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Breaking the content marketing mould: what’s next for B2B marketing’s most popular player?

The recent B2B Marketing Ignite 2017 conference saw more than 80 leaders from across the world of B2B marketing come under one roof to present a day of insights, and look at the trends that are set to influence our sphere.

The one downside to the day was only having seven hours to try and squeeze in as many seminars as possible. I managed eight – not a bad feat – and decided to attend those that I felt would resonate best with my clients and the work we do here at BDB. While titles varied from those about data analysis to ones telling me how to add some “OOMPH” to campaigns, the recurring message that became apparent is that content marketing is about to change.

The C-word
Content marketing. Content is king. We need some content. We need some rich content. According to Doug Kessler in his presentation, Smashing the big conventions of B2B content marketing (more on that later), we’re in the middle of a content deluge. As successful B2B marketers, we know the value of creating truly great content – the type that engages audiences, gets them clicking or (even better) gets them contacting you. But, as is the way with anything great, there’s a whole lot of content being created that’s simply average. That receives zero engagement or contains either nothing new or nothing of value to its audience. And this flood of average content makes it even more important to create great content, the stuff that really stands out. The title of Jason Miller’s session, Your content marketing strategy needs a reality check, said it all. But what can we do to change things up?

The other C-word
The naughtiest of all words in the B2B marketing world – consumers. “It’s a totally different audience!”, we cry. “The decision making and purchasing cycles take much longer in B2B! We can’t learn anything from consumer brands!”. I hate to break it to you, but we can. With much broader audiences than B2B marketers need to target, consumer brands are the ones taking content marketing to the next level. And, like it or not, we can learn a lot from them. At the end of the day, a person is still a person, and regardless of whether it’s their job to decide which raw ingredient or material to use in their products, or whether they’re being targeted by John Lewis on pay day, they still want to be engaged.

Influencer marketing is one such area where B2B marketers can follow in the footsteps of our consumer counterparts. While 96 per cent of B2B buyers say they want content with more input from industry thought leaders , only 15 per cent of B2B businesses have an integrated or ongoing influencer programme. In comparison, more than half (55%) of B2C companies currently employ ongoing influencer programs, and 83 per cent said it was a top priority to “identify and build one-on-one relationships with industry key influencers.” The industry is already starting to use phrases such as ‘Influencer 2.0’ – a strategy that is centred on building and managing relationships to become part of the customer journey – and B2B marketing can take learnings from the consumer sector about the tactics and content types that really resonate.

In his report Influence 2.0: the future of influencer marketing, Brian Solis explains what’s changing: “By understanding customers, designing programs that matter to them, and then using platforms to partner with trusted influencers, brands can steer buyer impressions, decisions, and behaviours in more useful, productive, and mutually beneficial ways. While this may have been part of the original intention with influencer marketing 1.0, the truth is, most campaigns have been aimed at driving impressions, views, and share of voice. Influence 2.0 operates at a higher, cross-functional level, one that aligns influencers, peers, intent, and experiences throughout the customer journey.”

Talking about influencer marketing could take up a blog or two of its own, so I’ll move on, but the Solis report is worth a read – download it here.

It’s a long story
685 words in and I’m still going? According to Miller, it’s the thing to do. He argued that too much emphasis is being placed on so called “snackable content”, highlighting research by SEO company Backlinko that found first-page Google search results are, on average, 1,890 words long. Miller, who’s the global content marketing leader at LinkedIn, and his team decided to put the theory into practice on LinkedIn’s Sales and Marketing Solutions EMEA blog – consciously reducing the number of posts to between 2-3 a week (they used to be daily) and increasing the word count of all content. The year-on-year results were impressive: 242% increase in unique page views, 146% increase in the average time individuals spent on each page, 67% increase in average number of shares, and a massive 312% increase in the number of organic sessions.

So it seems that less regular content that resonates much more effectively than frequent content that doesn’t. It sounds simple but so many of us work to a tick box idea of producing a set number of blogs, regardless of whether the content is of any interest to the audience. As Miller said: “you can never over deliver on value in content marketing.”

Break some conventions
I promised we’d come back to breaking conventions so here we are. During Kessler’s presentation, the final one of the day, he argued that B2B marketing needs to expose the hidden conventions in our markets and have some fun with them. Using content in the way we do allows us to speak to our audiences with more meaning and depth, and gives us an opportunity to communicate in a way that really resonates and shows your brand values. And if they don’t like it? Well, they probably wouldn’t have bought from you anyway, says Doug. So what conventions does he recommend breaking? Here you go:
1.      Openly share your weaknesses.
Rather than trying to hide something that’s a bit negative, shout about it. Had a product recall that’s blotted your reputation? By addressing it head-on, and explaining what went wrong and how your new product will make sure it doesn’t happen again, means that brands can build trust with their audience, and avoid those “well they said it was great last time and it didn’t work” moments.
2.      Marketing doesn’t always have to be positive.
An expansion on the above. Everyone gets irritated, and usually if something’s annoying you, it will be annoying some of your audience too. The best sessions I attended at B2B Ignite were centred around rants. Of course, you need to keep things within reason, but showing your customers you understand their frustrations, rather than pretending they don’t exist, makes brands more human – and audiences more likely to engage with them.
3.      Ignore data, sometimes
We all know data doesn’t lie. But occasionally, great ideas take a while to get off the ground. If you really want to do something and feel in your gut you should, then do it. You never know where it could take you.
4.      B2B marketing needs to be serious.
The past few years have seen increasing numbers of consumer brands jump on the ‘approachable’ bandwagon with fun packaging, chatty prose and strong personalities. Just because we’re marketing to other businesses, doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy ourselves and create brand voices that stand out. Think: would this headline make me read on or turn off? At risk of sounding repetitive, people buy people. Even those decision makers of big corporate businesses. Engage with them!
5.      Don’t be afraid to swear.
I admit, it makes me nervous just writing that. Kessler caveats this with “don’t swear if your audience doesn’t like swearing” (sage advice) but referenced research by Timothy Jay which looked at the abundance of different words used in general conversation. While one per cent of all words were first person plural pronouns (I, we, me, us, our), up to 3.4 per cent were swear words. People swear! So, if you can – and if you’re confident that your audience will be ok with it – go for it. According to Kessler, it adds passion, humour and bloody* authenticity to your marketing!
(*that’s as brave as I’m going to get, I’m afraid).

So that’s it. The future face of content marketing in a nutshell, kind of. Now just to see whether Miller’s advice on long form blogs really rings true…

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