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Gut reactions from the B2B marketing vanguard

Many want to be doing intelligent, data-driven B2B content marketing.
Few are doing it.
Very few are doing it well.
A small handful of these have shared their experiences.

And no one (well, practically no one) has done it, done it well and shared his or her experiences without some underlying agenda.

So I was delighted and astonished to read David Raab’s account of a six-month stint doing just that as VP of optimization at Leftbrain DGA. He’s since left to go back to independent consulting, and his experiences/secrets from inside the B2B content marketing machine were revealing.

This is what you’d expect from an officer on the front lines – gore, absurdity, confusion, resolution, cold-blooded focus on results and puzzles within mysteries wrapped in enigma.

Here’s a quick summary of 11 of his key points, with a few observations.

The 11 Secrets of the “Blood and Guts” B2B Content Marketer

1. Lots of content: Raab describes how his demand gen programs had a half-dozen stages, with levels within each stage and messages within each level, each needing specific content.

B2B programs often depend on lots of form fills to gate the funnel; getting prospects through each gate requires a high value piece of content. Few B2B marketers get how this early, basic piece of math will impact budgets.

2. Content isn’t everything: Raab suggests that the content itself accounted for only 10% of the performance in an act of content marketing. That is, the message meant a lot less than the “moment”.

Interpreting Raab here was a little tricky, but one assumes he’s not comparing dog food to gourmet (as he’d say they only worked with gourmet). So what he’s saying is repurpose freely – all the way up to, but not including – repetition.

3. Simplicity helps: Countless tests run by Raab’s team showed that shorter, pithier content won out over the longer stuff (particularly in emails).

Raab himself warns against taking an overdose of the brevity medicine, and countless other testers have successfully demonstrated the opposite. I guess the conclusion is this: Go long if you can justify it with value. Otherwise, cut.

4. Simplicity isn’t everything, either: Simple tests of content performance are insufficient to justify change; and complex testing is often inconclusive.

The most conclusive results wouldn’t be surprising to most of us: Short forms beat long forms hands-down, and frequent contact beats infrequent contact (up to a point).

5. Test themes, not details: Raab runs against the direct mail marketers’ mantra of testing one small change against a control. Rather, he says a more effective and rational approach is to test two different hypotheses against each other.

This one makes sense on first pass, but executing on it sounds tough. That is, how good are most marketers at building two clearly differentiated hypotheses? Because otherwise, you’re stuck with meaningless results. But all in all this makes great sense.

6. Multivariate tests work: Given that most B2B marketers work with small population sizes, they are limited on the number of tests they can run. Multivariate testing broadens what you can achieve.

An article Raab links to explains how A/B testing relates to multivariate testing as “big bang” changes relate to on-page optimization. That is, use A/B for the big strategic moves, and multivariate for the small tactical stuff.

7. Metrics matter: Raab notes that many marketers wrongly measure open or click metrics, when they should be measuring form-fill metrics. He noted that – though there’s often a correlation – there’s no direct relationship between the two.

This is something we at Velocity have pondered on numerous occasions. For example, how does video impact conversion? Arguably, video gets more views than an eBook, but leads to far fewer form-fills…

8. Test results need selling: This is the content marketing story pitched inward in a company. That is, even though Raab’s team was discovering pure gold, the messages weren’t filtering by themselves across the organization.

Through our recent work with Citrix, we saw very successful use of Geckoboard to create company-wide and program-wide metrics dashboards. This pushes data, though, not lessons. How many companies are relearning the basics endlessly, you think?

9. Survival is more important than conversion: This is the golden measure – sales. Raab noted how, given a four-step nurturing process, improvements in converting people from one step to another may be offset by reduced conversions further down the line. That is, a rise in conversions may not equal a rise in sales.

Raab sensibly argues that you need to keep your eye on both conversion rates and survival rates (i.e. sales). Each taken in isolation can mislead.

10. Acceleration is hard: While many B2B marketers seek to speed up the process from gaining a prospect to winning a sale, Raab notes that timing is more or less fully under the control of the buyer, and often it’s not fully under their control either.

(In other words, don’t sell in your entire program on a speedier sales cycle, or you may get cut at the knees – even if you have a great program.)

11. Proving value is the ultimate challenge: For all the metrics you can amass, getting that ultimate number from an accounting system (“this is what marketing contributed to the bottom line”) is a fiendishly difficult task.

Personally, I love when what seems like an intellectual question gets a surprisingly down-to-earth answer. Like when you ask a guru how to find nirvana and he tells you “go to the record shop and look under grunge music.” I’d love to get anyone else’s down-to-earth experiences from the B2B trenches here.

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