by Frank V. Cespedes and Russ Heddleston (Harvard Business Review, April 2018)
In the past decade, content marketing has become a widely established practice. Companies have hired writers and Chief Content Officers to run departments, create blogs and other materials, and, in the process, some have assured sales people that content marketing can mean the end of cold calling.
The playbook sounds simple: attract prospects with content relevant to each stage of their buying journey and extend offers that motivate them to contact your sales team for a demo or discussion. With online technologies and targeted lists, this should be a cost-effective tool for separating the suspects from the prospects, accelerating customer conversion through the sales funnel, and, equally important, optimizing “data-driven marketing” by tying each piece of content to metrics like opens, reads, downloads, and so on.
But as Churchill reportedly said after Gallipoli, “However beautiful the strategy, you must occasionally look at the results.” Consider: blog output by brands has increased over 800% in the past five years but organic social share of blogs has decreased by 89% and about 5% of content gets 90% of engagement. An estimated 70% of the content generated by Marketing is never used by Sales reps and a similar percentage of the leads generated disappear into a “sales lead black hole.” And despite the repeated mantra about “data-driven,” there is contradictory advice about which content-marketing benchmarks indicate success as well as many blithe assertions about best practices in this area.
We examined 34 million interactions between customers and content on DocSend’s platform, which allows sales organizations to upload and share documents with prospects. The result is empirical data and a good starting point for examining core aspects of any content marketing initiative: how much time prospects actually spend on content, on which devices, when, and the type of content they prefer.
You have under 3 minutes to make an impression, and there is an optimal length
It’s no secret that buyers are bombarded with messages and the web has exacerbated the situation. That likely explains why the average viewing time for content is 2 minutes and 27 seconds. During that brief period, prospects are making many rapid-fire judgments, including whether or not they will move to the next step. Conversely, many sellers need to share lots of information with prospects to motivate desired buyer behavior.
Our data indicate that you should do your best to get that information into documents that are 2-5 pages — compared to content of longer lengths, first-time prospects spend more time viewing each page of the document and are more likely to view all of it. Documents uploaded to DocSend’s platform include case studies, overviews and guides, e-books, and proposals. (Keep in mind that prospects further along their buying journey may require more information.)
Our data also indicate that much of marketing and sales collateral is read by prospects outside of the normal work week. If initially engaged, a prospect reading a piece on Wednesday often returns for a longer visit on the weekend. This reflects an important 21st century buying reality that pipeline metrics often obscure: increasing numbers of buyers don’t move sequentially through a funnel; rather, they adopt parallel streams to explore, evaluate, and engage with content and sales people. Buying is a continuous and dynamic process, and content forms, formats and sequencing must adapt.
Mobile is important but overhyped
The proliferation of smart phones, iPads, and other devices has generated a certain folk wisdom about crafting content for the mobile buyer. But our data indicate that, at the top of the funnel, it typically makes sense to optimize content for viewing on multiple formats and devices. Further, once a lead is handed off to sales and becomes an opportunity, an overwhelming majority of prospects view sales content on desktop devices, not mobile.
These findings have actionable implications for marketers. Desktop devices remain very important, so avoid needless optimization for a single type of device and format. Focus on creating content that offers visuals to convey key messages quickly and that performs well on multiple formats. Think succinct copy and core take-aways that punctuate each slide, and avoid text-heavy information drops on each page. Also, given the way prospects often return for a closer look outside work time, consider creating a content-sequencing process for coupling an initial view with additional engagement to help your sellers prioritize their follow-up actions. And in doing this, recognize inherent differences between marketing- and sales-relevant content. In the former, the goal is to establish awareness and interest; for sales, the goal is to get the customer to sign a contract.
There’s no “best day” of the week to send content
There are many assertions about the best day of the week to send content. But opinions about Tuesday afternoon or Thursday morning simply don’t hold up to empirical examination. Our data indicate that total visits by prospects to sellers’ sites were almost evenly distributed across each day of the work week — slightly more on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday and, unsurprisingly, a bit less on Monday morning and Friday afternoon.
Do not focus on specific days for sending content. In fact, doing that probably indicates unused capacity and a lack of cadence in your marketing and sales process. Instead, it’s better to prioritize based on level and type of prospect engagement with specific types of content and a process for follow-up after initial engagement. For many companies, this often means linking your content marketing efforts to what you know about the vertical your prospect is in and relevant guides for each type. Content by vertical also plays well with most sales teams.
Prospects still prefer one type of content more than others
Marketers put a lot of time and effort into crafting content. And the data indicate they need to keep working on this to improve actual use of their content by prospects and sales colleagues. But which type of content routinely outperforms others in terms of completion rate? The tried and true case study is, by far, the content that prospects complete more than others. In our data, case studies have an 83% completion rate — orders of magnitude higher than other sales and marketing content provided during the buying journey.
Buyers, especially B2B buyers, want to know what others are doing with your product, not what they might do to improve productivity or other outcomes. Good case-study content does that, while providing a compelling reason for the prospect to learn more and initiate a change process. Especially in B2B contexts, buyers must justify a decision to others in the organization who have competing priorities for limited funds. Knowing how other organizations have successfully integrated and used a new product, service or process is more important than grand assertions about “thought leadership” or “disruption.” As a result, good case content, like good follow-up, often has a specific and relevant vertical focus. And the process of finding and articulating that content requires on-going interaction between marketers, sales, and service people in your firm — interactions that often yield other benefits in addition to relevant and credible use cases.
Content marketing is evolving, and, as buying becomes increasingly non-linear, can play an important role in aligning selling with buying. But there are now many myths and unexamined assumptions that have accrued around content marketing as the practice has exploded. Don’t follow the herd. If you can’t track what prospects read, when, where, and for how long, you have a blind spot in a big part of your marketing budget and are unlikely to get the ROI possible with this approach.