I took a winding road to content marketing — I spent time in the Washington Post newsroom, several years in journalism school and wearing various editing hats. So, by the time I had a job with “marketing” in the title, I already thought of myself firmly as a journalist. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have to understand the metrics and data that are important to running a business. Unlike journalism, content marketing involves a promise that the words you write, the videos you produce or the tweets you send all need to lead to an end goal: engagement, brand affinity and sales.
In other words, managing editors at brands focus their attention on the content, but they also have to report to the business. I’m interested in the work that’s happening at that intersection. How are sales and marketing teams working together to find prospective customers and help them through content?
I recently spoke to an expert who works at that intersection. Randall LaVeau is marketing practice leader at Sales Benchmark Index, a consulting firm that helps organizations better understand their prospects and turn them into loyal customers. I knew he’d speak my language when I saw that he has a degree in broadcast journalism, and when he told me that early in his career he dabbled as a nighttime radio DJ.
I asked Randall his advice for content marketers and managing editors in an age of noise, data and way too much content.
Understand Your (Human) Audience
Randall’s favorite bloggers and podcasters have a very relatable writing style — “like they wrote it on the couch the night before,” he says. I asked Randall how more B2B brands can move away from boring, stuffy jargon and toward that more conversational language.
“I see it happen naturally when companies move to a more customer-centric approach,” he says, “as they start to actually understand the people they're selling to, versus looking at them as an account. It humanizes things a little bit. We sit in workshops, often, and folks go through this progression of understanding how important the buyer is, and that a buyer makes decisions as a human being, and they feel foolish for the old tactics they used to use.”
As consumers, we’ve gotten used to everything being personalized for us. So, when we don’t feel seen in the same way by B2B brands, the effect is jarring. “It's such a transition. We go from buying toilet paper on Amazon — and Amazon knowing exactly what our order should be, how we're going to order it and where we're going to send it — to the B2B world, where we get some generic, inauthentic message that's about feature functionality. It has nothing to do with the purpose, or the why or any emotional drivers.” That has to change, Randall says.
Rethink Everything You Know About Marketing Data
One way to better understand your audience is to rethink what information you gather about them. Marketing and sales technology is a massive industry, and I often see organizations rushing to buy the latest (very expensive) tech suite — only to underuse it.
Randall sees similar mistakes happening all the time. “Either you’re not collecting the data at all, and you’re completely ignorant to the fact that there are experiences happening with your brand that you're just completely unaware of. Or, you’re collecting data for the sake of collecting data, with no real strategy behind it.”
So, he advises his customers to shift the way they think about marketing data, and start thinking about their audience’s long-term relationship with the brand — what SBI refers to as “touchpoint analysis.” “You take the entire customer journey, from someone who's not even in the market to someone who is a loyal advocate of the brand,” he says. At each touchpoint, you figure out what messages are likely to get your audience’s attention and where they want to get those messages so you can deliver the right message at the right time to the right person.
“Once we go through this process and start collecting all the touchpoints, we find that there are many touchpoints the organization had no idea their customers were taking action on. And two, they didn't have anything there to collect the data. So, they may have a misguided approach to how their technology infrastructure is set up. First, understand what data you need to collect and where you need to collect it, then you build the strategy for that and then you build your technology strategy.”
That’s the shift — thinking about your audience and how you interact with them first, then looking for tech solutions to help you track the interactions. If you buy technology without really knowing for sure what it will deliver, Randall says, “you just convolute the problem even more.”
Content Isn’t Just for the Top of the Marketing Funnel
In my experience, B2B content marketing and thought leadership are really about selling a big idea. So, it makes sense that you don’t just float the idea to your audience once at the beginning of your relationship. You have to keep selling your idea (again, that’s your idea, not your product) throughout their relationship with you.
Randall is focused on building a customer-focused experience, and that means blurring the lines between marketing, sales, product and customer service. It means the customer should hear a consistent story throughout their experience. “The customer needs to experience the brand holistically. They should not feel the hops in the system, or the handoffs as they go from department to department,” he says. Every single thing a customer interacts with should be consistent and should build on previous messages, meeting their expectations about the brand.
That means changing the way you think about your content team. “Content needs to be produced across the entire lifecycle of the customer. As B2B marketers, we typically think of content as a funnel to generate leads, but I think content needs to change to be very purposeful, specific and stage-appropriate, and used by more than just marketing. Other departments need to be involved in it, as well.”
Thinking about your audience as humans and joining forces with others at your organization will only lead to better content, happier customers and marketers who are more connected to the mission of the business. That’s a hopeful vision for the future of content marketing that I can definitely get behind.
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