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We see internet disruptions every day. The results of which are obvious in highly visible industries, such as media and publishing, music, consumer products, advertising and more.

It has also affected the way B2B companies go to market. Most notably, on the marketing side where advertising has become more competitive, less effective, and usually reaches a point of diminishing returns.

In fact, it’s become so difficult to figure out where our target audience is consuming information, it’s no wonder why marketers are so frustrated.

From a sales perspective, the internet has put a serious damper on the sales person’s ability to prospect. No one wants to talk to them. Most aren’t equipped to prospect online. After all, that’s not covered in sales training. And because they’re under pressure to make quota, most will give up too early. So they go back to doing what they’ve always done—make calls, send emails and go to networking events and conferences.

What’s Different?

This subtle disruption may be showing up in several ways:

• Your revenue has remained flat, or it has steadily declined, year over year–all despite being in an industry growing up around you, or a growing economy in general.
• Or, maybe your company has a revolving door of sales people, who are in and out faster than you get to know their names.
• Perhaps you’ve always relied on referrals, and maybe you still get them, but it’s not going to be enough to grow revenue like you want.
• And you might have noticed an increased animosity between sales and marketing departments. After all, marketing believes they’re doing great because the web traffic is up. Sales thinks the leads are terrible and marketing isn’t doing enough for them.

The Marketing Shift

Investing in marketing has always been dicey for companies with a complex sale. I’m defining complex here as any company with a product or service that requires a sales person to touch it before it becomes a deal. These products and services are usually costly to purchase, have long sales cycles, require education and consultation, and result in some sort of customized solution.

Many B2B CEOs that I’ve talked to are still hesitant to shift dollars into a demand generation system because they haven’t been able to measure marketing success very well in the past.

And even with internet measurement tools like Google Analytics, the measurement is still at the campaign level. In other words, branding and awareness marketing activities will always be difficult to measure when it comes to the true impact on revenue.

Therefore, simply making a larger investment in marketing and assigning a series of new projects (like starting a blog) won’t get you where you need to go in the digital world. Marketing people of the past are ill-equipped to handle lead generation through content marketing.

And here’s why: Over the last 10 years, the sales model has begun breaking down.
A good sales person used to be able to prospect enough with the phone, email, networking and knocking on doors to fill their calendars with appointments.

All they needed from marketing was branding and awareness, which is why most marketing people are trained this way.

In fact, as a B2B marketing director in the late 90s, I remember our sales people telling me: “I just want them to have heard of us when I call them.” And therefore, we focused our marketing efforts on mass media—mostly advertising and public relations to get the word out so that our sales people had some air cover. We also developed brochures, websites and sell sheets to help them close deals.

Today’s Sales Cycle

But today, sales people are finding it more and more difficult to get into enough sales conversations to make quota. Branding simply won’t open enough doors.

It’s not that we ever wanted to talk to a sales person, but it was necessary when it came to getting the information we needed.

Think about even a simple example of how you might buy a TV today as opposed to 10 years ago. Back then, you would go to Best Buy, find a salesperson, and start asking questions so you could make the right purchase.

Today, you’ll most likely do an internet search first, read reviews, shop for best pricing, and so on. Now, when you do show up at Best Buy, you’re armed to the hilt with information. So how likely are you to talk to the sales person?

My response when they ask me if I need help is usually, “Where are the TVs?” Or, “Your website says you have the Samsung model XKY in stock—can I take a look?”

Sales is Struggling

This same buying process is happening today with every B2B company, whether they know it or not. People are starting their searches for answers on the internet first. They will reach out to sales people, but only when they are ready to buy.

And because people are diagnosing their own problems and prescribing their own solutions, they often get it wrong.

Take the marketing automation industry for example. Do you know of a company that has bought Marketo, Pardot, Eloqua, Hubspot and more, just to have it sit on the shelf collecting dust? They grossly underestimated what it would take to operate them effectively, but it was the answer to their marketing problem, right?

If they’d been willing to talk to a sales person first, they would have told them what’s involved, what the team should look like, options for finding the right resources, and an estimate of what it might cost so a strategy could be prepared before spending any money on technology.

This is especially true if your sales people are selling products and services in an emerging industry. Prospects may not even know that they have a problem in the first place.

So if they’re not willing to take your call, and you can’t figure out where to find them at a conference or networking event, what are you supposed to do as a sales person?


Marketing Must do the Heavy Lifting

Don’t get me wrong. Sales people today are still responsible for developing 1 to 1 sales conversations and running the sales process. They’re still responsible for prospecting and getting into sales conversations. No one is saying they should wait around for the Glen Garry leads from Marketing.

And Marketing is still responsible for branding and awareness—the problem is, it’s not enough to drive one-to-one sales conversations.

The problem for both marketing and sales is that we now have a highly fragmented audience where the marketing activities that we’re used to — like advertising, public relations, SEO and social media — are all having diminishing returns.

And this is important for today’s B2B company. The only metric that matters for marketing is lead conversion. For those of you that know the lingo already, that’s Marketing Qualified Leads (in other words, someone that demonstrates digital behavior) and how many of those turned into sales conversations, or Sales Accepted Leads.

Creating Purposeful Content

If content marketing strategy is therefore intended to convert into b2b sales conversations, each piece that we produce must provide some sort of lead intelligence. Sales can then use this intelligence to try and have a conversation that leads down a buying path.

The bottom line is: if your marketing isn’t putting out content for people to find on a regular basis, you’re missing opportunities. Marketing strategy must be aligned with sales in B2B companies with a complex sale if they’re going to grow revenue—period.

This is important, so I’ll say it again, marketing’s new role in B2B is to drive one-to-one sales conversations digitally where salespeople either have difficulty getting their attention or are unaware of opportunities in the first place. It’s lead generation first, branding second. Branding in this case usually comes as a byproduct of this process when done well.

Even more critical, most innovative B2B companies know that it is now marketing’s burden to build as much of that trust online possible by providing thought leadership and lead intelligence in the form of engaging content that creates a unique experience for the consumer. In short, marketing must do the heavy lifting.

Marketing Like a Media Company

Some time in 2011, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City decided that it could not rely on its 150-year history to acquire enough new audiences—they needed to launch a massive digital initiative.

Two years later, they made an unconventional hire for their first Chief Digital Officer with Sree Sreenivasan, a veteran professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism with very limited experience in the world of art history.

Sreenivasan leads their content marketing department like it’s a full-blown media company, with 70-person “newsroom” with strategists, writers, designers, videographers and more. Their editorial mission is to extend art to everyone, regardless of whether they physically come to one of their museums or not.

When your mission shifts from selling product and service to building audience and monetizing it later, how does that change the marketing that you would produce?

For the Met, they do creative storytelling in innovative ways. The example I like to point to is their Artist project series where they brought in 100 famous artists to the museum, put them on camera, and had them talk about their favorite piece and why. Then, they launched the series Netflix-style on their website so viewers can binge watch if they want.

Sreenivasan told me in an interview that he believes the future of every business is storytelling and finding the right way to tell the right story at the right time. And one of the biggest things he’s learned in his tenure at the Met is these lessons apply to every business, big and small, B2B and consumer.

That includes the importance of mobile, social, and video. But most importantly, it’s not about thinking of your audience as millions of people, even though that’s what they have at the Met, but rather it’s about thinking about the right people following you for the right reasons.

The point of this is example is that effective content marketing in B2B means thinking about your audience first, and connecting them with the right message, at the right time, and in the right sequence.

The digital experience must be so good that people want to stay connected to your content, and to have your audience participate in the conversation, you have to think like them.

Now, you certainly don’t have to build an entire news room (although that would be awesome!) but I show you this example because engaging an audience requires marketers to think differently. More like the mindset of a publisher.

In other words, think like a magazine and not like its advertisers. When publishing content, it’s all about what the readers want. It takes frequency (publishing at predictable intervals) and it takes database management (collection of digital behavior) to continuously serve up content that gets your prospect to pick up your publication at the newsstand (or read your email or blog post and want to consume more).

Getting to Know Your Audience

So how does content become a sales conversation anyway? It starts with the creation of content that is going to identify some lead intelligence on a prospect when they consume it. This is why the content strategy that maps to the sales process from the get go is so important.

But even Before you start pumping out blogs and buying marketing automation systems, it’s time to get to know your audience.

Doing that requires involving every part of your team that is client facing– from customer service, to account leads, to sales, to executives. They all know something about the customer that you don’t as a marketer.

For example, you might want to Interview your sales team about the types of customers they target. If they’re face-to-face with a prospect, how do they probe for painpoints? What did the sales conversation in a recent win sound like when they identified them as a prospect? In other words, what was the key issue that prompted the client to talk to you in the first place?

After interviewing colleagues, you can dig deeper by calling your customers and prospects and asking them to validate your assumptions.

Chances are, your customers were facing similar issues in their day-to-day lives as your prospects. Identifying those problems will inspire the content you’ll create to help them solve their problem and hopefully use you to do it.

I should also note that content at the top of the funnel cannot and should not focus on the products and services offered by the company. That comes much later in the sales cycle, when a customer is ready to make a purchase decision and you’re down to answering objections and running sales process.

Once you get that strategy in place and start developing content, you can then start to figure out how you’re going to distribute it so that it gets in front of the right audience and generates leads for sales.

Where to Find Content

If there’s any question about where to get content from, I’ll reiterate that sales and other customer facing job functions are a good place to start. They’re on the front lines with customers and prospects daily. They know what problems they typically solve, what common objections they hear, and what trigger events lead to sales conversations. That’s where you get content topics to generate top-of-the-funnel interest—by focusing on pain, pain, and more pain.

You’re going to need an ongoing process for extracting information from your subject matter experts so that you can communicate in mediums that make sense for your consumer. And you want that anyway because you want quality writing. So say hello to journalists, designers, videographers and other media personnel!

If there’s any doubt as to why many large companies are hiring journalists to write for them, it should be apparent now.

The Sales Pyramid

But anyway, let’s get back to sales and what the process now looks like with a demand generation engine providing marketing qualified leads.

Any good sales prospector should be able to use marketing’s support in the digital world to prioritize his or her prospecting efforts.

Jeb Blount, in his book Fanatical Prospecting, talks about a pyramid of prospecting where top sales performers view their prospect database as a pyramid:

At the bottom of the pyramid are the thousands of prospects they know little about other than a company name and perhaps some contact information. These are the coldest of the cold.

The goal with these prospects is always be moving them up the pyramid by gathering information, and qualifying. At the tip-top are highly qualified prospects who are moving into the buying window.

These are the highest-priority prospects and should be on the top of a sales representative’s daily prospecting list.

Once those top priorities have been exhausted, the sales person can move down the pyramid, following up on Marketing Qualified Leads and using lead intelligence to foster sales conversations.

If your sales people are always working at the bottom of the pyramid (the coldest of the cold) they’re probably not going to make quota. And even worse, if you’ve got good sales people who are always working at the bottom of the pyramid, you risk losing them to a competitor who can help them with marketing leads.


Measurement and Analysis

Of course, companies want to know the what content marketing’s return on investment will be, but it depends on several factors.

Let’s start with whether everyone in the organization has bought into the concept of content marketing. If the CEO is going to spend a few dollars to try it out, and 3 months later decide it’s not working and goes back to hiring more sales people, your ROI will be nada. (I’ve met several CEOs that fit this model exactly.)

Another question is, can you accurately measure your sales process now? In other words, where are your deals coming from now, and what percentage of them do you close?

Also, do you have technology in place such as marketing automation and a CRM, and do your sales people actually use it?

If your answer to all of those questions is yes, then it should be relatively easy to track some pretty significant numbers that will tell you exactly where to spend money and what needs to be fixed.

If not, then this is where you start: getting buy-in for content marketing, establishing a baseline for sales and marketing metrics, developing content, putting in the right technology, testing, and measuring.

If you are generating plenty of leads (or MQLs) every month, the statistics should show how many sales conversations that leads to. From those sales conversations, how many turn into opportunities? And of those opportunities, how many are we closing?

Playing around with those numbers will start to give you a sense of where to spend money.

If you’re closing a large majority of leads that come from various sources, but you don’t have enough “at bats” to move the revenue forward, you’ve got a marketing problem and you need to spend money to produce more qualified leads.

If you’re generating plenty of leads, but they aren’t turning into sales conversations, you could have a problem with the quality of content that your producing, or sales could be ill-equipped to nurture leads and run sales process.

Once you have real data, the measurement can even get more granular.

By determining your overall customer acquisition costs — all the money you spend on marketing and sales people for a given time period divided by the total number of customers you got in that time period — you can calculate all the way down to how much one lead was worth to you.

Content marketing done correctly should be completely measureable, giving you the ability to know where you’re going to have the best return on investment.


Finding the Budget

Acquiring new customers is expensive. It always has been.

Content marketing is no different because it’s a long game, and you should expect to make some significant expenditures in the short term to get it moving. It’s like pushing a giant boulder down a hill—it takes an extreme amount of energy to get it moving, and then it should generate momentum on its own.

So where to find the money for content? A lot of times, it’s about shifting available resources. I know—easier said than done. But If you’re currently spending marketing dollars on pay-per-click ads that have shown diminishing returns, of if you’re currently spending dollars to have a “presence at trade shows,” those are some good places to start.

Another place to look is the expenditures within your sales force. Do you have too many expensive sales people? Can any of the business development and nurturing functions be transitioned to an inside sales team?

But most importantly, stop hiring sales people because they promise a large rolodex of industry prospects that they can bring to the table. The only reason to hire more consultative sales people is that marketing and business development are sending over so many qualified leads that the closers can’t keep up.

Re-allocate and invest that money into a marketing front end that leads with great content that is going to add value to your prospects.

They’ll thank you with their business.

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