. This piece about Intel cofounder and former CEO Andy Grove is a great example from that series.
With this strategy, Slab is trying to lead conversations about how CEOs can guide their companies through early phases of maturity. Those phases coincide pretty nicely with when an organization would start investing in software like Slab, so the strategy is solid.
Notice, though, that the blog post doesn’t contain overt marketing messages about the product. The content simply seeks to provide executives with a role model for fostering company cultures.
Older blog posts mostly seemed to cover company news and product updates — useful, but not content that speaks to Slab’s audience. This CEO Writing series indicates to me that the company has turned an important corner with its content, and Slab’s marketing team should consider doing weekly content that speaks to this executive-level audience.
Atrium is essentially a law firm with a SaaS aesthetic. The company provides legal help to startups, and machine learning is used to inform that advice, so the company must be designed for scale.
As with Slab above, the natural audience for Atrium’s content would be founders and executives, though for companies at an earlier stage of growth. That means Atrium’s content needs to speak to the challenges, legal or otherwise, inherent at these early stages of a startup’s growth.
Atrium’s team does this well, too. It’s clear the company invests heavily in content. Case in point: The company invites big-name CEOs into the office for fireside chats. Reddit cofounder and CEO Steve Huffman recently stopped by to talk fundraising, and the content team summarized the event in a blog post.
Further, the company’s executives are publishing their own thoughts about early-growth issues such as bridging the gaps between sales and legal teams and dealing with the emotional challenges of being a startup founder.
Again, no explicit sales pitches or marketing messages. The content is merely seeking the attention of startup founders. From there, the content funnel can offer further advice, nurture audience relationships and shepherd the most engaged members of that audience toward lead qualification.
Your Brand’s Role in a Strategic, Engaging Content Campaign
Notice how Slab and Atrium stick to their brand messages, even when they’re telling the stories of CEOs at other companies.
Slab’s brand is a little heady and cognitive. This gives the company room to talk about things like Stoic philosophies, which ostensibly have nothing to do with creating internal documents — but everything to do with being the kind of leader who thinks about internal knowledge management.
Or take Atrium’s promise of being a better law firm. Talking to Steve Huffman about fundraising has nothing to do with legal advice — but everything to do with tearing down the stodgy, stuffed-shirt connotations that we associate with the words “law firm.”
That’s how the relationship between your brand and your content works. Your brand makes a promise about what your company is and what your people stand for. Your content creates little opportunities to make good on that promise — even when doing so appears tangential to goals like user acquisition or revenue growth.
Companies that embrace this brand-content dynamic position themselves to reach more relevant audiences and earn those audiences’ trust.