• Five Reasons Why Content is King

    Two economic downturns over the past decade have made buyers more spendthrift, and more skeptical of vendor claims. Fueled by a wealth of on-line resources and social networks, buyers have seized control of the buying cycle, engaging with sales representatives later and later, and further elongating sales cycles. Marketers are scrambling to address the power shift and overcome lead generation and conversion issues by delivering more content and tools over more channels to actively engage ever more empowered, skeptical and frugal buyers.

    Marketing of B2B solutions has clearly become more difficult over the past several years, evident in research from IDC indicating that:

    • 62% of B2B vendors now need more leads in order to generate the same amount of sales;
    • 72% indicate an increase in buying cycle time over the past 6 month, while the buying cycle timeframe has increased over 10% in the past 12 months.

    According to research by Junta42 & MarketingProfs, “Engage or perish” is becoming the defining tag-line driving many new B2B marketing strategies with:

    • 51% of B2B marketers increasing their spending in content marketing over the next 12 months;
    • Over a quarter of the total marketing and communications budget now going toward content marketing;
    • 9 of 10 B2B marketers leveraging content marketing as part of their marketing programs.

    In our research with IDC, SiriusDecisions and other partners, we have found that there are five key trends in buyer behavior reinforcing one other to define the need for different and perhaps even more investment in content marketing programs into 2011 and beyond:

    1. Internet Fueled Buying Cycles – buyers more than ever are taking charge of the buying cycle, using on-line content to drive research, comparisons and purchase decisions. Having the right content and tools to help fuel buyer’s decision making process is essential. This requires the right content at each stage of the buying cycle;
    2. Information Overload –buyers are inundated with more marketing messages over more channels than ever before, becoming overloaded and confused, leading to stalled decision cycles. Better content targeting and personalization is required to end the “carpet bombing” techniques and make meaningful connections.
    3. Matter of Trust – although the research indicates that buyers truly rely on vendor content to help drive purchase decisions, with so much noise, buyers have become skeptical of vendor claims. Content that is created by or endorsed by peers and analysts is becoming more and more essential to create credible connections and engagements, and win over skeptical buyer trust.
    4. Frugalnomics – with two economic downturns over the past decade, buyers are focused more than ever on what solutions can do to help them “do-more-with-less”, drive savings and realize quantifiable bottom-line impact. Content and tools that help buyers assess the economic impact of implementing the proposed solutions, or the cost of “doing nothing”, are essential.
    5. Death of a Salesman? – research from IDC indicates that buyers view sales professionals as adding less and less value to the decision making process, and as a result, are involving them later and later in the sales cycle. Extending this trend over the next five years means that sales may be completely bypassed in some B2B markets, and certainly will be shaped differently by this trend in all markets. Marketing needs to develop content and assessment tools to help sales professionals add value earlier in the sales process, helping to morph current product / solution sales methodologies towards value selling engagements.

    These five buyer trends will truly define the next decade in marketing, creating a roadmap for additional content marketing investments. Content marketing needs to grow and evolve to thrive in this changed buying environment, and should include the following five initiatives:

    1. Buying-Cycle Aligned Content – investment in the right content and tools to empower buyers through the prospect driven buying cycle, including in the:
      • Early stages (to help buyers understand what problem they have and how others have solved it) providing market opportunity and research white papers and webinars, e-books and magazines, advice blog posts, peer forums, and interactive executive assessment tools;
      • Middle Stages (to help buyers understand what solutions are available and the value in solving the issues) providing solution white papers and webinars, product information and interactive demos, solution focused blog posts, benefit assessments, ROI calculators, case studies, testimonials and peer forums;
      • Later Stages (to help buyers know what it will take to purchase and implement the solution and how proposed solutions compare to the competition) providing evaluation and pilot programs, feature comparisons, quoting and configuration tools, competitive intelligence articles and blog posts, and total cost of ownership (TCO) comparison tools.
    2. Personalized Content – developing not just more, but “smart content”, to help cut through the noise and create a one-to-one dialogue with buyers, using prospect profile, opportunity and pain-point information to present just the right personalized content at the right time, including personalized e-mail blasts, web-site content, interactive white papers and executive assessment tools;
    3. Building Trust – Leverage of third party endorsements from buyer’s peers, analysts and other trusted sources to overcome skepticism and gain buyer trust, especially independent or validated reviews, peer forums, testimonials and success stories;
    4. Fight Frugalnomics – for buyers forced to “do-more-with-less”, and focused more than ever on bottom-line impact and best value from all investments, the creation of more economic focused content and interactive tools to helping buyers quantify the value of solutions, especially benefit focused white papers, benefit assessments, ROI calculators and TCO comparison tools;
    5. Sales Enablement – content to empower sales professionals to engage earlier in the buying process, before prospects have already made their purchase decision, and with a value selling versus product / solution focus. For example, this could include methodologies, presentations, white papers and assessment tools to help sales professionals identify and illuminate buyer issues, benchmark buyers versus competitors and best practice leaders, and create / drive solution roadmaps to help resolve the most pressing customer issues.

    The organizations that recognize these significant and fundamental B2B buyer changes, and align their content marketing budgets to empower buyers, engage one-to-one, build trust, address economically focused buyers and enable sales to engage with more value will be the winners in the next decade.

    Let us examine each of the trends and research in detail:

    Internet Fueled Buying Cycles
    The Internet has made more information available via more channels, and this wealth of information is being leveraged by buyers to make key purchase decisions, redefining how, when and where buyers engage, select and purchase your solutions.

    In the B2C space, the Internet has dramatically impacted how books, apparel, electronics, music, cars and other goods are bought and sold. The consumer is now in charge: researching specifications, configuring and customizing solutions, getting peer reviews and advice, comparing prices, and “buying now”. In many instances, sales forces and channel partners have been disinter-mediated, whereby direct contact with the buyer has been totally replaced with on-line interaction. And the shift to “buyer control” has seen the rise of new retail channels and marketing sites with substantial competitive impact for those that embraced and leveraged the shift, and those that lagged behind.

    These B2C buyers now rely on vendor web-sites, independent buyer guides, and social networks to help guide their decisions, and as a result, B2C marketers have had to visibly change to meet these demands. Important has been the marketer’s development and delivery of on-line content and decision making tools to fuel and automate the buying cycle, reviews and transaction. For example, automotive sites now provide more tools than ever to guide buyer’s decisions including customized configurators and pricing tools, competitive comparison tools, video brochures, and Facebook “fan” pages.

    Analysts such as Forrester and Gartner are highlighting “consumerization” of business as a key trend for the next several years, and B2B marketing is one area that will face the ‘consumerization” change, making content marketing and interactive decision support tools more important than ever before.

    Evidence of this shift can be found in IDC’s 2010 Customer Experience Survey. When asked, over 200 B2B solution buyers now felt that the most important part of the overall purchase process was Vendor Content, with over 1/3rd of the buyers indicating this content as key to the purchase decision. Content may indeed be King to the Internet fueled buying cycle.

    IDC survey results indicate that buyers rely on Vendor Content greatly, exceeding the value of direct vendor engagements with technical teams, sales representatives and executives in making key purchase decisions. With a wealth of information available at the click of a mouse, buyers are doing more of their own research and evaluations on-line, relying less and less on vendor interaction to progress through the decision making cycle. Sales teams are being engaged later and later in the sales cycle. Marketers recognizing this shift are providing the content needed at each stage of the lifecycle to fuel the decision making process.

    According to SiriusDecision buyer studies, the most favored sources of content during the early stages of b-to-b decision-making are:

    • White papers (64.4%);
    • Peer referrals (51.1%);
    • Webinars (48.9%);
    • Trials or demos (42.2%);
    • Analyst reports (37.8%).

    In later stages of the sales cycle, analyst reports and peer referrals reign supreme.

    Information Overload

    Although buyers extensively use and rely on vendor information to make purchase decisions, most of today’s buyers indicate that they suffer from “Information Overload” as a result of current “carpet bombing” marketing strategies.

    Many of us have experienced this phenomenon, getting more content from more sources than ever before. According to SiriusDecisions, just looking at e-blasts alone, the typical buyer receives over 20 e-mail marketing messages a week, up 32% over the past 4 years. And this is but one of several traditional and on-line channels that are proactively providing information on a daily basis to prospects. Instead of being engaged, buyers are now inundated with more meaningless product information, offers and “noise”, creating a condition often referred to as “marketing fatigue”.

    One of the keys to cutting through the noise is to provide buyers with more personalized and meaningful content to transcend generic messaging to create an engaging dialogue.

    The power of personalization is real, where according to MarketingSherpa and KnowledgeStorm surveys, when content is customized, buyers indicate that the content is much more effective at capturing prospect attention, and most importantly, converting prospects into buyers. The study examined the customization technique and percentage of buyers who indicated customized content is more valuable when customized by this technique:

    • By Industry = 82% more effective;
    • By Role / Job Function = 67% more effective;
    • By Company Size = 49% more effective;
    • By Geography = 29% more effective.

    And this is but a fraction of the customization that could be made to personalize content. Pivot points to customize the content could include customization by stage in buying cycle, specific pain points, specific opportunities and needs, and competitive considerations.

    The customization of the content can be generated in different ways to be sure it is relevant to the particular persona and characteristics of the buyer, such as using:

    • Visitor click activity to determine what information is presented next on the website, or what offers / content to serve;
    • Registration profiles to customize the on-line web content presented, or scheduled e-mail blast content sent;
    • Interactive white paper and assessment tools that asks the customer a few questions and then tune the white paper content or customized assessment benchmarks interactively based on profile, stage in buying cycle, opportunity, pain points and need.

    According to a marketing automation firm Silverpop survey of B2B marketers, even though customization is very effective, only 35 percent of marketers said they were using dynamic content today. However, of those that did, the results of personalized content have been impressive, with 93 percent said it worked better for them than traditional content, and 43 percent reported that it “worked great.”
    Matter of Trust
    Although buyers clearly rely on Vendor content to do research and make important purchase decisions, and not having this content in today’s Internet fueled buying cycle can be fatal, a conundrum exists where vendors are not always perceived as a trusted source. Perhaps because of the overload of marketing messages received daily, or the boldness of such messages / claims, or the fact that at the end of the day the Vendor is ultimately there to sell something, but the research indicates that buyers are clearly skeptical of vendor produced and provided content.

    Buyer survey results from SiriusDecisions indicate that the most trusted sources of marketing content information through the buying lifecycle are industry analysts (cited by 31.4% of respondents), and peers (28.7%), especially early in the lifecycle. The influence of vendors as a trusted source of information lags dramatically, at only 8.1% this year, an increase from 3.1% in 2006, but still much lower on the trust scale than almost all other sources.

    Internet fueled buying decisions rely on creating a credible and meaningful connection to the buyer, overcoming the virtual nature of the medium to create trust. Because buyers are researching solutions on-line, they cannot look a salesperson in the eyes to determine credibility. To overcome the skepticism, it is important for content marketers to provide the right content to bridge the credibility gap, including analyst reviews, user testimonials and success stories, third party validation of research and financial justifications, and cultivation of independent peer reviews and feedback.

    Frugalnomics
    According to Forrester analyst Scott Santucci, go-to-market models always change during periods of disruption, and Great Recession has certainly caused its share of turmoil. “The more buying organizations are forced to do-more-with-less they adopt different business patterns”, says Mr. Santucci.

    We term the current shift Frugalnomics, where two successive economic downturns over the past decade have resulted in an increasingly economic focused buyer that demands quantifiable proof that each investment will yield a beneficial bottom-line impact and provide maximum value compared to alternatives.

    According to Forrester’s Mr. Santucci, the Frugalnomics focus has significant and fundamental strategy implications. “Today, buyers are looking for business partners that will help them drive business results or outcomes – rather than bundle their products and services into solutions.”

    With Frugalnomics, buyers are inclined to not make significant investments or changes, and as a result, customers need to be armed with the tools to “make the case for change”. Unfortunately, most buyers are inclined to “do nothing” during periods of uncertainty; however, there is a “cost to doing nothing”. Customers need to be armed with the tools to quantify the cost of indecision and the positive bottom-line impact these changes can have.

    In order to attract, connect and capture frugal buyers, marketers need to produce content that raises economic interest, quantifies value, and boosts urgency in a time where it’s easier to do nothing than make a wrong investment. According to IDC research, over 90% of surveyed decision makers now require quantifiable proof of bottom-line benefits on most projects. The larger the purchase, the more formal financial due diligence is required.

    However, even though financial impact analysis is required, two-thirds (65%) of buyers indicate that they do not have the knowledge or tools needed to do business value assessments and calculations. As a result, over 81% of buyers expect vendors to quantify business value of proposed solutions.

    Content marketers must develop content and dynamic sales tools to engage and empower economic buyers, including research, interactive and traditional white papers, webinars and dynamic sales tools to help quantify the value of proposed solutions, return on investment (ROI) calculators, and competitive total cost of ownership (TCO) comparisons.

    Death of a Salesman?
    Because of Internet Fueled Buying Cycles, sales is being invited later and later the table, and in some cases, not at all. Buyers can now use the Internet to research and assess opportunities for improvements, find and get solution recommendations, make the financial case for change, compare and contrast competitive options and pricing, and often make the purchase on-line. So what is the role of a salesperson in such an empowered buyer environment, and will this lead to an end of sales as we know it?

    According to SiriusDecisions, focusing on marketing costs per sales person indicates that on average companies invest a significant $43,011 / salesperson, an estimated 3%-7% of the opportunity value of the sales pipeline.

    However, research by IDC recognizes that although sales enablement investments are significant, the investments may not be delivering on promises. Surveys reveal that buyers are not satisfied with the value sales professionals are delivering to engagements. In a recent survey, 24% of buyers indicated that the sales reps are not prepared for presentations at all, 30% indicate that they are somewhat prepared , and only 29% indicate that they are well prepared. The lack of preparation has been directly shown to drive inefficient conversion, longer sales cycles, more discounting, and higher competitive losses.

    So why are the sales enablement investments not paying off?

    • Are sales professionals resisting the fact that buyers and the buying lifecycle have fundamentally changed? Are marketing and sales enablement teams producing the right presentations, white papers and tools for sales professionals to use in customer engagements?
    • Is the sales force aware of these tools, and have knowledge to select or are prompted as to which tools to use when?
    • Is the sales force using the presentations, white papers and tools at all (research by AMA indicates that 90% of marketing materials are not used by sales)?
    • Is it an issue of acceptance, where the methodology, presentations, collateral and tools are not being accepted by customers as valuable?

    Over the next 5 years it is clear that sales has to change to meet empowered buyer needs and continue to add value to the engagement. Content marketing plays an important role in arming sales professionals with the content and dynamic sales tools to reshape the way they engage and connect with ever more frugal, skeptical and empowered buyers.

    Marketing needs to play a clear role to either help redefine the sales role and empower sales professionals with the content and tools needed to add value in the buying cycle, or simply remove sales from the process altogether, empowering buyers directly with the content, tools and channel to make their own decisions and buy on their own. Likely, as we have seen in B2C, marketing will need to both help redefine sales engagements and empower direct buying content and channels.

    The Bottom-Line
    Significant changes in buyer sentiment are prompting savvy marketers to rethink their 2011 and beyond strategies and budgets to tackle these issues, especially increases to content marketing investments, and in particular new initiatives such as interactive smart content™ (like interactive white papers), and dynamic sales tools (such as on-line assessment tools, ROI calculators and TCO comparison tools).

    Traditional marketing programs are becoming irrelevant with the “consumerization” of business selling and marketing, and a world of information overload and frugalnomics. Investing in the right interactive and personalized content marketing campaigns to empower buyers, connect one-to-one, improve trust, address economic buying factors and enable sales is proven to drive more qualified leads, increase conversion rates and reduce lengthening sales cycles.

    Sources

    • MarketingSherpa and KnowledgeStorm survey -http://www.knowledgestorm.com/search/viewabstract/90153
    • SiriusDecisions B-to-B Buyer’s Survey 2010, on an online survey of more than 600 b-to-b marketers
    • SiriusDecisions 2010 Summit: How B2B Marketing Organizations Can Better “Measure, Align, Transform” Their Demand Generation for “High Performance”
    • New Realities about B2B Buying, Jeff Ogden, SandHill.com Blog, Jun. 08, 2010
    • IDC 2010 Customer Experience Survey (survey of 213 B2B Decision Makers)
    • Uncovering The Hidden Costs Of Sales Support, Forrester Research, Inc., April 2009
    • IDC Executive Tele Briefing on Sales and Marketing Strategies for 2010
    • The Audience Content Marketers Can’t Afford To Ignore – But Almost Always Do, Jennifer Watson, Content Marketing Institute, Published: September 20, 2010
    • Communicate: Stop the Noise & Start Real Dialogues with Prospects, http://www.silverpop.com/marketing-resources/white-papers/download/b2b-marketing-success.html
    • Scott Santucci – Forrester Sales Enablement Blog: http://blogs.forrester.com/scott_santucci
    • 2010 B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends, American Business Media, Business Marketing Association, Junta42 and MarketingProfs surveyed over 1,100 North American B2B marketers from diverse industries and a wide range of company sizes. Published: September 15, 2010, http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/2010/09/b2b-content-marketing/

    Tom Pisello founded Alinean Inc. in 2001 where he coined the term, “Frugalnomics.”  You can read his daily blog at Tom Pisello: The ROI Guy.

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