One of marketing’s great insights over the last 20 years is that the act of buying something is best described as a journey.
Instead of thinking of a purchase as a single transaction, we now think about all the active research a customer performs, and all the touchpoints a company makes with that customer to inform their research.
So, how do customers educate themselves about their buying decisions? With content. Every stage of your sales funnel — or what your customers experience as a buyer’s journey — requires its own content to help customers move from need awareness all the way to purchase decision and beyond.
The problem? Synchronizing content for your sales funnel requires marketing and sales to work in lockstep, and achieving that kind of alignment takes dedicated effort across your company. As a result, many companies’ content marketing efforts fail to generate qualified leads or support sales efforts.
Most of the mistakes we see companies make with their content marketing fall into one of four categories:
Joe Pulizzi at the Content Marketing Institute reports that just more than a quarter of B2B enterprise marketers’ organizations have clear definitions for effective content marketing programs.
“Just because we can publish, doesn’t mean we should,” he writes. “It’s clear that most enterprises around the world just started publishing in multiple channels because they can, without any clear indication of the organizational goals behind it. This is one of those times when we really need to stop and look at what we are really producing … and why.”
Carlos Hidalgo, CEO of demand generation company ANNUITAS, Inc., argues this directionless publishing does more than simply waste the time of marketing departments. Cumulatively, it creates a wall of noise that repels people.
“Before we begin the next content initiative, can we pause for a moment and do some work to collect insights on those with whom we are trying to attract?” he writes at LinkedIn. “Can we find out what matters to them, what pain points and challenges they have, who they collaborate with internally and the roles they play? Can we work to understand their content consumption preferences and patterns?
“If we do, we will reap the rewards of greater success and content marketers can start to measure real results.”
Debra Andrews at Marketri points out that inbound marketers often get too hung up on top-of-the-funnel activities because of the easy gratification that comes with, say, watching an infographic go viral. Consequently, they continue to chase these wins and lose sight of the bigger picture.
“Unfortunately, more often than not, these ‘leads’ hang out at the top or inch their way into the middle where they relax, put their feet up — and settle in,” Andrews says. “Many sales teams — even those starving for fresh leads — never get access to contacts ‘stuck’ in the funnel unless those contacts happen to call or fill out a contact form, two actions we know are not the norm.
“When leads are passed to sales, inbound marketers often believe their jobs are done. But they are leaving sales closers without the necessary support and materials to drive movement to the bottom of the funnel and on to the closing table.”
Producing truly useful content takes time; there is no getting around this. But so often marketers fail to marshal the resources needed (time, money, effort, all of the above) to create this kind of content.
Case in point: eMarketer reports on a study that found while B2B marketers cite white papers and webinars as the two most effective types of content for generating leads. However, nearly 75% of B2B marketers report that they struggle to create this kind of content — and many end up cutting corners with the very content that can determine a campaign’s success.
The counterpoint to top-heavy funnels is the executive who sees all content as an opportunity to make a sales pitch, which will land with a dull thud with buyers who are simply doing research. Content strategist Ayaz Nanji cites research from the Economist Group and peppercomm that shows the pervasiveness of this disconnect in B2B markets:
“Some 75% of executives [buyers] say their primary purpose for seeking out content is to find ideas, the survey found,” Nanji reports. “However, 93% of marketers say the intent of their content is to directly promote products/services.”
Marketing and sales activities together account for anywhere from 15% to 35% of any company’s total costs, Ben Davis at Econsultancy reports. Getting those into alignment creates efficiencies that alone justify the effort.
But there is also a solid, customer-centric argument to be made here. “The customer has never seen their own path to purchase as a funnel, nor do they want to be clunkily handed from one department to another,” he writes.
“Improving the customer path to purchase is common to every model of digital transformation, whether it be customer focused, technology focused or organisation focused. The fact that so much of the research phase for customers now occurs online means the remit of marketing draws ever closer to the moment a customer decides to buy.”
To get these two departments to fuse in your own organization, start by identifying your ideal customer, writes Bill Schick, founder of content marketing agency Mesh. Once both teams identify whom they should be speaking to, they can begin to create buyer personas.
“In developing truly adaptive buyer personas collaboratively, both groups will have stake — and buy in — with the engagement from the get go,” he says. “As sales has more meetings and learns more about how to interact and educate the customer, marketing can develop insights, educational tools, and develop marketing channels that support lead generation and customer education. This can all become a feedback loop that further elaborates on your personas, making your marketing, sales and customer insight programs more successful.”
Even in the most esoteric B2B markets, you can create short-form content and even Buzzfeed-style list posts, Steve Rayson at Buzzsumo writes. “Short form content is inherently shareable,” he says. “One opportunity may be to repurpose your longer form content, or other long form content, and produce well edited, focused, short form content with charts and images.”
Rayson then recommends mixing in deeper long-form pieces to serve as cornerstone content that speaks to audiences that are already a little more engaged.
All you’re trying to do at this stage is to create value by being informative and helpful. Don’t apply any pressure here, even by gating the content with an opt-in form. “For top of funnel audiences at least, a data capture form WILL inhibit the success of an integrated campaign,” communications consultant Armand David says. “Data capture forms and landing pages are the mainstay of traditional field marketing; however, with 50%+ of browsing happening via a mobile, few people have time or inclination to tap in the 7–12 information fields required by a typical data capture form.”
“Mid-funnel content bridges this gap between initial intrigue and the final sale,” Contently Marketing Editor Erin Nelson says. “It is the beef of the conversion funnel that holds together its outer compadres.”
In B2B markets, she writes, this kind of content needs to nurture relationships with prospects. Examples include newsletters, ebooks, fact sheets, case studies, webinars and white papers.
B2B content strategist Jeffrey L. Cohen recently wrote about a nurture campaign he was putting together built around short, informative pieces. “These are meant to educate our readers about the ideas behind our products,” he wrote. “They are not about our products. It is the type of content that prospects might seek out in their journey, but we know about their interests, and we can feed that.
“These content pieces will not appear on our blog. They won’t be shared on our social channels. They are for this specific nurture.”
The bottom of your content funnel will speak directly to leads who are ready to buy. This kind of content needs to be highly targeted and highly relevant, PointDrive CEO Bill Burnett writes.
“Ultimately, the buying decision hinges on one question: Which product is a better fit for the constellation of business needs buyers are dealing with? The right piece of content can help a company envision your product or service as that solution.”
Here are five examples of content you can offer to leads who have made it to the home stretch of the buyer journey: