Strong relationships have long been the mark of a top-performing B2B sales organization. Sales intelligence data may enrich those relationships, or open up new ones, but when the sales cycle stretches to three, six, or nine months—or more—sellers must find ways to sustain communication with prospects so they remain top-of-mind.
That’s where content comes in. The right content, delivered at the right time, can demonstrate thought leadership, stimulate conversation, and surface needs your prospects aren’t even aware they have. We’ve talked before about leveraging smart sales enablement content, but this time, we’re taking a step back and looking at how—and when—to deploy content throughout the entire buyer journey.
Strap in, folks. It’s about to get serious.
Content, channel and the buyer journey
In the past decade or so, revenue teams have become increasingly aware of the critical importance of creating and sharing stories to create awareness and drive leads at the start of the buyer journey. In fact, 88 percent of B2B marketers are already using custom content marketing—but not all content is created equal.
The best examples answer very specific questions buyers have based on where they stand in sales funnel. The worst are either far too broad, addressing industry trends or serving as vanity content for executives, or far too narrow, focusing solely on product features and specs too early in the funnel.
A healthy seller/prospect relationship benefits from strategic content at every stage of the journey, delivered on the channels that buyers use most frequently at that stage. And while sellers work with prospects every day, they’re rarely part of the content ideation process. In the survey mentioned above, just three percent of respondents held a sales title.
If sellers are going to make use of content to foster relationships with potential buyers, they need to be involved, at some level, in the creation process. How? By requesting buyer-centric content they can share at exactly the right moments in the sales cycle.
Here’s what those moments look like.
Awareness: what you stand for
Awareness is the period during which a prospect is first introduced to your brand—not necessarily your products and services, but perhaps just as important, your mission and values, what you prioritize and your role within the industry (upstart innovator, trusted pillar, etc.). Generally speaking, responsibility for the start of the buyer journey is relegated to outbound advertising or marketing campaigns. But that doesn’t mean sales has nothing to do—or nothing to gain from becoming involved in content creation and distribution at the awareness stage.
Thought leadership for reputation building
According to a study from Acquity Group, 94 percent of B2B buyers do at least some measure of research online prior to purchase. Which means your brand had better surface on the first or second page of Google search results. And while ranking for branded keywords, like the name of your organization, is important, at this stage, prospects are not searching for you by name. Instead, they’re looking for answers to broad needs, like “e-commerce platforms” or “next-gen martech.”
That means you have to engage attention at a high level. The best kind of content at this stage takes a stance, demonstrates thought leadership and expertise, and captures unbranded keywords, bringing prospects to your blog or earned media in industry publications. From there, they can explore further, ideally landing on a page that captures their contact information.
While they may not yet be in the sales pipeline, prospects and their content needs should still be top of mind for sellers at this stage. That’s because interest in brand values and thought leadership does not evaporate once the prospect enters sellers’ field of vision. In fact, B2B sellers can use awareness-level content to spur conversations with both engaged and dormant prospects. Which means sales should have a say in the topics covered in this top-level content.
Dell Technologies provides a great example of this high-level thought leadership. Their Digiday-award-winning site, Perspectives, offers a sleek exploration of the relationship between humans and technology. They also host a podcast narrated by Walter Isaacson on digital disruption. Any one of their stories could be shared with a prospect to demonstrate just how forward-thinking and innovative Dell Technologies is as a business partner.
Take note of the trends and common industry questions your sellers are discussing further down the pipeline, and work with your marketing department to insert at least one story per month that addresses these subjects from different angles. Some might be too big for a blog post, so consider deploying white papers or ebooks, which can provide the space to explore topics in-depth and demonstrate authority.
Distribute the content to sellers, who in turn should email prospects with a brief description of the content and its relevance to conversations they might have had. If possible, have them provide a PDF of the article instead of linking back to your site; you’ll reduce the chances of a bookmark-and-forget scenario on the prospect side.
Consideration: what you offer
Once prospects have transitioned from awareness to the consideration stage, it’s time for sales to double down on content. That doesn’t mean filling up inboxes left and right; it means being intelligent about the kind of content distributed and the channels used to distribute it.
Case studies for context
In the consideration phase, prospects are thinking less about your brand as a concept and more about your suite of products and/or services. At this stage, sellers should begin to foster conversations about what’s on offer, but that doesn’t mean product copy and specs.
Rather, sellers now have the opportunity to place their products and services in the context of solving prospects’ problems. Subject matter expertise is key here. In its 2017 Buying Study, SiriusDecisions found that case studies were the second most impactful piece of content consumed by CXOs during the consideration phase, only slightly behind sales presentations. Static brochures, on the other hand, were slightly more than half as impactful.
Case studies, testimonials, original research, and anything else that demonstrates subject matter expertise are highly effective ways to create a persuasive narrative around otherwise dry data. One excellent, if unsurprising, example of case studies done well is Deloitte. Their “Client Spotlight” series combines ungated, easy-to-read narratives with data-rich infographics for quick reference. If your marketing teams are not already producing this kind of content, it’s time to have a conversation.
Personalized email is especially effective at this stage, but you might also want to consider high- quality, well-designed printed versions of case studies, either individual or compiled in a small magazine, for events and prospect meetings as well as direct mail.
Decision: why you’re the best
Your sales team has now established your brand as a respected expert in your industry. Thought leadership, case studies, and testimonials have supported that reputation and demonstrated to your prospect that you’re there to solve their problems, not just sell them a product. Now it’s time to get specific.
Product stories for comparison
At this stage, prospects are comparing your offering with your competitors’. Chances are, you already have a lot of content to leverage here: product specs, proposal templates, pitch decks. (Producing product collateral has never been a challenge for marketers.)
The challenge, then, is not in finding the right kind of content, but creating a framework around it that helps your buyer connect with it. “Know your audience” means more here than at any other time in the sales cycle. The content you provide at this stage—whether over email or in person—must be crafted with them in mind, and should be detailed but concise, ultra-focused while still describing the context in which each feature or widget operates.
To repeat for emphasis, your one-sheeters and decks must continue the narrative that you started during the consideration stage. Dry specs mean glazed-over eyes. Start with the issue your prospect cares about the most, present a solution, and THEN dive into the specifics. The better the story you can create around your offering, the more memorable it will be when the prospect has to decide between your brand and three others. The more audience-centric your content, the better your odds. It’s really that simple.
Sales has a content problem, and it’s because sellers are often too far removed from discussions about the content they need. They’ll need to guide prospects through each phase, and that means supporting every conversation, email thread, and pitch with thoughtful, prospect-oriented storytelling, when the prospect needs it, on the channels they’re most often using. Follow that formula, and watch your sales leaders deliver better results within a matter of months.