Making B2B Content Fun to Create, Read and Share

I must hear it five times a week or more:

“Bill, your call is the one I look forward to the most.”

“Working with your team is my fun project.

It’s a sad reality for most B2B marketers these days that content marketing is getting harder, more laborious and less fun.

As demands for planning, creation and promotion pile up, what once felt like an enjoyable sandbox for creative expression has begun to feel a lot more like the repetitive slog of the factory floor. You may get it all done today, but that content assembly line will be back again tomorrow.

So we persist and are increasingly weary of the content machine that was once the marketing department. We’ve always had content to create. But never at this pace and volume.

And it’s not just you and your team. It’s all of us. Look around. We’re all caught in the same wave.

Even just three or four years ago, B2B content was much rarer. I’m talking real content—intrinsically useful ideas and applications, not merely company brochures and self-serving product posts.

Precisely because it was scarce and served customers, early adopters of real B2B content marketing earned results. Those wins became case studies and eventually best practices (e.g., OpenView Labs, River Pools & Spas). CMI benchmarked it all and—like an arms race—B2B webinars, articles and conferences proliferated. And now in the last year or two, late adopters have finally woken up.

Today, B2B content marketing adoption is 88 percent. We all have the TPS report now, which is why it’s getting harder for you, me, our competitors and the hordes of marketers at that last conference you went to.

It’s all adding up, accumulating like a tsunami of interest on the debt of our declining attention span. We’re all caught in the same wave. Content about content. Marketing about marketing.

content tsunamiThe Content Tsunami

So once again we must ask, what are early adopters doing? Those brave surfers riding atop the content tsunami—what route are they taking that others won’t see until 2018?

I believe that it’s something B2C marketers have been mastering for decades. The only novel approach left in B2B marketing is the thing that requires the most courage: having a personality.

The B2B Borg is Real. Refuse to Assimilate.

Though I’ve met a few office robots over the years, I would argue that most business people are in fact humans and not cyborgs from 90’s Star Trek flicks. We have lives outside of work. Families. Interests. Hobbies.

So why do B2B marketers (who are otherwise interesting people) choose to assimilate and market like The Borg?

“We. are. the. leading. provider. of. .”

“Our market leading [enterprise widget platform] can drive ROI while substantially .”

Why is this our culture? Why do we think generalities and platitudes work? They don’t work on us (when we’re the buyers), so why would it work on others?

Why is most B2B positioning little more than “We’re more competent, so choose us – the emotionless Borg.”? I submit that competence alone is a poor differentiator. It’s merely baseline—the requirement to even be at the table. It may get you invited to the RFP but rarely wins it.

marketing borgThe intangible is what often wins. The inexplicable email stating that “While your solutions were very good, we went in a different direction” is code for “The winner was more likable.”

Businesses can no longer abdicate likability to the sales team. Our content is now the primary “salesperson” for two-thirds of the relationship. But, if our content is devoid of emotion and personality, we will look and sound like all the other vendors, won’t we? In that case, you better have a damn good salesperson.

Another important reality is that millennials are often doing the research, consuming our content and short-listing solutions for their bosses. So while canned copy sounds competent in the planning meeting (and might have worked 10 years ago), it comes off as old school and impersonal to these unaccounted-for gatekeepers of corporate transactions. They don’t speak cyborg.

Humans (of all ages) crave emotion and connection. We’re wired for it. Just look at what we do on coffee breaks, or over a beer at happy hour. We chat. We say things in an easygoing way. We share our personalities and make jokes.

The reality is that our 24/7 always-on culture is radically changing marketing. And not just for consumer goods. The Borg is killing one business brand at a time. Why? Expectations for B2B content are evolving because of how humanistic and profound B2C content has become.

What we consume at home, with friends or on the subway is rewiring our standards for what’s also interesting in our business lives. Consciously or not, each of us is establishing new expectations for what B2B marketing should be i.e., human and approachable.

Why Being Rare is Remarkable

I’m going to assume your solutions are well thought out and competitively priced, or you wouldn’t be in business. Product/market fit arguably drives most success in B2B.

But content is how we get there—how we communicate, stand out and make those kick-ass solutions known.

“Yeah Bill, we get it. We’re telling our brand story now,” you say.

Yes, story is powerful and can activate the brain in new ways. But it has to be compelling. I’ve read one too many snoozefest brand stories that weren’t worth finishing.

It’s arguably more about being interesting—about telling a quick, interesting brand story by displaying real personality.

Early adopter B2B marketers recognize this. They realize that when everyone acts like cyborgs, being human and showing personality actually becomes rare. And as Seth Godin says, rare is remarkable. Rare is worth talking about and engaging with.

Keep reading for three ways to achieve rarity in 2016:

1. Have a Strong Voice & Be Hard to Copy

Picture your best friend. You know their voice. They know yours. Flip off the lights in a crowded room and you’d find each other in just a few minutes. It’s easy because you’ve spent time together and have learned each other’s voices.

In a world drowning in content, your company voice needs the same [could find-you-in-the-dark] humanity. Tone. Style. Enthusiasm. The little imperfections that make you approachable. Swap out the logo. (Turn off the lights.) Can we still tell it’s you?

How to Create Strong Brand Voice:

Marketers are brilliant people, but we don’t always follow our own advice. Most of us create personas for our content. We use short names like Anne and Steve to describe who the person is in each target segment, how they behave, and what their preferences are.

We then proceed to create content for these personas, but we only have it half-right.

Here’s what I see in B2B communications:

b2b marketingOld way: company to company
Current: company to persona
To stand out in the content tsunami: personality to personality

 

I propose this: Instead of personas, consider the power of creating a personality for your brand.

Let’s call her Anne.

Anne personifies the best about your company. She has the business acumen to go toe-to-toe with any of your competitors but doesn’t always need to prove it. Anne is approachable and instead of bowling readers over with industry jargon, she speaks plainly. It’s clear that she is a deep well of insight and knowledge, that her reserves are nowhere near exhausted. She’s someone worth knowing. Someone that can be counted on.

But what makes Anne worth remembering—what makes her rare in a B2B Borg world—is that she communicates in an engaging, human way. She speaks normally and goes for connection in every content piece. She’s confidently relaxed and shares like a trusted advisor or even a friend. She has a sense of humor and makes doing business with your brand enjoyable, and worth talking about.

I don’t offer any formulas for this—just digging into your company culture to discover what personality is authentic. Who is your “Anne”?

But let me just say that you’ll need to take some risk or you will end up sounding like everyone else. Real branding requires courage, not merely Photoshop.

By challenging convention, you can develop a brand voice that is both real and defensible—a voice that can be heard atop the roaring content tsunami.

2. Make Your Personality Visual

It’s no great insight why visual content is critical to B2B marketing. The human brain is wired for visual imagery and processes images much faster than text. In fact, it’s roughly 60,000 times faster. Synaptically speaking, that’s like a turtle (text) racing a Bugatti (visual). No contest.

Combined with a strong brand voice, visuals can deliver serious attention and engagement.

Nine out of ten articles I read about visual content regurgitate the same top-ranked tactics you’d see in a CMI report (e.g., video and infographics). We marketers tend to take what works, and then lovingly ruin it by repeating it to death.

My approach to visual content marketing is the same as my approach to investing: Question what the crowd is doing and look for undervalued assets. It’s how you get ten times the return on a stock and ten times the return on attention and engagement. You stand out more, simply because fewer people are doing it.

Consider these “undervalued visual assets” for your B2B content strategy:

Undervalued Visual Asset #1: Slideshare

  • Fact: I feel like Dwight Schrute sharing all these facts. Even though I do run faster than 80 percent of all snakes.

Undervalued Visual Asset #2: Branded Comics & Cartoons

I grew up in the 80’s. And as a kid, every day for four years I crawled out of bed long before the sun rose to deliver a stack of newspapers. For me, it was the Des Moines Register. One Hundred and seven dailies. One hundred and thirty on Sundays. That sucker was heavy!

When Jordan and The Bulls weren’t playing, the first section I turned to was the comics, otherwise known as “the funnies.”

Peanuts. Doonesbury. BC. Family Circus. I loved them all because they added some much-needed levity to my other interests, namely op-eds and global politics. By the late 90’s, I was buying Dilbert books and one-a-day Far Side calendars for my desk.

My story is not unusual. Daily & weekly comics have built readership and engaged audiences for decades. Think about that. Isn’t that your goal, too—to create content that’s anticipated and eagerly looked for?

I believe this is the hidden power of a well-crafted series of branded comics. Your company has unique insights and (hopefully) humor about what you sell. But it doesn’t all have to be funny. Consider industry absurdities too, as they are fodder for great comic insights.

The key is shared experiences, shared frustrations even. Brands that can pull this off—creating strong voice and a relational connection—make it hard for competitors to copy what they’re doing.

Imagine if your audience sought you out like readers do Dilbert. Imagine if you captured your brand insights & humor in a regular comic embedded in your newsletter or popup. You’d have fans, not just B2B readers.

For example, our latest pop-up comic is driving double-digit increases in opt-ins for Contently. Why? Because it shows personality and is completely unexpected.

contently pop up cartoonUndervalued Visual Asset #3: Meaningful Post Graphics

Nearly everyone uses stock photos. More and more of us are using Canva. It’s about being quick and just finding something, right? After all, the content is in the post, isn’t it?

Wrong. We have it so wrong.

We’re filling social feeds with millions of images a day that barely relate to the content we want them to click on. It’s time to have a Jerry McGuire moment. Less content. Smarter visuals. More relevance.

What, then, is a meaningful post graphic? It can be any and all of the following:

  • A visual representation of your post’s Big Idea
  • Completely unexpected (in fact, the more unexpected, the better)
  • A visual metaphor
  • A custom graphic or illustration

I’m obviously biased, but comics also work very well for a compelling visual component. The key is that the visual stands alone as a representation of what you’ve written. It’s a teaser—a lead-in to the meatier ideas in the long-form post. But it also truly stands out amidst all the Canva-esque visual noise in your audience’s feed or inbox.

Example 1

energy company facebook postMy visual content agency helped build a client’s Facebook following from 8,000 to over 60,000 in 15 months using this strategy. This is a B2B software company in the uber-conservative energy sector.

The kicker? We accomplished this while Facebook was tanking organic reach.

Example 2

Napoleon DynamiteMy B2B comics agency recently crafted this Napoleon Dynamite-inspired comic for Bill Carmody’s post on Inc.com. Far and away, this has been his most successful article to date.

3. Create a Must-Listen Podcast

Notice how I didn’t just say, “Start a podcast.” Much is being written right now about B2B podcasting, and for good reason.

Audio is arguably the most personal thing we can create in this content-tsunami world. Audio creates attachments. Listeners take you with them on walks, during their commutes, and to the gym. People feel like they know you when they’ve learned your voice. (Remember the earlier example about finding your best friend in the dark?)

Combine that with a strong perspective, interesting ideas, humor, and personality, and you have the beginnings of a real relationship—with your content and your brand. But only if it kicks serious ass. So here’s what you’ll need to stand out in the Great Podcasting Land-Grab of 2016:

  1. A unique angle on a subject interesting to your audience. Or, what Joe Pulizzi calls a “Content Tilt” in his book, “Content, Inc.” Don’t just start another run-of-the-mill interview podcast where you try to get A-listers to talk about marketing. That’s been done to death already. Study what’s been done, and then be original.
  1. A unique format. Check out NextView Venture’s excellent podcast “Traction” for an example of this. Again, don’t just rip off the format. Let it inform you and spur you to create your own approach.
  1. An engaging & entertaining voice. This is a bit like show business. Your host either has it or they don’t so make sure it’s the most interesting person at your company. It could be an executive. It might be you. But it absolutely must be the person in your organization who is a natural and who enjoys people.

Personally, I think podcasts are where smaller B2B companies have an edge. Let’s face it, larger organizations have decision hierarchies for how their ginormous brand should communicate and be represented. Podcasts are too spontaneous and a bit of a wild card for slow moving, decision-by-committee marcom teams. The big guys will catch up, but smaller players have a window of opportunity right now to develop loyal listeners. Don’t squander it.

Isn’t All of This Pretty Risky Business Behavior?

I get a kick out of people who want great returns from their efforts but always begin with this question.

Life is risk. Commuting to work is risky. That spring break flight to Cancun is risky. Prioritizing brand personality is not risky if it’s truly you.

I hate that marketers have made “authentic” yet another buzzword. Being authentic is a state of being. It demands our very best. It says, “Take the damn walls down, and just be the guy or gal I’d laugh over a beer with.”

My opinion is that waiting is risky. Because those that wait to show brand personality are going to look like market positioning copycats come 2018:

“Hi! We’re fun, too!”

Ugh. Don’t be that company. Show some courage right now.

Consider recent marketing history for a moment. Many B2B brands (maybe even yours) took a wait-and-see approach to content marketing. Here’s roughly how I remember the innovation lifecycle applying to B2B Content Marketing:

innovation adoption lifecycle2Innovators (today’s A-listers) were blogging back in the mid-2000s. By the late aughts, Early Adopters were making it a priority and other content formats entered the picture. Recall that at this time, it was less about content and more about social media marketing. But content creators understood the priority was content (the juice) and platforms were merely the containers (the glass).

By 2011 and 2012, the Early Majority was on board. And just in the last two or three years, the Late Majority and Laggards have jumped on the content marketing bandwagon. Thus, the 88 percent adoption mark in CMI’s 2016 benchmark report.

Here’s how I see the adoption lifecycle applying to brand personality in B2B:

innovation adoption lifecycle2We’re in the Early Adopter stage, but it’s going to move fast. As the roar of the content-tsunami grows, B2B brands will be forced to act and sound different. Or become easy to ignore and ultimately irrelevant.

B2B leaders innovating with useful content & interesting personality will strengthen their position, and earn dramatically higher engagement with customers. That will lead to increases in likeability, sales, and market-share. Promoted content (with baked-in brand personality) will take over feeds.

And then, like all boom and bust cycles, it will contract again. Those that have established themselves in the hearts and minds of their market will go on and absorb the opportunity left by those going out of business.

Your Content Needs Personality—Now More Than Ever

Put your flag in the ground. Establish strong voice, compelling visuals and must-listen audio.

If your organization is stuck in the B2B Borg, share this article with your team. Observe the trends. Challenge my conclusions, but also consider how happy you are (or aren’t) in your current content factory.

My hope is that you jump off that content treadmill and come jog in the park of personality with those of us having a good time.

 

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