Now we're nearing the end of the planning process. We’ve reviewed how we're going to communicate—through an ongoing timeline or via a specific customer journey. We’ve developed a narrative by using one of the models. And we know a lot about our audience, because we developed a persona. Now the question is: where is the content going to live?
Before we jump into types of content, it’s important to distinguish between content types and distribution channels. A content type is the container, or shape, of where we put the content. A distribution channel is how that content is sent. For example, white papers, case studies, e-books, and videos are all types of content. Email, social media, websites and trade shows are all examples of distribution channels.
When channels are in control of the company, there’s no media cost to use them. These are referred to as owned media. If your company hasn’t built such a channel, you will need to spend money to build and reach your audience. This is called paid media. Lastly, there’s earned media. This is what provides the incremental reach of your content based on how many people share it with people who are not in your owned or paid group. Earned media varies based on how good your content is and how easy you make it to share.
In this chapter, we don’t go over every possible type of content; there are just too many. For example, a printed book is technically a content type, as is a documentary film. The cost in time and money of these content types preclude their use by most businesses, however.
1. White paper and research report
A white paper and its close cousin, a research report, are common types of content used in B2B marketing. They are appropriate for presenting an academic perspective, which means being sure that what you provide doesn’t feel like marketing or promotional material. Educational and informative, this content type is relatively long, ranging from six to twenty pages, and often more for research reports. The longer format means that someone who reads the whole paper spends up to twenty minutes reading it, which can boost the metrics.
It’s common to gate such content, which means requiring people to provide their contact information before they have access to the white paper or report. Companies can invest several months as well as substantial cash in the research, writing, editing, and design required to create a white paper, and even more if the end product is a paper based on original research such as an industry survey. The payoff comes when people are interested enough in it to be willing to share their business contact information. This is how most companies gather leads.
Besides attracting external audiences, white papers and research reports can fill internal purposes of larger companies or academic institutions. For example, several years ago, Northwestern University undertook a large project to align its many departments over many campuses underneath a global brand. How did the university go about communicating with its many faculty members, deans, and other administrators? A committee of the Northwestern Board of Trustees wrote a white paper to help articulate the new vision.
2. Blog post and article
Blog posts and other types of articles are popular with marketers because they are extremely flexible content types. They allow words, images, and sound or video to be combined onto one page. They also enable companies to more easily reap the benefits of search engine optimization.
Developing an article for a blog or other outlet requires the writer to research a topic—which may include conducting interviews with subject-matter experts—create an outline, draft the piece, have the content edited and, lastly, proofread before it’s published. Once an overall design has been established for a blog post or other article type, not a lot of additional design or production work is needed. Most web CRMs allow content to be published instantly.
Blog posts can be generically published for the reader from a brand. Recently, however, there has been a movement toward content coming to the reader from specific individuals, often with their own unique perspectives. There’s something about knowing that a blog post comes from a particular individual that makes it more credible. Publishing content from the individual also means companies can more easily scale their content, because every post need not be written by one writer. Although various writers will have different perspectives and will focus on different topics, it’s important to have editorial standards in place for all blog content, to keep the reader’s experience consistent.
Think beyond publishing content on only your own company’s platform. It can be hard to build one individual’s or company’s own audience, and one way to expand it is to borrow someone else's audience. If the audience for a different platform likes the content, some of them will seek out other articles from the same source and follow the writer or company on social media.
Consider publishing articles in external publications. For example, SpencerStuart, a global recruiting and leadership development firm, published “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture” in Harvard Business Review. As a result, the firm reached a whole new audience via the business journal’s readers, and it ended up with a published article to use for its own content marketing purposes.
Also consider becoming a guest contributor on someone else's platform. LinkedIn’s Marketing Solutions blog is one example of a platform with a lot of different contributors. Ever since it decided to publish contributing writers, the blog publishes content much more frequently, up to four to six pieces of new content a week. This is a win for both LinkedIn and the contributing writers.
If you need to get the attention of someone you don't already have a relationship with, an e-book is a good way to do it. They’re usually longer than an article, but shorter than a white paper or research report. They tend to be more casual and, often with lists, tips, or checklists. Most important, e-books shouldn’t focus on what a company has to offer. It should help the customer solve a problem.
E-books usually have more interesting designs and a variety of visual elements to capture the audience's attention. Because of this, creating an e-book requires a designer as well as a writer and is likely to take more time to create. Because people usually read e-books on desktop or laptop screen or a tablet, a design with pages that are 8.5 x 11 is fairly standard.
Make sure that at the end of your e-book you have a strong call to action. What do you want the audience to do? Be as clear as possible. This is usually the time to pitch your product/service. Make sure they know your company offers services related to your content.
4. Case study
Case studies are great at telling the story of how a product or service has helped a customer. It's always more effective when someone else tells a story on your behalf, and in this case your audience will relate to the situation of the customer telling the story.
Put another way, “Don't take it from us, take it directly from our client.” Using this content type to show social proof is very effective. A customer with big brand-name recognition makes your content even more credible.
A case study usually includes several sections: background or context, the challenges or challenges the customer faced, the solution your company provided, and the impact or results. Use the same organization for all your company’s case studies so that your audience understands how you tell these types of stories.
Generally, case studies should be no more than one or two pages long, since they are brief snapshots of what has happened. The best case studies are based on interviews with the customers themselves and include direct quotations, which humanize the story and enhance the social proof.
Obviously, you need to get permission from the person or company featured in the case study. When interviewing your customer, try to get real numbers and specific results instead of generic descriptions. Sharing results in case studies is critical to making them believable as well as a more interesting read. If your client isn't comfortable sharing the raw numbers, offer to use percentage changes to communicate the impact without providing detailed data.
Case studies can live online as well as web pages or PDFs. Some companies choose to distribute printed-out color PDFs as well. Depending on the company, topic, and potential readers, sometimes spending more on the visual presentation and production values makes sense.
For example, commercial real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle used beautiful photography to illustrate “Every Building Has Story,” a leave-behind for prospective customers that showed what its design teams did to transform different types of spaces. The skillful presentation, supported by a website, captured the attention and imagination of Jones Day’s prospective customer, and the physical publication was an effective reminder of what the company had to offer.
The popularity of video continues to grow. Videos are great at telling stories and capturing audience attention. It’s also easy to watch a video, which requires less effort than reading.
Video was once very costly to produce. With more affordable equipment, however, today it's possible to create a cost-effective video. However, it’s still a complex project to produce. You usually need three to five people to create it: someone to develop the vision, someone to shoot the video, someone to capture the sound, and then someone to edit what’s been captured.
If you're lucky, you can find one or two people who have multiple skills. For example, the creative director can also shoot the video and perhaps even edit it. This approach can reduce both production costs and production time.
Live online video is a newer approach that is gaining traction. It started with companies like U-Stream and Meerkat. Today, virtually every social media platform has live-streaming. The appeal of live-streaming is that it’s very efficient to make (since there’s no editing). And, since there’s only one take, what’s being communicated is very authentic—which can make it more interesting to the audience. However, live-streaming can be stressful to create, since no editing means you can’t go back and do anything over again.
6. Buying guide
A buying guide is a great type of content for prospects just starting to consider purchasing a category of goods or services. It helps them to understand how they should be thinking through and going about making their decision. The goal of a buying guide is to educate the customer in a neutral way. You want to describe how the entire category works and how a prospect should evaluate making a decision. You can even list out the pros and cons of each of your competitors, similar to how your customer would think about it.
The key here is to do so in an unbiased way. If you can do that, they’re more likely to consider you. You want to get your customer to think like this: “This company really helped me understand how to think about this decision… I should include them as one of the companies I’m considering since they seem to know what they’re talking about.”
Buying guides can have design elements to them, although it doesn't need to be as splashy as an e-book. It’s usually longer. It's not uncommon for a buying guide to be eight to twelve pages long.
Publishing a magazine seems to be a dream come true for many B2B marketers. There’s something enticing about a thick, printed magazine as the final product. I recommend magazines only if you are serious about making a long-term commitment. If you create a quarterly or monthly magazine, usually it’s better to either build it in-house or work with an outside agency that specializes in magazines.
What's nice about the magazine approach is that a printed magazine is a physical piece. You can mail it to a customer or offer it in person. The obvious downside is the cost. Depending on how many you print, the cost might range anywhere from $1 to $5 per piece.
When you choose a magazine as your content type, don't expect to see a short-term return on investment. What’s the best way to measure it? Customer research tends to be an effective measurement tool. You can ask your customers things like the following:
- Do you have a more favorable impression of our company after reading the magazine?
- How would you describe our brand after reading the magazine?
Magazines tend to be chosen by larger companies, with bigger and more stable budgets. Even at larger companies, it’s not uncommon for a magazine to be printed for only two or three years. Then there's an initiative to reduce company costs, and inevitably someone says, “Do we really need to print this thing? Can't we just distribute it online?” The answer, of course, is, “Sure, we can create content and distribute it online. But that diminishes how its purpose is filled, because the physical copy of the magazine is what makes it interesting.” So, again, if you want to publish a magazine, be sure there’s a long-term commitment to do so.
8. Interactive content and tools
Most of the content types discussed in this chapter are examples of one-way communication; you're essentially talking at your audience. With interactive content, the audience role is more active. Examples of interactive pieces are quizzes, assessments, calculators, and games.
These two-way experiences are powerful for you and your audience. Beyond just capturing your audience’s attention, you are finding out what’s important to them. If you execute this content type the right way, this information is used to determine the messages you send in the future—or perhaps even remove from the mailing list the prospects who are not a good fit.
One of the leading companies in interactive content is Outgrow. Its platform allows companies to easily create and distribute interactive content. You can spend as little as five to ten hours creating a piece of interactive content within the platform before being ready to launch it. Plus, no coding is involved, so it’s easy to use.
SEO companies use the tool approach all the time. They ask you to enter your website address and they evaluate how effectively your website works. This approach is useful to the marketer, since they're not just telling you how great they are, they’re showing you what your weaknesses are. It’s rare for a company to be able to show value this quickly and directly. And a real person isn’t doing the work behind the scenes of an SEO company; with its tools, it happens automatically.
An early pioneer in interactive tools as free content is HubSpot. The company created a tool called Website Grader, launched it in 2006, and has graded more than four million websites since. After you provide your website URL, the tool, now called Marketing Grader, breaks out technical performance for a variety of categories, such as page speed, mobile friendliness, and SEO. It is also a great tool for competitive research. I've done many competitive assessments that showed how other companies’ websites were performing. Actual website-performance data for competitors is a useful window into those companies.
With Ceros, another interactive content platform, you can create experiential content that’s embedded into any web page. Adding this dynamic content to a blog post is very effective. With the use of this platform, I’ve seen increases by more than 25 percent of engagement metrics such as the time on the website and the amount of content shared. This is not uncommon. As Ryan Brown, head of brand strategy at Ceros, told me, “When you reimagine something from static to experiential, the marketing metrics always perform better.”
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