In November 2019, we invited B2B marketers to tell us, anonymously, about the problems that prevent them creating the content they’d like. We write B2B content, so we thought we might learn something useful.
The response was so surprising, and so vehement, that we turned it into a full research report – and we asked leading B2B marketers from the US, UK, Germany, and the Netherlands to share their commentary and advice.
It reveals six problems shared by at least 75% of marketers, as well as six ideas to break the cycle. If you want to dive straight in, you can do so here…
Big surprises in the survey results
The response to the survey shocked us, in a whole bunch of ways.
Responses from all kinds of B2B marketers, everywhere
First, the number and variety of marketers who took part. We’d anticipated that maybe a few dozen would be disgruntled enough to use our survey to let off steam. In fact, we attracted 105 responses – B2B content marketers of all levels, from all round the world. CMOs and marketing directors to content writers and agency types, working in all kinds of B2B: tech, engineering, SaaS, legal, manufacturing, and more.
B2B marketers are really, really angry about this stuff
Second, the sheer vehemence of the answers. These aren’t just small frustrations; B2B content marketers are angry. And when you think about it, it’s hardly surprising; marketers are being prevented from doing their best work, and then being talked down to by content experts who only see the content, but not the struggle behind it.
Maureen Blandford has experienced this in previous roles, and says the results are “the reality for most marketers”.
Imagine having people screwing your work up, and then being blamed by the market when your content sucks. It’s like: “If you only fuckin’ knew.”
– Maureen Blandford, VP of Marketing, Community Brands
Pretty much everyone is dealing with the same crap
Third, the fact they’re largely angry about exactly the same things. Irrespective of seniority, business size, sector or location, there are issues that seem to affect everyone. Specifically, six challenges were rated as a problem by 75% or more of our respondents:
- Conflicting and changing priorities, and unclear briefs
- Stakeholder interference
- Limited budgets and resources
- Too much work, and not enough time
- Lack of co-operation from other departments
- Problems getting access to customers
All the assumptions about B2B marketing are wrong
Fourth, the challenges that aren’t on that list. We often read that B2B content is not engaging because the subject matter is complex and dry, B2B buyers are conservative, or marketers lack creative skills. None of those things made the list. Instead, we see a picture of B2B marketers who have plenty of good ideas, but are prevented from executing them by their own organisations.
And finally, a lot of the findings are shocking in their own right. For example…
Just 32% of B2B marketers are proud of most of their content.
Many of the critiques of B2B content seem to assume that marketers don’t know their content could be better. This result – in response to the question “How much of your published B2B content makes you proud?” – proves that’s a huge mis-assessment.
Out of 105 respondents, not one could say they’re proud of all the content they produce; only 32% could even say “most of it”. By contrast, the most popular response was “a handful, ever” (37%). 28% went for “less than half”, and 3% said “none”.
It’s a worrying state of affairs, replicated in every group we spoke to. CMOs and marketers in North America were slightly more positive, but there was no category where “most of it” scored higher than 45%.
81% of B2B marketers have to fight hard for their content.
And the issue certainly isn’t that stakeholders don’t care. 81% agreed with the statement, “I sometimes have to fight hard to publish content I’m happy with.”
That’s a global issue, and the scores were fairly uniform. There was no category where fewer than 73% agreed (the UK, followed by tech marketers with 76%), and for marketers working in enterprises and on mainland Europe, the figure was 100%.
Just 14% of B2B marketers say their organisation agrees on what good content is.
Conversely, no enterprise or European marketer agreed with the statement, “In my organisation, everybody agrees on what good content is.” Overall, the figure was just 14%.
The fact the figure is almost an exact mirror image of the “I sometimes have to fight…” question could suggest that a lack of stakeholder alignment could be one of the root issues revealed in this report. If the organisation cannot agree what good content looks like, then the marketer will always face a fruitless task trying to create it.
In the report, Doug Kessler talks about stakeholder alignment as “the number one job” for B2B marketers. And he explains the importance of taking that alignment work outside of the daily process of content approvals.
If your stakeholders are not in alignment, nothing is possible. And if they are, almost anything is.
– Doug Kessler, Creative Director, Velocity Partners
One way to address the issue is to draw up a clear, agreed specification for your content, and base each point on data (whether from research or, better still, your own A/B testing). If you can use independent metrics like content readability scoring, better still. This makes the conversation less subjective, and more aligned to the pass/fail quality tests in other areas of your business.
If you like, you’re more than welcome to steal the B2B content quality checklist we use for our own internal reviews, and adapt it for your own purposes.
There’s evidence these content barriers really do hurt business results.
As we looked at the research, it quickly became clear that B2B marketers aren’t lacking inspiration for their content; they need evidence to help them fight their daily stakeholder battles. So we went back to the data, to see what we could find.
We cross-referenced some of the bigger problems marketers were reporting with the answers to the question, “What is it about your best content that makes you proud?”
It’s not absolute proof, but we can show the impact of each problem on marketers’ perceptions of their own content, based on whether they were more or less likely to be proud of that aspect, compared to the average.
And this is where things get really interesting:
Excessive stakeholder interference makes B2B content 26% less likely to get good business results.
Ever thought that all that micro-management from stakeholders was actually making your content less effective? Turns out, you were quite possibly right.
Respondents who reported stakeholder interference as a big problem were 26% less likely to be proud of their content’s business results than the overall average.
Tight marketing budgets make content less effective. (Heavy workloads makes it less creative.)
The theme continues among marketers who said lack of budget and resources were a big issue; they were 18% less likely to be proud of their content’s business results.
There was also a marked decrease in pride about original concepts, and quality of copywriting – which suggests that cheap content has a knock-on effect on business outcomes.
A similar pattern occurs among people who said workload is a big issue: they’re 25% less likely to say they’re proud of their best content’s originality, with a commensurate impact on results. It suggests that having insufficient time ties marketers to tried-and-tested concepts, at the expense of cut-through.
B2B marketers who can’t talk to customers are 27% less likely to be happy with their content’s business results.
Our sixth barrier was possibly the most surprising: marketers around the world are being kept away from customers, meaning they don’t have a clear view of their priorities, needs, and language.
This is obviously a painful issue, as the respondents overwhelmingly believed that giving the reader value, and reflecting the customer’s point of view, were the most important aspects of good B2B content.
As you might expect, marketers who say this is a big problem are 24% less likely to be proud of their content’s customer alignment. But here’s the surprising thing: the impact is even greater on business results (27% lower).
That’s reflected in a comment from Intel content marketing and automation analyst Shaema Shazleen Katib, who says: “Our best-performing content has that credibility factor, things like statistics, customer success stories, and testimonies. These things have always performed the best on a global scale.”
What’s important is finding the right format, length, structure, and tone – and that’s a matter of knowing your audience well enough.
– Shaema Shazleen Katib, Intel
59% of B2B marketers say their own signoff process makes results worse. (And the really shocking part? They’re right.)
Here’s a crazy thing: almost 6 out of 10 B2B marketers think their organisation’s own signoff processes actively impairs content outcomes. In fact, 59% agreed with the statement, “If nobody else had to sign off our content, the results would be a lot better.”
And here’s a crazier thing: the research agrees with them. People who agreed with the statement were less likely to be proud of their content, right across the board:
- Writing quality: -8%
- Business results: -8%
- Customer alignment: -6%
- Marketing prestige: -15%
- Emotional impact: -19%
- Value for reader: -5%
Time to break the B2B content cycle.
Sooner or later, the six barriers to B2B content come down to a single fact: in many B2B organisations, marketing does not get the respect it needs to work effectively.
The irony is that good content can be part of the solution: 86% of respondents agree that “Great content makes the marketing team look good”. But until marketing gets that respect, that content can’t happen: just 20% say their best content reflected well on the marketing team.
In the back of the report, we discuss six approaches which might help. First among them is getting away from the idea that good content and effective content are two different things.
56% of respondents disagreed with the statement “The best content usually gets the best results”, and Doug Kessler thinks this is the heart of the problem. Marketing will continue to be underestimated until marketers’ objectives align with the rest of the organisation. As Doug says: “What’s great, what’s effective, and what’s wonderful should be the same thing.”
There shouldn’t be this tension between the well-crafted, beautiful content and the effective content. If we don’t start by defining great content as that which has the most impact, we’re never going to succeed.
– Doug Kessler, Creative Director, Velocity Partners
Ultimately, the fight is yours.
Please feel free to use this report however best helps you to win the argument for good content. Share it with stakeholders, write blogs, whatever works.
Because unless we can change the conversation around B2B content and what good looks like, marketers will continue to have to fight their own organisations, just to get effective work done.
(And selfishly, as B2B content writers, that’s no fun for us either.)
We should be shouting these results from the rooftops. Because if marketers aren’t delighted with the work they’re doing, we need to show why.
– Maureen Blandford, VP of Marketing, Community Brands