Sunday, January 28, 2018

Why Social Sharing is a Poor Measure of B2B Content Performance

About a year ago, I published a post arguing that B2B marketers need to set realistic expectations for their content marketing efforts. This turned out to be our most widely-read post in 2017. The main theme of my post was that content marketing performance depends on several factors and that some of those factors are beyond marketers' control.

The annual content marketing surveys by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs have consistently shown that doing the right things in the right ways will have a major impact on content marketing success. But it's equally true that content marketing performance is affected by competitive forces that are beyond any company's control. For example, the amount of content available to potential buyers has increased dramatically, and this makes it harder for any company to consistently produce content that will capture buyer attention and win mindshare.

For the past couple of years, some marketing pundits have been using content sharing data to argue that content marketing has lost some of its punch and may not continue to be a viable strategy for some companies. For example, a 2016 study by Beckon found that the amount of content published by brands had tripled in the previous year, but that customer engagement had remained flat. Beckon also found that just 5% of the total content garnered 90% of the total customer engagements, meaning that 19 out of 20 content pieces generated little engagement.

Last November, Steve Rayson, the director of content research company BuzzSumo, wrote a guest post for Mark Schaefer's blog that analyzed recent trends in content publication and content sharing on social networks. His analysis found that as the volume of content published about a topic increases, there is a decline in the average engagement in terms of social shares. Rayson wrote, "Declining content engagement as publication volumes increase over time appears to be a common pattern."

While it's worthwhile for marketers to understand current trends in social content sharing, this type of data provides only limited insight regarding the effectiveness of content marketing, particularly in a B2B context. Here's why.

Most content sharing metrics only capture the number of times a piece of content is shared on public social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Therefore, these metrics will often understate the level of actual content sharing. In 2014, research by RadiumOne found that 69% of all content sharing globally takes place via private digital communication tools such as e-mail and instant messaging - what is typically called "dark social" sharing.

The RadiumOne research focused on consumers, but other research has found that private content sharing is even more prevalent among business buyers. As the following table shows, respondents in Demand Gen Report's annual content preferences surveys have consistently identified e-mail as the top channel for sharing business-related content with colleagues and business connections.

Not only do social sharing metrics often understate the actual amount of content sharing, they also don't provide a reliable indication of content engagement. Recent research by Chartbeat found that the correlation between social shares and content engagement is very weak. Also consider this. When a businessperson privately shares business-related content with his or her work colleagues, the engagement with that content is likely to be quite high. So typical social sharing metrics are even less effective at capturing content engagement in a B2B setting.

The bottom line is that social sharing metrics provide an incomplete picture of content marketing effectiveness. As a B2B marketer, one of your primary objectives is to entice your target audience to consume your content. If your content is widely shared across social networks, that may (or may not) boost the consumption of your content. However, the absence of social sharing doesn't necessarily mean that your content isn't being consumed by - and having an impact on - your target audience.

Top image courtesy of Nan Palmero via Flickr CC.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

New Research Tracks Progress on B2B Customer Experience

In 2013, Walker Information published the results of a study regarding the emerging importance of customer experience for B2B companies. Customers 2020:  The Future of B-to-B Customer Experience focused on how B2B companies should be preparing to meet changing customer expectations. In this research, study participants said they expected customer experience to surpass product and pricing as the key business differentiator by 2020.

Last fall, Walker published the results of a new study that was designed to take a fresh look at some of the issues addressed in the 2013 research and examine how much progress B2B companies have made on the customer experience journey. Customers 2020:  A Progress Report was based on a survey of more than 400 customer experience leaders and influencers, and on in-depth interviews with 22 senior business executives. Survey respondents represented a range of industries, company sizes, and job titles.

The 2017 research identified three core dimensions of B2B customer experience:

  • Personalization - "Customers want to do business with companies that know their individual and company needs and are willing to tailor the experience to meet those needs."
  • Ease - "Customers don't have time on their side and place a real premium on simplicity."
  • Speed - "Customers can't afford to wait around while their business issues are being considered. They value companies that provide real-time response and proactively anticipate their future needs."
Walker's research found that B2B customer experience professionals believe that customer expectations have risen across all three of these dimensions and will continue to rise for the foreseeable future. In the 2017 study, Walker asked survey participants to rate the level of customer expectations for personalization, ease, and speed at three points in time - in 2013, today (2017), and in 2020. The following table shows the percentage of survey respondents who said customer expectations were/are/will be high.

Walker's research also revealed that most B2B customer experience professionals don't believe their company is fully prepared to meet customer expectations for personalization, ease, and speed. As the following table shows, less than 10% of survey respondents said their company is very effective at delivering on the three critical components of B2B customer experience.

The findings of the Walker study aren't particularly surprising. Walker's research suggests that while the expectations of B2B customers are high and rising, those expectations are also primarily utilitarian. What B2B customers really want is to do business with companies that are fast, responsive, and easy to work with. 

Even personalization has a practical dimension. When a company understands my interests and needs, and has a complete picture of our existing relationship and previous interactions, I don't need to "reintroduce" myself at every new encounter.

Top image courtesy of Zach via Flickr CC.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

How Marketers Can Nurture Buyer Trust, and Why That Matters

B2B buyers are conditioned to view vendor-provided information with a healthy dose of skepticism, and this makes lack of trust an elephant-in-the-room issue for B2B marketers. Lack of trust produces a major drag on marketing performance. If buyers don't trust what you say, they won't give you credit for understanding their needs or providing relevant, personalized, and engaging content and experiences. Trust can't be manufactured, but the right approach to marketing can make trust more likely to develop.

According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in government, business, non-governmental organizations, and media fell significantly in 2017. Just over half (52%) of Edelman's survey respondents said they trust business organizations, but even this modest level of trust is tenuous. In 13 of the 28 countries represented in the Edelman study, less than 50% of the survey respondents said they trust business.

Recent research regarding trust in advertising and marketing has produced mixed results, but many studies show that trust is a major issue for marketers. For example, in a 2017 survey by TrustRadius, technology buyers ranked vendor or product websites and vendor collateral (ebooks, case studies, webinars, etc.) as the least helpful and trustworthy sources of information used to support buying decisions.

Lack of trust weakens the impact of all marketing efforts. In recent years, many marketers have been using insights from data to better understand the interests and needs of their buyers. And many have implemented personalization technologies in order to provide content and messaging that are more relevant and engaging for potential buyers. But without buyer trust, these efforts won't produce the improved performance that marketers are hoping to see.

Trust lies at the heart of every business relationship. Trust can't be manufactured; it must be earned from potential buyers. But while marketers (or sales professionals for that matter) cannot unilaterally create buyer trust, they can take steps to create an environment that makes potential buyers more likely to extend their trust. The starting point is to understand the factors that lead to trust, and the process by which trust develops.

The Foundation of Trust
In a business context, the decision to trust a prospective vendor depends on the buyer's perceptions about three factors:

  • Ability - Does the company possess the requisite knowledge, skill, and competence to perform in a way that will meet my expectations?
  • Integrity - Will the company fulfill its promises? Will the company's actions match its words and claims? Does the company adhere to principles that I find acceptable?
  • Benevolence - Will the company be sufficiently concerned about my (and my organization's) welfare to put our interests above (or at least on par with) its own?
Perceptions regarding ability and integrity have the greatest influence on the willingness to trust in the early stages of a relationship, simply because it takes a potential buyer longer to assess the benevolence of a prospective vendor.
How Trust Develops
Most leading authorities contend that trust develops in stages. In a 2003 essay, Professors Roy J. Lewicki and Edward C. Tomlinson identified two distinct stages of trust development.
Calculus-Based Trust - In the early stages of a relationship, trust is primarily a cognitively-driven phenomenon. We carefully calculate how another person (or a company) is likely to behave in a given situation, and we extend our trust only to the extent necessary to achieve a desired outcome. Calculus-Based Trust is tentative and fragile, and it is usually based on our assessment of a person's (or a company's) predictability and reliability.
Identification-Based Trust - As a relationship evolves through repeated interactions, the parties may learn that they share certain values and goals. When that happens, trust can grow to a higher and qualitatively different level - what Lewicki and Tomlinson call Identification-Based Trust. Unlike Calculus-Based Trust, Identification-Based Trust is primarily an emotion-driven phenomenon, which makes it more durable and less susceptible to disruption than Calculus-Based Trust.
How Marketers Can Nurture Trust
So given what we know about the factors that lead to trust, and the process of trust development, the next questions is:  What can marketers do to earn the trust of potential buyers? There are, in fact, several steps that marketers can take to nurture trust, but here are two of the most important.
Make Content and Messaging Authoritative - Buyers are more likely to see marketing content and messaging as trustworthy if it is authoritative. Therefore, marketers should avoid making unsubstantiated claims and assertions. As I've written before, marketing content resources and messages don't need to read or sound like an academic journal, but the main points should be supported by sound evidence, preferably from sources that are recognized as reputable and credible.
Avoid "Marketing Speak" - Buyers are also more likely to view marketing content and messaging as trustworthy if it doesn't contain a lot of marketing speak. It's difficult to define marketing speak in a precise and comprehensive way, but as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about hard-core pornography, "I know it when I see it." And so will most B2B buyers. 
Marketing speak can involve the use of buzzwords and over-the-top or overly-simplistic claims, but it also exists when the overall tone of marketing content or messaging is too promotional. I use a simple test to avoid this particular strain of marketing speak. When I finish a content resource, I ask myself this question:  If an independent and respected journalist were writing an article about this topic, would the tone of the article be similar to my resource?

Image courtesy of Terry Johnston via Flickr CC.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Confront the "Elephants in the Room" to Maximize Marketing Performance in 2018

Early in my consulting career, I worked with a small company that was owned and managed by a husband-wife team. The business had been fairly successful for most of its ten-year history, but when I began working with the company, it had been losing money for more than a year, and was on the verge of going broke.

In the course of interviewing the owners and many of the company's employees, the core problem became apparent. The husband-owner was having an affair with one of the employees. At that time, the affair had been going on for about two years. The wife-owner and many of the employees knew about the affair, but no one openly acknowledged it, and no one talked about it, except through veiled innuendos. Though it was never mentioned, the affair was undermining the success of the company.

I've shared this experience because it's a classic example of an elephant in the room, and I've encountered elephants in the room several times in my work with clients. The defining characteristic of an elephant in the room is a conspiracy of silence, in which a group of people are all personally aware of an issue or problem, but tacitly agree to outwardly ignore it.

Elephants in the room frequently exist in a business setting when:

  • Company leaders and managers perceive that an issue or problem is unsolvable or beyond their control.
  • The only effective solution for an issue or problem would be painful or highly disruptive to implement.
  • The issue or problem creates doubt about the effectiveness or value of a fundamental aspect of the company's strategy or operations.
When faced with these kinds of issues or problems, we humans tend to put on a brave face, keep doing what we've been doing, and hope for the best. Another appropriate idiom might be "whistling past the graveyard." The only way to deal with an elephant in the room is to get past the conspiracy of silence, discuss the issue or problem openly, and make an informed decision regarding what to do about it, all of which is easier said than done.

Elephants in the room can affect any part of a business, and marketing is no exception. If we look carefully, we can easily identify several elephant-in-the-room issues that are negatively affecting the performance of B2B marketing. We marketers tend to down play, gloss over, or ignore these issues because they are difficult to address, often require "radical" solutions, and in some cases, aren't completely within our control.

There's no doubt that the practice of B2B marketing has changed dramatically. We now have marketing capabilities that were unheard of only a few years ago. But there are also some elephant-in-the-room issues that we must address if we want to maximize the productivity of our marketing efforts. In short, we need to make 2018 the year that we name and tame the elephants in the room.

In several future posts, I'll be discussing some of these elephant-in-the-room issues, and I would love to hear your thoughts on these important issues.

Illustration courtesy of Bit Boy via Flickr CC.