Most organizations are built upon the premise that the product offering forms the nucleus of their value proposition to customers. Marketing, or ‘content,’ is merely a promotional layer on top. For B2B organizations in particular, this model is backwards and has meaningful consequences.
The value of a product is rarely the 1's and 0's that go into making it. Instead, value can be mapped to some best practice, methodology, or use case that delivers effectiveness, efficiency, new opportunities, or some combination thereof to the buyer. In this regard, the product enables the best practice or value proposition to be realized, but only after content communicates the practice worth realizing in the first place.
Consider HubSpot as a shining example of a company that explicitly recognizes this. If you speak to a sales rep or virtually anyone at the organization, the pitch will never begin with the product. Instead, you’ll bear witness to their renowned infographic on the inbound methodology, which doesn’t mention HubSpot anywhere in it.
HubSpot first argues for a methodology, not a product, that is “the best way to turn strangers into customers and promoters of your business.” Likewise, Atlassian believes that “the best software teams ship early and often” using an Agile methodology. Some companies are more subtle, like Blue Apron, which implicitly believes that farm-fresh ingredients and relatively easy recipes will bring families closer together.
It just so happens that each organization sells a product that enables buyers to take advantage of the evangelized practice. But the point is, as Samuel Hulick of UserOnboard elegantly illustrates, no one buys the product if they don’t first buy into what the practice will do for them.
Redefining the intersection of product and content
To this end, content shouldn’t just be treated as a derivative of product — it should validate the value proposition the product enables in the first place. There’s no leaner way for the company to discover that buyers want a superpower-infusing plant than to test and iterate on content that evangelizes the value of destroying obstacles with fireballs. And that’s not just a difference in workflow semantics, it’s a completely different operational paradigm. Using content, value propositions can be validated without a single line of code or a conveyor belt.
But few organizations and marketers can explain or justify their content marketing initiatives at all, yet alone frame them in these terms. For many, content is now simply the ‘status quo’ way to do promotion because advertising is expensive or no longer works.
Most definitions of content marketing are so broad that they exacerbate the issue. According to the Content Marketing Institute:
Content marketing is the art of communicating with your customers and prospects without selling…Instead of pitching your products or services, you are delivering information that makes your buyer more intelligent. The essence of this content strategy is the belief that if we, as businesses, deliver consistent, ongoing valuable information to buyers, they ultimately reward us with their business and loyalty.
‘Delivering information that makes your buyer more intelligent’ is only half of the requirement. And while there are many worthwhile content marketing tactics, the raison d’être must be to test, validate, and evangelize some practice or methodology that educates the buyer but also aligns with the organization’s product offering. In fact, it’s not just an efficient way to validate value propositions, it’s also the best way to generate an ROI on content marketing initiatives.
Redefining the intersection of marketing and content
According to a large-scale analysis of buying patterns, the single most important driver of a sale is the introduction of ‘commercial insight,’ which researchers argue is a nuanced subset of thought leadership:
[Commercial insight is] designed to upend the status quo. As such, insight isn’t about one thing, it’s about two things. [Unlike thought leadership, it] doesn’t just convey an idea of what the customer could be doing…but also conveys a story around what the customer is currently doing, explicitly laying out why the current behavior is costing the customer time or money in ways they never realized.
That’s the key. The contrast. It’s the cost of current behavior juxtaposed to the potential of alternate action.
-p67, The Challenger Customer
Insight is a specific type of thought leadership that convinces the prospective buyer that there is a better practice than the one currently being undertaken. Inbound marketing is more effective than outbound marketing. Agile is better than waterfall. Throwing fireballs is better than ground pounds. The thought leader presumably has a product built on top of this methodology, which is what makes the insight ‘commercially-actionable.’
Interestingly, the same study found that neither the introduction of ‘thought leadership’ (the more general variety) nor ‘interesting content’ was found to have a statistically significant impact on the buyer’s journey. Providing valuable information with the hope that buyers reward your organization is an incomplete definition that will lead content initiatives astray. Valuable information must be in the context of a better practice, which itself must align with a product that enables the practice to be realized.
There is a ripe intersection for those willing to explore it. Done right, one strategy can effectively drive both product and content because they are two sides of the same value proposition.
Recap and ramifications
Customers buy products because of what those products enable them to do, the value of which is communicated and partially delivered (in the form of education) through content. Organizations can therefore leverage content to discover and iterate on value propositions, rather than just as a way to promote already-defined value propositions. They should do so because it’s significantly more efficient to iterate on content than it is to iterate on product (although product iterations are still necessary to validate enablement of the value proposition). To sweeten the deal, content marketing initiatives are most effective when focused on exactly that: content that evangelizes a best practice that is enabled by the organization’s product offering.
Use content to drive product development. Startups in particular tend to wait until after multiple funding rounds before investing in content. This is because they perceive content as a promotional activity rather than as a validating activity. Investing and iterating on content should instead be one of the first activities any entrepreneur or organization undertakes.
Use commercial insights to drive content marketing. It’s not just that product development should be driven by content, but content marketing initiatives should be reoriented around precisely this strategy. Content that conveys ‘commercial insight’ is the most impactful type of content.
Empower the intersection. Organizations should enable marketing teams to work directly with product teams to create content that discovers and/or optimizes value-added practices, and ensure the product direction involves supporting those practices.
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 article in this series, I’ll explore how companies can kickstart their reoriented content initiatives, and why hiring journalists and ‘writers’ to do so is a thoroughly flawed strategy. In the final article, I’ll discuss how to quantify and qualify content-driven value proposition validation.