Content is King

We’re all familiar with the now commonplace observation (almost cliché) that “content is king,” a phrase coined by none other than Bill Gates in 1996. His comment was specifically in reference to the observation that the internet would become a marketplace for content, and content are the items that would be consumed. The characterization of “king” makes sense; music, movies, articles (e.g. content) become the most important element in a commercial marketplace. In his words, “Content is where the real money will be made on the Internet.”

Somewhere along the way, us B2B marketers co-opted that phrase. In our world, content is king doesn’t refer to what you’ll sell, but how you’ll sell it. More specifically, it highlights the fundamental but critical insight that content is the most important element to successfully selling B2B products and services. And whomever applied it to our trade should get a gold star because they couldn’t have been more correct about its value. To paraphrase Gates, it’s not where the real money will be made, but it’s certainly how the real money will be made. And failure to effectively address the content challenge will likely lead to failure in your marketing efforts.

As fatalistic as that last sentence sounds, it’s truer than ever. There are plenty of eye-popping stats on the B2B buyer’s journey that illustrate why that’s the case. According to Gartner, the typical B2B buyer spends just 17% of their time meeting with suppliers. That number shrinks to 5%-6% with any one company sales rep if the buyers are comparing multiple suppliers, and in any B2B buying process all companies are speaking with multiple vendors. In a post that’s a decade old but still rings true, Forrester Analyst Lori Wizdo stated, “[T]oday’s buyers might be anywhere from two-thirds to 90% of the way through their journey before they reach out for a sales person.”

Content IS Your Company

Both of these stats and a host of others illustrate that content acts as your sales engagement proxy. At the very least that role is substantive, and in some cases it might be the sole touch point through which your prospect engages with your company. And it goes without saying that, if and until they do engage with your team, it’s the way they develop a fundamental understanding of what you do and form a foundational point of view on you do it.

Anyone whose been on the hook to create a content strategy appreciates that it’s anything but an easy task. Today’s B2B buying process features buying committees with often as many as a dozen individuals. The term du jour for the collection of individuals that are involved in this ensemble is “buying groups.” And while it may not be possible to develop content for each individual or even aggregated personas within a buying group, it’s certainly critical to create categories of content that align with basic functions such as technical versus business buyers.

According to the market research firm FocusVision, “The average B2B buyer’s journey involvesconsumption of 13 pieces of content.” Given the number of potential buyers and the extent of the engagement–let alone the need to create diverse types of content for different learners—it can be nothing short of a massive undertaking. Again, not sure who coined this term, but therein lies the need for a “content marketing factory.”

The Blessed Perfect Storm

Some companies have a tailored made content strategy because of what they do. Take, for example, American Express. They sell to small business, and their business is financial services. Given the complexities of creating great content, I hesitate to refer to anyone’s content strategy as a “lay-up.” However, if there’s ever a case of a natural alignment between product, customer and content a customer would find beneficial, AmEx (and others) have been gifted a blessed perfect storm of sorts.

Home Depot is another example. Whether its marketing to either the weekend warrior or even the professional audience, there’s a natural and beneficial synthesis between their customer needs, the products they sell and a domain of content that can provide significant value. Again, a company still has to execute on a ton of details and there are plenty of ways to mess things up, but as far as answering the basic question of what can a company talk about that would benefit its customer (e.g. “strategy”), there’s a lot to work with. And, for the record, both those companies have nailed it and do a truly outstanding job of delivering tremendous value to their clients through the content they deliver.

But what if you don’t have that natural alignment? What if your product or service is only a component of a larger purchase or one that doesn’t naturally include a broader set of information that a client wants to learn about? In other words, what if your challenge isn’t factory production but a more basic issue, what to build?

Many of my past clients have been in tech, companies like Dell, Lenovo, Intel and Salesforce. But I’ve also worked with companies outside of tech such as Chevron Oil, Mayo Clinic, Avery Denison. All of them appreciate the value of having a robust content strategy, but some aren’t blessed with the AmEx/Home Depot type alignment. And that’s where the idea of the Content Elasticity comes into play.

Content Elasticity

I use the term Content Elasticity to represent the basic concept that, in some instances, a content strategy requires going beyond the natural cross-section of customer needs and a company’s product or service. Again, AmEx and Home Depot don’t have to worry about this because the connection between what they sell and their customer’s content needs is very tight. However, for some companies that’s not the case.

The idea of content elasticity is akin to the concept of brand elasticity. In a MarketingProf’s blog, brand elasticity is defined as “how sensitive consumer preference is for a certain brand when it stretches beyond its positioning or expands into new categories.” I think of it as, if a company sells X tyeps of products, will consumers still by from them if they move into Y types of products.

Cars are always a great example when one talks about brands, because most of us have a good sense of what car brands stand for. Take a brand like Toyota and ask yourself what brand attributes to mind? Your list may be different but some version of reliable, affordable and safe are probably on it. If Toyota came out with luxury car, do you think people would buy it? We actually know the answer to that question because Lexus is Toyota’s luxury brand. They obviously concluded that their brand wasn’t elastic enough to allow them to successfully sell luxury cars and instead opted for a new brand.

One more point, and then I’ll get back to content. Brand elasticity has at its core the notion of consumer permission. Does the consumer permit or assent to your brand extending into a new category? Clearly some brands are more elastic than others. Apple has a ton of brand equity, which seems like an invitation to branch into other categories.

Early in my career I did a small consulting engagement for a division of Apple that was focused on penetrating the business market with Macintosh computers. At the time, Apple had a reputation as being a computer for “creatives,” and their line of Apple music and video editing products aligned with that brand position. Consequently, they struggled to make inroads with the Macintosh line as a traditional business computer. All’s well that ends well, as they’ve crushed the consumer market. But the point remains, even with massive brand equity, consumers must be willing to accept your product.

So, what happens when the nexus between your product and the customer needs isn’t tight? Or, even worse, what if consumers don’t care about your product enough to even want your content?

I did a project for Chevron Lubricants whose goal was to sell into the $135B lubricants market to trucking fleets through its distribution network. The challenge is that lubricants only account for about 3% of the total costs associated with running a fleet. Consequently, many of their buyers didn’t care. I still remember a quote from our research; “Their brown liquid is like the other guy’s. “Yes,” the equipment manager had said, I want a better lubricant, and Chevron has an outstanding product. However, it wasn’t better enough (meaning no lubricant was better enough) to changes suppliers, given that it only impacted 3% of their total cost.

Chevron has lots of smart people and a ton of resources, and they had a library of exceptional product information. To address this and other objections, they had plenty of ROI analysis that demonstrated while lubricants only accounted for small percentage of running a fleet, better lubricants had a big impact on fleet performance and longevity. That sort of got the CEO’s attention, but he (they were mostly men) still left the decision to his Ops team. It became apparent that talking about their product wasn’t enough. In order to get mindshare, Chevron had to provide a content strategy that went beyond product education.

We offered several ideas. Our research uncovered that mechanic certificate programs don’t offer much education about lubricants, so we suggested a course on oils. While interesting the response was predictable; if lubricants aren’t important enough to change behavior, why would that have any impact? Another observation was that most of the companies were owned by men in their late sixties who were starting to think about turning over the business. So, we suggested they offer content on business transition. Most of these owners were self-made. They were smart and sophisticated, but few, if any, had the type of formal education (e.g. MBA) that would help them navigate this part of their journey. This is an example of content elasticity, going beyond the clear product and customer nexus (e.g. Lubricants 101).

This is the part of the story where I’d love to say, we came up with this wonderful strategy that changed their business. The life of a consultant, sometimes you never know.