Five things every B2B marketer should know about content creation - Enigma Marketing Services
Five things every B2B marketer should know about content creation

Introduction

Great content builds trust – which is the only foundation on which a relationship can be built.

In B2B marketing, great content is the difference between success and failure. It turns strangers into prospects and can nurture prospects into customers and advocates. Great content combines insight – ‘an accurate and deep understanding’ of a subject – and narrative: if the insights are relevant and valuable and are communicated powerfully, then you will be rewarded with the time, attention and ultimately the custom of the people with whom they’ve been shared.

It is said that content is king: and in these lockdown days where written communication via digital channels is the primary sales approach, that seems to be truer than ever. But if so, then then why is it so poorly valued? And why is there so much mediocre content out there?

As a freelancer, I never understood why, if content was so important, my copywriting rates were only half of those I received for other types of work. And according to 2020 data, securing the budget to ‘develop high quality, robust content at scale’ is the biggest problem that CMOs face (cited by 47%): in other words, the people that hold the purse strings aren’t willing to pay for content.

The same research reported that only 7% of marketers think their content is exceptional (despite the fact that 84% outsource content creation to people who, one assumes, write for a living.) Almost half (43%) of those interviewed felt their content was just average; and, frankly, if it doesn’t inspire them, it’s not going to inspire their customers.

Why is that?

Well, writers themselves must take a huge share of the blame. If the vast majority of companies employ professional writers to produce what is mostly very average content, then that reflects very poorly on my profession. Writing in 2013, Doug Kessler talked about the growth in the volume of B2B marketing content as far exceeding the capacity of good writers to deliver it – and that imbalance has only got greater in the intervening years. So, it may well be that less talented writers have filled the gap in the market – with predictably poor results. (Caveat emptor! Do your research. Get references!)

But I don’t think that’s the whole story. To employ a sports metaphor, most team managers have some experience of having played the game. Yet the same does not apply to marketing. The great paradox of our industry is that marketers are dependent upon quality content to do their jobs properly, yet very few have any experience of creating it.

That’s not a deal-breaker. I’m not arguing that prospective marketers should serve a mandatory apprenticeship as a copywriter before they are allowed to take up a place in the profession. But, if the nature of content isn’t properly understood, it might explain why so much of it is so poor. In fact, in the survey cited above, the one problem CMOs would most like to resolve is ‘knowing if the content being created is actually influencing and engaging to our audience’. Put simply, the CMOs interviewed had little idea whether the content they’re creating is any good or not.

I guess that, if content is just words on a page, then one set of words looks much like any other. So, it doesn’t really matter what ‘asset’ you use if they’re all much of a muchness. But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth: you never get a second chance to make your last impression.

Poor content can cause a current prospect to permanently disengage from a sales funnel they’ve been carefully nurtured along. And, if it is being used for lead generation, that asset may be the first thing a prospect sees from your company, their first knowledge of your brand. And if it’s crap, then it’ll be the last thing they’ll look at from your company and all they remember about your brand. Quality matters.

Help them help you

Content creators don’t set out to create mediocre content. But, without in any way wishing to absolve bad writers for poor quality work, I think there are circumstances where even good writers will struggle to give of their best. I am someone who experiences an almost visceral sense of unease when I am not given what I need to do good work, and I push back hard when those situations arise. But not every writer is in a position to do this - or is temperamentally inclined to do so.

So, if you are a marketer who is not a content creator – and assuming you are working with copywriters that have a proven track record in their field – then this guide explains what you can do to maximise the likelihood of great content being created for your campaigns. Based on 25 years’ experience of producing a range of content – from social posts to white papers - in environments as varied as PR, advertising and internal communications, I set out five things that will improve your understanding of what great content looks like, and uplift your ability to contribute positively to its creation.

1. The asset mentality

For me (and I’m sure I speak on behalf of all writers), content creation is both a skill and a craft. I was born with a modicum of talent but that’s been honed over the years. Every piece I produce is carefully planned, meticulously written and checked and re-checked with a relentlessness that only those with mild OCD can muster. Content is crafted with care, attention and (on a good day) love.

Now, not everyone can (or should) share my passion for writing. I get that. But we should all share a commitment to quality. Far too many marketers consider content to be simply an ‘asset’: something that ticks a box, meets the criteria for a particular piece of content at a particular stage of a nurture flow – and nothing more. I’ve been asked to write copy promoting content so awful that I can’t believe it had actually ever been read – but it was the right kind of content on the right topic and a campaign had been built around it. The point is that, if the content in question is sub-standard, then your ‘asset’ is a liability.

“If your content is su-standard, then your ‘asset’ is a liability.”

 

This is particularly true for gated content. Prospects are giving up their valuable contact details in exchange for access to a piece of content – and that asset must be of equivalent value. If I had given up my information only to be sent a piece of marketing flimflam, I would be furious. And I would immediately unsubscribe from any company that did that to me.

The Takeaway
The ability to distinguish good content from bad is a critical skill for a marketer. If this is a skill you lack, then take steps to acquire it. (Be curious. If one asset worked much better than another, ask yourself why. Read widely. Ask for recommendations.) And, in the meantime, rely on the judgement of those you can trust to make that decision for you.

2. Persuade not explain

I started my career in PR.  The people we were trying to influence had (probably) never heard of the client company authoring the article or knew anything about how its technology might impact their working lives. Indeed, persuading them of the relevance of my client’s technology was the point of the whole exercise: you can’t sell medicine to someone that doesn’t know that they’re ill.

I am therefore comfortable with having persuasion as an objective for my content. But, my more recent experience of B2B marketing suggests that most of the copywriters in it cleave more naturally to explaining. I’m not arguing that one is better than the other, merely that there is a distinction between the two that makes them suited to different parts of the customer journey.

“You can’t sell medicine to someone that doesn’t know they’re ill.”

 

By way of illustration, I recently had a brief on behalf of low-code vendor OutSystems to write about the use cases of their technology for Customer Experience (CX) professionals. Now, most of these people neither know nor care what low-code is and spend no time wondering how they might use it in their day-to-day lives – so explaining the technology to them is entirely pointless. However, CX professionals do need to respond to volatile business conditions by rapidly spinning up new online services and iterating these rapidly in order to remove friction from the process: this is something at which low-code excels so the challenge was to persuade them of the veracity of this claim.

Prospects in the awareness phase of the funnel need to be persuaded of the validity of your client’s product or service, typically through educationally oriented thought leadership materials (remember, they don’t yet know they are ill!) such as analyst reports, white papers and e-books. Once they realise that their symptoms can be diagnosed as an illness for which you have a cure, you can then push them along the funnel until they are ready to have the topic explained to them: case studies, ROI tools and product demos are some of a host of different materials that do this job well.

(Caveat. As this Enigma blog argues, you need to enable the customer journey, not dictate it. Some of your prospects may prefer to look at case studies at the start of their engagement with you and study analyst reports at the end – that’s entirely their prerogative.)

The Takeaway
You need to put yourself in your customers’ shoes and understand where they are in relation to their understanding of (and therefore need for) your (or your client’s) offering. Are they yet to be persuaded of the relevance of that offering? Or has the penny dropped, and they are ready to have its features and benefits explained to them? You should know the difference and brief your writers accordingly.

3. The most important thing in marketing is authenticity. If you can fake that you’ve got it made .

If you were asked for a company portrait, you might think carefully about the clothes you choose for the shoot, take a bit of time on hair and makeup, have a view about which was your best side or how to draw attention away from that double. But you wouldn’t substitute a photograph of a different person and insist on that being used instead. But copywriters are often asked to produce a piece of content with minimal input from the company in whose name it is being written. That’s no less crazy.

Can I write something from scratch entirely on my own? Of course. I once did a series of blogs for a CRM vendor in which I was given a series of target audiences and simply asked to ‘write something interesting’.  It was a success – the CTR’s were ‘way above average’. But just because something can be done, doesn’t mean it should.

“Just because it can be done, doesn’t mean it should.”

The views in those blogs were mine alone. They didn’t reflect the particular views of the company concerned (although I was at pains to ensure that the two were aligned). They didn’t refer to anecdotes about customer interactions I didn’t have. They didn’t include insights that weren’t already being written about elsewhere. How could they?

The ghost in the machine
In my PR days, I would often ghost-write articles for clients. Because these articles were accredited to a particular individual – and would enhance their industry standing, their personal brand and even their job prospects – we had subject-matter experts queuing up to participate. However, these experts relied on their PR colleagues to give them the external exposure they craved; and the PR team needed their expertise in order to generate the column inches on which they were measured. So, there was a real mutuality of both respect and interests at play.

My experience suggests that this mutuality is somewhat missing from B2B marketing, although this is far from being universally true. Perhaps, because these experts’ contributions are often anonymised in e-Books or position papers, they are viewed as an imposition rather than an opportunity. Or maybe it’s the fact that marketers often defer to their sales leads and are reluctant to ‘bother them’ with requests for a briefing which may distract them from their sales mission.

Cold Feet
For whatever reason, B2B clients are often reluctant to put a writer in front of their subject matter experts. It is my firm belief that this reticence is, firstly, based on a misassumption; and, secondly is a serious barrier to the success of any content-based marketing strategy.

Firstly, I haven’t met an expert that doesn’t love talking about what they do and expressing their views about the industry in which they have invested years of their professional lives; so marketers should have no fears on that score.

The second point goes to the issue of authenticity: people instinctively know whether a piece is written from the heart or simply to order. Whether it’s a turn of phrase, an opinion, an anecdote or a customer example, the expert will bring something to the conversation that is unique to that individual and that organisation. And that distinctiveness is at the heart of great content; and, to take issue with myself, it has an authenticity that cannot be faked.

“People know if something is written from the heart or simply to order.”

The setting and the stone
That is not to say that the writer is a glorified stenographer, someone who simply captures the expert’s views, structures them according to the rules of the content form they are creating and renders their spoken words as grammatical copy.

One of the benefits of using a third-party copywriter is that they bring experience of the wider industry, insights from clients in the same sector and interests from beyond the immediate wold that the expert inhabits. The value lies in the collaboration between the expert and the writer. At risk of sounding pretentious, I think the writer’s goal is to: identify and polish the gem in the expert’s possession; and then find the setting that will showcase that gem to best effect.

As a former journalist, I sit down with the expert, drill into their knowledge to uncover something topical, to discover a hitherto unexpressed insight or to identify a point of view that runs counter to prevailing wisdom. That gem serves as the starting point of an investigation into the topic that the expert has raised; a search for the perfect setting that will present their insights in a way that most resonates with the target audience.

OutSystems, the low-code vendor I referred to earlier, is a great example of this. I talked for an hour with Mariana Henriques of its global product marketing department. We discussed at length the impact of the lockdown on customer experience. The topic that came up most strongly was agility: as brick-and-mortar premises were boarded up and face-to-face interactions with the likes of insurance brokers effectively declared illegal, there was a massive rush of prospects and customers to online channels; and Mariana provided a wealth of detail about how CX professionals should respond to this.

Houston, we have a problem
When I sat down to write the blog, I didn’t know where to start. CX professionals don’t necessarily articulate their problems in terms of agility. They know they must rapidly and smoothly onboard prospects and create frictionless experience for their existing customers, but may not appreciate that they have an agility deficiency for which OutSystems’ agility supplements will provide a cure.

I eventually came at the topic from the perspective of digital transformation. I found a quote from EY that talked about ‘the symbiotic relationship across digital business models, customer experience, and agility gains’ that tied it all together in a way CX professionals would understand. And this led seamlessly into a discussion of all the points that Mariana had raised on our call. This approach was not something I’d discussed with her, but was the setting I created for the gems she had shared with me.

Mariana was delighted with the results (“I thought these were fantastic - by far the best articles I've reviewed from external writers.”) and our digital team have a genuine asset for their campaign. I say this not to (or not only to!) big myself up, but to demonstrate the importance of having a marketing function that understands: the process of content creation; the need for expert involvement in it; and the role of the writer in shaping that content for a particular audience.

If there were more subject matter experts like Mariana – and more clients with the confidence to put writers in front of them – then the quality of content in our industry would be much higher than it is.

The Takeaway
We all have a shared responsibility to put the distinctive character of our organisation or client at the heart of everything we produce. That means having the courage to enlist the help of those experts that can contribute to the process – and the patience to explain to them the value of doing so.

4. Don’t get your briefs in a twist

In an earlier blog, I argue that there are two parts to writing. The first is figuring out what you want to say – and that’s a planning exercise. (Basically, this is the process I described above in creating the agility blog.)  The second is saying it – which is a writing exercise. The majority of B2B agencies separate these roles out into two distinct functions and this bifurcation exists in-house in a variety of different ways. Conflating the two processes creates all sorts of problems.

Planning is the attempt to answer to a simple question: How is my company/client uniquely placed to address the real needs of its customers. Once you have that answer – for the sector and persona of the audience you are addressing – then the writing bit is pretty straightforward. So, if you are unclear on the value your (client’s) offering delivers, create a planning brief. Then use that planning work as part of the creative brief to the copywriter and the wider Studio team. Pretty simple, huh?

The problem is that this simple rule is frequently ignored.

In-house teams, which may lack either the experience or the planning resources to do the first part, can present a copywriter with a brief that lacks the planning information necessary for it to be fulfilled effectively. Agency staff, which should have access to all the resources they need, have fewer excuses. They should be the ones to step in and tell their clients that the planning stage has been missed; but, under pressure from either their clients or their management to get a campaign quickly into market, they sometimes fail to do so.

The results are frequently disastrous: marketing activity that lacks the planning foundations to support the campaigns built upon it will quickly disintegrate. From the copywriter’s perspective – and even with the best will in the world – (s)he will fail to deliver good content without understanding how a particular product or service delivers value to the groups you are targeting.

Kipling’s honest serving men
Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem provides a useful template for determining whether you are in a position to brief a copywriter or if you need to do a little more planning work.

  • What do we want our prospects to do – what behaviours are we trying to initiate or change?
  • Why do they need our help – do we understand the pain points that we address for them?
  • When is the activity being carried out?
  • Where is the activity being carried out – what is the geographical scope of the campaign?
  • Who are we targeting – do we know enough about oru target audience?
  • How are we going to achieve the goals outlined above?

You must have good answers to the first five questions before you engage a copywriter (or indeed any creative resource): their mission is then to answer the sixth question – how? Fulfilling this checklist will ensure that your writers are clear on the language, the audience, the drivers, the timescales and the call to action they need in order to meet – and hopefully exceed – your expectations.

The Takeaway
You must gather the planning information you need to support the activity you are sponsoring. If you’re missing an answer to even one of the six questions, then take a deep breath and engage the planning resource you need to fill in the gaps. This may put a few noses out of joint in the short term but will save you time and money in the medium term and avert a potential s***storm down the line.

5. A writer is not a jukebox

As I said earlier, I can always write something. As per Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with Why’, I can provide a well-crafted description of what a company does without much assistance. I can even take a stab at how they do it. But the reasons why they do what they do, which is the stuff that gets people engaged, lifts a company above its peers and powerfully communicates their purpose? Well, I can’t do that without input from the company itself.

One example that springs to mind was a project to write a company web site. It was a full-time job for a couple of months, and I commuted into the office every day. The attitude of the marketing director that hired me was, “You’re a professional writer. I’m giving you money. Write something.” I was basically stuck in the corner of the office and left to get on with it. I struggled to get time with any senior members of the team and, after a couple of weeks (largely spent working on a product launch), I really hadn’t got very far with my main job of writing the web site.

“You’re a professional writer. I’m giving you money. Write something.”

Eventually, after much pleading, I grabbed 45 minutes with the founder and CEO of the company. He talked passionately about where he’d come from, what was wrong with what he saw as business as usual, why he had created and built this company and how it was going to change the world.

That was what I needed. The tone and style of the web site came from that single interview. And the bold, challenging statement that I put at the top of the home page is still there years later – entirely unaltered. That one conversation enabled me to capture something about the company’s DNA that resonated with them at the time – and still does. And I couldn’t have done that unaided.

The Takeaway
A writer is not a jukebox, whereby money goes in and content comes out. Or rather, (s)he shouldn’t be. You get out of content what you invest into it – and that requires a lot more than money.

 

Conclusion
Great content cannot be created in a vacuum.  First and foremost, it requires a good writer. But it also needs your help. You need to: think of content as more than just an asset, and know enough about it to set the quality bar for your organisation or client; understand which of your customers need to be persuaded of the value of what you do and which are ready to have the delivery of that value explained to them; have the courage to engage with your experts in order to secure their participation in its creation; secure the planning insights that underpin effective content creation; and invest your time and energy into giving your content creators what they need to deliver outstanding results.

Fundamentally, content demands that you take it seriously. That you acknowledge the critical role it has to play in delivering success to your organisation or agency. And that, even as someone that will not directly create the content you deploy on a daily basis, you will use your intelligence and influence to create an environment where great content can flourish.

Simple as that.

1With apologies to George Burns

enigma
By enigma

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