When Thought Leadership Transitions into Sales

When Thought Leadership Transitions into Sales


What’s the role of content in the B2B sales cycle? The answer is evolving along with the way we all research, compare and buy business tools.

SAP, the world's biggest enterprise software vendor, has traditionally relied on a consulting-heavy sales cycle to guide customers through purchasing its software solutions. But the world is moving to self-service, and SAP has had to get creative to think beyond its traditional analog sales and marketing model — especially as the company expanded into a landscape that includes more customers looking for lower-cost solutions.

The company’s solution was to create SAP Digital in 2015 to support a “no-touch” business that guides customers through the sales process — from discovery to purchase to loyalty — with little to no interaction with a person. In a no-touch business, content does the job of a salesperson.

When they’re looking for a product less than $5,000, “customers don't necessarily want to be in a two-hour long sales conversation to figure out what software they want to buy,” says Robert Rabe. As SAP’s head of commercial experience for insights, design and content, he is at the forefront of the company’s sales-focused content and customer experience.

We asked Robert more about how SAP is using content differently in an increasingly digital world.

How does content fit into the idea of a no-touch business?

Through years of customer research, SAP developed the SAP Customer Experience Map. We use it to guide what information we share with the customer at different points.

The first phase is identifying needs. This is when the customer is realizing that they have a business problem. They have the problem that they cannot hire the right people, because they can't find them or because their recruiting cycle is too long, or they have a lot of difficulty entering global markets. From a content perspective, we position thought-leadership-type content — which only has a very loose association to SAP — to advise people people on business problems they probably have. We provide articles, blogs posts and videos to help them come out of that. There's no strong SAP branding. It is really loosely connected to SAP, with the colors and fonts and brand imagery, but it's not like, “OK, here's an SAP product to fix that.” It's thought-leadership content, which is how we address the identified needs.

Then we will almost think of business consulting content. That could be a white paper or a webinar as a next step, to get the customer to decide to act. That action for us as a technology vendor is “Technology is an important tool to help me solve that problem.” Because at the end of the day, we are a software company.

This is the tipping point, where you have a switch from thought-leadership content, where you get the customer to say, “Yes, technology is a tool to help me address my business problem,” and converge into product content. It becomes increasingly about pulling together a rationale for starting a project, because usually corporations and even small businesses start a project around addressing business needs. They will identify requirements. We need to help them identify those requirements, help them compare different software options and vendors, and figure out what business processes to address.

It then becomes very product-centric content: Find out about pricing, review customer references of other people who already use the software. Give me a PDF of the 500 business transactions I can do with that software — which is content, but placed at the right step along the customer journey so that it is relevant to the customer at the given moment in time.

So compared with traditional B2B sales, the content really has to do a lot more work along the way?

Right. We are not organizationally part of marketing, but particularly in startups, what we're doing would be called digital marketing. Because in a startup, which doesn't have a salesforce with feet on the ground, the marketing department does the selling because their website is their salesperson.

It's never going to be a replacement for salespeople because for a million-dollar deal you want to talk to a consultant to elaborate on all the nuances of products, their interplay and the deal negotiation. But for a $5,000 tool, we need to display the content for the whole journey, from the blog down to the system requirements, which is something that can be a big challenge for our traditional marketers and not in line with SAP’s traditional high-touch way of doing business.

This is usually what startups do pretty well, but for them it's easy because they are usually one-product, one-market endeavors, and SAP is a 3,000-product, 150-country endeavor. Making this work across all geos and across all markets, you introduce translation issues — what content do we translate, what content do we not translate? You introduce legal issues (i.e., GDPR), and different content architecture expectations — a Chinese client wants their information in a different way than an American customer. All of these considerations are the big questions to consider in the limbo dance between standardization and customization.

What type of customer research do you perform to figure out what people need?

The first important thing we did was convince everybody that customer research is needed. You have all of those internal voices with opinions on what the customer wants but usually nobody actually brings the customer into the room for a project.

The second thing we did is what we call our foundational research, because it guides us as a high-level compass. We did research in several international markets, and asked people questions along the customer journey: How do you discover your technology needs? What usually triggers a software project? What is valuable information to you when you think about how to solve business problems?

We did a mixture of one-on-one interviews and focus groups, but for sure always in person and qualitative and explorative research. So no surveys or asynchronous digital means, because this is the type of research where you really want to be opening up the floodgates and exploring what you actually want as opposed to re-confirming the biases that we already had.

How have you seen B2B content consumption change over the course of your career?

I think it's increasingly online and self-serve. One big thing that I think is changing in B2B marketing, and marketing as a whole, is there is really no such thing as analog marketing anymore.

The other one is that marketing must understand that it is an orchestrator of the customer journey, not an owner. That's important. Going out there and saying “we're going to design the customer journey, the customer touchpoints and this is where the customer is going to go” isn’t going to work.

The moment that marketing provides touchpoints that are valuable to the customer, the game will change toward the positive — because the analog world where you really have a tight control over what's consumed is over. There are so many independent bloggers out there, and in the software world we have software reviews. You don't control those touchpoints. You can moderate them, you can syndicate content that is favorable for you, but it’s not controllable.

That mental shift from “marketing controls the customer journey” to “marketing moderates the customer journey” is key.

Lee Price is co-founder of Managing Editor. After 7 years as a content marketing consultant at Rep Cap, she started a thought leadership consultancy to help visionary leaders dig up and develop their big ideas. She's a proud University of Virginia fan, Twizzler enthusiast and feminist. She lives in Georgia with her husband and two young daughters. When she's not reading or writing, you can find her on Twitter @leevprice.


3 Product Management Lessons for Content Marketers

3 Product Management Lessons for Content Marketers

Get to the Bottom Line: Calculating Content Marketing’s ROI - CROP - content marketing ROI

Get to the Bottom Line: Calculating Content Marketing ROI

Stay Inspired.

Sign up for the newsletter to get all the latest updates from Managing Editor.