Digital Marketing,Customer Experience, Lithium's Bonnie Thomas on Meeting Customer Needs with Content Marketing
How do B2B marketers create the right content for their audience? What's the best social channel mix to reach audiences? Which metrics should social media marketers be measuring rather than "likes"? We turned to Lithium's Director of Content Strategy, Bonnie Thomas, for some answers.

Siobhan Fagan: What key factors go into developing a content marketing plan and where does that plan fit into an overall digital marketing strategy?

Bonnie Thomas: Especially in an emerging industry like social software, content marketing is critical. Our customers need to be not just educated, but so inspired that they’ll take disruptive action -- to champion new and innovative business investments within their organization.

When developing our content strategy, we first consider the needs of the business -- what outcomes we’re trying to drive in the way of SEO, lead generation and sales influence. Then we consider what business outcomes our prospective customers are trying to drive -- typically one or more of the following: reduced cost, increased loyalty, greater awareness and revenue generation. Then we craft each whitepaper, case study, contributed article, webcast and blog post to meet both of those objectives -- ours and our audience’s.

In the three years I’ve been with Lithium, the first half of that formula -- our business goals -- haven’t changed much. But the marketplace for our software and our product offering changes all the time. That means the second half of that formula -- our prospective customers’ goals -- are constantly evolving and we need to adapt our content strategies accordingly.

Moreover, as we’ve matured as a company, our content strategy has gotten far more targeted. While 24 months ago, a whitepaper on Social Media ROI may have fit the bill, today, we verticalize our content, producing whitepapers on Social Media ROI for Retailers, for CSPs, for FinServ, etc. We also target our content by use case --The ROI of Social Media Marketing, of Social Support and Social Commerce, for instance. I think of our content marketing program as a product of evolution: It gets more diversified and specialized as time goes by.

When it comes to digital marketing, of course, content plays a major role. Almost all digital marketing aims -- boosting search results, driving web traffic, increasing site conversion -- are content driven, or at the very least, highly influenced by content strategy. From landing page keyword density to intra- and inter-site links to publishing frequency, there is very little about digital marketing that is not deeply affected by content. At Lithium, our content and digital marketing strategies, programs and initiatives are hugely intertwined.

SF: Is there a right way (and a wrong) to incorporate social into a content marketing strategy?

BT: Social channels are excellent for content distribution, but it’s important to note that certain channels are better for certain content types. For instance, Twitter is an excellent channel for distributing B2B thought capital. We’ve typically gotten excellent engagement from our Twitter audience (as defined by clicks, sharing and retweeting). We’ve noted, however, that while Facebook is a great channel for spreading the word about our company, our culture, current job openings, etc., it’s not the best for thought capital.

LinkedIn is great for B2B thought capital distribution, but mostly by sharing content with relevant LinkedIn groups -- a single post in the status update field doesn’t yield much. Slideshare is also great for B2B content distribution, but not so much for whitepapers as for slide decks (as measured by views, favorites and downloads).

It’s also very important to remember that social channels are all about developing a two-way conversation around your content -- not just blasting broadcast messages. For Lithium, those two-way conversations happen mostly in LinkedIn Groups.

As with any digital marketing initiative, we recommend using social channels to test, learn what works, and adjust accordingly. We’ve evolved our social channel mix over time as we’ve learned which channels are best for which content.

SF: How can brands establish trust with customers?

BT: Especially in an emerging industry like social software, establishing trust and credibility around our content is key. Typically, when setting our content plan for the year, we include a number of 3rd party primary research projects. These both help support our point of view and lend the credibility of a respected analyst or research firm to what we publish.

We also try to bring customer evidence points into most of our whitepapers and customer speakers to our webcasting program. Although Lithium has top notch know-how and experience, we recognize that our prospective customers need to see that we’re part of a greater ecosystem of related thought capital in order to trust what we have to say.

I’ll also refer back to the previous point about “two-way conversations.” If you use content to start conversations across social media, you’d better show up when they spark. Nothing erodes trust faster than “social media silence” -- when an engaged prospect or customer wants to converse publicly and the brand is nowhere to be found.

SF: How can companies best utilize user generated content in content marketing campaigns?

BT: UGC is some of the most valuable content there is because it’s trusted. Because customers influence each other far more than brands ever could, at Lithium, we advise our customers to leverage UGC as much as possible. As a B2B software brand, the UGC that is most meaningful to our content strategy comes in the form of dialog that happens around our thought capital. While most of the content we produce is for the purpose of lead gen and lives behind a form, it’s critical that we also make that content available in places where UGC can happen. For Lithium, the most important places are on our own, on-domain social hub, the Lithosphere and in LinkedIn groups.

SF: Should brands be on every social channel? If not, how can they choose which to be on?

BT: Every industry is different and every brand different still. As mentioned in the answer to question two above, we’ve gathered a lot of learnings about the proper social channel mix for our business because we’ve been distributing content across social media for some time. Our general observations have been that Slideshare, LinkedIn and Twitter are excellent for B2B. For consumer brands, though (like many Lithium customers), other social channels may be more important. Pinterest, for instance, is beginning to rise in importance for retailers as more and more social customers use it to create “user-generated-catalogs.”

I would reiterate the point once more that while social is great for content distribution, but it’s most effective when there is actually content engagement -- people actually interacting around your content by either sharing it or engaging in conversation around it. For Lithium, those engaging conversations mostly happen within LinkedIn Groups with whom we’ve shared our content.

SF: You can’t plan to go viral, but how can brands measure impact of content marketing campaigns in social beyond counting “likes”?

BT: Great question! In fact, we ask this question of our own prospects and customers all the time: “What is the value of a ‘like’ when only 2% of fans return to Facebook brand pages after liking them?”

Like we advise our customers to do, Lithium measures programmatic success (including content strategies and social media initiatives) the same way we measure business success. One of my key business goals is to drive SEO, for instance, so part of my content success metrics include how much referral traffic sites like Slideshare and Twitter bring to our website.

In general, we measure our content success by:

  • Reach -- how many people are aware of the content availability (often measured by views).
  • Conversion -- how many actually filled out the form to download the whitepaper.
  • Engagement -- has the content piece been shared? Commented on?
  • Influence -- how many who downloaded a particular whitepaper go on to consume more content and how many make it into sales conversations.

SF: What are the advantages/challenges in going to where the customers are vs. bringing them to your own site?

BT: We advise our customers to “show up at the party.” If you have customers on Facebook, you should also be there. But it’s also important to remember public social media channels weren’t designed to help you meet your business goals. They have major limitations, first and most notably in the area of engagement. It’s impossible to get a two-way conversation going on Facebook when the content stream disappears after a short while.

In order to make a real impact with your prospects and customers, you need to get them to a social hub (preferably on your own domain) where you can engage them in two-way conversation, where they can engage with each other, and where you own all the UGC that comes out of it. Only then can you make real use of it, organize it into a valuable self-service resource, analyze the data it delivers and adapt your strategy accordingly. 

Title image courtesy of Sergey Nivens (Shutterstock)