When content marketing first rose to prominence around 2012-2013, it was touted as the next big thing for marketing and sales departments. It promised to deliver a steady stream of highly qualified leads directly into sales departments at a lower cost per lead than had ever been achieved before.
Marketers tumbled over themselves to jump on the bandwagon. They signed up for seminars, webinars, classes, and software. They hired writers and content managers and “CCOs” (Chief Content Officers) to run entire departments to pump out unprecedented quantities of marketing content.
This content took the form of blogs (so many blogs!), ebooks and endless email nurture campaigns. Marketing departments created “persona documents” and “buyer’s journey” maps. They created “gated” content with special landing pages to “capture” email addresses, then called those addresses “leads” and created email campaigns to “convert” them into “opportunities.”
Sales departments—who were rarely consulted during this process—were told that this would mean the end of cold calling.
It is true that companies who got into the content marketing game and did it well often increased their prominence in the marketplace. Some of them also generated prodigious quantities of leads, and some of those leads turned into sales.
For the vast majority, however, the promise of content marketing has never fully materialized. In fact, I contend that for the b2b sales industry as a whole, it represents an expensive failure so far.
The problem with content marketing
There are four big problems with content marketing, as I see it.
- It’s badly aligned
The vast majority of content marketing programs failed to consult with their sales department, and their clients, and, thereby, succeeded only in widening the age-old gap between “marketing qualified” and “sales qualified.” As long as marketing departments continue to single-mindedly focus on volume-based KPIs, such as “number of leads generated” and lack a shared definition of what represents marketing qualified and sales qualified leads, this misalignment will continue. Also, it is not uncommon that the actual content production is delegated or outsourced to someone that may lack the insights and detailed knowledge to produce thought-provoking material for your target groups, making the content irrelevant for your potential customers.
- Attracting (and engaging with) the wrong stakeholders
To make matters worse, even where content marketing is executed in coordination with sales departments and clients, it’s rare for these efforts to effectively target the high-level decision makers salespeople need to reach. Generally, a low-level employee is tasked with “finding a solution” and, thus, content marketing is largely consumed by these employees. These, then, are the employees whose contact information is collected by the “gated” content. Oftentimes, these “marketing qualified” leads are placed directly into the sales pipeline and sales people run with them, having discussions with people who may not even understand the business problem to be solved. This situation is worsened when junior sales people are tasked with lead follow-up, which is often the case. If you don’t get to the true decision-making team and fully understand their situation and help craft their vision and the solution, you are unlikely to win anything but the low-hanging fruit.
- Sales departments ill prepared for this shift in behaviors
What was supposed to be a boon for sales departments everywhere has created an expensive problem. Companies can’t afford to stop content marketing, because it’s now an expected part of the consumer’s landscape. Companies also can’t recall the information that’s already out there, so they’re forced to continue feeding the content machine. Meanwhile, all that content has put unprecedented amounts of information in the hands of customers and thereby changed the dynamics of the sales engagement.
Educating customers using content marketing is not a bad thing, but it does mean that sales teams must evolve and change – a difficult and time-consuming process that most companies and sales departments are not properly managing. When customers have educated themselves with marketing created content believe that the only missing piece of the puzzle is asking the sales person for a price, sales cycles can become very short (often to your disadvantage…)
- It has cannibalized its own advantage
Originally, a well-executed and aligned content marketing program represented an opportunity for even small companies to differentiate their brand with the quality and helpfulness of their content. With the saturation of content we see today, that differentiation opportunity has all but evaporated. Content is still an important part of marketing efforts, but it’s no longer a viable way to easily stand out from the crowd. What was once a good bet, is now merely table stakes.
All is not lost
Bells cannot be unrung, and content cannot be recalled (the internet, after all, is forever). Likewise, most companies cannot stop investing in content marketing, because good content is now the baseline along which many customers divide companies they consider working with from those they don’t.
However, as sales leaders, we cannot afford to lie down and accept the worst without trying to turn it into a win. And there is hope. For those who are paying attention, the great content marketing experiment contains valuable lessons that have the potential to transform the sales industry in a positive way. Here are four ways to use the lessons of content marketing to improve sales effectiveness.
- Optimize the system
One thing that content marketing learned to do very well is to optimize the system. By tying each piece of content to specific metrics like opens, reads, downloads, conversions, and leads, marketers gain valuable insight into how their websites, blogs, emails, and other marketing elements perform. World-class content organizations optimize everything down to where, precisely, a button is placed on a page, to ensure the highest possible performance at that particular point in the customer’s journey.
The same has not, on the whole, been true for sales departments. Often, performance is measured against only a few major metrics such as revenue, profit, and win/loss ratios. While these metrics are useful for judging salesperson performance, more detailed leading indicator metrics (such as those measurable in a platform like Membrain) enable sales departments to achieve the same level of optimization that marketing assets now can.
- Make content customer-centric
Product sheets and brochures have a place in both marketing and sales, but as the optimization experiments of hundreds of content marketers taught us, content is only as effective as it is aligned to influence the customer’s journey. This is as true for sales departments as it is for marketing departments, as validated by the latest CSO Insights “Sales Best Practices Study.” Make sure that you create content that is relevant and can shape the buying vision for your prospects.
- Use content to support sales
While content marketers have been busy focusing on creating large volumes of marketing content, forward-thinking marketing departments arm their sales departments to better guide buying-decisions with customer-aligned quality content to:
- Prospect better on social media Content developed for the LinkedIn Pulse platform can help salespeople build their thought leadership standing and connect with relevant contacts.
- Pre-qualify leads to ensure a healthy pipeline Checklists, built into the sales effectiveness platform, help salespeople quickly disqualify unqualified leads and only put quality opportunities into their pipeline.
- Get to the important stakeholders Don’t assume that people catched in your digital marketing net are the right ones to engage with in a business dialogue. More often than not, they aren’t and you need alternative strategies, tactics and messaging to engage with the executives who will make the final decision.
- Provide content in context In complex B2B sales, content can be used to educate and nurture each opportunity through the sales process. When it’s mapped to the customer’s journey, content can be used to decrease loss to specific competitors, increase urgency, and validate the company’s differentiation points.
- Minimize admin work Creations like proposals, ROIs and RFPs can be modularized to make the process simpler for salespeople, saving time and ensuring consistency across the organization.
- Reinforce training Training content can be built into the system and delivered at the right times to help salespeople convert new knowledge into behaviors, and to ensure that they have the support they need throughout each sales cycle. Especially important for new hires.
- Make marketing responsible for revenue
Traditionally, marketing has been held responsible only for brand awareness and leads. Once the same analytics and content approaches that have created the content marketing monster are applied to improve sales effectiveness, then marketing departments can be brought into alignment with sales departments, and made responsible for revenue rather than just for leads.
Marketers won’t replace sales people in complex sales environments
Content marketers, on the whole, still want you to believe that they will transform your company, and even make sales people irrelevant, while, for the most part, they’re still talking about leads that will never become sources of revenue. Sadly, by the measures that matters most—revenue and profit—content marketing has largely failed. Instead, companies will do well to focus on what that failure has to teach, and how they can bring both marketing and sales into alignment to deliver higher revenue and profit.