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In the days before Al Gore concocted the Internet, B2B marketing communicators had it pretty easy. At least, that is, when it came to figuring out which content formats to use. That’s because most formats had only one job to do, whether it was as a press release, feature article, product review or brochure. Even whitepapers were used mostly to explain the technical wizardry behind a product line.
So if you knew the format, you knew the communications objective—and vice versa. When the boss said, “We need a couple of case studies,” you took it as a call to demonstrate the company’s track record. It was, to twist a phrase, a case of format follows function. And to a large degree, those formats still perform admirably.
Entering the Digital Age
Then, as digital communications evolved, new formats appeared. Some faded away, but the strongest endured and have become essential to the marketer’s toolbox. What’s different is that these formats have no specific job to carry out. I mean, think about the boss who says, “We need a blog,” or “We’ve got to get on that Tweety thing.”
What are the inferred communication objectives here?
Turns out they’re not so clear.
It also turns out the same holds true for just about every digital format: online communities, email, social media and sharing sites, video, eBooks, podcasts and slide sets. Like a mound of mud sitting on a potter’s wheel, each requires skilled hands to give it form and meaning.
And so, it is within this context that the good ol’ days for marketers came to an end.
Freedom of Expression
But that change was also good news because it has presented companies with an opportunity to shift focus from format to the real objectives—like brand differentiation, lead generation, customer loyalty, etc. What’s more, cutting the format-follows-function chain has opened the door to creativity and competitiveness at a different level—the level of vision, reputation and thought leadership. Because when buyers start looking in secret for solutions to their business problems, those are the qualities that catch their eyes.
How, then, do you make the switch from format-driven to objective-driven communications? By starting slowly—one objective at a time. Here are some thoughts:
- Set a course. Instead of speculating whether you need a Facebook page, ask, “What do we want to be known for?” Maybe it’s being a visionary, an information aggregator, the source of practical advice or the industry contrarian. Use that objective to guide content development.
- Share your knowledge. Whether you sell manufacturing equipment, software or envelopes, you have lots of industry know-how and perspective. Trade secrets aside, don’t be afraid to tell all in an interesting and personal way.
- Do your research and be creative. Selecting the right content formats requires some insight into buyer behavior. Talk with your current customers to see what attracts them. Then choose a combination of traditional and digital formats that suits your audience and contributes to the objective.
- Keep a steady pace. Companies often start down the digital road in a flash and then slow to a crawl. To stay ahead of the curve and the competition, maintain an editorial calendar, seek ideas from all employees and manage the program as rigorously as any other process in your company.
- Learn from what works. One of digital’s big advantages is that it is measureable. With the help of analytic tools, you can define metrics and test to see how you’re doing. Then take it one step further and answer questions like, “Why did it work?” and “What did not work?”
Most of All, Don’t Give Up
An objective-driven approach to communications is still a new idea for most companies, particularly those in B2B industries. There are challenges to be sure, and it takes a decent investment. But with buyers completing 60 or 70 percent of the purchase process on their own, you need to find ways to distinguish your company. By defining your objectives at the start, you’ll give meaning to your content and give buyers a reason to take notice.
Michael Selissen is a B2B marketing writer, consultant and founder of Case Mountain Communications. Bringing more than 13 years of marketing experience to the job, he writes executive-level articles, papers and blogs, and designs inbound marketing processes. His latest eBook, The Marketer’s Step-by-Step Guide to Conducting an Email Campaign, is available for download here.
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