For B2B technology marketers, original content is becoming a more critical tool to create continuous conversations with customers as they balance a complex mix of formats delivered both digitally and through live events.
It's an "omnichannel" world, said Lisa Arthur, CMO with marketing automation software vendor Aprimo. "Everybody thinks everything is completely digital, and we're still seeing this critical need to have the offline and online world completely integrated." Social media, she said, is emerging as a tool to bridge the two.
Whatever high-tech marketers are doing today will be mainstream a year from now, said Joe Pulizzi, founder and executive director of the Content Marketing Institute (CMI), in an interview with CMO.com. "In general, high tech is doing a bit more of everything, at least a year ahead [of marketers in other industries]," he said. "Just in general, they're probably spending more on content marketing, probably feeling it's a little more effective."
CMI's 2013 benchmark report found that, overall, B2B marketers are spending 33 percent of their budgets on content marketing, and more than half (54 percent) plan to increase their spending the next year. Social media is the most popular tactic, employed by 87 percent of respondents, followed by articles on company Web sites, e-newsletters, blogs, and case studies. But use of most tactics, especially research reports, video, mobile content, and virtual conferences, are rising.
In other words, you can't have enough content. In high tech, most B2B customers will do significant research and often create a shortlist of vendors before they ever talk to a salesperson. So marketers have to provide a "curriculum" of materials that educate prospective buyers throughout the purchasing process, said Atri Chatterjee, CMO with Act-On, which sells marketing software to small and midsize companies. "You're not only in the business of promoting, you're in the education business also," Chatterjee told CMO.com.
"The big challenge for B2B is that you have a longer buy cycle," agreed Jill Steinhour, strategy director, technology industry with Adobe (CMO.com's parent company). "You have to create content from the beginning of it," with assets designed to help capture leads, nurture them, close the sale, and support customers afterward.
Words With Value
Consumer product companies are just starting to learn these techniques, Steinhour observed, as social media provides new visibility into consumers' research activities and intentions. CMO.com talked to high-tech B2B marketers about how they're allocating their investments across channels in order to optimize the education of, and engagement with, their customers. For example, three-fourths of Act-On's marketing budget goes to a range of online activities, including webinars, virtual trade shows, social media, and PR. Chatterjee told CMO.com that he puts his money into what he can measure, and adjusts his investment based on results.
Pay-per-click advertising, though "the rage" a few years ago, no longer delivers such a satisfying return, he said. So he's stepping up investment in virtual trade shows and webinars. "They're fantastic for generating very qualified leads," he said. "If someone sits through a 30-minute webinar, they're pretty interested."
But the information delivered has to be of high quality and personally relevant to whomever consumes it. "Having great content is super important," said Jesse Kliza, director of marketing with Apprenda, which offers platform-as-a-service, a software layer for building and running applications in the cloud. Apprenda provides Microsoft .Net application developers who are using, or who are thinking about, using the service, with documentation, tutorials, and free versions that they can try. But Kliza told CMO.com he wants to go even further; he plans to ramp up Apprenda's use of blogs to delve into issues that customers are curious about, even if they're not directly related to products.
"We've used our blog more for thought leadership pieces," he said. "But we've found when we have done pieces about something we heard at an event, and we have a developer who can dig into it and write something, those have been more widely read."
The most effective B2B content marketers tailor their content to the decision-makers they're targeting, CMI found. Barco provides visualization solutions to industries including healthcare, entertainment and aerospace. The company often works through integrators and distributors, said Tyler West, the company's director of marketing for North America. But end customers are enthusiastic and loyal. "We're very focused on leveraging those relationships," West told CMO.com, by creating more content with customers who are influencers in their industries.
It's easier to get attention, meanwhile, with personalized communications, especially for outbound campaigns, Kliza said. "You really have to cut through the clutter," and social media has raised the expectation that content will be focused on customers' interests.
Apprenda works with large, well-known companies. Everyone is familiar with those companies, Kliza said, "but not everyone knows Tom So and So [there]. If Tom gets an email from us that shows we did some research on his role and what he does, that's when we get responses and have conversations." So he's building out more programs in Apprenda's marketing automation system to deliver even more timely and personalized communications based on how people interact with the company's content.
Next Page: Content and connection.
Fewer B2B communications today are focused on generating sales. In a survey of 740 members of LinkedIn's B2B Technology Marketing community, respondents chose lead generation (68 percent), thought leadership and market education (50 percent), and brand awareness (39 percent) among their top three content marketing goals. Sales ranked sixth out of 10 choices. The CMI survey found sales to be the only goal that has fallen in importance across industries.
The point is to make connections. Maponics sells data and technology that helps customers deliver location-based services and analysis. "Content is now emerging as a key way to develop and grow from a relationship marketing perspective," said Paul Gallagher, the company's vice president of marketing and product management. Forging deeper connections with customers before making a sale has become more important, in part, because Maponics' products are more sophisticated than they were in the past. Its legacy products, customized maps, have become commoditized, Gallagher told CMO.com, and selling them is more "transactional."
But Maponics may become deeply involved in helping customers deploy the newer products and consult on best practices. Providing relevant and useful content helps convince customers that the company can be the "trusted adviser" they need, Gallagher said. "You earn the right to have the conversation if you provide value to them up front," he said.
As a startup, Apprenda (which launched in 2009) built credibility with developers by contributing to user groups, sponsoring live events, and suggesting speakers. "It has paid dividends for us," Kliza said. One event got the company a meeting with a top 10 bank.
One emerging challenge for B2B technology companies, Adobe's Steinhour said, is to optimize their content for mobile devices. Having a mobile Web site is important not only because IT decision-makers are using mobile devices to do research, but also because it will impact how companies show up in search results. According to Forrester Research, more than one-third (38 percent) of enterprise C-suite executives access vendor Web sites on their smartphones, and 30 percent use tablets. Meanwhile, Google is taking steps to give higher rankings to pages that are designed to be responsive to smartphone users.
Integrating Online And Offline
Even though high-tech vendors emphasize digital marketing, live events are still among the most effective content marketing tactics. B2B technology marketers surveyed on LinkedIn ranked them third, behind case studies and white papers or ebooks. That's down only slightly from 2011, when live events placed second.
Barco is putting more emphasis on virtual trade shows, but "we're not going to turn our back on the events," West said. There's no substitute for face-to-face contact with customers, though he's looking for ways to reduce costs--such as working more closely with channel partners--so he can invest in other tactics.
At Act-On, Chatterjee dedicates three-fourths of his budget to digital marketing. The remaining 25 percent goes to in-person events. Most are small and highly targeted. Chatterjee teams with partners for events such as "lunch and learn" programs.
Live events offer the added benefit of connecting customers or potential customers with each other. "One of the biggest things they want is networking, access to people who influence the products, and insight into building their own strategies and plans," Aprimo's Arthur said. "Everybody is thinking everything is completely digital, and we're still seeing this critical need to have the offline and online worlds completely integrated."
Social media is providing the glue. "I see successful high-tech marketers using it to first get engaged with their audiences, at trade shows and through Webinars, real-time tweeting, and polling," Arthur said. B2B marketers shouldn't look at social media strictly as a sales channel, she added. Maponics' Gallagher agreed: "It's not a push outlet for your special offer."
Barco is using Facebook and Twitter at events to bring customers to its booth and to build brand awareness among followers who aren't attending. The company also actively retweets what attendees say about the company. Upcoming plans for social media include enlisting influential customers to talk about the products they use.
"You're igniting the fire for all this great content online, you're reaching more people," Pulizzi said. "But they're human beings and they want to talk to someone and meet someone in person."
B2B technology marketers, Arthur said, "are bringing that all together faster."