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Jan 19, 2011
How To

How and When to Use Content in the B2B Sales Process

SUMMARY: The buying process is unique to each company offering products and services, and the content is unique as well. But, there are common overarching themes that apply to every business.

We have a breakout panel at next week's Email Summit 2011 in Las Vegas titled, "How to Develop Content for Specific Buying Stages." For both Summit attendees and readers who can't make it to the conference, here is insight from three of the panelists.
by David Kirkpatrick, Reporter

The B2B sales process is complex and, in many ways, unique to each company offering products or services. The B2B marketer has two challenges -- the first is to define the buying process. The second is to determine what content is presented with each stage in the buying process. At the MarketingSherpa Email Summit 2011 we are offering a breakout panel moderated by Brian Carroll, "How to Develop Content for Specific Buying Stages." In advance of the Summit we had the opportunity to talk to three of the panelists.

Ardath Albee is a B2B Marketing Strategist, the CEO of Marketing Interactions, Inc., and the author of eMarketing Strategies for the Complex Sale. Kirsten McElgunn is the Director of Product Marketing, Western Union Business Solutions and her B2B focus is on segment marketing. Michelle Levy is an Associate Vice President of Marketing, ECI Telecom, and she drives lead generation, nurturing, marketing automation and marketing programs at the company.

Each of the panelists have their own B2B marketing focus and definition of the buying process, but all three agreed on some basic elements about using content in a B2B sale and the main transition points in the buying process.

Element #1: Cohesiveness

Albee says the first issue about content is to make certain your message has cohesiveness and that you are speaking to your customer -- or potential customer -- with one voice.

You may be nurturing leads with email, linking to content such as whitepapers and inviting your customers to webinars. But at the same time, those leads are following you on Twitter and subscribing to your RSS feed(s), and are proactively going to your website to see what you might be saying. It's important to make certain your content is up-to-date and all of it matches the message you want to present to your customers.

Albee says, "Content has to serve a purpose. It has to create that momentum and it needs to encourage them to engage further with other pieces of content, which is why it all needs to work together."

The takeaway is:
o The website content
o The webinar content
o The whitepaper content
o The blog content
o The Twitter content
o The email content

All of these pieces need to relate to each other. If your customer attends a webinar and scans the Twitter feed at the same time, the message presented should be clear, and the same, regardless of the medium of the message.

Element #2: Define the buying stages

Every company has to define its own buying stages. A perfect case-in-point is the three panelists we spoke with.

Albee breaks it down into seven stages:
o status quo
o priority shift
o research options
o step back
o validation
o choice

Western Union's McElgunn has five steps:
o creating awareness
o addressing a need or problem
o the benefit of addressing that need or problem
o needs analysis of the customer
o closing the sale and acquiring the customer

McElgunn adds that Marketing's role doesn't end with the buying stages, she adds a sixth stage -- the ongoing relationship with the customer. She says, "You want to grow and retain that customer, you want to keep a relationship going with them and ensure you provide value ongoing whether it's product enhancement bringing value or providing them ongoing marketing information."

ECI Telecom's Levy looks at the big picture with three steps:
o education
o solution
o vendor selection

She does add each of those stages are broken down into more granular components. Education goes into two parts -- market perception and introducing a problem to their audience, and connecting that problem to critical business areas. Solution is focused on targets ready to commit to solving a problem and finding the "best fit" solution. Vendor selection content helps buyers differentiate between vendors offering a solution to the identified problem. This content should clearly communicate features and functionality, ROI and TCO models.

Clearly there can be many, many stages to address with content. For this article, we'll break it down to three basic transition points for any customer.

Stage one -- providing information

All three of our thought leaders agreed that providing information about what products and solutions are out there, and educating potential customers, is the first stage of B2B sale content.

Levy states, "Education, for instance, can include both introducing a problem and then connecting that problem to critical business issues."

Providing information also means providing awareness that the company exists in the marketplace according to McElgunn. That means getting the attention of your potential customer.

At this stage, the content should come from a variety of sources, both internal and external. You want to present your material in a way that establishes you in the field, and you want to present, or link to, material from industry leaders and experts that reinforces your message. Your marketplace will determine the exact medium for the message.

For a complex product where customers are going to do heavy research, offering whitepapers and invitations to webinars will be appropriate. Other products or services might be better presented with a series of shorter form articles on the website and complemented with related blog posts and social media links to the pieces.

Albee says determining what content works best with any buying stage is something of a trial-and-error process.

"You really do have to do some trial and experimentation because what you would assume may not necessarily be true for [your customer.]... She adds, "People are going to access your content in different places, so even if they are in your lead database, for example, and you're nurturing them with emails and links to content, they may also be following you on Twitter or subscribe to your RSS feed. In that case, how does your content work together regardless of where they are accessing it?"

Stage two -- selling your product or solution

The next major transition point in the buying stages is when the customer has decided there is a pain point that needs to be addressed and they move from learning about what is out there and start down the path of actually buying a product or service.

This is the place where your message becomes more important than providing general information about the space your business occupies. If you successfully navigated the first stage of providing information and establishing your company as the "anchor," as the place to learn more about the customer's options, you are in position to begin selling your product or service as the answer to your customer's questions.

Once again, there is no set type of content to present here, but you want your message to be cohesive, and you want to provide a full meal, so to speak, over a thin gruel.
Albee says you want your leads at this stage to be, "proactively visiting your website because they know you have valuable content, versus only visiting when you send them an email with a link."

Stage three -- closing the deal

At this point Sales is heavily involved and is the face-to-face contact with the now more-than-potential customer. Content here is now all about your product or service. Levy mentions product collateral, spec sheets, ROI tools and customer references as content pieces ECI Telecom focuses on. Western Union's McElgunn states this is when their solution is put in front of the customer and the content gets into specifics of their solutions along with comparisons to competitors and how they differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

Research from the 2011 MarketingSherpa B2B Marketing Benchmark Report found the following tactics effective for developing marketing content and messaging:

o 64% of respondents cited repurposing and reformatting existing content
o 53% encouraged customers to submit testimonials and case studies
o 48% recruited authors internally from other departments
o 27% outsourced to a consultant or agency
o 20% utilized social media to encourage brand advocates to produce content

The big takeaway is that there is no formula for buying stages, and certainly not for the content that should accompany each stage. There are, however, big picture strategies to work from, and through some trial-and-error testing, any complex B2B sale can be matched with appropriate content to create an effective campaign.

Element #3: Involve Sales

Certainly the alignment of Marketing and Sales is a major corporate issue today, and that process has been made much easier through tools such as the marketing database, marketing automation and linking those systems into the CRM. When Marketing and Sales are speaking the same language (read: content) and using the same numbers to discern customer transition points, good things tend to follow.

When devising a content strategy to accompany each buying stage, it's a great idea to involve Sales. One, to get feedback on the tone and actual meat of the message; and two, some of your content should be coming from Sales from the customer's standpoint.

A case-in-point from Western Union's McElgunn, "We had an unbelievable salesperson [in the wine and spirits vertical] committed to nurturing these customers. So the email programs came out personalized with his name. It allowed us any time when we had a hot lead, they went directly to that salesperson and closed the loop. We're trying to drive revenue and also to shorten the sales cycle."


Useful links related to this article

MarketingSherpa Email Summit 2011

Marketing Interactions

Western Union Business Solutions

ECI Telecom

Members Library -- MarketingSherpa's Take on B2B in 2010: Part one -- lead nurturing and social media

Members Library -- MarketingSherpa’s Take on B2B in 2010: Part two -- marketing automation and lead generation content

Members Library -- Reformat, Reuse, Recycle: 5 Strategies to Stretch your Marketing Content

2011 B2B Marketing Benchmark Report


See Also:

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