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The Complete Guide to B2B Content Marketing

By: Compose.ly — December 31, 2020

When writers first dip their toes in the B2B market, they commonly make the mistake of approaching it like B2C content. There’s a lot more freedom and flexibility involved in creating consumer-facing content, which can afford to be more casual and tends to be less dense than business copy.

B2B (business-to-business) content, on the other hand, speaks to busy professionals. They don’t need you as the writer to explain basic business concepts, nor do they have time for it. The B2B reader wants you to meet them at a relatively high level and offer in-depth insights, relevant thought leadership, and actionable tips with as little fluff as possible.

This article will help you as a writer to understand the differences between B2B and B2C audiences and learn how to create targeted content that speaks to B2B readers’ needs. You’ll find out the answers to questions like:

  • What is B2B content marketing?
  • Why is it important?
  • What are some B2B content marketing best practices that you can use right now?
  • What companies are doing B2B content marketing well?

Let’s start with the basics.

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What Is B2B Content Marketing?

In a nutshell, B2B content marketing is the practice of engaging and attracting business owners and stakeholders. How does this differ from B2C (business-to-consumer) content marketing?

Unlike their B2C counterparts, B2B buyers make decisions based on practicality and logic, not emotion. It’s not about satisfying a want but rather, fulfilling a need—“We need a cloud computing service to reduce our costs” versus “I want the new iPhone to impress my friends.” A B2B buyer wants to know how a purchase can improve their bottom line, whether that’s a matter of decreasing costs or driving profits.

The other major difference is the buying cycle. The B2B buying cycle tends to be significantly longer than the B2C cycle. In B2B, more decision-makers are involved, sales are bigger, and companies are more likely to be seeking a long-term solution.

B2B content has to account for this longer buying cycle as well as the very specific needs of the decision-maker. Every piece of content needs to establish the sponsoring organization as a trusted partner and help the reader move toward their business goals. That means B2B companies don’t rely only on blogs. Instead, an effective B2B content marketing strategy can include any format likely to engage its target audience, including:

  • Webinars
  • White papers
  • Explainer videos
  • Podcasts
  • Infographics
  • Twitter chats

The through-line in all content marketing, regardless of format, is its intent to inform rather than sell. Pay-per-click ads, promotional emails, and their ilk have their places for sure, but content takes a different tactic. Common B2B content marketing goals include:

  • Building relationships with potential business customers
  • Creating affinity between the target customer and the sponsoring company
  • Establishing the sponsoring company and/or its leadership as an industry thought leader
  • Suggesting a solution to a particular pain point
  • Capturing leads and driving sales

Bottom-line growth is the ultimate end goal of almost any content marketing campaign, but it’s not the explicit focus of content marketing, whether it’s B2B or B2C.

Content marketing helps first and sells second, if at all. It reads more like a magazine article than an advertisement, sometimes barely mentioning the company that sponsors it. Its goal is to build trust in the reader and be an authoritative source of information, ideally one that the reader would return to in the future.

Advertising says, “Buy from us.” Content marketing, on the other hand, says, “If you need us, we’re here.”

Why Is B2B Content Marketing Important?

It’s important to play the long game when you sell to B2B buyers because, as you’ve learned, B2B buyers take a long time to make a decision. That’s always been the case, but as time goes on, much more of the decision-making process happens online.

According to Gartner research, 27% of a B2B buying group’s time involves researching independently online, compared with just 17% spent meeting with suppliers.

(Image credit: Gartner)

What’s more, 62% of B2B buyers believe they can make a decision based solely on digital content. To compete in this marketplace, a company has to provide some of the resources that help buyers understand their problem, learn how to solve it, and ultimately, identify who can provide a solution.

Content marketing mostly focuses on those first two questions. It’s how a company makes itself known to customers that need more information before they make a commitment. And when the company does it right, content marketing builds the foundation for that all-important supplier relationship.

5 Best Practices for More Effective B2B Content Marketing

Good content marketing strikes a delicate balance. It increases brand awareness for the company that sponsors the content, but readers don’t walk away feeling like they’ve been sold to.

Here’s how you make that happen.

1. Create a Detailed Buyer Persona

B2B marketing is all about relationships. Unlike the B2C buyer, who tends to be just one in a large and faceless cohort, the B2B buyer tends to need an individual solution. That’s part of why the B2B buying cycle is so long, and it’s the main reason why traditional B2B sales teams spent the bulk of their time meeting with clients.

Today, content has to cover a lot of that relationship-building. It has to show the buyer that the sponsoring company understands their needs and has a flexible enough solution to meet those needs, no matter how complex they might be.

It’s not an impossible task, but it does require the content creator to understand the reader. That means going beyond the basics of industry and topic to create a character sketch of the imagined reader.

The Content Marketing Institute suggests the following steps to create a detailed and accurate persona:

  1. Describe your reader as a person and professional. What’s their job title and function? What’s their experience and background? How does their job fit in the organization?
  2. Identify the responsibilities, goals, and obstacles they face. What challenges frustrate them the most? What needs and pain points do they have?  Be as specific as possible.
  3. Place them in the buying cycle. How much influence do they have in the decision-making process? What questions are they likely to have? How will they look for the answers?
  4. Identify their preferred channels. What resources and data do they trust? How do they usually encounter content? When they seek it out, how and when do they do it?
  5. Recognize how they would engage with a service provider. The Content Marketing Institute calls this the “engagement scenario.” It’s a dialogue that helps you identify what questions you’ll need to answer and how you can best overcome potential objections. Here’s an example:

2. Target a Specific Stage of the Buyer Journey

In the longer B2B sales cycle, prospects spend more time in each phase of the buyer’s journey. Your job as a content creator is to understand where in the cycle a prospect is likely to be when they read your content and to move them toward choosing the company that will be publishing the piece.

The buyer’s journey has three broad phases:

  1. Awareness. The reader is starting to understand that they have a problem. They seek out content to better understand what that problem is and why it’s happening.
  2. Consideration. The reader has identified the problem and given it a name. Now, their goal is to research the possible approaches to solving that problem. They haven’t settled on an approach yet, so they’re not ready to choose a solution provider.
  3. Decision. The prospect has settled on a general approach and is weighing the pros and cons of different vendors.

By identifying where your reader is in this journey, you can craft more relevant content.

3. Research Trending Topics

To get clicks from B2B readers, you need to know what topics are trending in your target industry. You can get a lot of great insight from BuzzSumo, which lets you search for widely shared content and mentions of a topic or brand.

With the paid version, you can also do a content analysis that will show you how different topics perform across different social media sites. It will even tell you how length and publication date affect the shareability of content on a particular topic.

Think about each topic in terms of why your target audience would seek it out. What would they want an article about that topic to include? What would they want to accomplish by reading it?

Remember to think in terms of your reader persona and where that person is in the sales cycle. If you’re writing an article about cloud-based solutions, you’d create something very different for a C-suite executive in the decision phase versus an IT manager in the awareness stage.

4. Avoid Over-Promotion

As you’ve seen, connecting to the reader is a major component of the B2B content writer’s preparation process. Too often, though, that connection gets lost when the actual work of content creation begins.

If you’ve followed the tips outlined here, you’ll start the writing process with a specific persona, an understanding of where they are in the buying process, and a knowledge of what they want to know and why. Your next challenge is to balance that understanding with the goals of the sponsoring company.

Every marketing department’s ultimate goal is to close the sale. Every content writer, whether internal or freelance, wants their material to convert. It’s easy to forget, especially if you’re used to writing for B2C audiences, that conversion might be far down the line.

Don’t push the sale. You can mention the company’s products or services unless you hear otherwise from the marketing department, but keep the focus on education.

Instead of:

For just $19.99 a month, ABC Cloud Computing can help you to avoid costly file loss.

Try:

According to ABC Cloud Computing data, companies can save up to $X a year by storing their files in the cloud.

The second example piques the reader’s interest in cloud computing, priming them for more information down the line.

5. Tell a Compelling Story

As you’ve learned, the content creator’s ultimate goal is to forge a connection between the reader and the company that sponsored the content. Statistics like the one suggested above are great for establishing trust and authority, but nothing beats a story for building brand affinity.

Humans are wired to connect through narrative. When we listen to a story, research says, our minds and bodies behave almost as though we’re experiencing that situation in real life. Our hearts race, our facial expressions react, and the emotional processing centers in our brains activate.

When a brand can use content to tell its story, it builds relationships much more quickly, and its messages are much more memorable. Look for opportunities to weave stories into your B2B content, covering a variety of perspectives. For example:

  • Include case studies from the company’s existing clients.
  • Share the sponsoring company’s origin story, focusing on why the company exists.
  • Feature detailed examples to illustrate a concept.

Keep customers at the center of your story as much as you can. Even if you’re telling the story of a company, focus on what the company wants to contribute and how it makes that contribution. Remember, the main benefit of a narrative is to help the reader feel connected.

4 Powerful B2B Content Marketing Examples

Now that you have a toolbox of B2B content marketing best practices, it’s time to see how top companies have applied those ideas. Examples are stories, after all, and these are bound to show you what B2B content marketing can do in the right hands.

1. Salesforce’s Multimedia Content

Salesforce is the top-ranking customer relationship management (CRM) solution in the world, boasting almost a 20% market share. That’s nearly four times its closest competitor, Oracle.

Part of what keeps Salesforce at the top is its multimedia content marketing strategy. The company has created a multi-platform content library that includes:

  • An interactive SlideShare—the world’s first stop-motion slide presentation
  • An engaging Prezi on customer success
  • Videos that provide actionable sales and marketing advice

Just three months after launching its current strategy, Salesforce saw its traffic increase 80% over the previous year. It also welcomed:

  • 2,500% more traffic to its social pages
  • 10,000 ebook downloads
  • 6,500 newsletter signups

The numbers don’t lie, and when you check out the materials themselves, you see quickly why they’re so effective. They directly address the audience’s needs and make solutions easy to understand. You could spend an afternoon exploring this company’s B2B content and learn a great deal.

2. Single Grain’s Marketing School Podcast

When digital marketing agency Single Grain set out to expand its customer base and get more high-profile clients, it started a content marketing push that included a digital marketing blog and comprehensive resource center that both showcase the company’s expertise.

The crowning jewel of this B2B content marketing strategy is the Marketing School podcast. It features Single Grain CEO Eric Siu in partnership with digital marketing guru Neil Patel. There may be a bit of name-dropping involved in that choice, but it worked—Marketing School has generated plenty of shares, links, and Twitter mentions, including the following:


3. SAP’s Segmentation Strategy

As an enterprise software vendor involved with more than a dozen industries, SAP understands the importance of relevance firsthand. You can see it in its purposefully segmented content strategy, which includes tailored messaging to 19 distinct customer groups. Just look at the variety of posts SAP published in a single two-day span:

SAP’s segmented strategy focuses on actionable solutions, and it doesn’t stop with the blog. SAP also tweets, emails subscribers, hosts virtual events, and more. According to the Digital Marketing Institute, this strategy contributed to pipeline growth worth $50 million.

4. The Content Marketing Institute Twitter Chats

Remember the buyer persona guide you read earlier in this article? That comes from the Content Marketing Institute, a B2B resource geared toward content pros like you. One of its most successful strategies is the #CMWorld Twitter chat.

Once a week, #CMWorld hosts invited guests who answer pre-selected marketing questions from the audience. It’s an interactive real-time complement to the company’s blog, which is also a beautiful example of B2B content marketing best practices. Articles are solution-focused and weigh heavily on the educational side of things, as opposed to the promotional.

The Takeaway: Start Producing Great Content

As you’ve seen, B2B content marketing is a powerful way for companies to attract potential buyers. It meets prospective customers where they are and offers value without being pushy. Unlike more blatant advertising, content demonstrates a company’s expertise with subtlety, earning the trust of shoppers who could become buyers when they’re ready.

To do that, you need to know who you’re writing for. That’s why it’s so important to have a buyer persona and know where they are in the decision-making process. Are they just starting to think about a particular problem, or are they closer to being ready to buy?

Once you know your audience, you can look at what topics will interest them and, most importantly, how to frame those topics so the reader doesn’t feel like they’re being “sold.” Remember: When in doubt, tell a story.

This article was written by Compose.ly writer Ellie Diamond.


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