Boring, dull, self-referential. These are so frequent adjectives when it comes to B2B content that marketers often rename ironically business-to-business to bland-to-boring. This definition seems to be rejected by the recent Content Marketing Institute’s B2B research: “Sixty-two percent of B2B marketers in North America”, underlines the Institute’s founder, Joe Pulizzi, “say that compared to one year ago, their organization’s overall approach to content marketing has been much more or somewhat more successful.” And marketers attribute this success to two top factors: higher quality in content creation and developing or adjusting their content marketing strategy.
No more boredom, then? Not exactly. Because recognising the importance of content marketing is one thing, creating and distributing interesting and engaging content is another. At Ignite 2017, the B2B marketing event held in London last June, one of the most heard word was creativity, something that is still missed and that businesses can’t do without anymore, even in the B2B world.
The “unconvenient truth”, as the Ignite’s speaker Brian Macreadie calls it, is that every B2B business has lots of competitors who adopt the same content marketing strategies as they do: the result is an undifferentiated marketing noise that people end up to ignore because it is not useful to them. That noise is made of content which sounds all the same, not being interesting nor engaging. In two words, boring-to-blend content.
3 questions about B2B content and what buyers ask
What makes B2B content so little interesting? There are three reasons:
- It is self-referential: it is only about the company and its products, and it often uses long and repetitive descriptions;
- It uses business jargon: every business is an “industry leader” which offers “360-degree services” and “aims to excellence”, but it actually does not communicate anything relevant to the audience;
- It is too general: it often repurposes commercial content and materials (like brochures, presentations, product sheets) indifferently, without building specific messages to the specific audiences.
This is the reason why B2B content becomes ineffective: it focuses on the company, instead of customers, and does not meet the audience’s needs; the company itself does not stand out from its competitors and it cannot position itself as a referral source for the customers.
B2B companies better follow Seth Godin’s words:
“Business to business marketing is just marketing to consumers who happen to have a corporation to pay for what they buy.”
As Demand Gen’s 2017 Content Preferences Survey reveals, B2B buyers have less and less time and ask for content helping them make decisions:
- more data and research to support content
- more benchmarking data
- more insights from industry thought leaders and analysts.
The survey clearly outlines the perfect B2B content: fewer sales messages and company opinions, more learning and reliable information.
Brand journalism’s answer: how to make B2B content useful, relevant and trustworthy
Even in B2B content marketing, then, content’s goal has not to be selling, but positioning organisations as credible sources of information, to increase the brand awareness. And the professional to achieve this result is a brand journalist.
A brand journalist uses journalistic principles and techniques to transform corporate content in interesting and reliable information. A brand journalist helps the brand to activate the media mindset, which, as Tom Foremski taught us, makes every company able to become a media company, talking directly to its audience.
A brand journalist knows how to:
- dig deep through researching, analysing, interviewing even inside the company, to obtain the information the readers want to know: a journalist knows how to meet the audience’s needs;
- look for news, unknown stories or new angles of known topics, even in corporate documents or when the organisation says it has “nothing to say”: a journalist writes for the readers and knows how to find the right topics to interest audiences;
- find trustworthy sources to check out news, data and stories in order to produce reliable, not promotional content: a journalist knows how to guarantee the audience authority and credibility;
- write high-quality content with a clear and simple language, getting rid of any jargon and developing the content with a professional and correct approach: a journalist knows how to create value for the audience.
A brand journalist creates content which is useful, because it is reader-focused; relevant, because is it rich in information; authoritative, because it is verified and confirmed by trustworthy sources. And this is exactly the content a B2B company needs to engage its customers.
3 successful B2B brand journalism examples
The journalistic mindset and techniques are suitable to the B2B world, as proved by the long-running brand journalism example, The Furrow, the magazine created by John Deere in 1837 for farmers: it is still published by Deere & Company, one of the world leaders in manufacturing agricultural machinery, and it has 2 million readers all over the world.
Even recently many B2B businesses choose brand journalism, as shown by these three examples.
1. American Express: concrete and authoritative information
Born as a community for small enterprises, OPEN Forum soon became a place with “insight, inspiration and connections to help you get business done”, as stated on the website. And to help small entrepreneurs, American Express offers in-depth information about a large variety of topics: from how to write a business plan to tips to increase revenues, from content marketing strategies to ways to improve workplaces. American Express has two basic rules: content must be useful and meet concrete needs small enterprises face day by day, and it must be reliable, and that is why articles are often written by external experts. Mary Ann Fitzmaurice Reilly, now Global Brand Management at American Express, who led for a few years the marketing strategies for OPEN, explains: “It’s a temptation for many brands to get their employees writing and providing material to their branded content channels. However, this strategy often leads to non- credible pieces of branded material. American Express has learned that the only way to establish its authority on its subjects is to call in the experts.”
2. UPS: talking with each audience
UPS is the world’s largest delivery company and provider of supply chain services, but its brand journalism website, Longitudes, is not just about logistics: it ranges from 3D-printed clothes to mompreneurs. In fact, Longitudes claims itself as a home for debating on the issues and trends of the global economy.
In addition to general topics such as innovation and sustainability, the website has a section called Industries, about aerospace, automotive, e-commerce, healthcare and manufacturing. There are likely to be the industries where UPS’s customers work: the delivery company talks to each single audience, with specific content for each industry: for example, driverless cars or healthcare in 2030.
Through Longitudes, UPS provides audience-focused information to engage different groups of customers.
3. Basecamp: journalistic and ethical storytelling
As Forbes underlines, Basecamp’s CEO Jason Fried refused more than 100 investment offers from venture capitalists and private equity firms because he prefers slow and profitable growth “to enjoy the culture of a small business.” Forbes included Basecamp among Small Giants 2017, the annual list of the 25 best small enterprises.
Basecamp, established in Chicago in 1999, produces cloud-based software for small businesses, has 52 employees and a revenue of 25 million dollars: it is therefore much smaller than American Express and UPS. Yet, it created one of the more interesting experiments of brand journalism, The Distance. It is a podcast series – with a full transcript for those who prefer to read – about businesses that are at least 25 years old, “human stories that illuminate the joys and struggles of building something that lasts”.
To look for these stories of small, but determined entrepreneurs and tell them as interviews, Basecamp has chosen a journalist, Wailin Wong, former business reporter for the Chicago Tribune. She discovers unknown businessmen and unusual stories: for example, the oldest American bicycle manufacturer or a grocery store became a tourist attraction.
The newsroom is small as well: the journalist, a producer and an illustrator. There is no need to invest much to do great brand journalism. The Distance says the editorial team is responsible for selecting and reporting stories: accordingly, it is totally independent, as it should be in any journalistic project. Moreover, they do not tell stories about Basecamp’s customers: they respect journalistic ethics, and this makes The Distance a credible source for their audience.
These three examples prove B2B content does not need at all to be boring: you only need to have the media mindset and the right professionals to achieve an authentic and effective brand journalism.