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From a host of breathless blog posts and enraptured articles, we all know what a B2C customer experience is supposed to look like: the customer enters a store and is immediately whisked away to a world of personalized activities that enhance the buyer’s connection to the seller. We often hear how this customer should be “delighted” or “enchanted.” It sounds a lot more like a Disneyland attraction than a shopping experience.

The B2B customer has a customer experience, too -- but it’s based on other considerations. B2B buyers don’t need immersion or enchantment: they have something they need to buy to keep their businesses running and profitable. They want to sustain their business, not be immersed in someone else’s.

Just the same, they have a customer experience. And if you’re paying attention to the way buyers are buying, it should be clear that the experience starts long before they make contact with your sales staff.

The Experience Happens Without You 

According to research from Forrester’s Lori Wizdo, today’s buyers may be 66 to 90 percent through their buyer’s journey before they reach out to a vendor. In many categories, she says, buyers put off speaking to a sales rep until they’re ready for a quote. If you’re locked into B2C thinking about the customer experience, you might think your ability to create an experience is very limited.

And you would be horribly, tragically wrong. These customers are having an experience without being in your physical presence. They’re doing it through the content you create for them. And the experience is good or bad based on how well you’ve planned the content part of their experience.

Ultimately the customer decides what experience he or she wants. B2B customers are shifting that experience away from conversations with sales reps and toward research. That means that if you want your B2B customers to have a good experience, you have to make their research experience a good one -- and that means planned, sustained and well-executed content marketing.

This looks different for every business, based on the audience -- remember, the customer decides on the experience. But there are a few things that make every experience better.

Feed the B2B Customer Journey

First, have a plan. If your company sells a set of products, or if your product has a set of features, prioritize them and set up pathways of content that help make research easier. Liken them to tracks in a college catalog -- by the end of the track, the buyer should be educated and have a good idea whether your company is the right one to buy from.

That may seem a little counterintuitive -- shouldn’t I want everyone as a customer? No -- not everyone’s a great fit for your company. But educating customers even when their journey takes them to another company is a good idea. From a practical point of view, it keeps leads that are a poor fit from getting to sales and wasting their time. From an experiential point of view, it helps the customer make the right choice -- and if the customer’s business needs change, or if he or she moves to a new company and has to make the choice again, you will have established yourself as not just a leading contender but as a company that’s a fair dealer in information.

What does a track of content that creates a good experience look like? One approach is to use the terminology of the funnel -- top, middle and bottom. Top of the funnel content is general in its appeal, or takes advantage of new developments and news to pull in maximum readership. Middle of the funnel content is more specific and more detailed -- case studies and content about real-world applications of your products are ideal. At the bottom of the funnel are buyer and integration guides and similar specific and focused content -- after reading this material, buyers should be nearly ready to make a decision.

How do you make the experience of traveling down this track a good one? First, realize that buyers’ time is limited. That means the sprawling, 8000-word white paper of days gone by is an endangered species. People don’t have the time or attention to commit to content that enormous, and the signal it sends is that you don’t value the reader’s time.

Instead, break that content up into shorter individual articles -- you’ll often find that readers do consume everything that would have been in your 8000-word magnum opus, but they've done it in a manner that was more digestible and less intimidating.

Try to keep the word count low for top-of-the funnel content -- it can then grow as buyers get deeper into the funnel and want more detail.

Next, turn up the focus on quality. Understand what your buyers need to know -- and look around to find gaps where no one is providing that knowledge. Talking to sales can be helpful here. Find what customers are asking about, and use that as a guide to what material should be covered in your content. Don’t skip the basics -- your top-of-the-funnel content should explain the essentials of your products. It’s easy to assume buyers know the basics, but often that’s not the case.

Quality counts in writing, too. The buyer is in research mode, and if you’ve ever done academic research you know what a drag it can be to plow through cumbersome, dense writing. Pay attention to quality and readability -- one trick is to read content out loud. Anything that can’t be said without making the speaker breathless needs to be rephrased.

Turn down the volume of self-promotion -- way down. Imagine doing research in a library and, every three minutes, a loudspeaker blared a commercial. That’s the way it feels when content that’s positioned as educational is peppered with clearly self-promotional references to the sponsoring company. During this phase of the customer experience, buyers are looking for help to understand their purchase. They are not there to be sold at, and pitching your company only distracts them from their research. Try to minimize it.

And understand that you don’t control where or how readers enter your content funnel. They might start at the top, but they might well jump in at the middle or even at the bottom. Their research may have started elsewhere -- give them on-ramps to your content highway. This is where content like videos, infographics and e-books (easily created by rolling multiple pieces of content together) are helpful, because they allow access to readers through media or formats that they prefer. While you're at it, solicit input from readers, whether they become customers or not. Input from the readership can help you extend your content tracks and point out content that can be beefed up.

Don’t make the mistake of locking all of your content behind registration, especially at the top of the funnel. It hurts the buyer experience to force them to fill out a form for every bit of content they read. Instead, leave some content freely available -- or use a single-sign on approach that assigns the buyer a password that he uses every time he visits your content. That gives the added benefit of allowing you to see what that buyer’s journey through the content really looks like.

Just as a B2C seller could never assemble an immersive experience without a plan, a B2B seller can never put content together in a way that considers the customer experience if all the content is generated ad hoc. In many organizations, that’s the approach -- a white paper here, a video there, created when an exec identifies a need and leans on the marketing department. There is no customer journey, then -- except one to frustration, when a piece of content inspires questions that can’t be answered by other content.

The B2B customer journey, often started alone, and conducted in front of a monitor, doesn’t sound as flashy as the B2C experience. But considering the reader and making his journey to a decision as frictionless as possible is indeed a designed experience – and one that will prove lucrative to companies that realize that.

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