The title of this post should say “Five Things Even Smart CEOs Get Wrong…” because it isn’t about anyone’s IQ.
What I’m about to dispel are widespread misunderstandings about what B2B content marketing does, who does it, how it works, who it’s for, and the role a CEO should play in making it happen.
So, yeah, pretty much tearing everything down and starting over.
Why? Because I hear the same things repeated everywhere I go, and it’s a major impediment to B2B companies’ growth.
As I’ve written many times before, content marketing has become mission critical for B2B companies wanting to compete and grow in the post-pandemic world.
With so many CEOs fundamentally confused about what that means—and what it will take to achieve—we’ve got a mess on our hands.
Consider this post my opening gambit in helping us play our way out of trouble.
Let’s start with one of the most insidious misunderstandings of all.
Marketing—in it’s broader sense, not just the B2B content part—is treated as a subordinate to sales.
How come? Well, history, I suppose.
For many decades, salespeople were the most influential and powerful people in the B2B world.
They held all the cards: product information, pricing, negotiating power, and an expense account for entertaining prospects.
If you wanted to buy something, you visited a vendor’s showroom—or let him into your office for a meeting—and listened to him (gender bias intentional) explain what you should buy, how much it should cost, and why you should buy it from him.
With minimal product information in the public domain, you didn’t know any better. The salesperson was your educator, guide, and chief puppeteer.
Then, the internet happened.
Suddenly, buyers could research, evaluate, and even purchase things without having to stray near a salesperson—usually one of the least-liked people on everyone’s list.
To get in front of buyers, salespeople needed help.
And who came riding to the rescue on a brand-colored steed? Marketing!
Today, content marketing is a mission critical activity that ensures a company’s brand, purpose, products, value propositions, differentiators, social impact, and more are visible to its target customers.
Without content marketing, your company might as well not exist
Without content marketing—unless you are in an über-niche sector, with only a handful of buyers and sellers who all know each other—your company might as well not exist.
Which means marketing doesn’t just exist to service salespeople with shirts, snazzy presentation materials, and branded giveaways.
Today’s marketing team plays a role that’s at least equally important to sales in generating future revenue for the company.
B2B content marketing is of similar significance to product features, manufacturing quality, and financial performance. Without all these things working well, a company will struggle to compete.
Note to CEO: Treat B2B content marketing as distinct from, and equal in importance to, sales, and recognize that it has become a mission critical activity for your business.
As befits its subordinate reputation, marketing regularly gets handed stuff to do.
Whether marketing means a lone marketer or a team of people, there has historically been a one-directional, service providing relationship between that person or group and the rest of the company.
This was all well and good when the things to be done were jazzing up slide decks, printing posters, and getting the company logo printed and stitched onto swag and gear.
Content marketing, however, requires input from others.
Much like safety, operational excellence, and financial compliance, the department itself can’t act unilaterally.
Content marketing requires content, which comes from subject matter experts and thought leaders—most of whom do not work in the marketing department.
Content marketing also requires deep customer understanding, some of which resides in the marketing department but much of which rests elsewhere (think: sales, customer success, product management).
Authentic content marketing requires endorsement, social sharing, and consistent repetition
And, authentic content marketing requires endorsement, social sharing, and consistent repetition by people throughout the organization. This involves everyone, including people working in marketing.
If a CEO tells her marketing leader, “Go make content marketing happen,” she is asking that marketer to compel and coordinate contributions from across the organization.
Unless the organization is very small and the marketer very influential, this will be an impossible task—especially when content marketing requests are competing for staff time with other mission critical tasks and deadlines.
This is a CEO-level problem.
Senior leadership involvement is required to show the organization that content marketing is of real importance to the business, and that it must be given an appropriate level of priority.
The CEO can insist, directly or indirectly (via intermediate leaders), that time is dedicated to content marketing at the expense of other projects and deliverables.
Note to CEO: Content marketing is a team sport, so lend it your weight and lead accordingly.
Last week I wrote about B2B content marketing hacks and why they are both futile and harmful.
Sadly, inundated by headlines and spam promising quick fixes, simple solutions, and bountiful returns, it’s no surprise that many CEOs think marketing is quick and easy.
Consequently, when a marketing leader tells the CEO that B2B content marketing will take 12-18 months to realize its full potential, and that it will require an expensive game of experiments to get there, they are often the recipient of a blank stare.
It’s not just that there’s a misunderstanding. There’s a Grand-Canyon-esque chasm between the CEO’s preconceived notions and marketing reality.
This takes some careful explaining to overcome.
Growing B2B companies should spend 12-20% of target revenue on marketing
Research indicates that growing B2B companies should spend 12-20% of target revenue on marketing—less if the company is well established, more if it is trying to capture market share.
Some fast-growing SaaS companies spend as much as 30% of revenue to get ahead.
Combine those numbers (not cheap) with the 12-18 month time horizon (not quick) and some serious CEO recalibration will be needed.
Easy is a subjective thing.
If you follow a solid strategy, do your homework, lay good groundwork, and conduct carefully designed experiments, succeeding at B2B content marketing can be straightforward.
But straightforward isn’t the same as easy. It requires hard work and—as we’ve already discussed—contributions from across the organization.
Note to CEO: Prepare for a dose of reality about what it will take to make effective B2B content marketing happen. It requires careful planning, hard work, persistence, and a significant financial investment.
Of the misconceptions I’m tackling here, this is the one for which I have most sympathy.
If you understand and accept my previous point—that content marketing takes time, effort, and investment—then it would be easy to conclude that it’s not something a resource-constrained business should undertake.
Larger, more established corporations have the human and financial muscle to make it work. Smaller businesses are over-committed as it is.
However, at risk of sounding like a broken record (is it a looping Spotify track these days?), content marketing is mission critical for almost any B2B company that wants to grow.
So, while it will place an additional, unwelcome burden on stretched resources, it’s not optional.
This discussion reminds me of the CEO who said, “I know we need to hire more people to keep our customers happy, but our burn rate is already too high.” Doh!
CEOs—with the good assistance of their finance and marketing colleagues—need to build content marketing into their budgets, including outsourcing large parts of the effort until they can afford to add full-time resources.
This inevitably means spending more money, which likely means raising more capital. And that’s okay. Figure out what it’s going to take to reach breakeven and fund your business accordingly.
Note to CEO: Content marketing is mission critical for any B2B business to grow, so it must be baked into your business plan, financial projections, and fundraising. This is not something you can defer until you are running a bigger business, because your company won’t grow to that size without investment in content marketing.
We’ve already touched on this misunderstanding but I want to wrap up this post by reiterating it: the CEO plays a very important role in B2B content marketing.
It’s not something the CEO can simply hand off to marketing and say, “get ‘er done.”
It’s not something that a marketing leader can make happen without executive support.
Content marketing requires contributions from across the organization, which means it has to compete with other corporate priorities for team members’ time and attention.
Only the CEO can command such a situation into being, explaining the critical nature of content marketing and the priority it must take alongside other initiatives.
It takes a CEO’s intervention to resolve turf wars over human capital
Often, it takes a CEO’s intervention to resolve turf wars over human capital—making it okay to divert resources from one critical initiative to another so that both can make progress.
Furthermore, the CEO should be the face of the franchise, walking the walk and talking the talk.
Whatever appears in the company’s content should exude the same personality, values, purpose, and point of view as the CEO (and the rest of the leadership team).
This will only happen if the CEO plays an active role in creating and conveying those messages, as well as communicating and reinforcing key messages within the organization.
Note to CEO: Rather than demanding B2B content marketing, try owning it instead. Call in your marketing leader, roll up your sleeves, and work together on making it happen. Help them craft an effective strategy, empower them to operationalize it, and work within your organization to ensure content marketing is given the priority and resources it needs to be successful.
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Image credits: Adobe Stock