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Content marketing’s $40 billion miss

Forrester Research has a new report that should serve as a wake-up call to B2B marketers, but probably won’t. Research Director Peter O’Neill is blunt about describing the current content marketing landscape. On the question of the value buyers derive from the content B2B marketers put in front of them, O’Neill reports that “They delivered a resounding thumbs-down,” in Forrester’s most recent research, “responding decisively with phrases such as ‘trash’ and ‘useless.’ ”

Ouch. But maybe not surprising, given the consistently poor grades buyers have awarded marketers in surveys about content marketing.

Two years ago, McKinsey published a startling report entitled “How B2B companies talk past their customers.” It found a nearly total disconnect between the issues that matter to buyers and the messages vendors put in the marketplace. On four of the top five themes that buyers said were most important to them, the amount of content marketers were delivering was deemed “not statistically significant.”

Apparently little has changed in two years. Asked about their opinion of the content vendors provide them, 65 percent of business decision makers told Forrester, “much of it is useless.” Nearly two-thirds of IT decision makers said they routinely scan the information and then throw it in the trash.

Why do B2B marketers so consistently miss the boat? In my opinion, it’s because they are denied access to the buyers they need to reach. Instead of understanding them as people, they file them into sterile demographic categories. Ask a typical B2B marketer to profile his or her audience and you’ll get a laundry list of data about buying authority, title, company size, and budget.

These things have nothing to do with buying decisions. In scenarios involving millions of dollars, buyers are far more likely to be motivated by factors like trust, confidence, security, pain avoidance and perceived value. However, most B2B content marketing I’ve seen focuses on features and comparisons. They sell a solution without getting a clear fix on the problem.

Understanding buyers means talking to them. That might involve attending a trade show, convening a buyers council or simply picking up the phone. It means asking them about their motivations, fears, ambitions and anxieties. In my experience, marketers aren’t averse to doing this, but their sales organizations guard their customers like a dog protects a prized bone. The head of sales in companies like these needs to understand that marketing can’t do its work without learning the language of the people they market to.

Analyzing customer motivations can yield eye-opening insights. While conducting a content marketing seminar for a large software company last year, I split the group in half and asked each group to model the personas of one of their two most important buyers. They discovered that one target group tends to be free-wheeling risk-takers while the other inclines toward caution and certainty. Yet the group was talking to both of these diametrically opposed personality types with the same language. Hopefully, they aren’t doing so anymore.

North American marketers spent more than $40 billion on content marketing in 2012, the most recent year for which I could find statistics. That seems a lot to gamble trying to reach people you don’t even know.

Creative Commons photo by Dave Crosby via Flickr.

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  1. Avatar Niraj

    Excellent article, Paul. Absolutely agree with you, it all boils down to understanding customers as people, not as sterile demographic categories. Thanks, Niraj (Founder at hiverhq.com)

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