Content Strategy: Think Utility Before Customization

For a company with dozens of product lines, numerous possible personas, and a global presence, developing content can be a daunting venture. The number of permutations for information types and distribution sources can be overwhelming. But before going crazy, you might be surprised to know that customers may not need as much personalization as you think – what they really want from content is utility.

IDC’s 2015 IT Buyer Experience Survey examined the content requirements and preferences of various types of technology buyers. We compared buyers who work in the IT function with those in various business functions. We compared buyers of cloud solutions with traditional on-premise technology solutions. What we found surprised us.

IDC does recommend tailoring content for specific audiences. It is helpful for ease of consumption, for relevancy, and attractiveness. However, the buyer research told us that covering some basics was even more important.

  • Highest priority – make sure content is complete. Buyer groups are much more similar than they are different. Buyers have one primary commonality – they are all human. Humans follow the same type of a decision-journey. All audience groups generally need the same kinds of information and mostly prefer similar sources to get that information.  The highest priority task should be to make sure the core information is available. Clearly and simply answer the buyers’ questions for all stages of their decision-journey. Lack of critical information at a point when a buyer needs it will slow or stop journey progress.

  • Make core buying information easily accessible through at least four communication channels. Those four channels are your website, your sales team, search, and some number of third party publications – preferably voiced by objective people. Your website is the buyer’s default location for all information. Buyer’s talk to sales people at the point when they really need detailed answers. If sales people don’t have the answers, everyone loses. (Hint: a humble Q&A fact sheet for sales is super helpful).  Discovery is the name of game in the earliest stage of the decision-journey. Search is by far the number one tool for discovery and buyers also like to find ideas for improvement perusing both general business and special interest sites.

These content tasks may be more challenging than marketers expect.  Many of the buyer’s questions are not answered by even the best thought leadership pieces or the most well-messaged product data sheet. For example, Product Service Reviews was the second most desired type of content at the earliest stage of the decision-journey – not something most marketers have at the tips of their fingers.

Before going through the (worthwhile) effort to customize content for different audiences, make sure you are covering the basics and serving your customers’ the most important information needs.

More information is available in the IDC report, Categorizing the Content Needs of Different Buyer Types: IDC’s 2015 2015 IT Buyer Experience Study (#258780) (Subscription required)

 

Audience Marketing: Death to the Product “Selfie”

Companies may not intend to be narcissistic. But they unintentionally produce a lot of “product selfies.” Marketers start out right. They consider customer needs when answering the question, “Why buy my product?”  Then customer focus stops there. Most companies give only superficial attention to the context in which their audience will consume their message.  However, an IDC study finds that the situation is about to change as leading tech companies ramp audience marketing to a whole new level.

Customers perceive content to be self-serving when it talks only about the features and benefits of the product with insufficient effort to match these to the buyer’s context. What’s missing are the answers to the question, “How can we help the buyer consume this message? What does the buyer need to hear, understand, trust, and accept our value proposition?” When content is offered without a true audience filter, product messages have the same tiresome, annoying, self-centered demeanor as your teenaged niece’s 15th selfie. No matter how cute she looks in her prom dress.
 

Isn’t Audience Marketing Pretty Basic?

While IDC found that almost all tech companies surveyed use some degree of audience marketing (indeed, segmenting customers should be Marketing 101) only about 26% of them can be considered advanced — and even the advanced companies have significant opportunity for maturity.

What is changing in the most advanced companies is the depth, degree, and focus on the audience. Said one expert interviewed by IDC, “Buying a list of hospital CIOs and slapping a photo of a nurse on your website isn’t vertical marketing.”  Audience marketing requires today’s marketing organization to take on a much larger and extra layer of work on behalf of the customer. Leading companies are stepping up to this task by dedicating audience-focused resources as an “ambassadors” for their customers.

Reversing the Effects of Sales Erosion

For B2B companies, it used to be salespeople who primarily filled the customer context gap. It was salespeople who were trained to listen for customer need. Salespeople translated the company offerings into something meaningful to the customer. Salespeople still have this role — but they can only perform it when they have the opportunity. And that opportunity continues to erode. IDC’s annual IT Buyer Experience Study consistently reports that for the average IT purchase, buyers are nearly 50% of the way through their decision journey before talking with sales. The increased percentage of buyer engagement through digital communication channels has also eroded the critical customer context cushion.

Audience marketing is the function that replaces this cushion. By devoting staff and program dollars as audience ambassadors, marketers will identify this gap and execute appropriate programs to fill it.

What Do Audience Marketing Leaders Do Different?

The most distinguishing factors between companies advanced in audience marketing compared to average or beginner companies are the following:

Appointing an Audience Marketing Leader: Advanced companies are about twice as likely as average or beginner companies to have a named leader in charge of audience marketing. When a company puts a leader in charge of an initiative and makes a practice a corporate-wide mandate, the culture starts to change in a big way. Audience marketing gets visibility. Metrics get put in place. People begin to get recognized and awarded for skills learned and for achievements. Investments and resources are allocated.

Branching out to explore many audience marketing strategies: IDC examined the popularity of various audience marketing strategies and found that advanced companies use a broader variety than average or beginners. Overall, segmentation by Functional Role (C-level, IT, HR director, etc.) is the most popular strategy and is used moderately or extensively by 100% of advanced companies and over 80% in the other groups. Vertical Industry is a close second. Buyer behavior segmentation is the hot, up-and-coming strategy — but it is more difficult and more sophisticated than the other segmentation strategies studied and thus is used the most infrequently by companies at all levels. 

However, advanced companies are moving ahead strongly, and IDC expects to see use of behavioral segmentation increase significantly in the next few years.

This blog first appeared on LinkedIn and is a summary excerpt from the IDC research report Audience Marketing: Replenishing Customer Context authored by Kathleen Schaub #257372. Subscription required.

Meet the Virtual Sales Rep

Robert sits in an office near Provo, Utah at what looks like the console of an air traffic

controller. But instead of directing jets through the airspace, he’s using Twitter to guide a software company’s buyer through her decision-journey. Part marketer, part sales, part tech service, Robert is one of an emerging breed of “virtual” sales reps. Could this be the dream team that B2B has been waiting for?

The B2B “Genius Bar”® as a Role Model

The “virtual” sales rep role in its ideal form provides the personalized, anticipatory, service of a five-star hotel. Think of it as the B2B version of an Apple Genius Bar – using virtual tools. The Apple executive team modeled the Genius Bar after Ritz-Carlton’s customer service. Hallmarks of this exemplary concierge service include a personal touch; a warm, friendly, attitude; and attention to satisfying customer needs at every step. Sales expert Anneke Seley says the “virtual” sales rep culture is a far-cry from the historical “me and my quota” rep.

Sales teams are finally coming to grips with digital age facts. The culture shift recognizes that engagement must be sensitive to the appropriate stage of the buyer’s decision-journey. “Buyers aren’t ready to buy until they are ready to buy”. Marketers all know by now that buyers prefer self-sufficiency and they avoid talking to sales people until the decision-journey is substantially complete.  IDC research shows that for tech products averages this distance averages about 50%. Now sales is also starting to appreciate that buyers are alienated when by placed prematurely into the arena. At the same time sales leaders don’t want to waste an expensive sales resource on someone who isn’t ready to buy.

Digital May Not be Enough

Content marketing is what companies must do to fill the gap when buyers won’t talk to traditional sales people.  Content marketing is a hugely important communication strategy and companies will not be successful without mastering it.

Yet, for B2B companies, a completely digital engagement solution may not ever be the right answer. For one thing, content marketing capabilities in most companies is still ramping. Even when content marketing becomes excellent, digital may never be personal enough. Some B2B solutions are so complex, customized, or require so much trust that a human must intervene for the buyer to be truly served.  It may also be in the vendor’s best interest to involve a good sales person early. One tech CMO told me that although the company could offer eCommerce, a human touch tripled the size of the deal.

The End of One-to-One

Sales must abandon the image of the lone hero acting alone. A distinguishing feature between traditional sales and marketing has been that sales covered one-to-one interactions and marketing covered the one-to-many. The evolving “virtual” sales model is somewhere in-between. Maybe we can call it some-to-one.

Because the Apple’s Genius Bar is not just a person. It’s a chain of orchestrated interactions constructed not only with people but also with data, technology, knowledge, content, training, and culture. It takes a village to offer five-star concierge service.

This shift means new responsibilities for marketing. To engage in a buyer-sensitive way, marketing must provision “virtual” sales reps, train them, and merge them into new types of campaigns. These new reps will be power users of CRM and marketing automation. They will be adept at social selling. They will depend on behavioral data and pitch-perfect content. Depending on the company business model they may generate leads, qualify them, develop business, close sales, or offer technical buying assistance.

IDC believes that the challenge of aligning with sales and instituting sales enablement will seem like baby steps compared to the full-on role integration of this new function. CMO’s should jump on this trend now.

Genius Bar is a registered trademark of Apple, Inc.

What is Content Marketing? IDC’s Definition of Content Marketing

If you looked away for a split second you may have missed the rise of Content Marketing from “buzz word” to “must have”. In fact, at the beginning of 2014 CMOs at the largest technology companies reported that “Building out content marketing as an organizational competency” was the 2nd most important initiative, only behind measuring ROI. Since then, they have responded by putting more budget, staff, and energy into the area, yet there is still confusion around the topic. What exactly is Content Marketing? Is it a type of marketing asset? Is it a process or a technique? Or something else?


IDC’s CMO Advisory Service, has seen this issue first hand and to help remedy the situation the group has  published a document, What Is Content Marketing? IDC Defines One of Marketing’s Most Critical New Competencies. Included within is a formal definition for Content Marketing.

IDC’s Definition of Content Marketing

Content marketing is any marketing technique whereby media and published information (content) are used to influence buyer behavior and stimulate action leading to commercial relationships. Optimally executed content marketing delivers useful, relevant information assets that buyers consider a beneficial service rather than an interruption or a “pitch.”

What is Included Within Content Marketing?

A definition is a great start, but the question that follows is, “What is, and is not Content Marketing?” To help marketers become more grounded in this definition of content marketing the CMO Advisory Service has also published a guide for “Types of Marketing Assets.” In the graphic below you can see the break out of marketing assets into three categories:

  • Content Marketing Assets 
  • Product Marketing Assets
  • Corporate Marketing Assets

Each is important to the company and within the marketing mix, but only content marketing is new in purpose and new in form. Also, key to remember is Content Marketing Assets are not replacements for Product Marketing Assets or Corporate Marketing Assets.

Why Content Marketing, Why Now?

For decades the marketing team produced communication assets about its products, services, and about the company itself.  Before the digital era, sales people were the primary persuaders and these assets were used as sales tools. Marketing conducted some persuasive outreach, primarily through direct mail. However, this little thing called the internet changed everything – as digital technologies have progressed, buyers have become increasingly self-sufficient, the contribution of the sales person has eroded. This erosion leaves a gigantic gap in a vendor’s go-to-market capability. How do companies build these relationships with buyers if they won’t talk with sales people? Content Marketing fills this gap.

At IDC we believe that marketers must continue work to keep pace with their buyers. To be successful, not only is agility required, but clear guidelines and processes on how to execute new and exciting practices like Content Marketing.

Sam Melnick is Senior Reasearch Analyst with IDC’s CMO Advisory Service, follow him on Twitter: @SamMelnick