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The Evolution of B2B Content Marketing with MarketingProfs' Ann Handley

26th February 2021

My first instinct was to write this by hand, complete with drawings, and post it out to each of you individually. That’s how inspired I was by Ann Handley’s use of ‘analog slides’ (or should I say Ann-alog slides?) at yesterday’s webinar. Bringing a burst of creativity to the session and showing us it is possible to share stats, facts, and data without the most popular sentence of our time: ‘I’ll just share my screen, can everyone see that?’, the session certainly started with a bang!

MarketingProfs' Chief Content Officer and all-round B2B marketing hero, Ann Handley, joined ContentCal CEO, Alex Packham, for a fireside chat in front of a real (cardboard) fire. Ann and Alex took us through the evolution of Content Marketing in a hilarious, engaging, and completely inspiring way. I highly recommend you watch the full session below...

And for anyone who didn’t instantly click that link, here’s the tip of the iceberg of what was discussed:

Where it all began...

Ann reminded us that Content has always been part of marketing, it’s not a new evolutionary tool, but its evolution has been enhanced by new tools and platforms.

In 1985 Infamous tractor supplier John Deere first published a magazine called The Furrow. The magazine is not about tractors or Deere’s products, it is designed to help Farmers become better at what they do and stay aware of the latest trends in agriculture. This was the birth of Content Marketing - although it wouldn’t be called that for another couple of centuries.

MarketingProfs and the CMI have been tracking the progression of content marketing since it became a discipline in its own right. In 2010 they conducted their first survey, asking B2B marketers: ‘what are your most important tactics right now?’:

We were treated to another Ann-alog slide for a look at the results:

Ann handley x contentcal webinar

Content tactics 2010

  • Social media (social media was a much smaller world) - 79%
  • Articles (before they became blog posts) - 76%
  • In-person events - 65%
  • E-newsletters (note the E to differentiate from hard copy newsletters) - 61%
  • Case studies - 58%

And if we ask the same question today:

  • Content tactics 2021
  • Blog posts 95%
  • Newsletters 77%
  • Case studies 68%
  • Videos (pre-recorded) 68%
  • Virtual events 67%

It’s interesting how many tactics have remained on our priority lists for 11 years. The staple features are clearly things people can subscribe to and that provide a nurturing opportunity.

2010 was also the year that Ann published her first book ‘Content Rules’ which included the formula for ‘ridiculously good content’:

  • Clear utility (it has to be useful to your customer/audience)
  • Inspiration (it should be inspired creatively, through data, or both!)
  • Honest empathy (it should prove you truly understand who you’re speaking to from a psychographic perspective)

So, while the way we approach content and the tools that we use for creation and publication have changed - the fundamentals remain the same.

Empathy is possible in B2B marketing

The need to include ‘honest empathy’ as a key B2B tactic remains a challenge. The webinar chat lit up with guests asking ‘how to convey empathy’ and Ann addressed the assumption most people make about B2B marketing: ‘it’s seen as boring’. How can you deliver content in an engaging and empathetic way when your subject is boring? The solution is to change the way you think! Always think about your marketing from the customer perspective. Regardless of the product or service, you offer - there is an audience that is excited to hear how your product will solve their unique problem. Creating empathy comes from thinking about what your audience needs from you, what’s valuable to them, and what can only you provide!

The increase of empathy we’re seeing in B2B marketing is the result of another point that Ann made (with another amazing slide). Previously, content was created for the sake of creating content. Weekly newsletters needed to be filled and customer emails had to say something. However, as marketers, we are now more likely to create content in response to a specific need our audience has:

“Our customers need THIS from us, and only we can provide it”

Ann handley x contentcal b2b webinar

The true sweet spot for empathetic marketing is making it all about your audience. It is not about you. It’s not about what you want to say, it’s about what they want to hear - it has to enrich your customer/prospect lives, lift them up and add genuine value.

It's not business, it's personal

Ann used Toast as a case study to show the impact of taking your empathy one step further and making it personal. As a provider of restaurant technology, Toast saw a dip in business when restaurants closed in the pandemic. Instead of going into self-preservation mode, Toast understood that they had to help their customers in order to save themself. This led to the creation of a microsite that enabled visitors to buy gift cards for their favorite local restaurants for when they reopen. And it created a change in the tone and wording of the brand’s communications.

Instead of the usual ‘brand to target’ content that we all find ourselves creating, Toast began to use more ‘we’ and ‘us’ language to generate the feeling of peer-to-peer comradery. Toast’s newsletter perfectly highlights how to put this technique into practice:

  • It comes from Tyler - a person not a brand
  • The subject was ‘dust yourself off, WE’VE got an industry to rebuild’ - confirming they are a resource to their community, we’re in it together!
  • It is backed up by the tangible microsite actually proving they are not just ‘talking the talk’

Alongside using the right tone-of-voice and language for communications, the big content question that we all have to ask ourselves is not ‘how can I get your attention’ but ‘how can I earn your trust’?

“We spend a lot of time trying to break through the clutter, but that’s the wrong way to think about your marketing. You don’t want to breakthrough - you want to build trust” - Ann Handley

People don't buy what you do

As much as we all love to think our brand awareness ads and promoted blogs are drawing people in and selling our wares - B2B buyers are typically 57% of the way through their decision-making process before actively engaging with a company. So, it comes down to who you are - and content is the resource that shows what you stand for.

Ann advised there is always an opportunity to ‘be a little quirky, and have a little fun’ when it comes to content, although she did flag that not all organizations are quite in the right place for that.

This took the conversation to using a Currituck County Economic Development agency as the next example of best practice. The highly corporate and formal agency has only two calls to action on its website homepage and nothing else:

  • Find property
  • Call Larry

Think Larry campaign

Larry?! Yes, we were all thinking the same thing. So, of course, Ann clicked ‘Call Larry’ and was introduced to Larry Lombardi, Executive Director of Currituck County, via a data capture form. The form allows you to ask a question or speak directly with Lary - who has also launched a video series, in which you can submit a business question to Larry and he’ll create a video reply that is shared via YouTube. The Currituck County newsletter also comes from Larry and he appears across all their content channels. Attaching a real, relatable person to what you do builds instant relationships and humanizes your brand. You can read more about humanizing brands in our latest Instagram for B2B blog.

So to sum up - think human-to-human, not B2B

Even though it can be a bit of a cliche - it works! Putting your people front and center in your marketing campaigns, thinking with an audience-first approach, and building a personal voice in your email, social, and nurture channels, results in genuine relationships.

It is completely impossible to do justice to Ann and Alex’s conversation in this blog. The energy, enthusiasm, and engagement that we enjoyed during the session, is absolutely worth 53 minutes of your viewing time. At the very least, you’ll learn how to make PowerPoint slides by hand, but for most, you’ll learn how to upgrade your B2B content marketing with an empathetic, authentic, and personal approach.

Ann and Alex finished the discussion by talking about Clubhouse and a lot of invites were exchanged in the chat. Ann told us that she sees Clubhouse as a very natural fit for B2B marketing (unlike Facebook which she always felt was a slightly uncomfortable fit) and a great first step in social audio - and who are we to argue?! We’ll soon be sending out invites for you to join us in a Clubhouse room and continue this incredible conversation - hope to see/hear you there!

Ann Handley clubhouse

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