Content marketing's meteoric rise over the last few years has left B2B marketers facing increased expectations related to content ROI. Joe Pulizzi warned the audience during his 2015 Content Marketing World keynote that content marketing was approaching the “trough of disillusionment” a la the Gartner Hype Cycle. 

Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs "2016 B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends Report for North America," revealed growing frustration and shrinking confidence. Only 30 percent of marketers surveyed felt they were effective at content marketing — a substantial drop from the 38 percent in the previous report.

While producing content consistently remained a concern for 57 percent of respondents, their main challenge was creating engaging content (60 percent), followed by measuring content effectiveness (57 percent). Similarly, HubSpot’s State of Inbound 2015, which combined content and social media marketing, found that 51 percent of respondents saw demonstrating ROI as their biggest challenge. This makes perfect sense — the final clause in Pulizzi’s definition of content marketing is that it drive “profitable customer action.” 

So what can marketers do to pull content marketing out of the trough?

Borrow the Best Habits of Effective Content Marketers

The CMI report highlighted the key differences between the leaders and laggards in content marketing effectiveness, and these have been predictably consistent with the previous year's findings. Organizations reporting the highest level of effectiveness document their content strategy (53 percent for the most effective vs. 13 percent for the least effective) and meet regularly to discuss content. 

They also use a multichannel distribution approach, with seven social media channels used on average. Keeping your metrics close also makes a difference. HubSpot found that marketers who checked their metrics three or more times per week were 20 percent more likely to achieve positive ROI.

Focus on Customer Needs and Intent

Part of defining a useful content strategy is doing the work of aligning your content to customer personas and their buying process. It’s tempting to skip steps and just dive into increasing content output or trying new distribution channels. However, while increasing content production can yield short-term gains in website traffic, it will not improve credibility or conversions, which are the real currency of prospect interactions leading to a purchase.

At the 2015 MarketingProfs B2B Forum, Google’s Digital Marketing Evangelist Avinash Kaushik stressed the importance of mapping not just content, but where and how it’s introduced, to user intent. One caveat: customers do not always intend to buy. While the classic sales funnel may no longer be an accurate representation of buying stages, marketers still have to create content for each intent level with the understanding that not all intent is linked to a direct action at that time.

Investing in process, persona and intent discovery will help B2B marketers better target and create content for all levels of intent and interaction, increasing the likelihood that the later-stage action-focused content will have the desired impact.

Set Measurable Targets Based on Desired Customer Actions

Metrics like brand lift, SEO rankings and page views are falling out of favor among marketers because they don’t lead to customer actions. 

According to CMI, the top three metrics marketers will use to gauge content effectiveness are lead quality (87 percent), sales (84 percent) and higher conversion rates (82 percent). The State of Inbound respondents — 65 percent of whom were B2B — prioritized increasing leads (74 percent), converting those leads to customers (71 percent) and proving ROI (41 percent). If your current strategy is focused on driving web traffic and social interaction, you’ll need to readjust with the right results in mind.  

Manage Expectations, but Expect Results

Content marketing grew because it rode a wave of changing buyer behavior. Information helps buyers to engage with businesses on their own terms, creating pressure on B2B marketers to produce content that is useful, credible and aligned to customer needs. 

Content marketing is demonstrably effective and has cumulative benefits that grow over time — but marketers will only see increasing credibility and budgets if they can show what’s working. 

Sometimes the ROI will be a clear connection to opportunities generated from a piece of content. Other times the content will influence a stage in the process, either by helping identify early buying signals, or strengthening a prospect’s confidence in your business to help them cross the finish line. Content calibrated for various buying stages and buyer needs is part of a balanced marketing diet, and clearly defined content goals and strategy will ensure that your audience will take action when it really counts.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Zach Dischner