The Seriously Comprehensive Guide to B2B Content Marketing
I don’t even want to try and guess how much content about B2B content marketing is out there. There are possibly thousands of guides on everything from brand voice and editorial style to market segmentation and content amplification.
Unfortunately for newcomers, most of this content is absolutely terrible.
B2B content marketing, or business-to-business content marketing, can be very challenging, and it’s only going to become more so in the coming years (if such a thing were possible). That’s why we wanted to create a seriously comprehensive, detailed guide to content marketing for B2B-focused businesses.
We’ll cover a lot of territory today, including:
- What B2B content marketing is
- What sets it apart from consumer-facing content
- How to come up with topic ideas and promote your B2B content
- Examples of excellent B2B content marketing.
There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get started.
What Is B2B Content Marketing?
As its name suggests, B2B content marketing is the art of using content to expand your business’s audience, strengthen and develop brand affinity, and ultimately drive leads and sales by appealing to other businesses.
All that sets B2B content marketing apart from other types of content marketing is that it used exclusively by businesses, for businesses. This is not run-of-the-mill consumer-facing content.
(Side note: You may also be interested in our seven rules for B2B email marketing.)
How Does B2B Content Marketing Differ from B2C Content Marketing?
B2B content has to be useful above all else. If the reader cannot apply the actionable elements of your content to their own work or business, it’s missed the mark. This doesn’t mean you can’t publish the odd off-topic think piece or two every now and again, but as a B2B content marketer, being seen and renowned as a leading resource for professionals in your industry should be your top priority.
Of course, that’s not to say B2C content doesn’t have to be useful as well, but it’s not the only or primary consideration. Think about branded content, like that published by energy drink giant Red Bull, for example.
Examples of the kind of content published in the ‘Adventure’ category
of Red Bull’s official website
Red Bull’s content is primarily entertaining. It features remarkable things happening across multiple media channels to create an exciting, media-rich experience. This is excellent for brand awareness, but perhaps less so for directly driving leads or sales. Think of it in the same way that marketers approach the Google Search and Display networks; the Search network (or B2B content marketing, in this slightly awkward metaphor) is more metric- or results-driven, whereas the Display network (or B2C content) is more effective for driving brand awareness.
However, this doesn’t mean that your B2B content can get away with being bland, boring, or forgettable. If anything, B2B content marketers have to balance all three elements of the Holy Trifecta of Content Marketing – useful, engaging, and of high quality – even more perfectly than B2C content professionals.
How To Do B2B Content Marketing Right
Now we know what B2B content is, let’s take a look at how to leverage the power of this marketing channel effectively. There are a lot of variables to consider, so let’s dive in.
Identify Your Ideal Audience
Before you can give your audience the content it craves, you have to know as much as you can about it.
However, although you may segment audiences by the stage of the funnel they happen to be in, each audience is comprised of individual people. This is why reader personas – similar to buyer personas – are so important.
Image via Liquid Agency
Now, you might be thinking that your audience is too broad to define in this way, and – to an extent – you’d be right. You can only get so granular before you have to settle for broader definitions of who’s reading your stuff. However, you can get a hell of a lot more granular about your audiences simply by exploring your Google Analytics data.
Here, you can learn a great deal about the people visiting your site. You can see basic demographic information such as age, gender, and location, as well as valuable interest data that shows the topics they’re interested in. This is crucially important, as even if it’s not central to your business, it provides a way for you to “land and expand” into new, tangentially relevant subject areas, as Larry explains in this post about thought leadership.
Let’s take a look at WordStream’s data to give you an idea of what this looks like. Here’s a screenshot from our Google Analytics data on the composition of our primary audience:
As you can see, a majority of our readers are men between the ages of 25-34. The fact that a majority of our audience belongs to the Millennial demographic explains several of the editorial choices made at the WordStream blog, such as our use of memes, emoji, and unicorn imagery – our audience digs it! This is just one example of demographic targeting in action. (Check out this post on generational marketing to learn more about how to leverage these principles.)
Although the kind of data shown above can be useful, this is the simplest overview of your audience demographics that Google Analytics offers (and can be accessed by going to Audience > Demographics > Overview). This alone doesn’t tell us a great deal, so let’s take a look at some other interesting data.
As you can see in the summary of the Interests data below, more than a few of our readers are technology enthusiasts, and we’ve got quite a few photographers in the mix, too:
By now, you should be able to start drawing some conclusions about your audience. This lets you target them with relevant content more effectively, because you can “speak” to them more clearly and in a way that is more likely to resonate with them based on their demographic and interest profiles.
However, it’s worth noting that, as indicated by the percentage in the upper-right of the image above, this data is often based on representative samples of your overall traffic – Google Analytics may not be able to provide you with exact data, depending on how much traffic your site receives.
So, now we know a little more about audiences, how the hell do we figure out what to write about?
How to Develop New Content Ideas Consistently
One of the greatest challenges facing content marketers in any vertical is coming up with new content ideas consistently. It’s easy to think of things to write about when you’re just starting out, but if you’ve been at the content marketing game for a while, you’ve probably experienced a drought of ideas at some point.
One of the best ways to identify new topics in your niche is to see what people are sharing and talking about on social media. There are plenty of online marketing tools including tools for B2B marketers that can do this, but one of our favorites is BuzzSumo.
BuzzSumo lets you examine real-time data from across all major social networks to identify which topics in your industry are gaining the most traction. Based on this, you can prepare content that either presents a new angle on an existing topic – something that readers crave – or even as a counterpoint to prevailing opinion about a topic relevant to your business (a practice sometimes known as “contrarian content marketing”).
You also have to consider user intent when creating new content ideas. As mentioned above, you already know more about your audience by examining the demographic data, but you also need to anticipate what your audience wants to read and what they want to accomplish by reading it.
Let’s take WordStream’s content as an example. We knew that when Expanded Text Ads launched earlier this year, new and experienced advertisers alike had dozens of questions about what the new feature meant for their campaign.
That’s why, in addition to covering the news as it happened, we also went back and really dove deep into what ETAs meant for advertisers, how to create and implement them in campaigns, and other essential tips and strategies.
We did this because we knew our audience would have two primary questions about Expanded Text Ads:
1.) What are they?
2.) Why should I use them?
When it comes to intent, you must remember that the reader only has one question in mind when evaluating whether or not to give your content a chance – “What’s in it for me?” It’s the same question sales professionals always bear in mind during calls with prospective customers, and you, as a content marketer, need to do the same.
Audition Your Content Using Social Validation
This is another powerful technique that Larry Kim uses to regularly develop content that knocks it out of the park.
Essentially, the concept of “auditioning” your content through social validation is using Twitter to test which content topics do well in terms of social shares and other engagement metrics. The reason Twitter should be a marketer’s primary means of auditioning content is because Facebook has already virtually eliminated organic reach, meaning you’d essentially have to promote content to see if it would do well – before producing that content. Obviously this is a waste of time and ad budget, hence Twitter.
Take this example from Larry’s Twitter account. Larry tweeted a link to an infographic about the mind of the entrepreneur, and found that it struck a chord with his audience.
As a result, Larry went on to produce a blog post based on that infographic for his column at Inc. magazine – a column that performed extraordinarily well.
By auditioning the content first, Larry was able to use his limited time to produce content that was more likely to have a significant impact that the “publish, promote, and pray” approach apparently favored by some content marketers.
Promoting Your B2B Content
Content promotion is absolutely crucial in today’s online environment. Competition in the “attention economy” is intense, and relying solely on organic reach is a potentially disastrous mistake.
Take a look at the figure below. This represents the gradual but steady decline of organic reach on Facebook between October 2013 and February 2014:
Image via social@Ogilvy
Obviously this should be of grave concern to social advertisers and those hoping to use Facebook to promote their content. However, the situation may be even more dire than advertisers thought. Recent data suggests that Facebook may have overestimated the reach of organic traffic on its platform, meaning that paid promotion is now virtually required if Facebook is a major part of your content promotion plan.
Organic reach, highlighted in red, overestimated by 50% during a 7-day period,
and by 100% across a four-week (28-day) span
Fortunately, advertising on Facebook is remarkably cost effective. The nuances of Facebook advertising and how to use it for content promotion are beyond the scope of this post, but check out the resources below to learn more:
- Does Facebook Advertising Work? [DATA] (spoiler – yes, it does)
- 7 Awesome Facebook Ad Examples (And Why They Work)
- 3 Unconventional Facebook Advertising Strategies That Work
- 9 Tips to Write the Best Facebook Ads Ever (with Examples)
- Hacking the Facebook News Feed Algorithm: 5 Ways to Recover Organic Reach
- The 10 Greatest Social Media Advertising Tips for Content Marketers
Of course, one of the primary benefits of content marketing is what Larry calls the "flywheel effect," in which promoting content via social leads to more followers, which means a larger audience, which means more social shares, which means a larger audience and so on. Check out that post to learn more about this and other benefits of content marketing.
Examples of Great B2B Content Marketing
So, now we’ve taken a look at what B2B content marketing is, as well as how to develop and promote it, let’s check out some examples of the very best to serve as inspiration for your content marketing campaigns.
Firstly, the HubSpot blog is divided into two distinct tracks: marketing and sales. Some blogs (WordStream included) often combine sales and marketing content in a single resource. This makes sense in some cases, as the two disciplines are often closely related and frequently overlap in terms of topic. However, HubSpot knows that engaging, in-depth content is what its audience craves, so it separates its content in this manner to offer content that’s laser-focused on its audience’s needs.
HubSpot’s content itself is impeccable. From detailed guides to free resources, HubSpot’s content is the first port of call for marketers of all disciplines simply because it’s of such high quality and the fact that it’s so useful.
As you’d expect from a top-tier content provider, HubSpot offers original data, research, and insight to its readers, making it one of the best examples of B2B content anywhere on the Interwebs.
Although perhaps best known for its cutting-edge microwave oven and television broadcasting division headed by the inimitable Alec Baldwin, General Electric is also one of the best B2B content publishers in the world.
Alec Baldwin as GE executive Jack Donaghy in NBC’s ’30 Rock’
GE is a truly vast organization with dozens of divisions, hundreds of product lines, and thousands of physical locations. As you might expect from a company of this scale, GE publishes a stunning variety of content to appeal to decision makers in a wide variety of industries, but it is GE’s online magazine, The Txchnologist (no, that’s not a typo), that shines brightest.
The Txchnologist could be mistaken at first glance for B2C content. The site uses modern web technologies to provide visitors with a sleek, elegant online media experience, but the content of the magazine itself doesn’t sacrifice substance for style.
The Txchnologist’s content focuses on cutting-edge technological developments – the kind pioneered by GE’s immense R&D teams – in a way that lets decision makers see not only the benefits of specific GE technologies, but also how technology is shaping the world in a wider sense.
Image via GE/The Txchnologist
Overall, GE and The Txchnologist prove that B2B content doesn’t have to be boring or detached; in fact, it can rival even the glossiest of consumer magazines and websites to create a uniquely engaging and compelling branded B2B content experience.
Launched in November 2010, Buffer set itself apart from similar blogs early on by making a powerful commitment to quality content. However, although the content Buffer publishes is both interesting and useful – the ultimate goal of all B2B content – Buffer also created a great deal of buzz about its service by adopting a company culture of radical transparency, a movement that has grown enormously since Buffer courageously decided to make virtually every aspect of the company’s growth visible to anyone. This proves that it is possible (though certainly not easy) to break into a crowded vertical with established players and succeed.
Image via Buffer. Check out the entire infographic on Buffer’s
remarkable growth trajectory here.
However, while Buffer may have turned some heads with its earlier promotional efforts and company culture, its content is impressive in its own right. Buffer’s content not only features more data and research than most B2B publishers, but manages to frame this data in an almost irresistibly compelling way, often combining marketing data with insights into psychology and other fascinating topics. This has earned Buffer thousands of links and immense brand exposure, both of which have propelled the organization to new heights of growth.
Content Marketing Institute
This one’s a little meta, but it would be remiss of me if I failed to mention the Content Marketing Institute’s content in this round-up.
CMI is the world’s leading authority on everything related to content marketing. Although the advice and strategies outlined in CMI’s content is most definitely useful and applicable to individuals launching personal blogs, CMI stands out as an invaluable resource for B2B content marketers, and this type of content makes up a large portion of the content that CMI publishes.
Image taken from Content Marketing Institute’s B2B Content Marketing
2016 Benchmarks, Budgets, & Trends – North America report
Like the other publishers in this section, CMI offers readers a wide variety of infographics and other data visualizations based on its own independent research. CMI’s annual reports have come to be regarded as the definitive overview of content marketing as a distinct vertical in wider digital marketing circles, and some of the world’s most prominent content marketing experts, such as Ann Handley and Joe Pulizzi, are frequent contributors to the CMI blog.
CMI’s content is unique, interesting, and – perhaps most importantly – highly actionable, making it an invaluable resource for B2B content marketers. If you’re not reading CMI regularly, you’re missing out.
Even some of the world’s largest brands struggle to leverage the power of B2B content marketing effectively, but American Express is not one of them.
American Express offers as diverse an array of B2B content as it does financial services. However, much of the company’s content focuses on the challenges faced by smaller companies and individual entrepreneurs. This is reflected in the kinds of topics explored by American Express’ content, such as productivity and time management, budgeting and accounting, and social media. Also, as the founding organization of Small Business Saturday – one of the most important days of the year to thousands of small businesses – American Express understands the needs and concerns of its readership, and provides quality content to meet those needs.
One advantage that American Express has over some publishers is its impressive roster of guest contributors. Financial experts from media networks such as MSNBC frequently publish articles on how to grow your business and identify new opportunities in today’s challenging business environment. American Express’ content is organized into logical, intuitive sections, and reads very much like B2C content, proving that accessibility is just as important as substance.
At first glance, coworking/coliving provider WeWork is a bit of an outlier in this round-up. It’s easy to mistake WeWork’s aspirational content as consumer-focused, when in fact it’s actually aimed squarely at the entrepreneurs who are reshaping the world of work. This is, in itself, something that content marketers are going to have to address as the so-called “gig economy” gains traction among the wider workforce, a change that WeWork is uniquely positioned to capitalize upon.
WeWork’s B2B content is split across two primary channels: the WeWork blog, and Creator Magazine. The company’s blog content is as diverse as the entrepreneurs you can find in any WeWork location, and includes topics ranging from machine learning and product design to the freelancing life and social entrepreneurship, making it a surprisingly engaging and interesting read. Of course, as all great B2B content should, it’s also highly actionable and serves as an excellent evergreen resource for entrepreneurs trying to launch their own companies.
Creator Magazine is a little different, and not just in terms of format. The publication looks and feels a lot like a glossy periodical, and contains interviews with some of the world’s most successful and exciting business owners. The magazine features several different distinct content types, including highly actionable how-to guides to profiles of member entrepreneurs, meaning there’s something for many different tastes.
One thing that Creator Magazine’s content shares with the WeWork blog is its highly aspirational quality; this is content that will make you want to cast off the shackles of your 9-to-5 and finally take the plunge to become your own boss. And, of course, this aspirational positioning is reflected perfectly by WeWork’s slick, impressive product offerings, which makes WeWork’s content an outstanding example of how to pair useful, engaging content with a strong product and wider, consistent branding.
Go Forth and Conquer
As we’ve seen, there are dozens of elements to consider as a B2B content marketing professional. Although this can be intimidating to newcomers, hopefully you’ve identified several commonalities that the best B2B content marketing shares, such as being highly actionable (see our post on interactive content done right), engaging, and laser-focused on specific, profiled audiences.
As always, get at me in the comments with questions or comments about anything we’ve covered above!