Ultimately, one of the primary goals of content marketing is to attract more business, which for most organizations will translate as more sales. This goal is where content marketing and PR part ways, though the two activities share a great deal of overlap.
Whether an organization has a dedicated sales team ready to pick up the phone or simply an ecommerce storefront, content marketing can influence, shape and reinforce the sales process.
Below are tips and insights from 14 experts on how content marketing can support direct sales.
Content and the Sales Funnel
Jason Clegg at Convert With Content nails how sales funnels work, and how content can work at the various stages of the sales funnel.
First, for anyone unfamiliar with the sales funnel concept, Clegg explains it this way:
“A sales funnel is a marketing system. It’s the ‘ideal’ process you intend your customers to experience as they go from prospect to lead to customer to repeat buyer.”
We call them “funnels” because they’re wide at the top (you have more prospects than customers by an order of magnitude), narrow at the bottom, and help organizations avoid spilling / losing potential customers.
As someone graduates downward along the funnel from prospect — from prospect to lead, or from lead to customer, etc. — his or her needs change. A lead will need different information than a prospect because a lead is closer to making a buying decision.
Clegg argues that content can reinforce these information needs along the funnel:
- Blogging and other “public content” can attract site visitors, who would be prospects at the top of the funnel.
- A few of those prospects might be willing to exchange an email address or other medium of contact in exchange for a free report, a white paper or perhaps some kind of exclusive video.
- For those prospects who become customers, you can periodically keep in touch with something like a newsletter to strengthen your relationship, turning many customers into repeat buyers.
Dave Chaffey at marketing intelligence company Smart Insights introduces a specific framework called RACE (“reach > act > convert > engage”) that offers examples of how to market content at each stage of the sales funnel.
Hang on to Smart Insight’s RACE infographic for future reference as you build up a content strategy around your sales funnel.
Understanding Customer Journeys
Customer journeys are useful models for understanding how a customer navigates all of the points of contact he/she makes with your company; they offer a layer of insight on top of the sales and content funnel, which models what happens as someone progresses from prospect to customer.
The Salesforce blog has had some valuable discussions about customer journeys in 2015 so far. It makes a great starting point for understanding the concept and figuring out how to implement it.
“By creating content assets with the buyer’s journey in mind, implementing a clearly defined lead management process, scoring and nurturing leads, and analyzing lead behavior, fast-growing sales teams are equipped with the knowledge and information needed to effectively convert leads to customers,” writes Fergal Glynn, the VP of Marketing at Docurated.
“Strategic content management aligned with the buyer’s journey provides a more personal experience for every prospect that engages with your organization, prepping the sale with the exceptional experiences that drive sales for modern organizations.”
The variety of outlets, platforms and technologies accessible to consumers today create a whole spectrum of touchpoints that need to be brought together into a cohesive experience, Salesforce CMO Lynn Vojvodich writes.
“Every email, website visit, or mobile app tap is an opportunity to deliver value in context and to tailor interactions to individual customers,” she says. “It’s about creating moments of delight and moving your customers forward in their journey.
And don’t mistake “journey” for empty marketing speak; an excellent way to weave together a customer’s journey is through storytelling.
“Most organizations are reasonably good at gathering data on their users,” digital strategist Paul Boag writes at Smashing Magazine. “But data often fails to communicate the frustrations and experiences of customers. A story can do that, and one of the best storytelling tools in business is the customer journey map.”
If you need a primer on how to tell better customer-centric stories, check out our post “The Marketing Hero’s Journey.”
Consumers Use Tablets, Phones and PCs at Different Stages of Their Journeys
As more web users migrate to mobile platforms — and as people in developing markets increasingly emerge as mobile-natives — it has become important to understand on which platform you connect with a prospect.
Because it does make a difference.
imgZine’s Kelly Verdonk has a fascinating post about how customer journeys hop around on devices, and this data can inform your own content marketing.
Smartphones are used more at the beginning and at the end of the customer journey.
“Consumers use their smartphone as an exploratory and service-oriented channel rather than a purchasing channel,” Verdonk writes.
“Tablets are being used more to inform and to inspire. A tablet could be seen as an online showroom, in which consumers are inspired and get information on products of services, while feeling comfortable at home.
“In the orienting, informative and purchasing phases, consumers mainly use their desktop. However, both desktops and tablets are being used in the orienting phase. Tablets are preferred in the informative phase and desktops in the purchase phase.”
This means that content not only needs to align its format and its message with a certain stage of the sales funnel, it also needs to account for the device from which it is accessed.
Capturing Organic Traffic
At the very top of the sales funnel, prospects begin to get an idea as to what your business offers and whether that aligns with any problems or pain points they’re currently aware of.
Organic web traffic — or users who find you by searching keywords in a search engine such as Google — includes those individuals who have already identified to some degree that they are in need of a solution to a problem.
“In many cases, the buying cycle begins before your potential customer even knows that a solution to their problem even exists,” Brad Miller writes at Search Engine Watch. They are simply researching the problem itself.”
Content appropriate for this stage of the sales funnel — often blog posts — can thus be structured to help people solve the problems they query.
“The research they will be doing, and the keywords they use to search, will be focused around identifying exactly what problem they are currently facing, not a solution at this stage,” Miller writes. “For most companies, this involves taking a step back. What’s the problem that you or your products solve?”
You will end up casting a wide net with your content at this stage, and only a sliver of people who find you via search will graduate to becoming leads, but targeting keywords is a great way to reach a market of people who have a problem they want solved.
Keyword-optimized content is crucial for getting the right people into the top of your sales funnel.
Maintaining Relevance for the Potential Customer
Gerry Moran at MarketingThink.com argues that content can then move prospects to leads and leads to customers even faster along the sales funnel. The key is to ensure that the content is relevant to the person viewing it.
“For instance, if the marketing team was close to closing key deals around cloud-based point of sales solutions, then content could be created in a format (e.g., infographic) to resonate in watering holes,” Moran writes.
“Unfortunately, many companies have not adopted an end-to-end content model to take advantage of these targeted opportunities. And, just loading up Twitter with a selection of branded Tweets won’t work either. Neither will blog posts placed on company-owned sites since they need to be amplified in addition to being posted.”
In this model of inbound content marketing, the potential customer holds all the cards and can opt anytime he/she wants. But if you can continue to deliver relevant, resonant content, your lead will be more likely to say, “OK, tell me more.”
Sometimes, Content Simply Informs Customers
When your lead says, “Tell me more,” that is often a request for pure, hype-free information about the product or service you are selling. If you’re selling colas or t-shirts, raw product details might not be too important to a potential customer. But if you are selling something more complicated, the lead might need to read more about how your product works, or how exactly your service solves his/her problem.
Roger C. Parker at the Content Marketing Institute calls out two companies — Crutchfield Electronics and B&H Photo, Video & Pro Audio — as models for producing informational, customer-centric content.
Parker writes that both companies’ content strategies rely on creating a big, useful resource center, something like a blown-out FAQ.
“As a result, Crutchfield and B&H’s advantage is that their resource centers help them do an admirable job of serving their prospects’ and clients’ needs — sometimes even better than the content that’s provided by the vendors whose products they sell,” he says.
“For example, vendor-supplied brochures can be filled with arcane jargon and technical specifications that can quickly become outdated. In addition, vendor-supplied information can often be myopic and overly focused on comparisons with the competition (i.e., the copy highlights isolated areas of product superiority, rather than speaking directly to prospective buyers about their needs).”
By essentially restructuring the content you might expect in a user’s manual and making it easily digestible, B&H and Crutchfield add value for their customers, and this directly improves those companies’ bottom lines.
For even more sophisticated offers, or in B2B markets, another type of content that tends to resonate with leads is the case study.
“A case study guides customers as to how your product or service has helped your previous clients who’re associated with you,” developer Sandeep Sharma writes at JeffBullas.com.
“This makes your future customers understand your worth. To write a case study, you need to start with an overview of your client, explain briefly the challenges your client business was facing and how your service/product turned out to be helpful in overcoming those problems.”
Afterward, he notes, you can include a call to action — one that could invite the user to buy now or to speak with a member of the sales team.
“Engagement” can be a nebulous concept, but at its core the term simply refers to a company and its customers having deeper, more meaningful interactions. Not all businesses are engagement-worthy from a customer’s perspective, but those that are should harness that feature.
Ecommerce platform Shopify does a good job of honing in on how this is done on the company’s blog.
Shopify content manager Mark Macdonald has a helpful post in which he speaks with Beardbrand creator Eric Bandholz about allowing a business to pull back the curtain and reveal the actual humans behind the brand.
Bandholz found success with Beardbrand by rallying a market behind what an identity he dubbed “urban beardsmen.” Think Julian Edelman here. Bandholz was an active participant in the urban beardsman community from which his business grew.
“I really think one of the most important things is showing the person or people who are behind the store,” he told Macdonald. “Tell the story of why you are building the business and why people should purchase from you. You won’t ever be able to win on price; so build that personal presence.”
The content your business creates can reflect that brand and can forward that story. Admittedly, this is more art than science, but doing this well creates an opportunity to turn customers in repeat buyers and evangelists.
This kind of content in moderation can also move inventory, Shopify’s Dan Wang writes.
“Besides featuring your story, you could be featuring your products,” he says. “You are one of the worldwide experts on your products; you can describe how they’re made, where they’re from, and their special features. Bring out what’s interesting about them, and it’s more likely for your product to be sold.”
The Wide Bottom of the Funnel: Customer Retention
In an advertorial in The Guardian, Jonny Rose, the head of content for content-analysis company Idio, argues that content’s real strength is in building relationships with existing customers, making it easy for them to become repeat buyers.
“[G]ood content marketing builds a relationship with customers — primarily giving them a reason to return frequently to a brand environment (whether it be a website, social media community or email),” he writes.
“Take automotive companies — it’s usually three years until a new car owner considers buying again, so automotive marketers are faced with the conundrum of how to keep new buyers interested in the brand, without being overbearing.
“By publishing content regularly that empowers drivers (for example: ‘Ten automotive fairs near you’; ‘The most scenic routes in Britain’), auto brands can stay ‘front of mind,’ safe in the knowledge that encouraging recurring readership is a great way to encourage frequent touchpoints with their brand.”
Rose also points out that companies can gain valuable insights about their customers’ tastes, needs and interests by analyzing what content resonates. This offers companies an opportunity to upsell, especially among existing customers.
Difficulty Measuring Results
Admittedly, it is usually impossible to draw a straight line between content marketing efforts and sales; there are simply too many variables for most companies to calculate a sales-per-infographic-shared metric.
Around Christmas, the New York Times’ Ian Mount published an interesting piece that digs into this problem, citing a St. Louis brick-and-mortar business that moved operations online in 2008.
The company, Goedeker’s, saw an eight-fold increase in revenue between 2009 and 2013, Mount wrote, and in late 2013 the company brought in a pair of full-time content marketers to grow the business even more.
A year in, and owner Steve Goedeker admits that “patience and persistence” are still necessary on that front.
“[T]he company spends $100,000 to $150,000 a year on its content marketing efforts, according to Mr. Goedeker. He says the goal is for the company to get 80 percent of its online traffic and half of its online sales with its content marketing efforts. So far, sales generated this way have risen from 8 percent to 14 percent of the online total.”
“‘It’s been slow so far,’ Mr. Goedeker said. … ‘With a paid ad, you get a return on investment immediately. With content marketing, it takes a while for the search engines to recognize your value.’”