"Content Marketing" is the practice of creating useful, high-value editorial material that meets one or more genuine needs in one's target audience. This content isn't promotional, pushy, or one-sided. For it to be accepted by one's target audience, it must be impartial, well-researched, and authoritative.
Every business is different, of course, and while there's no single template for creating and distributing content that successfully moves your prospects from awareness toward action, there are definitely rules.
Here five ironclad rules that we've found to be successful in our own content marketing efforts:
Rule 1: Give to get
Successful B2B content marketing efforts are organized like "pay it forward" campaigns. In order to get anything of value back, you must put value out first. Like it or not, today's B2B prospects have been conditioned to expect a lot from you. These people wouldn't be browsing your site or inspecting your social channels if they weren't in a state of hungry pain, and it's your job to ameliorate it, not by delivering a brochure on how great our own brand of medicine is, but by delivering the nutritional medicine itself - at least enough of it to accomplish a modicum of healing on its own.
Some B2Bs might feel be concerned that if they "give too much away" in the form of useful content, they'll lose a sale. That's is a wrong-headed way to view things that serves to rationalize inaction. Don't be afraid of showing your prospects how you approach a problem, and don't be afraid of directing them to helpful resources they can use on their own. While it's theoretically possible that you'll lose a sale or two, you'll more likely gain trust by becoming widely known as a reliable resource, and this trust is invaluable in the lengthy B2B sales cycle.
Rule 2: Think long term
Content marketing campaigns are similar to SEO campaigns in terms of being long-term executions. It takes time for search engines to crawl and index your content - it may be the case that the listings you'll eventually gain never dominate the SERPs on the highly-trafficked first page. More typically, your listing will wind up on page 2 or beyond.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, because B2B "due diligencers" often make several research passes before recommending a vendor or supplier, and have no compunction about digging deeper than what page 1 offers. But it does mean that it'll be some time - perhaps a few months or longer (depending on the degree to which your competitors are active in content marketing) - before you start to realize a return on your investment.
Make sure you explain this fully to whoever controls your content marketing budget; unless you manage expectations correctly, your superiors may decide to pull the plug on your efforts prematurely. Give your content efforts time to bloom.
Rule 3: Know the pain of thy audience
B2B content is often dreadfully boring (as well as self-serving). For your content to succeed, it needs to stand out.
Try to avoid the passive voice in your copy and stay as far away from obscure terminology and acronyms as you can. At the same time, avoid vagueness or bromides. Put yourself in your prospect's shoes. The best way to get away from stuffy, stilted prose is to have a very clear idea of who exactly your reader is - understand their pain points and specific challenges, and create something that will actually move them ahead (even if moving ahead doesn't mean immediately contact your firm).
Personas (fictional but well-researched and realistic models of audience cohorts) can put "a human face" on your audience that can help you actually start relating to these people. Always write for one and only one person - not a faceless group.
Rule 4: Data-driven content impresses
The term "data-driven" is so overused today that it's become a cliché. But data-driven articles - whitepapers, Slideshare presentations, infographics, and other quantitatively-sourced content - tend to perform very well.
The best kind of data you can use in your content marketing is data that's proprietary to you (which is why research firms produce a lot of content that's often very popular online). But even if you're not sitting on a data goldmine, it's likely that you can tap into the Web's big data repositories to find data that can be used to support your article's point.
Google Trends can be a good source of trend data for your vertical. Similarly, your own site analytics may be useful for developing this kind of data. Plus, you've got all the industry competitive intelligence tools to use (make sure you cite the source if the data you include doesn't come from you).
Sure, data-driven articles are generally more labor-intensive than essays or how-to articles. But if you want to generate trust with your target audience - show them the data if you want them to show you the money.
Rule 5: Be willing to pay to promote your content
Social media networks and search engines are getting very finicky with their organic real estate. Right now, Facebook's organic reach is about 2%, and while Google provides a more generous palate, it's shrinking, and may get even smaller as time passes. These trends militate against your content being discovered (although again, as we mentioned above, B2B purchasing agents often dive very deeply into search results, unlike B2C searchers).
You may not have any budget available to pay to promote your content. If this is the case, it doesn't mean your hard work will be invisible, just harder to find. Some B2Bs will find this situation tolerable, but others - especially those for whom a single sale may represent thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars - will want to put money behind their best content. If you are able to do this, you may find yourself leap-frogging your competition and gaining market share. Just be sure to plow back some of that added cash into your content marketing budget.