Today, if you’re not yet on board the content marketing train, you may get run over. It’s that simple. Your customers have changed and you need to adapt the way you’re marketing. If you continue to use the same old ways to communicate with them, you’ll be left in the dust.
Today’s B2B customers tend to ignore pushy messaging and salespeople. They prefer to do product and vendor research on their own, and don’t want to talk to a salesperson until they’re ready to make a purchase. They want to be educated, not sold to.
That’s why content marketing is so powerful today. It starts with a target audience’s needs, and aims to build relationships and trust by providing informative, helpful, useful content.
If you insist on maintaining the status quo, you do so at your own risk. Here’s what’s at stake if you do nothing:
1. Competitors will run you over. What if one of your major competitors launched a well-designed and well-executed content marketing strategy? Let’s say it does a marvelous job of answering the questions and meeting the informational needs of your mutual audience. They’ve become THE trusted source for information on your type of product or service. It will be much harder if not impossible for you to catch up with and surpass them.
2. Flat sales. Your customers have changed how they buy products – but you haven’t changed how you communicate with them. They’re learning to ignore your messages, which are typically all about you, not them. They don’t trust you as much as they once did, because you’re not focused on their needs like your competitor is. That means you sales will probably remain stagnant or slowly decline, as your competitor’s content initiative gains steam. The content marketing train has left the station – and you’re not on it.
3. Commoditization. Your products and services are in danger of becoming commodities because you’ve not the company influencing the way people think and feel in your niche. Becoming the industry expert to your target audience requires a lot of excellent content. But you’ve decided to abdicate that role. Your competitors have filled that void by providing high-quality knowledge and education to your mutual customers. Maybe that’s why prospective customers treat your products like a commodity.
4. Diminished customer loyalty. Like a magnet, customers and prospects tend to gravitate to those suppliers who do the best job of anticipating their information needs – before, during AND after the sale. Today’s customers want to be educated, not just sold to. If you treat them as a single transaction, you’ll miss the opportunity to build deep relationships with them and that will inevitably result with them tossing you on the trash heap.
5. You’ll become invisible. At the very least, your old-fashioned interruptive ads, emails and direct mail campaigns will teach your target audience to ignore you and your brand. At the worst, they will remove you from consideration for upcoming purchases. They may even actively avoid your brand. Once the damage has been done, it’s hard to reverse.
What you need to do now
Don’t panic. You need to create a content marketing strategy now and here are some ways to get started:
- Interview your sales people and key customers. Learn more about their needs, and the ways in which their buying process has evolved.
- Use the information you have gathered to map out the customer journey, from the time a prospect realizes he has a need until he makes a purchase.
- Use what you’ve learned to determine the types of content that are needed at each step of their journey to nurture them toward a sale.
Your focus should be to provide them with the right content, at the right time, in the formats they prefer. Good luck!
In the classic Spanish novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, a nobleman becomes so enamored with stories of brave knights and ladies fair that his perception of reality becomes warped. At one point, he attacks windmills, convinced that he must bravely vanquish these “ferocious giants.”
All too often, content marketers act like Don Quixote, mistaking content volume for content quality. We churn out copious volumes of “me-too” content, and then wonder why it gets ignored by most of the people we want to influence. We assume we know what our customers’ challenges, needs and aspirations are, but we miss them by a mile. Still, we charge forward like Don Quixote, convinced of the nobility of our quest.
Are you tilting at windmills with your content?
Let’s try an exercise. Open your company’s blog in a browser tab, and those of your competitors in other tabs. Now imagine the company logos and color schemes were scrubbed from each of these web pages. Would you be able to tell them apart?
In most industries, the answer is a resounding NO!
If your company is like most B2B firms, you’re producing blog posts, newsletters and other content that looks and reads remarkably like what your competitors are publishing. But if you can’t tell your content apart from that of your competitors, then neither can your target audience. That’s a big problem!
How to differentiate your content
If you’re frustrated by the state of your content marketing efforts, it may be time for you to “tilt” your perspective so that you are able to tell a unique story – one that cuts through the clutter and that is uniquely focused on the needs of your target audience. One way to do that is to ask smarter, more creative questions:
- What assumptions are you making about your target audience that could be skewing your perceptions of their needs?
- Imagine you have no prior knowledge of your target audience. How would you accurately learn about their needs? In other words, return to a state of “beginner’s mind,” free of any preconceived notions about them and their needs.
What other perspectives should you consider?
- How can you change the conversation in a way that’s so compelling that it will command the attention of your target audience?
Most companies go very broad when defining their target audience; that usually means they have a lot of competition. Instead, think narrow: Is there a sub-niche within your main audience that you ought to learn more about and target with your content? Your goal is to become the recognized expert within that sub-niche.
- Should you create a new product category? It should give you greater visibility than introducing another “me-too product” in an existing category. Bonus: In the short term, your brand will come to be identified with this new product category, which increases your odds of success.
- Take the advice of Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal: “Figure out something that nobody else is doing and look to create a monopoly in some area that’s been underdeveloped. Find a problem nobody else is solving.” That’s often where opportunity hides.
- Which issues and topics are none of your competitors covering in your market niche? What is everyone missing? What do customers and your competitors take for granted? Can you take a stand on one of these issues? Just make sure you’ve got your customers’ best interests in mind when you do so.
- What “jobs to be done” are your customers faced with? What’s inadequate about the existing solutions they’re using? Look for opportunities to educate them about a more effective alternative that will elegantly meet their needs.
Armed with the answers to these questions, you should be able to identify a compelling content tilt that you can use to deliver real value to your target audience and build productive relationships with them. Unlike Don Quixote, you will no longer be tilting at windmills. You’ll be winning the minds and hearts of real customers like never before.
Rockwell Automation in Milwaukee has published a custom print magazine, The Journal, for 22 years. The Journal has been a trusted source of news, information, and education about factory automation.
Cultivate recently caught up with Stanley A. Miller, Rockwell’s Global Customer Communications Editorial Lead, to learn more about how The Journal has helped Rockwell be perceived by their customers as an innovator and thought leader in this important high-tech manufacturing niche. Once you’ve read his comments, you’ll see how your company can have this, too.
Cultivate: Who is the target audience of The Journal?
Stanley Miller: The Journal, which is published by Rockwell Automation and Our PartnerNetwork™ educates industrial automation professionals such as plant managers, safety professionals, industrial engineers, and other technical personnel. Its content focuses on automation industry news and machine control trends, and technology from Rockwell Automation and our partner companies.
The free magazine’s goal is to serve as a customer retention tool by demonstrating that Rockwell Automation is a key automation industry thought leader.
We publish it six times per year and it has over 40,000 subscribers in North America. In addition, we produce 30 eNewsletters that are distributed to 30,000+ subscribers globally.
Cultivate: How many partners are currently in the network?
Miller: There are about 500 member companies in the Rockwell Automation PartnerNetwork™, which include authorized Allen-Bradley® distributors, system integrators, OEMs, strategic alliances, Encompass™ reference products and licensed developers.
Cultivate: With the partner ads in The Journal, is it a self-funding publication?
Miller: Yes. The print and digital assets are supported completely by advertising revenue from Rockwell Automation and participating members in the Rockwell Automation PartnerNetwork™. Only Rockwell Automation and its member companies in our PartnerNetwork™ are allowed to submit editorial content and to advertise.
The digital publications produced by The Journal include “Fundamentals Series” educational, on-demand webinars; eBooks; videos; 30 eNewsletters; and an iPad app. We also have a website and a proactive social media program specifically for the publication.
Cultivate: The Journal was launched at the dawn of the smart factory revolution in 1994. To what extent has this publication helped shape this revolution?
Miller: Our readers are responsible for keeping production lines running cost-effectively while at the same time safely producing quality products in a sustainable manner. All of this is accomplished in alignment with their companies’ profitability goals. The Journal’s objective from the beginning has been to help our readers do just that. As we have exchanged and shared information through this educational platform, it’s played a key role in keeping industrial automation professionals informed about trends, technology and methodology developments.
Cultivate: Rockwell’s commitment to The Journal has been exemplary over the past 20 years. How has it been able to maintain that commitment, despite the ups and downs of manufacturing and the global economy?
Miller: Our management has always felt a responsibility as a corporate citizen to help the industry innovate and evolve. Rockwell Automation’s management has always viewed The Journal as a key educational tool for the industrial automation industry as well as an important communication vehicle for our company.
The reach of Rockwell Automation and its PartnerNetwork™ is global, so we all make use of our staff’s experience and knowledge, as well as the expertise of our industry contacts, to provide resources that can help automation professionals succeed. This, in turn, helps the entire industry.
The Journal is a key communication tool to share what we learn, what’s going on in the industry and how our readers can benefit. That makes it an important and valuable resource, so it’s well worth it for the company to maintain that commitment.
Cultivate: To what extent has The Journal become a sales tool for Rockwell Automation?
Miller: The objective, non-promotional way in which the editorial content is presented creates goodwill with our readers and demonstrates that we really are trying to help them. That goodwill, and the confidence in the quality of information they’re getting, helps them trust Rockwell Automation and its PartnerNetwork™ when the time comes for them to purchase industrial automation solutions. We give a little and get a lot back
Cultivate: How big has it become as a thought leadership tool for Rockwell?
Miller: The editorial themes of The Journal are planned annually in line with company thought leadership topics. The cover story of each print edition showcases the depth of our knowledge and experience. Each issue also includes numerous how-to articles, case studies, trend updates, and reports about the popular Rockwell Automation show, our Automation Fair® event.
Readers appreciate the educational aspect of the content. In fact, readership surveys and anecdotal feedback shows us that readers view The Journal more like a regular industry trade magazine rather than a custom magazine published by one company.
Cultivate: What’s next for The Journal? The 20th anniversary article quotes Executive Editor Theresa Houck: “We’ll continue to expand our digital offerings in ways that help readers get information how, when and where they want it.” What forms do you foresee that taking?
Miller: Very soon, we plan to launch a free smartphone app to make The Journal even more accessible to more people, both on the plant floor and at home. Because we’ve heard from readers that The Journal provides educational value to them in their jobs, we want to get it in the hands of as many automation professionals as possible when they want it, and how they want it. This further supports our goal to help readers keep production lines running cost-effectively while safely producing quality products in alignment with their companies’ profitability goals. It’s been a win-win for everyone involved.
Developing a content strategy that effectively engages people involves more than simply choosing the content to put on yourwebsite or tweaking what’s already there. It should center around ALL aspects of the way your company communicates with its target audiences.
Recently, I had conversations with several content specialists. Their definitions of the term “content marketing” were tactical in nature rather than strategic. They suggested things like, “Do a review of the client’s current website and make recommendations on how to improve it.” And, “Do an overall communications assessment – including the client’s website, SEO and social media efforts, and develop a plan for improvement.”
A lot of fix-it stuff to do, but no real big-picture game plan.
You’ve got to take your blinders off!
A bigger view of content strategy
Don’t get me wrong.
Assessing what you’ve done to date is an important part of creating a content strategy. But it’s only one small part of it. The other core pieces ought to include this list of important elements. (I’ve made the a checklist so you can keep track of your progress):
☐ Objectives that are tied to key business objectives. Content marketing cannot be an end unto itself. It must deliver a business impact in order to be successful.
☐ Detailed research into customer needs, which is used to build customer personas for each segment of your target audience.
☐ Development of a customer journey map that visually depicts the process customers follow from the time they realize they have a need until they purchase a product.
☐ Customer content needs that are mapped against that customer journey.
☐ An editorial calendar that considers all media where messages can be communicated.
☐ A tightly-designed set of content should move prospects toward a desirable action, usually a sale or a deeper relationship.
☐ An assessment of competitors and their messaging, to help you differentiate your content so it stands out.
Think “Big Picture” about content strategy
Don’t limit yourself to just improving what you’re already doing.
Get creative with these additional channels:
- Podcasts: For some industries, a podcast may be an excellent way to educate prospects.
- Print: A print magazine may be just what’s needed to provide your target audience with an engaging experience that builds trust, understanding and preference.
- Educational Video: If your product or service is very visual in nature, perhaps a series of brief educational videos will help your company to stand out in their minds.
- Integrate: Look for integration opportunities in your communications. For example, what if you produced a printed mailer that was a “teaser” for a more complete message online?
Don’t be blinded by cool, new technology, however. Always be mindful of where your customer is at and the channels and messaging formats they’re most comfortable with.
Content assessments: Your mileage may vary
If you lack the staff and expertise to launch and manage a consistent content program, a content marketing agency may be able to help you. But keep in mind that having an agency assess the quality of what you’re doing can be a very subjective exercise.
Also know that an agency’s point of view tends to be biased by its existing business specialty. In other words, a social media expert will tend to look at content as a tool for social media channels. An SEO firm will tend to view content as a tool to increase search engine rankings. You’ve probably heard the saying, “When you have a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail.”
Ideally, the agency you select to help you ought to be agnostic. They need to be committed to accurately assessing your current communications program AND identifying new opportunities.
Most companies are addicted to pumping out content, even though a bevy of research shows that’s not an effective strategy.
According to the 2015 B2B Benchmarks, Budgets & Trends Report from the Content Marketing Institute (CMI), 76% of marketers say they’re creating more content in 2016 than in 2015. Why? Because In many cases, they don’t have a sound strategy for what they’re doing. Even worse, only 32% of marketers have a documented content marketing strategy.
The conventional wisdom of marketing goes something like this:
- Content marketing seems like it may be important, so let’s publish some of it.
- We need to be everywhere online so our prospective customers can find us.
- So let’s create more of it, and promote it to every social media channel we can think of!
But what many marketers don’t stop to think about is that all of this content represents a cost to the business. Someone – either internally or externally – needs to be paid to create, publish and promote it. It also has an opportunity cost: By doing A, you don’t have time to do B.
In addition to time, you have to consider ROI. Is your current content making an impact on your target audience? Is it changing their behavior? Driving leads and sales? Helping you build relationships with them? Are they taking desirable action as a result of consuming your content?
If you’re not sure, then it’s time to step back and ask “Why?”
It’s time to get more purposeful with your content
Invest some time to think about each of your content-related channels and tactics using this simple but powerful question:
- Why do we have a presence on (name your communications channel of choice)?
Repeat this question for each of the channels where you’re currently publishing or promoting content. I think you’ll find it’s an eye-opening exercise!
Here are several additional questions that can help you separate the wheat from the chaff and surface assumptions you didn’t realize you were making:
- What is the business reason for us to participate in this channel?
- Do our customers and prospects use this channel? Is it an effective way of communicating with them?
- Is our content making a measurable impact on their behavior?
You can also drill deeper into your thoughts and motivations by asking “Why?” multiple times in succession. For example:
- Why are we promoting our products and services on LinkedIn Groups? Because several of them appear to match the demographics of our prospective customers.
- Why do these groups appeal to our prospective customers? Because they discuss business topics that help them be more effective in their work roles.
- Why aren’t we getting more engagement on our posts within these groups? Because “drive-by posting” isn’t an effective approach to group participation on LinkedIn. We need to actively participate and be helpful to other members there.
Stop doing what isn’t working!
The bottom line of this exercise is to help you stop doing the things that aren’t working. Focus more of your time and energy on those tactics and tasks that DO resonate your target audience and DO contribute an ROI to your business.
We all complain that we don’t have enough hours in the day to get everything done. But if you eliminate the activities that don’t add value, it magically frees up time that you can devote to higher value-added tasks that WILL make a bigger impact on your business. You simply need to ask: