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Insight/ Branding & Communications

How To Turn Your Digital Thought Leadership Into Business Development

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by Jeff Pundyk
Vice President, Content Marketing and Strategy
The Economist Group

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You made the move. You invested heavily to put your thought leadership online. Now you’re wondering what happened to all of the cost savings and audience growth you were promised.

Don’t blame digital. For B2B firms that view their online journals as a forum to host an open exchange with readers, the rewards are there. What’s more, the very tools used to create the exchange can be a rich source of data to help guide ongoing marketing efforts.

A more engaged audience--one that is able to interact with a firm through its content--provides a significant, new advantage that few are exploiting. Online interaction provides unprecedented data on exactly which content is most appealing, data that B2B firms can use to rapidly redirect their thought-leadership marketing activities to those with the best chance of attracting client interest. This enables a B2B firm to continuously recalibrate its marketing mix and focus subsequent content-based marketing efforts, including webinars, seminars, microsites, press outreach, and even paid media.

The stakes are significant. According to MarketingProfs 2012 report on B2B content marketing, 90 percent of organizations are using content as part of their marketing, spending more than a quarter of their marketing budgets on content. And yet B2B firms struggle to tie that effort directly to the business development channel.

Four Dimensions Of Engagement
When mass-market online publishers talk about engagement, they focus on actions that tie the reader to their sites. They use such measures as how complete their profiles are or how frequently they comment over a period of time, the number of email signups, and frequency of visits--all interesting and useful information. However, the B2B marketer can use different measures of engagement to help decide where to invest precious content and marketing development dollars. Measures of content engagement--not reader engagement--can identify which topics and perspectives are the “best sellers” and deserving of additional investment.

Broadly speaking, there are four dimensions of content engagement:

1. Topic trending: This is an external measure used to understand which topics are already in the zeitgeist, both globally and locally. This is a tool that can help as B2B firms pick the topics they want to weigh in on. The advantage is an existing and identifiable audience for trending topics; the burden, of course, is to say something fresh on a topic that is already well-covered. To be sure, B2B firms can’t cover trendy topics that don’t relate to their businesses. But high-interest topics that are also big customer issues should be high on the publishing agenda.

2. Readership: The articles that elicit the most visits, page views, time on page, PDF downloads, and printer-friendly views (an important measure since many readers will read offline) are certainly the foundation for a growing body of knowledge. In an open environment, readership measures can be extended to include the collective impact across key social sites. This dimension of readership indicates interest. But it leaves open questions as to what about the article is drawing the reader.

3. Feedback: This can add significant flavor to the readership dimension. If an article is generating an unusual amount of online comments, email responses, “recommends,” and other feedback, it’s a good bet that the article should not be the last word on this topic. What’s more, the nature of the feedback can speak volumes. Those who solicit feedback are obligated to read and respond; by doing so, they build a picture of whether and how the firm can take the discussion further through more content or other marketing efforts. This is a form of customer service and can provide insight into service/product development in addition to helping to guide further content development and content marketing activities.

4. Sharing: This measures the degree to which a viewer lets others know about content he likes. Use of digital pass-along tools, such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, to name the big three, creates a virtuous cycle. They stand both as a proxy for high interest and help to build audience. And, as any cycle should, it brings us back to the larger trends. Sharing tools allow our content to become an active part of the larger discussion, wherever it may be taking place. Articles that are shared the most are among the highest value, both to the B2B firm and to its readership. In addition, an emerging set of “social listening” tools can help identify top referring sites and engagement from those sites to specific pieces of content. This promises to deepen the analysis significantly.

These four measures can be crucial in making the hard choices of exactly where to invest in content development and marketing. Putting the relative value aside for a moment, think of the various content types in a hierarchy based on investment. The hierarchy could look something like this, starting with the lowest level of investment required:

Next Page: Putting the four dimensions to work.

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Now, let’s return to our measures of engagement to help determine which topics should get the highest level of investment. While every site differs based on a number of factors, including frequency of publishing, variety of content types, and, of course, available functionality, the preceding four dimensions can work together to build a quantitative and qualitative picture of where the greatest interest--and greatest opportunity--await.

To oversimplify, imagine testing an idea with a simple blog post. We may choose the topic based on trending data, assuming we can move the discussion forward. This could be as small of an investment as writing a short post--six to 10 paragraphs with a simple chart and a few links to related content on your site or other sites.

In this case, let’s say there is high readership, low feedback, and a sprinkling of “shares.” And let’s assume that the topic is trending well worldwide. That’s a scenario that likely justifies an additional investment, say, to create a full article with an interactive chart or brief video as a complementary component.

What do our measures of engagement tell us now? Does readership, feedback, and sharing indicate that we’re onto something, that this might be a ripe topic for a webinar? Or should we keep probing, maybe with a relatively low investment to do a simple poll on the topic? If the data is trending positive, then we could develop additional marketing programs to further boost audience engagement in popular content. For example, we could hold a live video chat between the author(s) and the group of people who commented on the article.

Or we could devote a microsite to a popular piece of content, aggregating all of the articles that have been written on it, curating content from other sources, and providing additional content on the issue. But now we are doing so secure in the knowledge that there’s an engaged audience for the microsite.

To generate even greater levels of connection--which also requires greater investment of resources--we can consider online discussion groups and seminars. But now we are able to specifically target that effort to real prospects who have self-selected through their interactions with similar content.

Online measures like these allow us to test, learn, and invest in marketing activities where we see the greatest return and, frankly, to stop guessing about what is of interest. Over time, through benchmarking our experiences, these measures will become more refined and more effective.

A word of caution: B2B companies will need to cover certain topics regardless of how well the articles do against these measures. Some issues are so tightly aligned with a brand and business considerations that there is simply no choice. Still, these measures can help to determine whether there are more engaging online approaches to those topics.

A B2B firm can turn its online journal into a highly effective tool for increasing customer engagement--for attracting prospects into its circle, raising their interest in the firm’s expertise, and ultimately making them much more likely to buy its services. But doing so requires planning that goes far beyond setting an editorial calendar. B2B marketers need to build audience feedback and sharing tools, create metrics of engagement, and determine the mix of marketing activities that will generate higher levels of engagement. Capitalizing on the data also requires a more integrated approach among thought leadership and other marketing programs. In fact, marketers will have to take down the walls that separate their publishing activities from their other marketing programs, including any paid media, PR activities, and other online communications programs.

Most B2B firms have made the first step: They are online. Now they can turn that online presence into a powerful tool--one that is both a dynamic brand-builder and an analytic guide to smart marketing initiatives.

About Jeff Pundyk

Jeff Pundyk is vice president, content marketing and strategy, at The Economist Group. Follow Jeff on Twitter @jpundyk.

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