Moving them from consideration to purchase

Editor's note: Lorie Loe is president and CEO of Eccolo Media, a San Francisco communications firm.

Take just a moment and think about how the Internet has fundamentally changed the traditional sales cycle. Gone are the days when your business-to-business customers immediately picked up the phone or requested an in-person meeting to hear about your products or services. Instead, they’re now taking matters into their own hands. They’re visiting your Web site and your social channels. They’re reading white papers and case studies, attending Webinars, becoming educated and, in many cases, even making a buying decision long before they speak to you directly.

This is the unstoppable force behind the rise of content marketing. Companies, in essence, have become publishers. They must feed the insatiable appetite of their business-to-business customers fxor information. Across all industries, marketers now spend $44 billion a year on custom content, according to an April 2013 study by the Custom Content Council. In the technology industry alone, enterprise buyers download an average of eight informational assets during the technology purchase process, according to 2013 research by IDG Enterprise.

Each year, we at Eccolo Media, a boutique content marketing agency headquartered in San Francisco, conduct a survey to find out just what kind of content and distribution channels are favored by business-to-business audiences. While our research focuses specifically on the attitudes and behavior of more than 500 technology buyers (everyone from C-level executives to developers/programmers) at large, mid-size and small companies, the survey’s insights can easily be applied to other industries and other buyers.

In the past six years of conducting our survey, we’ve learned a lot about how to implement an effective content marketing strategy, from which content types have the most influence on the sale to which distribution channels are most popular. We’ve condensed our knowledge into these top 10 tips for creating a great content marketing strategy. Enjoy!

1. Focus on white papers.

There’s been lots of talk about the death of the white paper but it’s just that – talk. While the white paper has lost some of its influence as other content types, such as video, have become popular, it remains the most-consumed and the most-influential content asset marketers can produce, according to buyers from our survey. Half of all our respondents describe white papers as “very” or “extremely” influential in their purchase decision-making. They’re also among the most helpful assets in every phase of the sales cycle, from pre-sales through final sales. They’re even the content type most accessed on a mobile device.

Keep in mind, however, that these white papers need not be the old, text-heavy standbys. Many are highly visual and interactive. Our respondents like white papers that are well-written and that cover industry developments. But they reject white papers that focus too much on vendor and product information. Buyers, in fact, rate “too much marketing hype,” “lack of truly independent, unbiased information” and “information is too general” as their top three dislikes of white papers, according to IDG Enterprise.

Our results suggest marketers have a tremendous opportunity to leverage white papers to engage and influence buyers – if they focus on industry developments and limit discussion of vendor product information.

2. Focus on your company Web site.

Creating engaging content is just half the battle. Smart companies also know how and when to share it with their potential buyers and no other distribution channel is more important than your company Web site. Browsing a vendor Web site, in fact, ties with “forwarded from a personal contact” as the most frequently used channels, according to our survey. When we ask respondents to rank the “influence” of distribution channels, vendor Web sites come in a respectable second in terms of imparting influence over a purchasing decision.

These findings echo other recent research. IDG Enterprise reports that Web sites are one of the top-five content sources buyers turn to. In short, a corporate Web site that is carefully planned, refreshed regularly and leveraged as a channel to engage with prospects remains a vital strategy to build customer loyalty and increase revenues.

3. Make the move to mobile.

For our most recent edition of the survey, 10 percent of respondents took it on a mobile device and 71 percent say they regularly consume vendor content on a mobile device as part of considering a technology purchase. Content marketers are taking note: 38 percent of B2B marketers told the Content Marketing Institute they produce content specifically for mobile platforms.

It’s no longer enough if just your Facebook posts or tweets are mobile-friendly. In our survey, white papers are the most frequently-consumed vendor content on a mobile device followed by case studies, videos, product brochures and podcasts.

As you optimize your content for the mobile environment, keep in mind that one-quarter of our respondents were willing to consume more vendor content on a mobile device if it was shorter and more digestible, while 19 percent wanted more easy-to-read formats.

4. Understand the nuances of social media.

While mobile is an all-important distribution channel, so too is social media. Eighty-one percent of marketers now create content specifically for social media and more than 40 percent expect to increase their output of social content, according to the Custom Content Council.

What kind of content should you push to social? Our respondents consume almost every content type, including white papers (16 percent), case studies (14 percent), videos (11 percent) and podcasts (9 percent).

The primary channels our buyers consume content on are Facebook (36 percent) and LinkedIn (33 percent). But they also receive content through YouTube (21 percent), Twitter (20 percent) and Google+ (20 percent). Interestingly, while respondents consume more content on Facebook than LinkedIn, they perceive LinkedIn as the better place to get such content. This is especially true for our enterprise respondents. This perceived preference for LinkedIn is supported by other recent research. Three-quarters of B2B technology buyers rely on LinkedIn, while less than half turn to Facebook, according to IDG Enterprise. Marketers seem to be responding in kind, as 91 percent used LinkedIn, followed by 81 percent for Facebook, according to the Content Marketing Institute.

What does this mean for your content strategy? In the longer term, it may be wise to funnel more resources to LinkedIn if buyers perceive it as the best channel for consuming vendor content.

5. Pay attention to company size.

When it comes to content, one size doesn’t fit all. Your strategy must take into account the size of the companies you are targeting. Small business buyers behave differently from those working in the mid-market, just as those in the mid-market act differently from buyers at large enterprises.

In general, mid-market companies and large enterprises consume all asset types with more frequency than small businesses. They’re also more likely to describe the content they consume as “very” to “extremely” influential. Small business respondents also consume less social media content than those from mid-market and large enterprises.

If you’re targeting small businesses, you need to work especially hard to understand their unique pain and deliver content that captures their interest.

6. Make your content interactive.

What’s a simple way to increase the influence of your content? Add interactivity such as hyperlinks, embedded audio, video or graphic elements. Our respondents perceive interactive content as more influential and more than two-thirds will interact with content to receive additional information from vendors.

Think about how interactivity can be used to take users more deeply into the buyer’s journey. Remember, however, that interactivity must enhance the user experience. Buyers, for example, won’t always click on a link if they’re not certain where it will take them or if the link is relevant.

7. Create content for all phases of the sales cycle.

Smart marketers understand how to lead a potential buyer through the distinct phases of the sales cycle. In the pre-sales phase, they make buyers aware of a serious problem. In the initial sales phase, they help buyers understand that problem. By the mid-sales phase, they are identifying general, vendor-agnostic solutions to the problem. By the final phase, they’re talking specifically about how their company and their solutions make the most sense.

Certain content types fit better in certain phases of the sales cycle. In general, shorter, more eye-catching content is most effective at the pre-sales phase (you’re really trying to capture a buyer’s attention, after all), while longer, more technical content is best for the end of the sales cycle. In our survey, we found that blogs are most helpful in the pre-sales phase (32 percent) and infographics come in second at 28 percent. White papers score highest in the initial phase; case studies capture mid-sales; and technology guides are most helpful in the final phase.

8. Continue to create even after the sale is over.

Even after a buyer makes a purchase, your work doesn’t stop. This year, for the first time, we asked respondents about their attitudes after the sale is completed. Seventy-two percent say it’s important or very important to receive ongoing content from the vendor.

When asked to rate the top-three content types they would consume after a purchase, respondents ranked white papers highest. Case studies had the second-highest ranking (66 respondents) and technology guides third. This is essentially the same types of content that buyers most rely on before and during the sale.

It’s important, then, to deepen your customer relationships by extending your content strategy to after-sale communications. Targeted communications can effectively pump up customer loyalty and create up-selling and cross-selling opportunities.

9. Don’t create more content, create smarter content.

It might sound counterintuitive, but in the last few years, our respondents report the content they consume as part of a purchasing cycle is becoming less influential. Why? Three years ago, content marketing was the hot new trend and buyers were dazzled by the volume and variety of assets. Now, however, they have become much more discriminating, less apt to find content influential just because it’s available.

As a result, the job of the content marketer has become more challenging. Any content produced must be of the highest quality, capturing the attention of the finicky buyer with the right message at just the right time. Thus, the lesson is: Don’t create more content, create better content. Focus on quality, relevance and variety rather than volume. Think about core assets that articulate your value proposition for your specific audience and then repurpose the heck out of it across formats and distribution channels.

10. Keep what works, and explore what’s new.

Our survey highlights the importance of traditional collateral types such as case studies, brochures and technology guides. In particular, white papers reign supreme as the most-used and -influential asset type throughout the purchasing process. In addition, 31 percent of our respondents consume customer magazines/publications.

Still, business-to-business buyers are increasingly turning to newer formats such as infographics, e-books, blogs and videos. Marketers must find the right balance between the old and the new. Those who neglect traditional content in favor of newer formats risk losing out on some of the most efficient and effective ways of reaching their target audiences. Those, however, who focus solely on traditional asset types will also miss out on opportunities to reach new customers.