After the hope and inevitable hype, a crisis of confidence. In 2014, 38% of business-to-business (B2B) marketing professionals thought they were effective when it came to delivering content marketing. The figure, appropriately enough, came courtesy of the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) and reflected a belief that content had become the go-to mechanism to engage with clients across the sales cycle.
By 2015, the number had fallen to 30%. CMOs had entered what the CMI called a “trough of disillusionment.” The challenges they faced were many and varied: struggles to create engaging copy at speed and at scale, to master new technology, and to achieve cut-through in a cluttered content landscape. Moreover, much of the content produced failed to hit the mark, at best being ignored and, at worst, highlighting shortcomings that alienated readers.
These doubts were underscored by an Economist Intelligence Unit report, “B2B Marketers: Missing the Mark,” that found a mismatch of expectations. Namely, while decision makers judge success of content on its distinctiveness, marketers judge success on sales.
What CMOs Need To Do
To restore confidence and make the most of the opportunity content presents requires senior marketers to revisit content marketing’s sweet spot. We know what we want, but do we really know what our clients want? The sweet spot means understanding, and delivering on, both.
To that end, Grist commissioned a piece of research based on over 200 interviews with senior executives from FTSE 350 firms—spanning CEOs, legal, finance, risk, marketing, sales, HR, and technology. In the Value of B2B Thought Leadership Survey we sought to understand what the C-suite really wants from content, how it wants it, and when it wants it. And by challenging conventional wisdom and highlighting real needs and wants, the survey offers CMOs a chance to rewrite their content marketing manifesto and rethink best practice.
Here’s what the survey told us:
What The C-Suite Wants
Asked why they bothered to read content marketing at all, senior executives cited two reasons above all others—to stay ahead of emerging trends (66%) and to aid better, more informed decision making (60%). It’s not a bad place to start when rethinking the purpose of your content marketing programmes.
An alternative way to answer the “what do they want?” question is to understand why content marketing often fails. Here, three answers stood out—when it proves too generic (63%), when it lacks original insight or ideas (58%), and when it promotes the adviser rather than addressing the readers’ needs (53%). So, make it specific, make it relevant, and tone down the sales pitch. Better that your firm’s credentials are implicit in the insightful content you provide than explicit through statements of greatness. In short, show, don’t tell.
How The C-Suite Wants It
What the C-suite wants is only part of the answer, of course. We need to know how they want it. When it comes to formats, it is better to make it short and punchy—800-word articles (63%) and blog posts of between 300 and 500 words (57%) are preferred. This doesn’t mean producing something simplistic, but it does mean making it accessible and easily digestible.
When it comes to sources, there are a myriad options from advisory firms, industry events, industry publications, online search, and social media, but one thing stands out: referral remains key. Peer or colleague recommendation is more likely to prompt engagement than anything else.
Finally—and this is, perhaps, the most eyebrow-raising finding of the survey—Facebook emerges as the social network senior executives are most likely to engage with for thought leadership. It was referenced by 79% of respondents, compared to 73% for Twitter and 68% for LinkedIn.
When The C-Suite Wants It
After the what and the how, comes the when. And here the C-suite is much like the rest of us, catching up on reading “al desko.” Asked what was the most popular time of day to view thought leadership, the highest percentage selected the 12 noon to 2pm lunchtime slot (34%). As for the best day to reach them, 66% said Monday and, surprising perhaps, 52% selected Friday. The message here is simple: engage when your audience is ready to be engaged.
Future-Proofing Content Marketing
Bottom line? The research is good news for CMOs. Clients clearly value well-commissioned and well-executed thought leadership and are happy to receive it from their advisers—the very companies that want to give it to them.
Moreover, many want to be creators too. Asked what they would most value in future, four out of five senior executives said content they and their peers were “involved in developing.” Simply put, they are happy to be interviewed and surveyed if they feel the content will be relevant and valuable.
This is an important insight. For the CMO, this is an opportunity to reach out to key clients and collaboratively shape content programmes. It means content will stay relevant and the role of the CMO future-proofed.
Taken with the survey’s findings as a whole, it’s enough to restore confidence in content marketing.