Content marketing is not new. Only the term can be considered to be recent.
The creation of targeted information—about companies, products, services, and just about anything else—has been around for generations… just under different names. Collateral, sales aids, product literature, brand books… all were the earlier monikers for what's now lumped into “content.”
So the seemingly limitless number of articles, social media and blog posts, podcasts, and God knows what else about the purported nuances of the content marketing discipline reveals one thing: a lack of perspective. That's why students learn (or are supposed to learn) history in school—to give them a sense that there was a world that existed before they were born.
A Glance Back
When I began my marketing career, I may have had an advantage: I'd worked as a journalist. I'd done both breaking news and investigative stories; I had to track down facts, background, and at least three reliable sources to confirm the validity of what I was going to publish.
The investigative stories weren't either easy or fast, most of the time. Good, informative, targeted business information usually isn't, either.
There are reasons for that, starting with the most basic intents: Why is this information being developed, who is it for, how will it be offered, and what are the expected results?
That isn't a marketing process. It's not a sales process. It's a combination of the two, and it needs a certain (or a lot of) discipline. And collaboration. And commitment to helping each other succeed.
It's a Process
From the top, there's definition. What is the product—the whole product, including the physical “thing” or the actual service provided, along with the available support, guarantee/warranty, accessories, etc.? Who's the target market (businesses in B2B, customer segments in B2C)? Who's the target audience… beyond the end-user?
Salespeople are great at determining who's involved in making the buying decision. Marketers are focused on presenting the product/service/brand in the most persuasive way. Each is only a third of the equation. Prospects' or consumers' beliefs, expectations, and perceptions are the other third. (And, depending on how what you sell is provisioned—direct to buyers/consumers or through value-added resellers, channel partners, or retailers—the equation can have four components.)
You can't very well market or sell something if you don't understand, literally, everything about it and who's involved in buying and using it.
Plus, you have to know the competition, whether it's direct or indirect, and how your offerings compare.
Next, what's the strategy? What role will the information play in educating potential customers and achieving specific objectives—for Marketing, for Sales, and for the business as a whole?
Will the material—the “content”—be used to generate inquiries, fill the pipeline, help qualify leads, overcome objections, differentiate your stuff from “the other guys,” help with conversion? It could be all of those… but not in a single piece of anything.
In B2B, especially, purchasing decisions are shared, and the roles that people play fall into identifiable categories:
- Initiators—the people who perceive a need and start the search for a solution
- Researchers—the ones who do the actual investigation to determine appropriate products and services
- Shortlisters—those who narrow the list of options based on a set of criteria that includes capabilities, cost, implementation, training, support, etc.
- Evaluators—the qualified employees or consultants who compare the choices on the short list
- Recommenders—those who review the evaluations and, using the criteria established by the business, line of business managers, and end users, rank the options
- Decision-makers—the line-of-business managers, finance and operations executives, and, hopefully, a group of end-users who will be the ones who work with the product every day
- Check-signers—the men and women who have to be convinced that they're spending the right amount of money for the best ROI
When there are channel partners or VARs or retailers, there will be similar groups who determine whether to carry (a) your products, (b) only certain lines or individual products, and (c) how much inventory to stock… if any.
Each of those groups of people is likely to have sub-groups. That's particularly true among the evaluators: Whether you're buying a piece of equipment that stamps out metal panels for cars or software that provides security for mobile transactions, there are sure to be…
- Finance folks who want to understand to total cost of ownership and how long it will be in service before needing replacement
- Maintenance people who will need to know how easy it is to repair or update
- IT, which will want to review how easily it will integrate with existing systems
- Line-of-business managers who need to appreciate the effects on productivity and the length of the learning curve
- End-users who may resist any changes that aren't easy to adapt to or don't make their jobs easier
Now the hard truth: every group and sub-group needs its own targeted information. Each bit of content/collateral/call-it-what-you-will has to address their primary concerns, educate them about how they and their company will benefit, and make it clear that what you're offering is a cost-effective, practical, and dependable solution to the problem their company is trying to solve.
“What's the Secret of Your Suc…” “Timing.” “…cess?”
Add to all of that the timing of each element, and you've got another set of criteria to incorporate. I once worked with a sales organization that believed in sending prospects everything they could possibly lay their hands on. It took a while to convince them of the virtues of progressive disclosure: providing specific information to specific people about specific concerns at specific times.
That's easier to do with marketing automation, but the principle hasn't changed:
- Give people what they want, and they'll give it the attention it deserves.
- Give them too much, and they're likely to ignore it all.
- Follow up with information they ask for or with related content that expands on what they already have, and they'll be grateful for your help.
It's part of the nurturing process, whether it's done by Marketing to create awareness and interest, educate, develop acceptance, and generate leads; or it's done by Sales to support interactions, help persuade the other people in the buying cycle, overcome objections, or clarify advantages.
And that's just presale.
It Ain't Over Till It's Over
Once the sale is made, the real engagement begins. That's when communications have to focus on reassuring the customer that they made the right decision.
The seller has to convey its commitment to ensuring the buyers' success, to providing the “whole product” components that helped differentiate its offering from the competitors', to soliciting customers' feedback and stressing the value of that input, and to keeping the buyers informed about related products and services.
It's a fascinating undertaking because there's always something new to consider, someone new to win over, some competitor that's sure to be a threat. There will also be new media to use, technologies to adopt, and processes to modify to ensure that you're giving people the information they need in the form they prefer at the time that they want it.
Do all of that, and you can give the damn stuff any name you want. Personally, I prefer Shirley.