Content marketing, in all its many forms, plays a critical role these days in supporting purchasing decisions. However, despite increasing volumes of content being produced for use in sales, marketing and customer success, the great majority of content is missing the mark in driving faster revenue production.
A recent article by Sarah MacKinnon, published on Medium.com, and appropriately titled “Content Marketing Tsunami,” outlines the gap between the volume of content marketing production and the value of content marketing. The article highlights that 91% of B2B companies are using content marketing, 56% increased the amount of content marketing in the last 12 months, but fewer than 30% of B2B companies have a clearly defined buyer journey that motivates their content marketing strategy.
The problem is that content is often developed as individual content assets focused on a company’s products and services when it should be organized into content pathways that link to a buyer’s specific business goal and lead a buyer step-by-step toward a purchase.
When content is aligned to buyer goals, it is valued more by potential customers and can play a key role in supporting purchase decisions — not just an initial sale for a newly acquired account but also follow-on upsells that continue to deepen the value of existing accounts. Content is most important in offering evidence on concrete business impacts or payoffs to motivate a purchase. It can also remove uncertainty around a purchase decision by showing clear steps in adopting a product or service to help a buyer feel more comfortable in moving from their current state to an unknown future state.
Unlocking the Power of Content Marketing to Drive Revenue
Fully unlocking the power of content marketing to drive purchasing behavior and faster revenue velocity requires two key adjustments:
- Aligning marketing content to value pathways
First, the marketing team needs to work directly with sales and customer success teams to link individual content assets to specific buyer goals and payoffs, so that the content aligns to a value pathway and includes narrative about buyer goal achievement.
- Developing content pathways aligned to the buying journey
Second, content by pathway needs to be designed at three three levels of depth to align to the buying journey. As buyers move through the purchase decision, they look first for insight about their goals and challenges, second for tailoring to their specific needs, and third for demonstrated expertise to de-risk a purchase decision for themselves and their organization as a whole.
Aligning Marketing Content to Value Pathways
Content marketing has a lot more impact on driving revenue when it is intentionally linked to specific buyer goals and payoffs rather than organized as stand-alone content assets. Oftentimes content assets are grouped by type of content, such as “case studies” and “whitepapers,” leaving it up to individual salespeople to figure out which content is best to provide to a potential buyer. A much more effective approach is to align content to value pathways for potential buyers, linking the capabilities of your solution or service to specific outcomes that achieve the buyer’s business goals and generate payoffs. It is the sales person’s job to identify through value discovery which value pathway aligns with a specific buyer’s goals. Once critical buyer goals are identified, having content assets that directly align to the value pathway is the most effective use of content to support the sales team in closing deals.
Aligning marketing content to value pathways is most effectively accomplished with close collaboration between marketing, sales and customer success teams. While marketing typically leads content development, sales and customer success teams are most often closest to the customer and have the best understanding of buyer pain points, goals and benefits achieved from our solutions and services. It’s therefore important when aligning marketing content to buyer value to begin with a coordinated effort to itemize key value pathways. This gives the marketing team a framework for developing content aligned to buyer value and helps them to understand the value-based narrative that should be incorporated into content. It also ensures alignment between marketing, sales, and customer success in communicating value to buyers in a consistent and compelling way.
Launching a Content Pathway Initiative: How True Fit Made the Shift
When launching an initiative to align marketing content to value pathways, it helps to start by reflecting on how sales is making use of current content assets, then to focus on itemizing key buyer goals.
One client I worked with on a Value Pathways project, True Fit, realized quickly they needed to start out just this way. In my first conversation with Rachael Hawkey, True Fit’s Area Vice President of Sales for the East Region,I remember saying, “ Your team has access to data-rich case studies, very specific industry benchmarks and some compelling thought leadership white papers. How well is your team making use of all this great stuff?”
Rachael paused to reflect and said, “You know, that’s a really good question. Each of my team members definitely has a couple of ‘go to’ case studies and data benchmarks, but it feels like they use the same ones over and over. Sometimes it lands, sometimes it seems to distract from the business case we are trying to make to the customer.”
I’d heard this before but I knew as she said this that we were off to a great start. Rachel was beginning to reflect thoughtfully on how the content her team was using aligned, or didn’t align, to buyer value. Ultimately, Rachel played a central role in the True Fit sales and marketing teams making the transition to content pathways.
True Fit offers an AI-driven retail platform that personalizes every step of a consumer’s retail journey for footwear and apparel brands, helping shoppers find the right products, styles and sizes. The company has grown to almost 200 million users and uses data from this user group to develop an industry-leading Fashion Genome with data on more than 17,000 brands to drive its unique recommendation engine. True Fit’s buyers are footwear, apparel, and retail companies that want to leverage personalization to improve the overall consumer experience. Those companies use True Fit technology primarily on their customer facing websites to aid buying decisions and drive loyalty.
About the time of my call with Rachael, True Fit had just reached 100 million registered users. True Fit uses data from its users to build rich and detailed content marketing for this sales team, but like most companies the content assets were viewed as individual assets and not well linked to specific buyer goals.
Following this initial call with Rachael, I began working with her, two other Area Sales Vice Presidents, and the marketing team on a Value Pathways project. The focus was identifying the key business goals resulting from True Fit’s platform that could most quickly engage and build buying momentum with new potential customers. The group identified four key buyer goal areas to focus on:
Buyer Goal #1 – Using personalization to increase website traffic
Buyer Goal #2 – Converting a higher percentage of web browsers to buyers
Buyer Goal #3 – Reducing product returns
Buyer Goal #4 – Increasing lifetime customer value
The True Fit team was a very experienced and capable sales team, skilled at facilitating leadership level conversations across multiple departments at buyer companies. The goal of the Value Pathways project was to give this team new discovery questions that could surface buyer goals more quickly and to organize existing content to enable them to then pick the most relevant content marketing assets to provide evidence of business impact and support the purchase.
A few weeks after the value pathways project was complete, I was talking with Rachael again and asked “How is it going having your team identify specific questions and content assets for each of True Fit’s four key Value Pathways?”
She smiled, retrieving a piece of paper from her desk. It was a one-page sheet of discovery questions. She held it to show me a bunch of yellow highlights. “I asked each of my Account Executives to print out the same document and highlight in yellow their top questions by pathway. Then I asked them to pick the specific, most relevant discovery questions based on their buyer research for each prospect conversation and told them I want to hear those questions in our next call with the prospect.”
“That’s great that you’re asking them to take ownership of the discovery questions,” I replied “And is coming up with their own questions by pathway also helping to pick the most relevant content examples?”
Rachael proceeded to walk me through one of her team members content asset choices saying, “He’s using data from Amazon and Liveclicker on the value of personalization, the Asics case studies on converting browsers to buyers, and Moose Jaw and Kate Spade on reducing returns. Overall, I’m finding my team using content assets better aligned to goals in each buyer discussion. They’re consciously using the value pathways to drive content choices, refine the slides they pick for their sales deck and tailor assets they send with their follow up emails.”
The True Fit example is typical. Once content is directly aligned to buyer goals it fits much more fluidly into buyer conversations. A Demand Gen Reports Content Preferences Survey showed, in fact, that content categorized by goal and pain point was the top request for B2B buyers with 68% more likely to engage with content categorized this way and another 58% more likely to engage with content organized by industry vertical.
Developing a Content Pathway: Three Levels of Content Depth
In addition to organizing content into content pathways aligned to buyer value, a second important change is building content at three levels of depth to align to a buyer’s information needs and willingness to engage as they move through the buying process.
The most successful engagement strategy at any phase of the buyer journey starts with discovery on a buyer’s goals and targeted payoffs. Once there is a clear understanding of a buyer’s goal, the focus then shifts to providing evidence that a company can help advance this goal. We call this Value Mapping. Value mapping means linking our capabilities to buyer goals, showing how our capabilities can resolve current gaps, and providing evidence that our capabilities will lead to business impact or payoff.
Content is the single most important element of the value mapping phase of the buyer conversation. It is not enough just to claim impact, you need to demonstrate it. However, a buyer’s willingness to engage with content and spend time reviewing evidence varies significantly as they move through the buying process.
|Buying Phase||Buyer Self-Service Content||Seller-Delivered Content|
|1. Buyer Insights in Early Discovery||Website use cases
Buyer impact snippets
Recurring webinar series
Customer segment footprint
|2. Buyer Tailoring in Active Evaluation||Thought leadership blogs
Written case studies
Video blogs or testimonials
|Customer success narratives
Tailored sales deck
|3. Demonstrated Expertise for Decision-Making||Written case studies
Ebooks or whitepapers
|Customer reference list
Written case studies
Ebooks or whitepapers
Content Strategies for Buying Phase 1: Buyer Insights in Early Discovery
When a buyer is just getting to know your company, their main focus is on quickly understanding the answer to the question: “Do they have a solution that advances one of my key goals or resolves one of my challenges?”
Details about your product, the competitive strengths of your features and function set relative to other alternatives, or even case studies of success with other clients all just create noise until this basic question around goal or challenge alignment is answered. Your content marketing in your prospecting to secure and conduct initial discovery meetings with new buyers should briefly explain the problems you can help a company advance along with quick snippets on what is unique in your company’s approach and bullet points with evidence on how it works.
- Buyer Self-Service Content for Phase 1
There are a number of neglected self-service content marketing assets that are really effective in providing early value to the buyer and should be available on your website. The single most important is using your website-based use cases that clearly highlight the business goals your company helps advance. A second important content asset in early discovery is buyer impact snippets that document a key performance gain. The impact snippets can either be stand alone or part of a more detailed client success narrative or case study. A third type of self-service asset in early discovery is the recurring webinars series that consist of multiple sessions on different dates and times that educate about a goal or use case. Individual webinars can get lost in market noise or may bring one of our target buyers at a company but not the others.
- Seller-Delivered Content for Phase 1
In addition to self-service assets, I always encourage marketing and sales enablement leaders to provide their selling teams with content assets that support being a “trusted advisor” right from the initial email outreach. The most important seller delivered content asset in early discovery is research snippets linked to the company’s own research or third party research. These research snippets offer two or three sentence summaries of an industry trend or evidence on solving a specific buyer problem. The other way to arm a sales team with a high impact buyer insight for early discovery is to organize the company’s client base into a segment footprint with short lists of 6 to 8 key customers in each key market segment. I am amazed that less than one in five companies does this to support reference selling in prospecting outreach and sales conversations.
Content Strategies for Buying Phase 2: Buyer Tailoring in Active Evaluation
When a buyer moves from early discovery to active evaluation they now understand we can help them with a key business goal or challenge. Now their main focus shifts to understanding the answer to the question: “Why is this company the best partner to help solve my challenge and advance my goal?”
Once a buyer has made it out of an initial discovery call and is moving into conversations that may include a product demonstration, other stakeholders and discussions exploring funding and timeline options, buyers become focused on evaluating how you will solve their specific business problem. No buyer wants to feel like a guinea pig. At this point they want evidence that you have already solved their problem for “others like them”, which could mean other similar companies or others in a similar buying role.
- Buyer Self-Service Content for Phase 2
There are several self-service content marketing assets that are effective in helping buyers “self-tailoring” by identifying the most important elements of our solution. Thought leadership blogs are a very tangible way to speak to a specific buyer’s use case in bite-size pieces. Case studies hosted on the website are great for presenting the full lifecycle of a customer relationship, the mechanisms to drive outcomes, and buyer research that documents outcomes. Finally, video blogs or testimonials with featured members of the team speaking with customers about specific projects or business impact are a powerful way for team members and customers to directly share their experiences of working with your company. Personal narratives offer perspective on how the partnership moved the customer forward to a more desirable state.
- Seller-Delivered Content for Phase 2
As with early discovery, there are also a couple of key content assets that can be held in reserve to be made available directly by the sales team for use in their sales conversations. The most useful of these is the customer success narrative which helps a salesperson communicate, in one or two minutes,a “before and after” case where the company helped a similar buyer. The success narrative can be included a sales call either conversationally or verbally presented with support of a single slide per case study.Another content marketing asset that is high impact for use by the sales team, but almost never used in the evaluation phase, is the tailored sales deck that speaks specifically to a buyer use case with success narratives from peer customers. While it sits with the sales team to actually assemble and send a sales deck after a strong buyer call around specific use cases, it sits with the marketing or sales enablement team to put together modular slides with customer narratives as well as gap-capability slides that link a product description to solving a specific business use case.
Content Strategies for Buying Phase 3: Demonstrated Expertise for Decision Making
When a buyer moves from active evaluation to choosing between your solution, another alternative or doing nothing at all, they now believe you can solve their problem and their main focus is to understand the answer to the question: “What are my risks in selecting this vendor and do the benefits outweigh the risks?”
When a company gets to the point of considering a proposal from a vendor, the purchasing process changes in two ways. First, the sales process expands and starts to include new decision makers, such as a Chief Financial Officer or Vice President in a related department, who may not join the sales discussions directly. Second, there is a much higher focus on vendor risk and a desire to feel very good about the probabilities that if we invest time, money, and effort into this partnership it is going to “bear the fruit” of the business outcomes that are being promised.
- Seller-Delivered Content for Phase 3
In the decision-making phase of the buying process, it sits with the seller to provide the buyer with exactly the right content they need to de-risk a decision and move forward into a partnership. The most important seller-delivered content marketing in the decision phase are customer references. This should come from an internal customer reference list designed for the sales team to draw on in making targeted introductions specific to each buyer conversation.Another key type of content marketing asset in the decision-making phase is the customer case study. These can be hosted on the website and provided as links or stored in PDF files that can be emailed as attachments to individuals who are not directly involved in the purchasing conversations.A final key content marketing asset for the decision process is the whitepaper or ebook. Whitepapers typically create a persuasive, authoritative, in-depth report on a specific topic that presents a problem and provides a solution. Marketers create whitepapers to educate their audience about a particular issue, or explain and promote a particular methodology and demonstrate a depth of expertise. The decision-making phase of the buying process is the right time for sellers to draw upon these resources to help buyers support a final purchase decision.
Content Pathways and Revenue Production: True Fit and IMPACT See Results
The True Fit story demonstrates how a company can shift to a content delivery strategy aligned with buyer value using many existing assets but re-thinking how they are organized. True Fit saw an impressive increase in sales effectiveness by explicitly identifying key buyer goals and payoffs, then organizing discovery questions and content pathways aligned to these goals. The content pathways also helped the sales team know which content to provide, for particular buyer goals, at each phase of the buying process. Last but not least, the marketing team is now able to more effectively incorporate value-based narrative into new content thanks to the identification of the four key buyer goal focus areas. True Fit’s new approach to content is more strategic, achieves better alignment across sales, marketing and customer success teams and is driving increased revenue as a result.
IMPACT, a fast-growing digital sales and marketing agency, offers another great example of how a well designed content marketing strategy can impact business growth.
“Content can have a dramatic impact on a business, but a salesperson needs to know how to integrate content before, during and after each sales conversation” is the summary offered by Bob Ruffolo, CEO & Founder of IMPACT.
His partner, Marcus Sheridan, adds “Buyers are not dumb, they are going to get the information they need someplace. Good content gets ahead of the buyer’s questions and creates the feeling that ‘they have been reading my thoughts.’ In today’s marketplace, the idea of ‘seeing is believing’ has never been more true. You cannot just claim it, you need to use content throughout the marketing and sales process to back up your claims.”
IMPACT has developed a dramatic growth trajectory around the core principle “they ask, you answer,” meaning that in the “age of transparency” every buyer question gets an honest and transparent answer. This core commitment informs IMPACT’s digital sales and marketing offerings ranging from strategy work to a focus on web design, inbound and content marketing, video projects, paid and social search and HubSpot training and optimization.
After hearing the foundational principles for how the IMPACT leadership thinks about using content to drive growth, I asked Bob and Marcus, “So how do you apply the principles to your own sales and marketing growth?”
Marcus started, “First, like any company, we have to commit to getting beyond sales and marketing divided into standalone silos. The sales team has to co-develop the content and the content marketing strategy. Sales people talk with potential customers all day long, so they are going to know better the business use cases that sell. Also, if they co-develop the content, they are much more likely to use it. At most companies 90% of marketing-created content never gets used by sales. Co-development moves both teams beyond this.”
“Second, you have to provide different types of content for different parts of the sales process,” Marcus continued “We have interactive web elements and personal videos from every one of our experts that make things engaging and personal early on. We also have a ton of blogs and video blogs that can be used after an initial sales conversation to speak to an individual buyer’s use case. We also have case studies that highlight our very strong results that can be easily circulated within a buyer organization to support decision-making.”
Bob finished, “Another key is training our sales team how to use content and then holding them accountable. Training on use of content is part of the on-boarding process for any new sales or marketing team member. We also review content needs and best practices in using content in our weekly sales and marketing team meetings. We expect our sales team to actively use content in qualifying their deals. We train them to wrap up sales calls by saying something like, ‘before our next meeting I need you to watch this video and read this information.’ And, then we ask them to follow up with prospects before the call to see if they had a chance to read the information and if not to consider rescheduling.”
For the IMPACT team, well-designed and authentic content at each phase of the buyer journey has helped accelerate growth by anticipating and neutralizing buyer questions. This content strategy helps IMPACT’s buyers ‘see and believe’ in the opportunity to significantly enhance their business results before, during and after each conversation with a member of the sales team.
Content Marketing as Revenue Enablement: A Simple Self-Diagnostic
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to assess how well your content approach supports the buying process at all phases of the buyer’s journey:
- Does your content marketing directly address specific buyer goals and challenges?
- Does product or solution-oriented content link your solution’s capabilities to specific buyer outcomes and payoffs?
- Do your marketing, sales and customer success teams have a process for aligning content to the buyer goals that your solutions address? Can you identify a set of buyer goal “focus areas” that will help the teams prioritize and organize content aligned to buyer value?
- Is your content marketing developed as “content pathways” aligned to the buying process? If not intentionally developed this way, do you have suitable content that could be organized into content pathways aligned to specific buyer goals AND for three phases of the buying process?
- Do you coach and train your sales team on how to conduct value discovery then choose appropriate content assets aligned to identified buyer goals?
- Better yet, do you provide the sales team with resources clearly organized into content pathways to make it easier for them to follow a content sequence through the buying process?
Most CEO’s, revenue leaders and marketing leaders know that content marketing plays a critical role in establishing credibility and trust with potential customers. But remarkably few companies focus their content marketing effectively to align to buyer goals or to explicitly support each phase of the buying journey. Those who do, however, reap the rewards of better sales and marketing alignment that drives sales effectiveness and increased revenue.