Building a content marketing machine is more about the journey than the apparatus

Part two in a three-part series on “The Intersection of Product & Content”
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Many marketers mistakenly believe that the present day’s challenge is to transform their brand into a publisher by building a ‘content marketing machine.’ This objective is catchy but thoroughly misguided and can explain why countless brands are questioning the worth of their efforts. For B2B organizations in particular, high-quality lead generation today requires an objective focused on the transformation of prospective buyers before the transformation of sellers. Without first adopting that perspective, your machine is sure to be nothing more than spinning wheels.

In the first article in this series, I explained how the most impactful type of content marketing is a nuanced and actionable form of thought leadership known as commercial insight. Crafted and positioned properly, commercial insight reframes how prospective buyers thinks about their own business or life, enlightening them about a better way to achieve their goals that is in alignment with your organization’s solution. The fact that commercial insight often takes the form of content, and that its distribution resembles that of a media organization, can be deeply misleading.

Shifting perspective from seller to buyer

Commercial insight isn’t effective merely because it’s in the form of content — it’s effective because it facilitates the prospect or user’s journey from the status quo to a value-added approach that is enabled by the seller’s offering. A successful content marketing machine doesn’t manufacture content, it manufactures journeys.

To understand this distinction, consider the approach HubSpot takes. On the surface, it may seem like they’ve built a content marketing machine that publishes nearly infinite content. But what they’ve done is far more nuanced than that. HubSpot’s focus isn’t on transforming themselves into a publisher — it’s on transforming traditional marketers into inbound marketers. As one convert whose organization benefited from the value-added inbound approach puts it, HubSpot’s strategy is “human-centric.” That choice of words is indicative of the importance of starting with a focus on the user instead of the brand.

When the objective shifts to creating and disseminating actionable, buyer-centric insight, many of the strategies organizations currently pursue hardly make sense. For example, why would anyone hire a journalist or someone with an editorial mindset to kickstart such an initiative? These strategies optimize the production of content — even ‘engaging’ content — but not of insight. Building a newsroom is a poor investment if your goal is to learn about and convince prospective buyers that there’s a better approach than the one they’re presently taking to achieve their goals.

Appreciating that the buyer’s ‘journey’ and not seller’s ‘content’ is the desired outcome is the first step toward engineering an effective content marketing machine, and understanding why the process may resemble building a newsroom but is in fact quite different. Next, we must reverse-engineer the very journey itself.

Content aligned with a product

It should be relatively clear by now that the ultimate destination of the buyer’s journey is a mindset that aligns with the seller’s offering. Commercial insight is intrinsically actionable because it eventually evangelizes a value-added business or life approach that is enabled by a solution.

HubSpot features customers talking about how its platform is the most effective way to manage inbound marketing campaigns. Atlassian claims that its product is the best software tool “for agile teams.” Blue Apron emphasizes sustainability with “seasonal recipes” and “ingredients that are fresher than the supermarket.” Evangelistic content connects the approach with the offering.

But it would be a critical mistake to believe that evangelism alone is enough. The challenge, especially in B2B marketing, is that your offering is only valuable within the context of an aspirational, but not obvious, mindset. If it were obvious, your organization’s offering would probably be a commodity and your time would be better spent not reading this article. Not only that, but, according to CEB researchers, “what most suppliers fail to fully appreciate is that [the user’s] current behavior is significantly more entrenched than [the supplier] might realize” (p75, The Challenger Customer).

The prospective buyer has already built a seemingly thriving organization using traditional marketing and cold-calling, so why should they transition to being inbound? Waterfall development was used to build every eight-figure product in their portfolio, so why retrain everyone to do agile? Ordering takeout is cheap, fast, and easy, so why learn to cook?

To be actionable, commercial insight does more than evangelize an aspirational state — it alsounteaches customers something they already know or believe about the way their business currently operates.” It has to because “the only way to change how a customer acts is to first change the way that the customer thinks” (p75).

Unteaching buyers is undeniably difficult though. It not only requires comprehending their current mindset, but also requires knowing how to facilitate their mindset toward an aspirational one by convincing them that they’re running their business or life sub-optimally. This quickly presents an obstacle when we fully appreciate the user’s perspective: criticism of an existing mindset from virtually anyone other than a well-respected brand will be perceived as biased.

To further complicate matters, the same researchers examined the modern day buyer’s journey and found that:

“…the average B2B customer consults nearly a dozen sources of information, spread across all varieties of touchpoints on the path to purchase. Only half of that information comes from suppliers, in total. So if you’re an individual supplier, and say you’re one of four that a customer knows to seek information from, you’ve got about 12 percent “share of information” that customer is consuming.” (p117)

Combined, these challenges appear to be insurmountable. However, organizations that refocus marketing objectives from transforming themselves to transforming buyers will immediately see the opportunity. Because the sole goal here is to evolve the buyer’s mindset about their own business, the seller is actually not part of the equation.

Content as a product

When InsightSquared rebranded their blog to something not obviously tied to themselves as a supplier, traffic increased by 20% immediately. It afforded them the opportunity to explain to sales leaders how critical it is to do things like track pipeline velocity, without having readers instantly wonder if InsightSquared was only doing so to promote an offering.

HubSpot’s ‘human centric’ approach follows a similar blueprint: Inbound.org, the largest community of marketers discussing best practices (such as how to convince stakeholders that inbound marketing is a worthwhile investment) is run by them but kept ostensibly independent. The social pressure for members to continuously evolve their strategies and tactics is greater when not perceived as an advertisement. It’s no coincidence that InsightSquared is led by former HubSpotters.

Whereas evangelistic content is aligned with a value proposition, criticism of a buyer’s mindset must somehow itself be value-added, else risk being ignored. As it turns out, the most effective way to accomplish that is often by positioning this aspect of commercial insight agnostically.

Although the process of creating agnostic channels looks strikingly similar to building a standalone media company, it should be apparent by now how the two are systematically different. While content is a common and efficient mechanism for driving a prospect’s journey from an existing mindset to an aspirational mindset, the objective is not so much content-creation as it is value-creation. The journey itself has to be perceived as valuable.

To that end, creating and distributing agnostic content far more closely resembles developing a product. And frequently, it is: many organizations have built ‘products’ that facilitate a buyer’s journey to an aspirational mindset.

UberFlip, a marketing tool, developed GradeMyStack to assess your current marketing infrastructure and point out areas you can improve. Crew, an exchange of freelance designers and developers, continuously launches side projects like Moodboard, which is a community for people to share and get excited about website design ideas. Crew’s various side projects garner so much interest in initiatives that require freelancers, that they collectively account for 40% of the company’s revenue. ‘Content marketing machine’ may in fact be a misnomer.

Of course, the point isn’t to create agnostic channels, but to facilitate the user journey however that’s best accomplished. LearnVest, for example, offers a free and branded, personal finance-tracking suite for you to first realize the value of fiscal prudence before upgrading to get your own financial planner. Their tagline captures the objective quite well: “Tell us where you’re starting, where you want to go, and we’ll fill in the rest.”

The process for creating such marketing channels is virtually identical to product management, albeit the latter having success measured in terms of revenue and the former in terms of freshly-minted aspirational thinkers, or ‘sales qualified leads.’

All that’s left is the conductor

In my last post, I argued for organizations to enable marketing teams to have a direct impact on the product roadmap with the commercial insight they discover. But that’s not enough. Marketing teams also need to understand some element of the customer’s business better than the customer does, and must think like a product manager to convey that insight in a value-added way. As one expert explains, you have to create “marketing so useful, people would pay for it.”

Unfortunately, this is far outside the scope of traditional marketing, not to mention journalism. It’s no surprise that the aforementioned researchers concluded their study by stating that the “skills and knowledge” required for high-quality lead generation “are in short supply” (p223) at most organizations.

Publishing content is specifically not the point of a content marketing machine. Beginning with a focus on the apparatus is putting the cart before the horse — organizations must first transform buyers before learning how to transform themselves. Such an initiative must be led by someone who possesses the skills to understand customers and create value from scratch. Throw a dash of writing skills in the mix and you’ve got yourself what I call a contentrepeneur. Quick, track down your HR team.

Recap and ramifications

To generate high-quality leads, marketing teams must take a buyer-centric approach to creating and disseminating commercial insight. While such a strategy likely involves publishing content, the overlap with media journalism ends there. Instead, organizations must evangelize a value proposition that aligns with an aspirational mindset, and ensure buyers take the journey there from an existing mindset. To accomplish this, a new breed of marketer must be sought after and empowered.

Transform the buyer. Framing strategies in terms of building a content marketing machine may sound exciting, but is ultimately flawed. Because of this, too much content in the market is either too seller-focused (spam) or too focused on what the buyer already knows (engagement) without confronting the transformation that needs to take place. Once the journey becomes the objective, content becomes just one weapon in the arsenal.

Transform the seller. Contrary to popular opinion, AdBlock and cord-cutting rendering ads no longer cost-effective should not be the reason you instead start publishing content. Believing otherwise will lead you to optimizing for the creation of content just referenced that doesn’t move the needle anyway. Maintaining such an antiquated mindset results in a dependency on tactics such as sponsored content and SEO, and the need to continuously reinvent yourself the moment consumers sniff out the deception or Google changes its algorithm.

Empower the conductor. Our existing marketing construct will not suffice. The sustainable approach is to find someone who operates entrepreneurially to not only create content that is aligned with value, but is itself valuable. For that to be possible, the conductor must also understand customer best practices better than customers themselves do.

Up next

Working on both product and content for two startups has enabled me to realize the potential at the intersection of the two disciplines. In the next and final article in this series, I’ll explore how organizations can test and validate content initiatives to achieve re-oriented objectives.

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Thanks for the feedback: A.J. Lawrence, Yair Aviner, Dimitry Apollonsky, and Zion Kim.