Sunday, May 27, 2018

It's Time to Think Differently About Content Marketing

Content marketing has been an integral part of marketing at most B2B companies for most of the past decade. In every annual survey conducted by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs (beginning in 2010), about nine out of ten surveyed B2B marketers have reported their company was using content marketing in some form.

Given the widespread popularity and near universal adoption of content marketing, you may be surprised to hear that some marketing industry analysts and thought leaders are contending that it's time to think about content marketing differently.

For example, Gartner has suggested that the term "content marketing" will soon become obsolete. In the 2018 Magic Quadrant for Content Marketing Platforms, Gartner writes, "By 2021, the term 'content marketing' will be defunct as all marketing content rises to high-quality expectations of attention-limited audiences."

In an October 2017 article at Forbes, John Ellett argued that it's time to stop treating content marketing as a distinct marketing discipline. He wrote, "For the past several years, content marketing has been all the rage and has been viewed as a discrete discipline within marketing. With no disrespect to the great folks at Content Marketing Institute who have done amazing work in helping marketers better understand the value of content, it's time to quit developing content marketing strategies and start developing plans for how content supports marketing strategies."

These views aren't intended to suggest that content marketing is no longer effective or valuable. Instead, they simply reflect the fact that content marketing is maturing in a normal fashion.

The Gartner hype cycle is often used to track the evolution of marketing techniques and practices. In the hype cycle framework, a new marketing practice usually receives a huge amount of hype when it first appears, which leads to the spread of inflated expectations for the practice. When a practice fails to live up to these unreasonable expectations, many people become disillusioned with it, and some abandon it completely. But in time, some marketers develop more realistic expectations for the practice and begin to use it productively.

We also frequently see a parallel pattern in the evolution of some marketing practices. When a new marketing practice begins to receive a significant amount of hype, a gaggle of "experts" soon appears to help companies adopt and use the practice. These experts usually describe the practice as a new and distinct marketing discipline. Some even argue that the new practice should replace other marketing methods, and that the "old" rules of marketing are no longer applicable. In time, however, astute marketers recognize that the fundamental objectives of marketing haven't changed, and they begin to view the new practice as a tool for achieving those objectives.

We can see this pattern in the evolution of content marketing. As its popularity and use have grown, we have come to view content marketing as a distinct marketing discipline. Overall, this has been good because it has supported the rapid development of a substantial body of knowledge about how to do content marketing effectively. The downside of this approach is that it makes it easy for us to view content marketing as an end unto itself.

The essence of content marketing is the use of informative or entertaining content to, as the Content Marketing Institute puts it, "attract and retain a clearly defined audience - and ultimately to drive profitable customer action." Such content is used to "fuel" marketing communications programs that are designed to achieve a variety of marketing objectives, many of which have remained largely unchanged for many years. Therefore, what we now call content marketing is really about using a distinctive kind of content to achieve long-standing marketing goals.

So, it's important to first define our marketing goals, and then determine how to use content to reach those goals. I believe that in time content marketing will cease to be viewed as a discrete type of marketing strategy or method. It will be assimilated into the fabric of marketing, and it will simply be the way marketing is done.

Illustration courtesy of The Wild Blogger via Flickr CC.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Missing Pieces of the Sales-Marketing Alignment Puzzle

Research continues to show that marketing-sales alignment remains a significant challenge for many companies. Earlier this year, for example, InsideView published The State of Sales & Marketing Alignment in 2018, which was based on a survey of more than 500 sales and marketing professionals.

In this survey, 75% of marketing respondents, and 63% of sales respondents reported having a good or excellent relationship with their counterparts. However, respondents also rated the marketing-sales relationship as weak or very weak on several vital demand generation activities.

Many B2B companies have been trying to crack the code on sales-marketing alignment for more than a decade. So why has this task proven to be so difficult? Part of the reason success has been elusive is that most companies have focused on only one piece of the alignment puzzle.

Shared Understanding Isn't Enough

Many of the "best practices" for achieving sales-marketing alignment are intended to create a shared understanding among marketing and sales professionals regarding the critical components of the company's demand generation strategy and process, some of which include:

  • The definition of the target market, and the characteristics of the ideal customer (the "Ideal Customer Profile")
  • Core value propositions
  • Customer buying processes
  • Lead management processes (lead stage definitions, scoring criteria, etc.)
Clearly, marketing and sales can't be aligned if they aren't "on the same page" regarding these vital aspects of demand generation. But such shared understanding alone won't automatically create the level of alignment - or, more accurately, operational integration - that's necessary for high performance demand generation.
Even with such shared understanding, marketing and sales can easily continue to operate without the required level of ongoing collaboration and coordinated effort. So, what else is needed to produce the quality of alignment that most B2B company want?
The Other Pieces of the Alignment Puzzle
Marketing-sales alignment that is highly effective requires two things in addition to shared understanding. First, there must be a widespread recognition among marketing and sales professionals that the two functions are now deeply interdependent. In other words, marketers and sales professionals must recognize that they need each other, and that an integrated approach to demand generation is essential for success.
Second, effective alignment requires marketing and sales to work collaboratively on an ongoing basis. In organizations with a high level of sales-marketing alignment, this collaboration occurs naturally and spontaneously, whenever it is needed, and it takes place at all levels of both functions. In other words, working collaboratively becomes the normal way that things get done.
How Leaders Nurture Alignment
Achieving effective sales-marketing alignment is primarily the responsibility of the chief marketing officer and the chief sales officer. The CEO must be supportive, but the CMO and the CSO must lead the alignment effort on a day-to-day basis. In addition to implementing the mechanisms designed to develop shared understanding, CMO's and CSO's need to take three other steps.
Reinforce the Aligning Narrative - The CMO and the CSO must constantly communicate the importance of having marketing and sales work together seamlessly - that the company's demand generation efforts can't produce maximum results unless marketing and sales function as a cohesive team. In addition, CMO's and CSO's should communicate that informal, self-directed collaboration among marketing and sales professionals is not only acceptable, but expected. This aligning narrative needs to be reinforced every day in some way.
Conduct Regular Sales-Marketing Forums - CMO's and CSO's should conduct joint sales-marketing forums on a regular basis. The cadence of these forums is determined by individual company needs, but they probably should occur at least monthly in most companies. The primary objective of these forums is to provide a venue for marketing and sales personnel at all levels to interact, exchange information, and discuss problems and opportunities.
Leverage Cross-Functional Teams - The CMO and the CSO should always be looking for opportunities to use cross-functional teams to deal with meaningful problems, challenges, or opportunities. Whenever possible, these teams should be composed of individuals who wouldn't otherwise work together. Not only are cross-functional teams usually the best way to address major issues, they also foster the development of personal relationships that span functional and departmental boundaries.

The Bottom Line

Creating effective sales-marketing alignment is ultimately an exercise in team building. It's essential for marketing and sales professionals to have a shared understanding regarding the major components of demand generation strategy. But shared understanding alone isn't sufficient to create the level of alignment that's necessary for high performance demand generation. In addition, marketing and sales leaders must nurture a "culture of collaboration" that transforms marketing and sales into a true team of teams.

Illustration courtesy of Olga Berrios via Flickr CC.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Six Ways to Gain Influence With B2B Buyers

In an earlier post, I discussed some of the major survey findings reported in The 2018 B2B Buying Disconnect by TrustRadius. This report is based on two surveys. One survey included 438 individuals who played a key role in a significant business technology purchase during the previous year, and the second was a survey of 240 individuals who worked for business technology vendors in a marketing or sales capacity.

One objective of this research was to identify what sources of information buyers are using to support purchase decisions, and what sources they deem to be influential and trustworthy. As I discussed in the earlier post, the sources of information that buyers think are most influential and trustworthy include their own prior experience with a product, free trials, product demos, and referrals from a friend, colleague, or peer. Surveyed buyers ranked all types of vendor-provided information (except product demos) as least influential and trustworthy.

TrustRadius also asked buyers about the overall influence that vendors have on their purchase decisions. Only 23% of the surveyed buyers said their vendors are very influential. TrustRadius then sought to identify what attributes and behaviors separated very influential vendors from less influential vendors in the eyes of buyers.

One of the most striking attributes of very influential vendors is that they are open and transparent about the limitations of their product or solution. Fifty-one percent of surveyed buyers who said their vendors are very influential also said their vendors are very forthcoming about product limitations. Only 31% of the buyers with less influential vendors said their vendors are open about product limitations.

In the survey of vendor marketing and sales professionals, 85% of the respondents said they "aim to be clear about where the product works well and where something else might be a better fit." So there is a significant gap between vendors and buyers on this aspect of transparency.

Buyers who said their vendors are very influential were also more likely than other buyers to say that their vendors:

  • Provided customer evidence like reviews and case studies
  • Connected them with customer references
  • Helped them strategize the best approach for their use case
  • Helped them understand potential ROI
  • Provided learning opportunities (events, workshops, etc.)
Collectively, these survey findings provide a clear picture of what buyers really want from their vendors. And these findings are consistent with research from other firms. For example, in a 2017 survey of B2B buyers by the Aberdeen Group, survey participants were asked to select two factors (from a list of nine) that play a role in their buying decisions. The three most frequently chosen factors were:
  • Total cost of ownership
  • How the vendor/solution supports our company's goals
  • Efficiency gains (ROI)
However, when survey participants were asked what other factors they consider when they make buying decisions, 68.2% of respondents said the vendor can help sharpen our competitive differentiation, and over half (55.7%) said the vendor can help me identify new possibilities and avenues for revenue.
Clearly, today's buyers are looking for vendors who are completely transparent about the capabilities and limitations of their solutions, and vendors who can help them improve business performance. That's not particularly surprising, but it's important to remember.

Illustration courtesy of Amtec Staffing via Flickr CC.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Closing the Customer Experience Gap

Most senior business leaders now recognize the strategic importance of providing outstanding customer experiences. Customer experience has been one of the hottest topics in business and marketing circles for the past several years, and it's been the subject of numerous research studies.

A 2017 report by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services provides an important perspective on the current state of customer experience management. This report was based on a global survey of 682 business leaders, 53% of whom were executives or senior managers. Survey respondents represented several industry verticals and included individuals from large, mid-size, and small companies.

The HBR report is particularly interesting because survey participants were drawn from a variety of job functions, including operations/product management, sales/business development, marketing, and HR. It's now clear that delivering outstanding customer experiences requires a cross-functional effort by many parts of a company. The HBR research is valuable because it captures the views of business leaders working in several business functions.

An overwhelming majority of the business leaders surveyed by HBR recognize the importance of providing outstanding customer experiences. Nearly three-quarters of the survey respondents (73%) said that delivering a relevant and reliable customer experience is already critical to their company's overall business performance, and almost all respondents (93%) agreed that it would be critical two years from now.

The HBR research also revealed, however, that most companies have more work to do to provide great customer experiences. Only 15% of the survey respondents said their company is very effective at delivering relevant and reliable customer experiences. Fifty-three percent of the respondents said their company is somewhat effective, and nearly a third (32%) rated their company's performance as not very effective.

This research also revealed the breadth of the customer experience gap. HBR asked survey participants to rate the importance of nine factors in delivering relevant and reliable customer experiences and their company's effectiveness regarding the same factors. The following table shows the percentage of survey respondents who gave a high rating (8, 9, or 10 on a 10-point scale) on the importance/effectiveness of each factor:

As this table shows, there is widespread agreement regarding the importance of these nine factors, and the findings also show that less than half of these survey respondents believe their company is effective on any of the nine factors.

Like other studies, the HBR research identified the lack of a single, comprehensive source of customer intelligence as a major cause of the customer experience gap. Only 13% of survey respondents said they have a single source of customer data/intelligence across all products and activities, and the lack of unified customer intelligence is clearly having an impact. Only 23% of the survey respondents said they are able to act on all or most of the customer data they collect.

The HBR report discusses several other important topics related to customer experience management. If you're involved in improving the customer experiences that your company provides, the HBR report will be useful and valuable.

Top image courtesy of Richard Grant via Flickr CC.