How Businesses Can Best Use Content Marketing to Generate Leads
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Marketing Feb 2, 2018

How Busi­ness­es Can Best Use Con­tent Mar­ket­ing to Gen­er­ate Leads

New research on B2B com­pa­nies high­lights an effec­tive way to bridge the gap between sales and marketing.

The power of B2B digital content marketing.

Michael Meier

Based on the research of

Wei-Lin Wang

Edward Malthouse

Bobby J. Calder

Ebru Uzunoglu

It’s your lunch break, but instead of chat­ting with col­leagues or idly scrolling through Twit­ter, you eat your sand­wich at your desk and tune in to a 60-minute webi­nar offered by a con­sult­ing company. 

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The con­sul­tants hope that when you have fin­ished the webi­nar (and the sand­wich), your com­pa­ny will be more like­ly to pur­chase their ser­vices. Is that the case? Or would the con­sul­tants have been bet­ter off send­ing a rep­re­sen­ta­tive to lead a lunchtime work­shop or invit­ing you to a sem­i­nar they sponsor? 

The webi­nar is the win­ner, accord­ing to new research from Bob­by Calder, a pro­fes­sor mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School, and Wei-Lin Wang, Edward Malt­house, and Ebru Uzunoglu, all of the Medill School’s Spiegel Research Cen­ter.

In a study of con­tent mar­ket­ing in busi­ness-to-busi­ness com­pa­nies, the researchers found that dig­i­tal offer­ings, such as webi­na­rs, white papers, and brand­ed blogs are valu­able tools that result in more leads and, ulti­mate­ly, more sales than in-per­son con­tent-mar­ket­ing events, such as con­fer­ences, work­shops, and round­table discussions. 

There’s a real oppor­tu­ni­ty for, if not inte­gra­tion, at least high-lev­el coop­er­a­tion between sales and mar­ket­ing around con­tent marketing.” 

These kinds of dig­i­tal offer­ings are real­ly impor­tant, right up there with sales con­tacts,” Calder says. Not only does a dig­i­tal-con­tent-mar­ket­ing effort real­ly work in the B2B envi­ron­ment, it offers an oppor­tu­ni­ty for sales and mar­ket­ing to come clos­er togeth­er and even inte­grate their approaches.” 

Test­ing the Effec­tive­ness of B2B Con­tent-Mar­ket­ing Activities

Con­tent mar­ket­ing, or CM, has explod­ed in the last decade, as mar­keters increas­ing­ly real­ize that tra­di­tion­al adver­tis­ing is not the mag­ic bul­let it used to be and that CM is a tool that res­onates with today’s customers. 

There are so many ads out there, and there’s so much par­i­ty among prod­ucts it’s dif­fi­cult to find ways to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them,” Calder explains. So brands and com­pa­nies have turned to CM, using every­thing from spon­sored quizzes on high­ly traf­ficked sites such as Buz­zfeed to splashy in-per­son events such as Chipotle’s Cul­ti­vate Food, Ideas, and Music Fes­ti­val.

With con­tent mar­ket­ing, you’re not so much try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate val­ue as to cre­ate val­ue beyond the prod­uct,” Calder says. 

Although a grow­ing body of research has demon­strat­ed the effec­tive­ness of con­tent-mar­ket­ing efforts like these in busi­ness-to-con­sumer com­pa­nies, CM’s role in B2B com­pa­nies has been less under­stood. Calder’s research not only val­i­dates the major invest­ment com­pa­nies like GE and IBM have made in B2B con­tent mar­ket­ing, it is also the first to test the effec­tive­ness of dif­fer­ent types of con­tent-mar­ket­ing activities. 

The Pow­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent Marketing

A lead­ing con­sult­ing firm pro­vid­ed the researchers with data on events it host­ed between 2013 and 2016. The dataset includ­ed 1203 dig­i­tal events and 919 in-per­son ones. The firm also shared infor­ma­tion about the busi­ness accounts it worked with, includ­ing job titles for more than 160,000 employ­ees from 784 key accounts who were invit­ed to par­tic­i­pate in these CM offer­ings, as well as infor­ma­tion about near­ly 50,000 sales oppor­tu­ni­ties asso­ci­at­ed with those accounts. 

The researchers gath­ered infor­ma­tion on which employ­ees attend­ed the in-per­son events as well as on the employ­ees and accounts that accessed the ser­vice provider’s dig­i­tal materials. 

This allowed the researchers to con­duct a sta­tis­ti­cal horse race,” Calder says, after con­trol­ling for fac­tors includ­ing geo­graph­ic prox­im­i­ty between the ser­vice provider and the account, the length of the busi­ness rela­tion­ship between the two, and larg­er eco­nom­ic trends that might have affect­ed sales results.

If you look at in-per­son activ­i­ties ver­sus dig­i­tal con­tent mar­ket­ing,” Calder says, how do they com­pare in terms of impact­ing sales results — sales leads and the out­come of the leads?” 

Account employ­ees’ engage­ment with dig­i­tal CM oppor­tu­ni­ties, it turned out, result­ed in more sales leads and more com­plet­ed sales, known as won oppor­tu­ni­ties. But some­what to Calder’s sur­prise, in-per­son CM events did not appear to influ­ence leads or won oppor­tu­ni­ties at all. 

Calder believes this may be because attend­ing an in-per­son event often requires so much more of account employ­ees’ time that it may feel more like a bur­den than a ben­e­fit: you have to leave your desk, put aside oth­er work tasks for a chunk of time, and per­haps trav­el to the event. Once you are there, it is easy to get dis­tract­ed by the social aspects of the gath­er­ing — cock­tails, schmooz­ing, net­work­ing — and for­get about the com­pa­ny that spon­sored the event. 

By con­trast, if you are nib­bling your PB&J and watch­ing a webi­nar, you might feel more strong­ly that the spon­sor­ing com­pa­ny is doing some­thing for me,” Calder says. They’re pro­vid­ing me with some­thing to do over lunch that is a valu­able use of my time. Cus­tomers real­ly appre­ci­ate that the com­pa­ny is adding val­ue to the busi­ness relationship.” 

These results point to the enor­mous pow­er of media con­tent to influ­ence behavior. 

The pow­er of dig­i­tal con­tent mar­ket­ing makes more sense than might be intu­itive,” Calder explains. Media con­tent pro­vides an expe­ri­ence and peo­ple real­ly get engaged by it, because that expe­ri­ence con­nects to val­ues and goals in people’s lives, in this case, their pro­fes­sion­al lives, that can be more impor­tant to them than a busi­ness transaction.” 

Con­tent Mar­ket­ing Should Tar­get the Whole Hierarchy 

Anoth­er impor­tant take­away from the research: it is impor­tant to tar­get CM at junior and mid-lev­el account employ­ees, not just executives. 

Although high-lev­el employ­ees con­tributed most to the increase in sales leads, the researchers found that account employ­ees at all lev­els helped boost leads when they engaged with dig­i­tal CM

The researchers note that only engage­ment from high-lev­el employ­ees result­ed in an increase in won oppor­tu­ni­ties, but this does not mean mar­keters should ignore those who are low­er down the totem pole: it is prob­a­ble that high-lev­el employ­ees act on the advice of more junior ones when they award con­tracts. And in a few years, when those junior employ­ees advance, you want them to have a pos­i­tive asso­ci­a­tion with your company. 

End­ing the Sales-Mar­ket­ing Conflict 

Calder believes the research points to a way that con­tent mar­ket­ing could help heal the fric­tion between sales and mar­ket­ing that is wide­spread at many B2B companies. 

It is com­mon for sales­peo­ple to feel frus­trat­ed with mar­ket­ing efforts and to gripe that mar­keters do not add much val­ue in the B2B envi­ron­ment. Mar­keters, for their part, often blame poor out­comes on the lack­lus­ter work of salespeople. 

But this research sug­gests mar­keters do have an impor­tant role to play in gen­er­at­ing leads, a role that can com­ple­ment sales. 

Cus­tomers want high-val­ue con­tent, and it is no longer enough for sales­peo­ple to give them a prod­uct brochure as an after­thought. So Calder sug­gests mar­keters focus on devel­op­ing a strong port­fo­lio of online con­tent offer­ings — a task that should be viewed not just as col­lat­er­al sup­port activ­i­ty, but a major way of doing mar­ket­ing,” Calder says. 

There’s a real oppor­tu­ni­ty for, if not inte­gra­tion, at least high-lev­el coop­er­a­tion between sales and mar­ket­ing around con­tent mar­ket­ing,” he says.

About the Writer

Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.

About the Research

Wang, Wei-Lin, Edward Carl Malthouse, Bobby Calder, and Ebru Uzunoglu. In press. “B2B Content Marketing for Professional Services: In-Person Versus Digital Contacts.” Industrial Marketing Management.

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