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Understanding the indirect sell of B2B content marketing

B2B sales are generally too complex to attribute to any single event. It takes multiple touches to guide key stakeholders through the buyer journey, with content playing a key role throughout the marketing process.

Content marketing is essential for providing buyers with useful insights that will influence their purchase decisions. But marketers must remember that this approach drives a different kind of sale to those from traditional marketing tactics.

The problem with many attribution models is that whoever drives the ‘last‐click’ will generally claim the sale. Advertisers will often say that when a customer clicks an ad and buys something they did so because of that advert. Meanwhile, a salesperson who closes a deal after following up on a lead will rightly say that the business has a new customer because of their efforts.

But B2B sales are more complex than these models allow. The B2B sales cycle is generally much longer, involving multiple touchpoints and potentially multiple buyers and approvers. As such, content marketers need a fresh approach.

In this complex arena, content can be a powerful tool. In fact, recent research from Demand Gen shows that 80 per cent of B2B buyers will engage with three or more pieces of content before they ever speak to a salesperson.

What’s more, as B2B purchases grow increasingly complex it’s becoming more common for content to influence company decision‐makers that have never actually engaged with your marketing materials directly.

Instead, business managers, personal assistants and other direct reports may receive your insights and then in turn use them to recommend your company to senior decision‐makers.

If you’ve ever been in the situation of needing a quick opinion about another company or their products, you may remember turning to someone who always seems to be up with the latest trends. Colleagues like this can be valuable sources of information.

In other words, your ideal prospects will often turn to other stakeholders within their company or industry to inform their purchase decisions. While these stakeholders may not be your immediate buyers, it still pays to create content designed to influence their thinking.

A strategy to get your content into the hands of these secondary and tertiary audiences should no doubt be part of your content marketing toolkit. But, the indirect nature of these interactions creates challenges when it comes to measuring the performance of your campaigns.

Content often reaches buyers indirectly

In the B2B space, the journey from insights to sale can be wide and varied. The challenge for today’s marketers is effectively getting your content in front of key target audiences in an increasingly crowded market.

One useful way to think about how this process works comes from Charles Arthur, a technology writer for The Guardian.

His ‘1:9:90 model’ says that if you assess a group of 100 people online, one will generally create content, nine or so will interact with that content (commenting or offering improvements) and the rest will just consume it.

This idea helps to explain why you need a sustained content programme to reach your intended audiences – those stakeholders with purchasing power, or who can influence purchase decisions.

Within any given market, there will be three main groups of people: publishers, promoters and the broader market.

The key thing to note here is that almost all the people you want to reach will inevitably be part of the 90 per cent that makes up the broader market. These key stakeholders will often be very open to engaging with the content you produce, but you may struggle to reach them through your owned channels.

This is where your industry’s content promoters come in. As you’ve seen already, promoters can act as a gateway to the rest of the market. They are active sharers on social media sites such as LinkedIn and can help amplify the content you publish to a much wider audience.

The 1:9:90 model shows that if you get your content right in terms of frequency, relevance and distribution, then the 1 per cent will ignite the 9 per cent which will then reach many of the 90 per cent – including the senior decision‐makers you want to influence.

This is when your content can really sing and drive leads and sales conversions. But because content marketing often works in this indirect way, many traditional measurement techniques marketers use do a bad job of capturing its impact. As such, marketers need a new way to think about content marketing ROI.

A new way to think about content ROI

B2B sales often pan out over many months, involving multiple touchpoints and stakeholders. So, attributing a sale exclusively to a single link in the chain is an oversimplification.

The fact is that B2B buyers walk a complex path that leads them from reading several pieces of content to that last point of contact that ends in a sale.

However, marketers have traditionally struggled when trying to link content creation and distribution directly to sales. Conventional content metrics are not always the most suitable for comparing engagement or activity spend against sales revenue, and hence marketing ROI.

For example, page views and dwell time can be useful pointers to assess if a piece of content has resonated. But, by their nature you can’t easily link these metrics to purchase intent or activity.

What B2B marketers need is new ways of thinking about content marketing ROI, and one interesting suggestion for achieving this is the notion of a “leads influenced” metric. This would track the number of people who engage with a piece of content and are then converted into a lead within 90 days.

“While multi‐touch attribution is the most accurate approach to demonstrating content marketing ROI, there’s a simpler metric that can get you started: leads influenced,” explains Contently’s Joe Lazauskas. “This metric is an easy way to show the impact that content has on the top of your funnel.”

Metrics like ‘leads influenced’ can sit beside others such as ‘leads generated’ and then measured against individual pieces of content to build up a picture of your content marketing’s ROI.

Building attribution checkpoints like these in throughout your campaigns will give you a better idea of their effectiveness.

For example, with the right measurement framework in place you should be able to see if a content campaign generates a white paper download – and then see when that prospect returns to your website and makes an enquiry.

Then there are the really indirect sales, where a piece of content puts your company in the running for an RFP when it previously may not have qualified. In cases like this, marketers still deserve credit for influencing key stakeholders early in the sales cycle. After all, it’s their actions that put your company onto their radar and get your foot in the door.

While there’s no easy way to capture this kind of ROI, accurately recording the sources of leads both online and through the traditional sales process will help. This may mean modifying your lead tracking system or CRM to allow more lead types and sources, or finding ways to add them in automatically at each checkpoint as the customer passes through the funnel.

Putting processes like these in place can be a big undertaking. But, the benefits of building a more accurate picture of how your content influences purchase decisions can be huge. Doing so makes it easier to optimise your campaigns and make the case for increased content marketing investment.

In short, understanding the indirect sell of content marketing is essential for success in the B2B space. Only when you gasp the many ways content can influence company decision‐makers will you be able to design systems that join the dots between your campaigns and the business results they generate.

Key takeaways

  • Content marketing often reaches buyers indirectly. Various internal and external stakeholders can play key roles in influencing the thinking of the decision‐makers you’re trying to engage.
  • Traditional marketing metrics can mask the true ROI of content marketing. B2B sales often pan out over many months, involving multiple touchpoints and content pieces.
  • To show content marketing ROI, marketers must employ new metrics and increase the granularity of sales source attribution at all stages of the sales marketing cycle.

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