So, at this point, I think most B2B marketers are sold on the value of content marketing. You guys know the drill: budget pressures are erasing former sources of differentiation (like long-standing buyer relationships) and pushing us as suppliers into commoditization; shifts in information consumption (like the rise of the internet) has led to non-supplier sources of information crowding out our own messages and create the risk of irrelevance. So we say – if you can’t beat budget pressures and the information revolution, join them! Serving as an information broker will help re-insert our offering into the conversation and differentiate us as a supplier.
At least, so the story goes. But as recent MLC work has made clear, content marketing doesn’t always achieve those goals. More often than not, the content we’re churning out as B2B marketers serves only to add to the noise your buyers have to filter through to find true insight; in a perverse sense, doing content marketing – at least in the way most companies do it – actually hurts your chances of influencing the buying process. And that’s the deadly trap of content marketing.
Think about chlorine. Yes, seriously. On its own, it’s a poisonous substance. It was one of the first chemical warfare agents used in World War I. We use a form of it to kill algae in pools. But the addition of one atom – sodium – bonded at the correct angle turns it into NaCl, or table salt.
In a similar way, content on its own is poisonous. It’s incredibly labor-intensive, for one thing – no robots or software can produce effective content. It’s extremely difficult to tie to ROI, particularly in industries with long sales cycles or intensive sales processes. And lots of what you end up producing proves to be of questionable value. But the addition of one not-so-simple ingredient – frame-breaking insight – turns content into a valuable weapon in the fight against commoditization and shrinking margins.
What do we mean by frame-breaking insight? Well, your customers have what we’d call a mental model about how their business worlds work. They have certain assumptions about the risks they face, for instance; they might have other assumptions about who their customers are and what they care about, or the source of their commercial strength, or of the strengths of their competition. In order to succeed in today’s noisy B2B environment, effective content marketing campaigns must include an insight that causes customers to question their mental models.
How about an example? Say you’re in restaurant supply, and you’re selling to pizzeria owners. You have a prospect, Pizzeria A, that has done some rudimentary market research – asking customers questions, basically – and has concluded that the most important thing for their customers is sustainability. You know, organic and local and the whole nine yards. And maybe this isn’t a place you can compete as a supplier, so Pizzeria A buys all their goods from Supplier B. Pizzeria A’s owner has a mental model about their business that says sustainability = good, and the mental model is leading them to buy from a competitor.
But you know that pizzeria owners spend most of their time, well, making pizza and managing employees and doing payroll and reconciling the register and maybe they don’t have much time to learn proper market research methods. And maybe the people they’ve been asking about what kind of ingredients they’d prefer aren’t representative of their customer base at large. So you do some research. You sell to a lot of pizzerias, so you ask pizza lovers what they care about most, and maybe segment them into income brackets and geographies. And then you discover that Pizzeria A’s owner is wrong: his customers don’t care about sustainability as much as they care about authenticity – and authenticity is something you can provide.
That is the kind of insight that makes an impact in a noisy commercial world. Teaching customers something about their business that they did not previously know – breaking an essential part of their mental model in the process – provides a moment at which you can change the customer’s buying criteria to ones that favor your solution and product.
Take a second and think about the content you produce. Is it designed to change the customer’s mental model and subsequent buying criteria? Or is it designed simply to inform and make your company look smart?
MLC members, for more on content marketing, check out our latest research.