by Michael Idinopulos
on December 29, 2014

Is B2B Content Marketing a Failure?

My Content Marketing Crisis of Faith

I have a confession to make. I find content marketing hard. Really hard.

It all sounded so good. You start a blog, prospects read it, they give you their contact information, and–BANG!–your sales team has a warm lead. Shooting fish in a barrel, right?

My experience has been different.

Generating content is hard and expensive. Sure, you can hire an English major to dash off a few blog posts on “10 Habits of Highly Successful Procurement Officers” or “5 Common ERP Deployment Mistakes”. But that’s going to get you the same commoditized crap that everyone else is already publishing. I’m with Doug Kessler on this one: the last thing the world (or my brand) needs is more crap on the Internet.

To soar above the content overload, you have to spend real time generating data and insights that your readers won’t find at twenty other websites. That’s not impossible, but it’s hard.

No matter how good your content is, the vast majority of your content marketing leads aren’t going to be qualified. For every inbound lead you get from a qualified buyer, you’ll have to wade through 10 (15? 20? 50?) contact requests from earnest, interested, intelligent people who will never, ever, ever spend a dime with you.

Apparently I’m not alone.

According to Content Marketing Institute’s 2015 benchmarking surveyonly 38% of B2B marketers think they are effective at content marketing. That’s slightly down from last year’s number (42%). Despite the fact that 70% of organizations are creating more content, only 21% of respondents think they are successful at tracking ROI.

Content marketers are producing more, but they’re getting further away from their goals. The further they run, the further away the finish line.

What gives?

Some would say the problem lies with the content marketers, that content marketing is a great tool wielded by incompetent craftsmen.

I think something different is going on.

The Inbound Myth

I once watched a B2B marketing director tell his CEO that marketing’s job was to “provide air cover for sales.” The response was not pretty. The CEO blew up. “What is air cover? How are you measuring this air cover?! What is all this air cover costing me???!!!” 

Good B2B marketers don’t make that mistake. They obsess over measurement. They’re not satisfied with fuzzy criteria like mindshare, brand awareness, or (God forbid) air cover. They trade in hard currency: traffic, leads, opportunities, and deals.

When B2B marketers apply those same standards to content marketing, they come back with a single, simple, powerful metric: leads.

More specifically, they judge their content marketing efforts on their ability to generate marketing-qualified leads (MQLs, for short). These are the leads which meet the company’s criteria for a closable lead based on demographic criteria like the lead’s title and company, as well as behavioral criteria like how frequently the lead has visited the website, which content the lead has downloaded, etc.

In short, they see content marketing as a form of lead generation.

It’s a marketer’s paradise. Someone with budget goes to the web to do research, and stumbles across your website. They poke around for a while, then click to download a free white paper that you’ve published on the very initiative they’ve been tasked to lead. They happily provide you with their contact information (who wouldn’t give their credentials in exchange for such valuable content?), download your white paper, and read it. You pass the lead–the MQL–to your Sales team who calls them. Why yes, they’re happy to talk to your Sales team because they loved your white paper and clearly your company is a thought leader who can really help them. Sales closes the deal in no time, and they celebrate Marketing as the hero who handed them the deal on a platter.

This is the bright, shining vision of inbound lead generation. Instead of relying on old-fashioned (outdated?) outbounding techniques like cold-calling and email marketing, inbound lead gen attracts high-potential prospects to you.

Inbound lead generation is such a beautiful and compelling concept that HubSpot named its annual conference “INBOUND.”

This is the holy grail for marketers who want to be able to draw a straight line from marketing activity to closed deals. No talk of “air cover” here. This is pure revenue!

The problem is…it’s a myth. I call it the Inbound Myth, the idea that content’s primary goal can and should be to drive inbound lead generation. Most deals don’t originate that way. Even deals heavily influenced by content typically don’t originate that way.

When a marketer hands a blue-chip, gold-star MQL off to Sales, he’s likely to hear, “Oh yeah, I know this guy. I’ve been working him for weeks.”

Sales leads come from many sources: the website, contact requests, social media, conferences, webinars, personal contacts, even (say it ain’t so!) purchased lead lists and cold calls.

Content’s value to the sales process lies in its ability to nurture leads the company has, whether those leads are new or pre-existing, warm or cold.

That’s why content marketers are frustrated. They’re evaluating their content against lead generation metrics like the number of MQLs they pass to sales in a given month. Those numbers come up short because they’re just looking at lead generation.

Content Selling is the Goal for B2B

Content is an important enabler of the sales process–not just in the lead gen stage, but across every stage of the sales process.

Content goes way beyond marketing. I’m talking about the use of content in the sales process, about reps using content to advance live opportunities and to revive dead ones. That’s Content Selling, and it goes way beyond lead generation.

Content selling is a tough concept for marketers to get their heads around, because it’s hard to measure in marketing terms. To evaluate a piece of content, marketers need to look at how that content has influenced deal flow all through the revenue cycle. That’s a lot harder than counting up the number of people who filled out a contact request. It requires more sophisticated tracking processes and marketing attribution models.

Content selling is a familiar concept to sales leaders–in a different form. Sales methodologies like Corporate Executive Board’s Challenger Sale and Richardson’s Selling with Insights are all about using distinctive content to create differentiation and drive sales. Unlike content marketing, content selling focuses on exchanging content with the purpose of generating leads, nurturing relationships, and closing deals.

It’s a change in mindset for marketing. Marketers like handing off an MQL to the Sales team. Content selling requires Marketers to partner with Sales all the way through the sales cycle, and to measure content performance all along the way.

I’ve written before that Marketing’s role is evolving from player to coach. This is yet another illustration of that evolution. B2B marketers need to stop thinking of themselves as the lead runners in a relay race.

B2B marketers need to be with Sales every step of the way, feeding Sales content that drives the sales process forward every step of the way. Start to finish. Click to close.

That’s Content Selling.

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