Leading Lights: Content Marketing Strategist Ardath Albee

by Britton Manasco | Feb 21, 2010 | Content Strategy

As one of the most insightful and prolific strategists in the
emerging field of content marketing, Ardath Albee deserves your attention. She
is the author of the compelling new book
eMarketing Strategies for the Complex
.  But she also blogs at Marketing
and appears all over the Web makingArdath_Albee the case for a new approach to
marketing. “Trusted relationships are the prerequisite for complex
decisions,” she writes in her new book. “With buyers staying elusive longer,
creating an eMarketing strategy to reach, attract, and engage them through
digital content and communications is one of the most important ways you can
help to build trust.” Britton Manasco interviewed Ardath for her perspectives
on how B2B marketers can take performance to new levels by capitalizing on the power of content:

What was behind your decision to write
this book?

Well, I wanted to give marketers a way to actually go about
creating e-marketing strategies, content-driven strategies. I wanted to do it
from the beginning, which is focusing on getting to know your buyer so you can
hit the right perspective, all the way through, handing the sales-ready lead off to your
sales team.

That was really the core premise and what I really wanted to
do was create a guide that kind of walked them through the process from
beginning to end.  I wanted to provide tools and
insights and ways for marketers to look at what they were doing and figure out how to integrate their efforts.

Why did you believe this was timely?

The key trend is buyers taking control of the buying process.
Consider the amount of information that is now available on the Internet that wasn’t
previously there.  Buyers used to have to
have a conversation with sales people in order to find everything they needed
to know to evaluate a product, and that’s no longer true.

They can find information from a variety of places all on
their own without ever speaking to the company. 
In a lot of cases, they end up knowing more than the sales person does
about the product.  What they need from
the company in order to buy from them has changed.

I also saw the opening up of social networks.  Buyers are now getting information from
peers, colleagues, other companies much more readily than they ever have before.  So there has to be a way to break through
that noise and provide value and expertise beyond what your product enables.
The product is practically a commodity at this point.

Why isn’t this conventional wisdom by now?

I think what happens is that B2B marketers are still
entrenched in company-focused marketing. 
They think they’re meeting their buyer’s needs when they’re talking
about their products but they haven’t made that shift to flip their focus over
to really address what the buyer needs.

I think the difference for me is that everything
I talk about and focus on is what delivers value for the buyer.  Quite frankly, it’s not about feeds, or about
features.  It’s about what your product
enables but your customer couldn’t otherwise accomplish in the absence of your expertise.
That’s what needs to shift. We need to focus on what the buyer needs to succeed. 

Why do you think companies struggle to make that shift?  


Change is hard.  When
you’re working within your own company, you get this tunnel vision because it’s
what you do every day.  With B2B
companies, their products are what they do every day.  They know them inside and outside.  They know exactly why they’re so great, why
everybody should use them.

They don’t understand what it takes for the buyers to get there and fully comprehend this value.  It’s
like when you go out to a conference and, all of a sudden, you’re hearing input
from a variety of different directions that’s outside your core experience and daily
experience, and it widens your thinking and changes your perspective.  Well, I think a lot of companies are just
stuck inside themselves. Then, of course, the bigger the company gets the
harder it is to be flexible and affect change.

I think one of the problems with making a shift is that it’s
complex in its own right to talk about marketing strategies and flipping your
focus to the buyer and what that means. Now everybody is talking about mapping content to the buying stages.  There are so many moving parts that I think one
of the biggest problems I run into with my clients is: How do you even think
about this?  How do you make it? What do
you tackle first?  How do you break it
down into something workable?  And then
how do you, of course, sustain it?   Even once you figure out how to create it, sustaining and scaling it can be challenging . It’s an ongoing process.

What’s stopping marketers, more specifically, from more
aggressively investing in content or content-driven marketing programs?

Well, I think there are a couple of reasons. One of them is
this pressure on marketing to produce sales opportunities – sales-ready leads –
and really impact revenue. The other is the budget structure, which is really
based on quarters.

A lot of times what happens is marketers are focused on what
they have to do to push that sales needle. 
Lead-nurturing takes time. Content programs take time to produce

So marketers go after that low-hanging fruit. What happens
if you conduct a series of content campaigns in a three-month campaign span,
over a quarter, is that you have enough to show some movement but it’s not
enough to actually get all the way down the road.  But marketers may call it is a sales-ready
lead and scoop it off the top.

But they get to the end of the quarter and they say, “Okay.  What are we going to try next?”  They don’t have patience or the ability to
stick with it and keep pushing to get better results. The difference between a
three-month campaign and an eight-month campaign can be tremendous.

So there are big returns to be gained by guiding the buyer
through an extended decision process. You are nurturing them and cultivating

If you start presenting things that way, there are a lot of
benefits to be had. There are a lot of proof points coming out now about how
big a difference nurturing makes. One of the biggest differences is when you
pass a lead to sales is that when sales calls them and starts the conversation
with something relevant, given their profile background or what have you, that
prospect actually recognizes them.  They
know who the company is because they’ve been reading their content. 

They’re excited that the salesperson isn’t calling to say, “Hey,
are you ready to buy yet?” Sales people are, instead, responding to the
prospect’s digital behavior and apparent interests.

Let’s talk about the economics of this.  What are you seeing in terms of how marketers
are looking at their investment in and their budgeting of content?  What’s your thought in terms of how they can
justify these investments? 

That’s a tough one. It can go a variety of ways.  It depends on the background of the company,
whether they’ve done content marketing programs before, for instance. But,
quite often, it’s about economies of scale. If they’re going to undertake a
content project, what do they get beyond just the scope of that project? You
have to make the case for the reuse of content or that creating a nurturing
program will produce ongoing benefits.

Mostly, it’s got to end up with some kind of ROI that
revolves around revenue.  It’s got to be about
how many qualified opportunities are created through this approach versus other
programs. There are a lot of companies that will stick with the way they’ve
always done it. They do a lot of media buys. They promote a lot of third party
content which is not building their reputation. And, quite frankly, a lot of
their database is loaded with people who only filled out the form to get that
third party expertise instead of being interested in the company that promoted

But, generally, when companies are willing to try content
marketing, they get excited about the results and want to continue it. They
realize they are producing better results than they would with other programs.

It seems like a lot of what’s talked about these days in B2B
marketing really has this sort of assumption that it all begins with a search. There’s
a focus on
inbound marketing. I’m not
sure that I buy that premise. If you’ve got a fairly extensive and expensive
solution, then, quite often, you know who your prospects are and you can reach
out to them. It doesn’t begin with their search; it begins with your outreach
and you having a relevant message and offer. Do you see a distinction here
between companies selling something with far larger deal sizes and ones that
have smaller deal sizes?

Well, yes, I do. First of all, the way they look at it is
different. With the smaller transaction, they’re going to want to see a higher
number of sales opportunities, of course, than those with a larger transaction.
But I think there’s a difference in urgency level based on the length of the sales
cycle as well. A $5,000 purchase is probably a 30-day sale cycle once they’ve
engaged somebody versus an eight-month sale cycle for that $100,000 solution.

And so, the problem you have with the longer sales cycle is
that if you’re not nurturing all the way across that sales cycle, you’re going
to lose the sale.

The other thing is that marketers are so focused on
decision-makers to the exclusion of influencers, peers, colleagues, everybody
else. I think they’re leaving a lot on the table because they don’t facilitate
conversations that could happen between the other members of the buying
committee. By only focusing on that decision-maker they’re not influencing the
conversation anymore.

So here’s the thing about influencers. They can’t say “Yes”
but they can most definitely say, “Absolutely not” and derail your whole sale.  So it’s not just about writing content that
will engage the decision-maker.  We have
to broaden our perspective and say, “Okay, how do we write content and facilitate
good conversations behind doors that we’re not allowed to go through?”

Now, if you were to gaze out maybe five years into the
future and try to imagine how practice in the marketplace will have evolved
with respect to content-driven marketing, what would you expect? 

Well, I think that marketing content itself is going to
become more conversational which is what happens when you shift things to a
buyer perspective.  So I think we’re
going to get a grip on conversation, which we really need because, quite
frankly, some of the tweeting and LinkedIn discussion stuff and everything else
is horribly company-focused, and just too salesy.

So I think it’s going to become about the conversation and
the expertise and not necessarily about the sale.  The sale will result from that. The other
thing that I think is going to happen, when all this comes together, is that
marketing is going to be involved in the process from the very beginning
through to successful conclusion of the deal.

Given marketing automation and the way it’s developing and
the amount of insight and intelligence and visibility we can all have, I think
what’s going to happen is marketing is going to have to reach farther through
the funnel and take more control of the process.  Then facilitate sales with what they need to
know to be in those conversations and be actively selling all the time instead
of out prospecting for leads because marketing leads are lousy.

So I just see that marketing is really going to have to
stretch and reach farther.  What that
means is that marketing is going to need to get more budget allocation in order
to do this work and support sales and actually contribute much more to the production of revenues. 

Do you think that’s happening because marketing automation
technologies are becoming more pervasive in the marketplace? Is that a driving
force in the evolution of content marketing?

Well, there’s a couple of ways to look at it. The first is that
marketers are seeing really impressive numbers now.  I think it’s because in order to even use a
marketing automation system they have to create more content and they must have
a plan. I think that’ll level off, however. In order to continue to get those
returns, marketers will have to dig deeper and really improve the content
they’re creating.

But the other thing is I think we’re at early stages
for some of this.  I mean, I see a lot of
improvement coming but I think people are getting some fast wins now because their
prior approaches to marketing were so rudimentary. And now they have the tools.
But I think there’s going to become a bit of a stumbling block where they have
to reach farther. They’re going to have to figure out how to produce all this
content because marketing automation, by its very nature, is developed to support an ongoing process and you
have to keep touching customers with relevant content in order to engage them
and guide them to a point of sales readiness. So they’re going to have to
figure out what drives all that and that’s content.

I’m curious. What have you learned since you released your
book and began getting feedback from readers? What are some of you latest

Well, a couple.  I’ve
learned that even as much as I tried to simplify how this all works in the book
that it probably needs to be even more simple for people to actually embrace
and do it.

The other thing that I learned is that there is a real
demand from sales for compelling support in the form of conversational guides
and sales portals. Marketing has a key role to play in making that happen. I’ve
learned it takes a lot longer to change things and to prove to people that they
work but I’ve also come to believe that sales enablement is the next big thing.