Blogging and social media in B-to-B marketing: Continually falling short.

As a MarComm specialist and head of a marketing firm for several decades, I’ve worked with my share of marketing tactics — the tried-and-true ones as well as the “next new things.”

Along those lines, working with numerous B-to-B companies in their attempts to turn social media and blogging into significant sources of new business, the track records have been more often ones of failure than of success.

I think the issue boils down to something pretty fundamental: Unlike consumer products, where customers can fall deeply “in love” with particular brands, or at the very least develop feelings of brand affinity, in the world of business products and services, the brand dynamics are seldom “emotional.”

The reality is, business buyers are looking for products and services that will solve their problems and also provide all-important CYA peace of mind. Few B-to-B buyers are truly “excited” about these purchases, and they aren’t personally “invested” in the brands in question, either.

Instead, they’re looking for solutions that work. Ones that deliver on a checklist of criteria, and ones that don’t risk unpleasant developments down the road.

In such a world, the notion that buyers are waiting around to read the and interact with the next blog article or social media post that’s published by a supplier is fanciful at best.

News flash: The target audience doesn’t care about things like that.  Business buyers don’t have time in their busy schedules to read the posts.  The few times they will is when they need to satisfy a business need and are looking for information to help them make an informed buying decision.

But of course, it’s precisely then when content needs to be easily findable on the web. Brands that have published deeper and more relevant content than their competitors are going to be the ones that show up on search engine results pages (SERPs), because those are the websites the search engines reward with higher rankings based on the perceived “relevance” of the web pages in question.

This view of B-to-B audience dynamics isn’t just my personal one; survey research of B-to-B buyers reveals similar attitudes.  For instance, market research and communication firm KoMarketing publishes an annual B2B Web Usability Report, and the findings they uncover are consistent:

  • Most B-to-B buyers don’t think a blog adds much to a supplier’s credibility as a company.
  • As for social media activity, three-fourths of buyers find such platforms irrelevant to their interests and concerns.

So, what is it that buyers are seeking?

It’s more “actionable” data such as sales contact information (who to call), a list of customers a supplier serves (addressing the credibility factor), plus customer testimonials, case studies and similar reports that help buyers “see” themselves in the experiences of other customers.

That’s pretty much it.

Which brings us back to blog posts in the B-to-B realm. Informative articles that center on customer testimonials and before/after case studies provide the best of everything:  content that buyers will actually find useful, along with the “relevance” and “robust activity” that search bots are seeking in making their quasi-mysterious calculations on how high to rank a particular web page on SERP pages.

It dovetails with my typical advice to business clients:

  • Don’t publish blog posts because you expect people to read them like they would a newsfeed. Publish them for relevance and visibility when your prospect is actually seeking out information and insights — which could be months or even years after you publish the post.
  • Make sure each blog article addresses “problem –> solution” topics centered on the challenges your customers are most likely to face.
  • Twitter or Facebook? Unless your marketing have plenty of time on their hands and nothing better to do, don’t bother with these social platforms at all — because the payoff is so mediocre.

What about you? Are your B-to-B marketing experiences different?  If so, please share your perspectives in the comment section for the benefit of other readers.

Does “generational marketing” really matter in the B-to-B world?

For marketers working in certain industries, an interesting question is to what degree generational “dynamics” enter into the B-to-B buying decision-making process.

Traditionally, B-to-B market segmentation has been done along the lines of the size of the target company, its industry, where the company’s headquarters and offices are located, plus the job function or title of the most important audience targets within these other selection criteria.

By contrast, something like generational segmenting was deemed a far less significant factor in the B-to-B world.

But according to marketing and copywriting guru Bob Bly, things have changed with the growing importance of the millennial generation in B-to-B companies.

These are the people working in industrial/commercial enterprises who were born between 1980 and 2000, which places them roughly between the ages of 20 and 40 right now.

There are a lot of them. In fact, Google reports that there are more millennial-generation B-to-B buyers than any other single age group; they make up more than 45% of the overall employee base at these companies.

Even more significantly, one third of millennials working inside B-to-B firms represent the sole decision-makers for their company’s B-to-B purchases, while nearly three-fourths are involved in purchase decision-making or influencing to some degree.

But even with these shifts in employee makeup, is it really true that millennials in the B-to-B world go about evaluating and purchasing goods and services all that differently from their older counterparts?

Well, consider these common characteristics of millennials which set them apart:

  • Millennials consider relationships to be more important than the organization itself.
  • Millennials want to have a say in how work gets done.
  • Millennials value open, authentic and real-time information.

This last point in particular goes a long way towards explaining the rise in content marketing and why those types of promotional initiatives are often more effective than traditional advertising.

On the other hand … don’t let millennials’ stated preferences for text messaging over e-mail communications lead you down the wrong path. E-mail marketing continues to deliver one of the highest ROIs of any MarComm tactic – and it’s often the highest by a long stretch.

Underscoring this point, last year the Data & Marketing Association [aka Direct Marketing Association] published the results of a comparative analysis showing that e-mail marketing ROI outstripped social media and search engine marketing (SEM) ROI by a factor of 4-to-1.

So … it’s smart to be continually cognizant of changing trends and preferences. But never forget the famous French saying: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Employee churn rates underscore the volatile nature of e-mail contact databases.

Most marketers are well-familiar with the challenges of e-mail list maintenance. In the business-to-business world in particular, e-mail databases can become pretty stale pretty quickly, due to the horizontal and vertical movement of employees inside organizations as well as jumping to other companies.

Whether they’re moving up or out, often they’re no longer good prospects.

Based on my experience, my personal rule of thumb has been that approximately one-fifth of any given list of B-to-B names will “churn” within a 12-month period, meaning that any such contact database will rapidly lose its effectiveness unless assiduously maintained.

And now we have a new report from Salesforce Research that confirms this basic rule of thumb.

Salesforce looked to LinkedIn, exploring this social platform’s data from more than 7 million records over a 48-month period to gauge the lifecycle of the typical “persona.”

The research considered not only changes that result in the deactivation of an e-mail address, but also circumstances where individuals may keep the same e-mail address but still should be removed as a target because a horizontal or vertical change within the same organization places them in a different employee function.

What the new research found was that the average annual B-to-B churn rate for such “personas” is ~17%.

That figure turns out to be fairly close to my basic rule of thumb based on years of observing not only e-mail contact databases, but also the postal mail databases we’ve worked with in my company or with our clients.

Beyond the broad average, there are some small but meaningful differences in the B-to-B churn rate depending on the product focus and on the type of employee function.

In high-tech fields, the average annual churn rate is higher than the average. And it’s across the board, too:  23% churn in marketing … 20% in sales and in HR personnel … 19% in IT, and 18% in finance.

People employed in the retail and consumer products industries also clock in at or higher than the overall churn average, but the annual churn rate is a tad lower in the medical and transportation fields.

Another interesting finding from the Salesforce evaluation is that annual churn rates are somewhat lower than the average for personnel at director levels and higher in companies (around 15%). For managers, the churn rate matches the overall average, while “worker bees” have a higher churn rate averaging around 20%.

Considering the critical importance of e-mail marketing efforts in the B-to-B environment, Salesforce’s finding that it takes only 4.2 years for an e-mail database to churn completely means that the value of these marketing assets will decline dramatically unless cultivated and maintained on an ongoing basis.

The volatile nature of e-mail contact databases also helps explain why so many companies have adopted a multi-channel approach to marketing, including interacting on social media platforms. Yes, those platforms do have their place in the B-to-B world …

The full report of the Salesforce findings can be downloaded here.

If there’s a drumbeat among B-to-B marketing professionals, it’s grousing about cross-channel marketing attribution.

If there’s one common complaint among business-to-business marketing professionals, it’s about how difficult it is to measure and attribute the results of their campaigns across marketing channels.

Now, a new survey of marketing professionals conducted Demand Gen (sponsored by marketing forecasting firm BrightFunnel) shows that nothing has particularly changed in recent times.

The survey sample isn’t large (around 200 respondents), but the findings are quite clear.  Only around 4 in 10 of the respondents believe that they can measure marketing pipeline influences. As to why this is the case, the following issues were cited most often:

  • Inability to measure and track activity between buyer stages: ~51% of respondents
  • The data is a mess: ~42%
  • Lack of good reporting: ~42%
  • Not sure which key performance indicators are the important ones to measure: ~15%

And in turn, a lack of resources was cited by nearly half of the respondents as to why they face the problems above and can’t seem to tackle them properly.

As for how B-to-B marketers are attempting to track and report their campaign results these days, it’s the usual practices we’ve been working with for a decade or more:

  • Tracking web traffic: ~95%
  • E-mail open/clickthrough rates: ~94%
  • Contact acquisition and web query forms completed: ~86%
  • Organic search results: ~77%
  • Paid search results: ~76%
  • Social media engagements/shares: ~60%

None of these hit the bullseye when it comes to marketing attribution, and that’s what makes it particularly difficult to find out what marketers really want to know:

  • Marketing ROI by channel
  • Cross-channel engagement
  • Customer lifetime value

It seems that a lot of this remains wait-and-wish-for for many B-to-B marketers …

The full report from Demand Gen, which contains additional research data, is available to download here.

B-to-B content marketers: Not exactly a confident bunch.

In the world of business-to-business marketing, all that really matters is producing a constant flow of quality sales leads.  According to Clickback CEO Kyle Tkachuk, three-fourths of B-to-B marketers cite their most significant objective as lead generation.  Pretty much everything else pales in significance.

This is why content marketing is such an important aspect of commercial marketing campaigns.  Customers in the commercial world are always on the lookout for information and insights to help them solve the variety of challenges they face on the manufacturing line, in their product development, quality assurance, customer service and any number of other critical functions.

Suppliers and brands that offer a steady diet of valuable and actionable information are often the ones that end up on a customer’s “short-list” of suppliers when the need to make a purchase finally rolls around.

Thus, the role of content marketers continues to grow – along with the pressures on them to deliver high-quality, targeted leads to their sales forces.

The problem is … a large number of content marketers aren’t all that confident about the effectiveness of their campaigns.

It’s a key takeaway finding from a survey conducted for content marketing software provider SnapApp by research firm Demand Gen.  The survey was conducted during the summer and fall of 2016 and published recently in SnapApp’s Campaign Confidence Gap report.

The survey revealed that more than 80% of the content marketers queried reported being just “somewhat” or “not very” confident regarding the effectiveness of their campaigns.

Among the concerns voiced by these content marketers is that the B-to-B audience is becoming less enamored of white papers and other static, lead-gated PDF documents to generate leads.

And yet, those are precisely the vehicles that continue to be used most often used to deliver informational content.

According to the survey respondents, B-to-B customers not only expect to be given content that is relevant, they’re also less tolerant of resources that fail to speak to their specific areas of interest.

For this reason, one-third of the content managers surveyed reported that they are struggling to come up with effective calls-to-action that capture attention, interest and action instead of being just “noise.”

The inevitable conclusion is that traditional B-to-B marketing strategies and similar “seller-centric” tactics have become stale for buyers.

Some content marketers are attempting to move beyond these conventional approaches and embrace more “content-enabled” campaigns that can address interest points based on a customer’s specific need and facilitate engagement accordingly.

Where such tactics have been attempted, content marketers report somewhat improved results, including more open-rate activity and an in increase in clickthrough rates.

However, the degree of improvement doesn’t appear to be all that impressive. Only about half of the survey respondents reported experiencing improved open rates.  Also, two-thirds reported experiencing an increase in clickthrough rates – but only by 5% or less.

Those aren’t exactly eye-popping improvements.

But here’s the thing: Engagement levels with traditional “static” content marketing vehicles are likely to actually decline … so if content-enabled campaigns can arrest the drop-off and even notch improvements in audience engagement, that’s at least something.

Among the tactics content marketers consider for their creating more robust content-enabled campaigns are:

  • Video
  • Surveys
  • Interactive infographics
  • ROI calculators
  • Assessments/audits

The hope is that these and other tools will increase customer engagement, allow customers to “self-quality,” and generate better-quality leads that are a few steps closer to an actual sale.

If all goes well, these content-enabled campaigns will also collect data that helps sales personnel accelerate the entire process.

B-to-B Buyers: Who’s Engaging with What Content?

Different Types of ContentIn my work with manufacturing companies and other B-to-B firms, I’m often asked what type of informational content is the most worthwhile and valuable from a marketing standpoint and for attracting and converting customers.

The question is relevant for most companies because there are limits on marketing resources (both time and dollars), while the methods companies can use to communicate with their target audiences are far more extensive and varied than they were in the not-too-distant past.

The answer to the question about the best information content is always one of “degree” … because the most valuable piece of content for any single prospect or customer is the one that sparks him or her to buy.

And that one piece of critical content could be one of many things.

Helpfully, we now have a new survey that can help with a bit more quantification.  The research, which was conducted by content marketing firm Eccolo Media, surveyed technical buyers (engineers, managers and directors).

It’s a relatively small sample (fewer than 200 respondents), but the directional results are worth consideration.  I also think that the results can be applied to other B-to-B buyer types as well.

One finding that came as a bit of a surprise to me was that most buyers read just two to five pieces of content before making their decisions.

What kind of content do they consult most often?  Here’s what these respondents reported:

  • Product brochures and data sheets: ~57% consult this type of content
  • E-mail communiqués: ~52% consult
  • White papers: ~52%
  • Competitive vendor worksheets: ~42%
  • Case studies/success stories: ~42%
  • Technical guides: ~35%
  • Custom magazines/publications: ~35%
  • Video content: ~35%
  • Social media content: ~34%
  • Webinars: ~34% 

As for which of these types of content are considered the most worthwhile and influential to buyers, the ranking is somewhat different:

  • Product brochures and data sheets: ~39% rate as highly influential content (top five resources)
  • White papers: ~33%
  • Case studies/success stories: ~31%
  • Technical guides: ~23%
  • Competitive vendor worksheets: ~22%
  • Videos:  ~17%
  • E-mail communiqués: ~15% 
  • Social media content:  ~14%
  • Custom magazines/publications:  ~14%

The Eccolo Media report draws this conclusion from its research:

“Marketers have been good at producing large volumes of content, but not quality content and not the right type of content … The more content we produce, the more likely it is to fail.”

One thing the research clearlyshows is that companies need to spend more effort in collecting and publishing customer case examples and success stories, because those appear to have a disproportionately higher degree of influence over potential buyers — if only they are available to consult.

More broadly, the types of content that are of greater value to buyers tend to be the ones that require more time and effort to prepare.  The adage that “success is 20% inspiration and 80% perspiration” appears to apply to marketing content development as well.

More summary findings from Eccolo Media’s 2015 B2B Technology Content Survey Report can be accessed here.

What are your thoughts as to the relative merits of different types of content?  Whether you’re a B-to-B marketer or a B-to-B buyer, please share your thoughts with other readers here.

B-to-B e-mail marketing: From sleepy to creepy?

Unwanted e-mails from businesses and brandsThe amount of information that companies know about the behavior of their customers has been growing, thanks to the “digital footprints” people leave all over the place when interacting with companies and brands via web surfing, e-mail and e-commerce.

Still, up until now, there’s been a polite dance wherein the companies don’t acknowledge the degree of that knowledge. Call it a sort of digital politeness.

But that seems to be changing, as the stakes have grown higher for engaging with customers via online, social and e-mail communications rather than traditional advertising.

Take Pitney Bowes in the B-to-B world, for example. In recent months, its marketing staff has sent out e-mail communiqués to their opt-in customers containing messages like, “We notice it’s been a while since you opened an email from us.”

That creepy little missive is as impertinent as it is likely false. Considering the wide swath of people who use the Microsoft Outlook e-mail platform – and many of those use preview panes and have set their default preferences to block images – in reality Pitney Bowes doesn’t actually know if its customers have been reading its e-mail messages or not.

It’s also unclear whether Pitney Bowes really wants its opt-in recipients to go away rather than just browbeating people into engaging with their e-mails more.

This has manifested itself in e-mail messages sent asking if customers are still interested in receiving e-mails so they can “continue receiving the latest from PB.” But despite this implicit threat to be dropped from Pitney Bowes’ e-mail database, ignoring those e-mails doesn’t seem to result in that actually happening.

Rather, it’s just a continuation of more borderline-creepy e-mails with messages chiding the recipient for potentially missing out on “valuable information about supplies, offers, discounts, new products and thought leadership pieces.”

Thought leadership pieces? The leaders of Pitney Bowes may think quite highly about their company and its “vaunted” position in industry … but self-describing itself as being the fount of industry-leading knowledge is a surefire way to get laughed out of town.

Just like the obnoxious teacher’s pet in school or the crashing bore at a cocktail party, no one enjoys interacting with a know-it-all who just can’t wait to corner you and tell you all about his or her latest feats of accomplishment.

In a world where most businesses are spending more effort than ever trying to collect e-mail addresses for ongoing engagement with customers and prospects, here’s a little reminder to them: Try disseminating content that is actually of value to people … which is what will get them to engage with you.

More often than not, that content won’t be about their products and services.