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The B in B2B Doesn't Mean Boring!

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The B in B2B Doesn't Mean Boring!

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So many white papers and e-books are downloaded but never read. Don't let yours be among them.

So how do you turn "should read" into "must read" and eventually into "did read".

It’s a common refrain: “We’re a B2B company. We can’t do the same things those B2C funsters get up to.”

Another good one is: “Our product/industry/niche is just too serious and boring for content marketing.”

But it’s worth pointing out that shedloads of content are published every day for which “boring” might be a polite description (“predictable” and “unnecessary” would be others.)

Surely the goal of all these white papers, reports and e-books isn’t to capture unqualified leads whether or not anyone reads the content. Your content shouldn't be only relevant or even only interesting. It also should be compelling and irresistible.

Here's how.

So many white papers and e-books are downloaded but never read. Don't let yours be among them.

So how do you turn "should read" into "must read" and eventually into "did read".

It’s a common refrain: “We’re a B2B company. We can’t do the same things those B2C funsters get up to.”

Another good one is: “Our product/industry/niche is just too serious and boring for content marketing.”

But it’s worth pointing out that shedloads of content are published every day for which “boring” might be a polite description (“predictable” and “unnecessary” would be others.)

Surely the goal of all these white papers, reports and e-books isn’t to capture unqualified leads whether or not anyone reads the content. Your content shouldn't be only relevant or even only interesting. It also should be compelling and irresistible.

Here's how.

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Notes de l'éditeur

  • We’re still in lockdown here in Sydney so I’m back in my virtual classroom once more. Just try to ignore the lockdown hair.
     
    Almost my entire content marketing career has been in B2B – with a particular focus on IT and telcos. And crikey, I’ve seen a lot of boring content over the years.
  • I should know. I’ve written plenty of it.
     
    As a content writer for hire, I’m OCASSIONALLY brought in on a project early enough to suggest more creative ways to answer the brief or discuss with the client how to make their content more interesting.
     
    But more often than not, by the time the brief reaches me through the agency machine, the approach has already been decided.
     
    If the client wants a 2,000-word downloadable on sprockets, and the budget doesn’t include any further development time for me, then I’ll give them 2,000 words on sprockets.
     
    And if I do manage to squeeze some colour or life into the copy, I’m used to seeing the client review process systematically remove it one tracked comment at a time because “it doesn’t strike a professional tone” or because they insist that words like “leverage” and “utilise” sound better.
     
    They really, really don’t.
  • Sure, not all B2B content – as we shall see.
     
    But shedloads of content are published every day for which “boring” might be a polite description. Two others might be “predictable” and “unnecessary”.
     
    I regularly come across reports, white papers and articles that would require me to stab myself repeatedly in the leg with a fork simply to stay awake beyond the opening paragraphs.
     
    And if your audience doesn’t stick around until the end, any proposal or calls to action you might want them to follow will be pretty much guaranteed to fall on deaf ears.
  • AH, I hear some of you cry. But boring doesn’t necessarily mean bad. Does it?
     
    Well, maybe I would hear you cry it if I was there with you today.
     
    You might be thinking that lots of things may be boring while still offering value. People don’t download and read a white paper on sprockets to be entertained, right?
     
    They download it because they want to learn something.
     
    Who cares that the content is boring if the number of clicks or downloads still hit the campaign targets? You’ve still got a bunch of leads in the system, so job done, right?
     
    So, if people are downloading your latest white paper, can it really be considered boring?
  • It’s worth remembering that the number of downloads or clicks doesn’t reveal if the content was actually effective.
     
    All those metrics do is show that the title was interesting, or that the social media posts motivated enough people to follow the link, or that the email and landing page were persuasive enough to encourage people to fill out the form or click the download button.
     
    In short, these metrics measure how effectively you enticed people to enter the theatre or sideshow tent. They DON’T measure the quality or effectiveness of whatever it IS that’s inside the tent.
  • Using clicks or download figures to argue the success of a white paper or suchlike is like a movie studio claiming its new blockbuster is a raging box office success despite audiences walking out of the cinema after the first few scenes.
     
    Marketing may have used posters and trailers and publicity to make everyone aware of the movie to sell tickets and put bums on seats, but the content still needs to hold the audience’s attention until the credits roll.
     
    Or why will they come back for the sequel?
     
    Surely the goal of all these white papers, reports, and e-books isn’t just to capture unqualified leads and then never mind if no one actually reads the content.
     
    Surely your content is designed to be read or watched right to the end.
  • You want them to absorb all of your information, to consider all of your carefully devised arguments — and hopefully be persuaded to do something as a result of consuming your content.
     
    And that something can be as simple as accessing the related resources you’ve created to put the information into action — templates and the like — or subscribing to the newsletter, or even just satisfying the curiosity you’ve instilled in them by seeking out and reading more of your blog articles.
     
    Your content has to have a reason to exist, a “what’s next” that gradually moves the individuals in your audience a little closer to your strategically-defined business outcomes.
     
    Think about how you might measure some of those things.
    How many clicked the link on the final page?
    How many went on to download other content from the website?
    How many went on to contact sales, or ultimately buy the product?
     
    Whatever the intended outcome of your content, it’s far more meaningful to find ways to measure what people do after consuming it than whether they simply downloaded it.
     
    Focusing primarily on clicks and downloads can hide the other issues that can undermine the effectiveness of your B2B content.
  • And that means the marketing teams in these companies seem to go on making the same mistakes over and over, while their results stubbornly refuse to improve.
     
    All of those leads captured from that LAST white paper on sprockets didn’t result in any new sales, but maybe this next one will somehow do better.
     
    And if the poor results are ever questioned …
     
    Well, of course. This is B2B. Sprockets are boring! What do you expect?
     
    It’s as if being a B2B company lets them off the hook from trying to make their content more interesting.
  • The biggest mistake I see every day is the assumption that B2B content somehow operates under a different set of rules.
     
    It’s always baffled me how B2B companies behave as if their customers undergo a Jekyll and Hyde transformation from “consumer” to “business” when the clock hits 9 each morning.
     
    Yet so many B2B white papers assume that just because a person is in the office, they will actively choose to read 4,000 words of incredibly dense copy on the driest of topics.
  • Another classic B2B mistake is assuming the audience is interested in the company that published the content more than the actual topic.
     
    The content continually heroes the brand – shoehorning in self-serving mentions and plugs at every opportunity. And the reader has to get past a bunch of self-serving waffle before they can get to the good stuff.
     
    You have to earn that interest — which is presumably one reason why the content exists in the first place.
     
    So cut the self-serving waffle. Slash the company bios. Ditch the lengthy introduction from the CEO that talks about the history of the company before reiterating once again why the white paper is worth reading. WE KNOW!
     
    We’ve already read the email, landing page, and whatever else. That’s why we downloaded it! Stop talking about yourself! Stop selling the content to us and give us what we came for!
     
  • Some B2B content is little more than a thinly-disguised sales pitch. This is still content marketing we’re doing here, not advertising.
     
    The content might have been promoted as a useful guide to whatever the topic is – but when you actually read it, the content is really only concerned with how their product deals with the topic.
     
    Now this kind of thing might satisfy an INTERNAL audience — those stakeholders that ultimately approve the content for publishing — because it supposedly positions the company as an industry thought leader and their product as the solution to just about everything.
     
    But it’s likely to leave the audience cold, and with plenty of unanswered questions.
     
    And that risks driving them to someone else’s content in search of a broader and less one-sided perspective on the topic.
  • And then of course, there’s the B2B content that seems to require a decoder ring to decipher. The information is provided with little explanation or context, and the language is so full of industry jargon, buzzwords and corporate cliches that it’s virtually impossible to understand what the content is actually trying to say.
     
    It’s like the entire thing has been smudged all over with vague-sauce.
     
    What does “an enterprise-grade solution” actually mean, anyway? Tell us what it does.
     
    I recently read one brand’s beginner’s guide to launching an online business. And it was full of technical and industry terms like domain names, SEO and AdWords — without once spelling out what these things actually are — never mind how to use them. You and I know these things very well – but someone who’s never run a website before, let alone an online business, would have no idea what they mean.
  • For the reader, it may only take a few paragraphs before these mistakes cause them to lose interest.
     
    Think about yourself for a moment. How many white papers, e-books and suchlike have you downloaded over the years out of a sense of professional duty — but that you never actually got around to reading?
     
    How many did you start to read but lost interest quickly because … well, to be fair, the cat’s litter tray really did need emptying.
     
    And that means it’s time for my fruit bowl analogy.
  • Shelley, my wife, is always at me to eat more fruit. I’d like to eat healthier too – or at least I know I should. So, if we both agree, you’d think I’d be the peak of nutritional fitness.
     
    Good intentions may fill my fruit bowl each week, but good intentions don’t mean my choice of snack during the day is a plum or a banana.
     
    Eventually, I’ll throw out the uneaten fruit in the kitchen which is now overripe and a tad mushy.
     
    And sure enough, I’ll probably stock up on more fruit next time I’m at the shop.
     
    Funnily enough, cheesy and sugary snacks never seem to reach their use-by date in our house.

    I’m the same with white papers. I regularly download interesting-sounding reports and e-books that I feel I “should” read. The information they promise is directly relevant to my work, or the research is relevant to some of the projects I’m working on. There could be a number of professional reasons.
     
    Good, healthy, nutritious content.
     
    Of course, like most people, I don’t read them there and then. Whenever that email came through or I spotted that social media post, I was probably already in the middle of something else. It’s the working day after all.
     
    So I quickly download it while the link is in front of me and put the content aside until later. In my case, that’s a folder in my Dropbox so I can easily access all of these downloadables on my iPad.

     

  • But, like my fruit bowl, when I do have a few free minutes, I’m far more likely to choose something that I want to read rather than what my conscience is telling me that I should read. And my iPad is stuffed with content that is more likely to capture my attention.
     
    So — far too many of those worthy and good-for-me reports and white papers end up staying unread — until the information in them gradually passes the best-before date.
    It’s 2021. That detailed report on digital trends I downloaded and briefly glanced at in 2019 is probably not that useful anymore. So, it gets deleted.
    Unread.
     
    As an aside, you really don’t want to see my bookshelves, which are full of fiction and non-fiction books I’ve yet to get around to reading. I’m sure my to-read pile can be seen from space.
     
    Thing is, I’m betting many of you watching this could say the same. And while a physical book pile is a constant reminder, a digital to-read pile is much easier to ignore.
     
  • Which is why having your content downloaded is the easy bit. It’s having your content read that’s the real challenge.
     
    So how do you turn “should read” into “want to read” and eventually into “did read”?
     
    How can you create B2B content that’s irresistible and demands to be read right now?
  • A big reason why B2B content can be boring is that it lacks humanity – it doesn’t appeal to the reader or viewer on an emotional level.
     
    And emotion actually has far more to do with how the brain interprets the world and makes decisions than many people realise.
     
  • When you’re working on the business side of a topic, product, or industry, you may be focused on what the product is rather than what it does – viewing it primarily in functional and technical terms – which can be quite different to the customer’s perspective.
     
    Products and things aren’t that inherently interesting.
  • It’s people who make them interesting. It’s people who give them meaning.
     
    That’s why a central tenet of content marketing is that the product isn’t the story – people are.
     
    B2C knows this almost instinctively. B2B sometimes has trouble thinking quite the same way.
     
    So, is your content about things or is it about people and what they can do with those things? Instead of writing in the abstract, place your content in the real world. Their world.
  • Content marketers often rely on data and numbers to convey information and motivate consumers.
     
    And there’s no doubt that such data-rich content can work – to a point. However, numbers aren’t nearly as persuasive, nor as easily understood, as we would like to believe.
     
    In short, numbers exist in a different reality – at least as our brains perceive them. They’re just too abstract, relying on us to interpret them by comparing them against our personal experiences to give them context.
     
    Hence why so many people disbelieve or dismiss the stats on things like smoking because their granddad smoked 40 a day until he was 90.
     
    We don’t connect with numbers. We connect with people.
     
  • So yes, this is where storytelling comes in.
     
    I mean, it had to at some point. You can’t talk about content marketing without mentioning the importance of storytelling at least once, right?
     
    Evidential proof – including data – is still important to give our stories accuracy but it is the human story that the brain latches onto. It is the story that gives those graphs and stats context.
     
    It is the story that helps the reader or viewer to recognise how the information fits into their own experience or understanding of the world.
     
    This is why it’s always important to provide real world examples wherever possible for every statistical insight or fact you present. Here are the numbers, and here’s what that trend meant for Jenny and her business.
  • Now, if you think that telling stories of real people working with sprockets or whatever is still a tad too pedestrian and boring, take your content a step further by looking at it from a completely different or even surprising angle.
     
    One way to do this is with a highly creative analogy or metaphor. This can allow you to blend some fiction in with your fact to create a hyperreal world your audience will happily spend a little time exploring.
     
    Done well, it’s clear to the audience what is fiction and what is fact.
     
    By taking the topic in an unexpected or quirky direction, people will be more inclined to stick with it to see where it leads.
  • Analogies also make complex ideas and concepts easier for others to understand — and by crikey if B2B content doesn’t regularly get itself bogged down in complex ideas and concepts.
     
    Analogies use concepts and references that the audience is alREADY familiar with as a framework for understanding UNFAMILIAR ideas and concepts.
     
    This thing you’re trying to understand is like that thing you already know very well.
     
    I’ve used analogies throughout this presentation, for example. Not only the fruit bowl analogy I outlined earlier, but also every slide in this presentation takes a comic book image that once described one thing and uses it to put a different slant on a completely different concept.
     
  • In 2013, U.S. tech company Sungard released a brilliant e-book titled — The Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide — which was supported by an email and social media campaign.
     
    One of the reasons I love this content so much is how the theme works in two important ways.
     
    It works as an analogy to explain the various steps of an effective disaster recovery strategy — how an enterprise business ensures business continuity and the safety of its data when the unexpected happens.
     
    In the real world, business continuity is usually about restoring normal operation after a crucial data centre suddenly goes offline — or something like. It’s all about redundancies and backups and how quickly you can get the website and other online services running again.
     
    But that’s already the everyday experience of the people that this content is targeted at — and therefore it’s not exactly exciting for them to read about. It’s certainly not as compelling a story as a zombie apocalypse.
  • And back then, zombies were everywhere in pop culture.
    I suspect many of the IT professionals I’ve worked with over the years were more at home in a Walking Dead t-shirt than a business suit. So this theme targeted the intended audience by understanding what else they may be interested in – and playing to that.
     
    Importantly, this e-book campaign worked.
     
    The e-book smashed the expected download rate three times over. Overall, the campaign received a 150% higher click-through rate and 200% higher click to open rate compared with previous Sungard campaigns.
     
    More importantly, it captured a bunch of high-quality leads for the company – and when we’re talking enterprise technology on this scale, I’m guessing they only needed to close one or two of those deals for the campaign to have a positive ROI.
     
    It also went on to win a swag of marketing awards as well.
     
  • Colourful analogies like these can be effective ways of explaining otherwise boring technical concepts. They can also make the content more fun and irresistible to read.
     
    Better still, every little pun, every unexpected twist, every wry joke may help to make the content more memorable.
     
    Humour can be a great tool to maintain a reader’s attention. And laughter, or even just mild enjoyment, is associated with an increase of pleasure hormones in the brain like dopamine, which aids in the creation of memories.
     
    Now having your audience remember your content and the information within it — is a pretty basic goal for any content marketer.
     
    So, appealing to emotions such as humour with creative ideas and analogies – yes, perhaps even zombies – can serve a very clear and useful business purpose. This isn’t creativity for creativity’s sake.
    Making your content fun isn’t being frivolous.
     
    Humour and amusement are also associated with a reduction in stress hormones like cortisol, which is known to impede memory.
     
    So, it’s best not to create content that stresses the reader by making them work harder to understand what it is that you’re trying to say.
     
  • Good writing, effective writing, professional writing is both easy to read and easy to understand.
     
    After all, the goal of any sentence is to convey an idea, a message, a snippet of information from the mind of the writer into the mind of the reader as cleanly and unambiguously as possible. Anything that gets in the way of that goal – anything that makes the reading harder – means the writing becomes less efficient.
     
    And to me, that seems rather un-professional.
  • Now, here's a scary fact. The majority of people out there – and I include business managers in this, the people you may be targeting with your content – don't have a university-level reading ability.
     
    That’s not a bad thing. It’s not always necessary. And its why newspapers and magazines usually target a reading age of around 14 or 15.
     
    But the language I come across in a lot of B2B content wouldn’t be out of place in a university thesis.
     
    So what does this mean for your content when it’s written for a reading age higher than that of most of the readers it’s intended for?
     
  • Well, two things. First, a lot of bad writing is from people punching above their weight by trying to emulate a style of writing they’ve seen used elsewhere that supposedly sounds more professional and impressive — but is probably just archaic.
     
    I’m not knocking this. Writing is hard at any level. But academic and technical writing in particular are acquired skills that can take specialised training and practice to master.
     
    An exceptional copywriter or an experienced journalist may still struggle with technical or academic writing because these are very precise forms with their own rules and conventions.
     
    These are writing styles that can’t easily be impersonated — and the result is usually incorrect word use, a lack of clarity, bad grammar, tautologies, contradictions, inconsistencies and more — all of which are rife in B2B content because of this belief that these extremely formal styles appear “more professional".
     
  • Of course, there will always be circumstances where the precision and formality of technical writing is necessary.
     
    When you’re reading the instructions to install that new piece of software or replace that engine part, you want unambiguous and unembellished clarity presented in as few words as possible – ideally alongside simple diagrams and pictures.
     
    In fact, purely instructional or utilitarian content like this can benefit from having as few words as possible. Think of IKEA assembly instructions for example, which use simplistic illustrations and diagrams with virtually no text.
     
    So technical writing is useful when you need to publish certain types of content such as manuals on how to use your product, or perhaps support-based content — when the reader needs to know how to put tab A into slot B, for example.
     
    But it’s totally unsuited to content that needs to explore ideas, present opinions or persuade with convincing arguments — y’know, all of that thought leadership that us content marketers keep banging on about.
     
  • Secondly, you're making even the best reader work harder than necessary to absorb your information. The more effort someone has to put in to decipher each paragraph, increases the likelihood that your content will be put aside for later — which, of course, never comes.
     
    Research into the use of language in legal documents, for example, found that 80% of people prefer them to be written in plain English.
     
    So far, so very unsurprising. However, you may be MORE surprised to learn that this preference for simple, plain English INCREASES with the reader’s level of education and specialist knowledge.
     
    Even the people who are most equipped to understand the industry-specific conventions, jargon, acronyms, and excessively formal phrasing of your content don’t really want to if there’s something better on the telly.
     
    Your audience just wants to solve a problem or learn something new without being made to feel like they’re studying for a Ph.D.
  • Of course, you’re not the only person involved in creating and approving this content.
     
    Like I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve seen many great ideas slowly get pulled apart by the stakeholder review process until it’s no more remarkable than anything that the company published before.
     
  • The more radical, risky, or creative your idea, the harder it can be to get it through the stakeholder machine. The more stakeholders there are, the more likely it is that the final content will be defined by those stakeholders with the most conservative ideas and the least appetite for risk.
     
    While there may be regular WiPs with some stakeholders — usually those closest to the project, such as the marketing manager or client — other stakeholders such as legal, brand, product and so on, may not be involved in the process until the content is ready for their feedback.

  • Stakeholders may also provide competing or contradictory feedback according to their particular responsibilities. Suddenly, you’re trying to satisfy everyone’s competing priorities — can you plug this new feature, can you remove that word, why isn’t there a 500-word introduction from the CEO?
     
    And zombies? Why are we talking about zombies? Remove the zombies please! We’re a serious business!
     
    The content ends up at the centre of a tug of war between expectations – with plenty of compromising as a result.
  • Of course, many stakeholders may be reviewing your content without the benefit of understanding the reasons for all of the creative decisions that led you to develop the content in this direction — the research, the insights, the examples from elsewhere that the content needs to compete against, and so on.
     
    Suddenly, they’re hit with something unexpected that threatens to take them far outside of their comfort zone.
     
    Without that context, the content may seem like a huge leap from what they’ve reviewed before — and they won’t necessarily know how it got there.
     
    As a result, their feedback may attempt to undo those creative decisions, dragging your content back to something that more closely resembles what they’re used to seeing. In other words: safe, conservative, expected.
     
    And the more radical or different the content is to whatever the business has published before, the bigger that leap becomes —
     
    and the more work is involved in dealing with all of that feedback as the content is slowly killed by a thousand cuts.
     
    Which is why so many content marketers continue to take the safer route of producing something they know will get approved with the minimum of fuss. It may be unremarkable, it may even be boring, but at least it got done.
  • Defending your decisions after they’ve been challenged is never as easy as communicating them as they’re made. That initial reaction can be hard to shift – particularly when there are many stakeholders involved.
     
    So take your stakeholders on the creative journey with you — even if this is just an occasional WiP email that preps them on what to expect. Explain the reasons behind your decisions — with proof points when you have them — so that they’re not blindsided by a highly creative piece of content that risks triggering a flurry of risk-averse feedback.
     

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