Anyone who went to public school as a kid remembers Report Card Day. Sometimes, it was a day to celebrate — to see the results of our efforts written down in black and white, suitable for framing. Sometimes it was a sobering reminder of a misspent semester cutting class to browse the local CD shop (or was that just me?). 

I get the same vibe from the annual B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends – North America Report from Content Marking Institute (CMI) and MarketingProfs. We can rejoice in big improvements and gains. (More of us are documenting our content marketing strategy! Good for us!) And, of course, we can also see where we could benefit from study hall.

If you find you’re on the wrong side of these stats, there’s good news. You don’t have to show this content marketing report card to your parents. No one’s getting grounded for underperforming. Better yet, the report is also a handy guide for improvement! So let’s take a look at some of the key takeaways that can help you move to the head of the class.

B2B Content Marketing Opportunities for Improvement

Unlike a report card, this report can actually help you improve your grade for next year. It highlights the inconsistencies between what we say we want, and what we’re actually doing. And it shows what the most effective marketers are doing differently.

Opportunity Type 1: What We Say Versus What We Do

Are your content marketing practices consistent with your goals? If not, you’re not alone. Here are four opportunities for your team to stop working at cross purposes with itself.

#1: Are You Building a Subscription Base?

The vast majority of survey respondents (87%) agreed that email newsletters were the highest performing tactic for lead nurturing. Given marketers’ ever-pressing need to prove ROI and seamlessly get customers all the way through the funnel, that means we should be focusing on successfully building subscribers for those newsletters, right?

However, less than half of respondents (45%) said their content marketing efforts were successful in building a subscribed audience. Top performers are doing better, but there’s still a lot of opportunity — 68% have had success.

While building a “subscribed audience” can certainly go beyond a traditional newsletter list (e.g. YouTube, blog RSS feeds, etc.), the email implications and opportunities are real.

As my colleague Nick Nelson so elqouently stated in his recent post Email Marketing is NOT Dead, But It Needs Rejuvenation: “Email marketing is alive and well… This channel can still be a key fixture in your content strategy if you give it the care and attention it deserves.”

#2: Are You Creating Content for the Customer Journey?

I will do my best not to lecture here. As a father of a 10-year-old and 4-year-old, lecturing is a reflex action, but I’ll do my best. But folks:

Less than half of respondents said they’re creating content for specific stages in the customer journey. Only 48% are making it happen.

New Report: Less than half of B2B marketers are creating content for specific stages in the customer journey. @CMIContent @MarketingProfs #B2BContentMarketing Click To Tweet

That means 52% are not guiding their audience to take logical next steps that lead to a sale. That means 52% are not actually doing content marketing. They’re just creating content. 

Content marketing requires knowing who your audience is, where you want them to go, and what steps they will need to take to get there. However, only 32% of respondents say they will prioritize getting to know their audience better in 2020. 

If you’re not creating content beyond the top of the funnel, your homework is to take the time to gain deeper audience insights to develop a strategy for meeting your prospects and customers wherever they are in their journey.

#3: Are You Using Your Budget Effectively (And Can You Prove It?)

The content marketing gold rush of the early 00s is a distant memory. Nearly 40%  of respondents said their content marketing budget would stay the same or decrease compared to last year. About a third said their budget would increase, but by less than 9%.

I’m sure 100% of these respondents believe they could do better with a bigger budget. So why are the purse strings so tight?

The best way to get more marketing budget is to show results from your existing budget. But only 43% said they measure content marketing ROI. And of that 43%, less than two-thirds said they were excellent or very good at measuring.

New Report: Only 43% of B2B marketers say they measure content marketing ROI. @CMIContent @MarketingProfs #B2BContent Marketing Click To Tweet

Marketers need to elevate our profession by tying our efforts directly to revenue. We have the data and the tools to show the dollar value of every optimized blog post or influencer asset. Even top-of-funnel tactics can tie to ROI. 

Marketers need to elevate our profession by tying our efforts directly to revenue. @NiteWrites Click To Tweet

If you know your expected conversion rate for each stage of the funnel, and you can properly attribute those conversions, and you know the value of a sales-qualified lead, you can express your value directly in dollars and cents. Which, as we know, is the native language of the folks who sign off on budget proposals.

Read: How to Rally Around ROI and Prioritize Your Digital Marketing Efforts in the Face of Budget Cuts

#4: Are You Pursuing Sophistication?

First, the good news: 69% of marketers say they are more successful now compared to one year ago. However, that perceived increase doesn’t correspond with an increase in sophistication. Only 9% say they’re truly sophisticated, with the ability to provide accurate measurement and scale across the organization.

If your results are improving, but you’re not pursuing sophistication, those gains are likely to be temporary. Without the ability to scale, there’s a hard limit to what you can accomplish. Without the ability to measure ROI, your budget is likely to stagnate, even if you’re getting results.

To keep growing your program, expanding and exploring new opportunities, even chasing a few shiny objects, it’s crucial to aim for increasing sophistication.

Opportunity Type 2: Borrowing from Top Performers

The other way to identify opportunities is to look at how tactics vary between the most successful and least successful respondents. What are these butt-kicking marketers doing that the rest of us haven’t picked up on yet?

Here are four attributes of the most successful marketers that are the least common in the less successful.

#1: Delivering Relevant Content

Here’s a breaking news item: It’s hard to have a successful content marketing program without delivering “relevant content, when and where a person is most likely to see it.” So it’s no surprise 93% of top performers are doing just that, while only 37% of least successful can pull it off.

Delivering relevant content starts with audience and SEO research to create best-answer content. Then it means distributing said content through paid, organic, and influencer channels to get it to the right audience.

#2: Providing Optimal Experiences

Eighty-three percent of top performers can provide optimal experiences across the customer’s engagement journey. Only 23% of less successful marketers say the same. 

What does it mean to provide optimal experience? It goes beyond just creating great content. It means knowing every stage of your customers’ journey, knowing who they are and what they need to hear. And it’s focusing on what they need, not just what you want them to know.

Creating a great customer experience goes beyond creating great content. It means knowing every stage of your customers’ journey, knowing who they are and what they need to hear. @NiteWrites Click To Tweet

#3: Documenting Content Marketing Strategy

I’ll be brief: Only 16% of the least successful folks have a documented content marketing strategy, while 69% of the most successful have one. It’s one of the strongest correlations in the whole report and has been for at least the five years I’ve been covering it.

Make a thoughtful and data-informed plan and write it down. Please. Don’t make Joe Pulizzi cry.

#4: Committing Budget

On average, according to the report, the most successful programs have double the budget of less successful programs. 

That doesn’t mean that throwing money at your content is automatically going to make it more successful, of course. It’s more likely that the top performers are better able to justify their budget, prove their results, and inspire more investment. That kind of success builds on itself.

So if better results get you more budget to invest in better results, how do you get on the cycle of improvement in the first place? 

It all comes back to measurement. Bake your measurement — metrics, KPIs and goals — into your content creation. From vanity metrics like page views down to dollars-and-cents, measurement is key to both improving your results and showing your work when you pitch next year’s budget.

What Will Next Year’s Report Card Look Like?

If you felt nervous looking at the B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks this year, now’s the time to start planning for next year. Invest in closing the opportunity gaps in your marketing efforts, increase your audience knowledge, pursue sophistication, and measure, measure, measure.

With a more strategic outlook (and a documented content marketing strategy — can’t stress that enough) you can anticipate the 2021 benchmark report with the serene confidence of a 4.0 student. 

Tighten up your core marketing strategy with advice and insights from some of the industry’s best and brightest. Check out our interactive B2B Marketing Fitness eBook featuring 16 B2B marketers.

B2B Marketing Experts

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If we had to describe the experience at this year’s MarketingProfs B2B Forum in one word, we would probably have to go with “neighborly.”

Yes, this vibe was intentionally embedded by the event organizers, who constructed the main stage and supporting elements at MPB2B around a “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” theme. But the speakers and attendees at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center all did their parts to foster a helpful, friendly, and kind environment. 

As a result, we’ve returned home with our mental batteries recharged, full of inspiration and motivation to help our clients, partners, audience, and coworkers achieve new heights with B2B marketing strategy.

So hang your coat up on the rack, untie your shoes, and settle in for ways that you can reimagine the way your team approaches events and to read our most memorable moments from a few beautiful days in the MPB2B neighborhood.

7 Ways to Reimagine How Teams Approach Industry Events

Amping up the Audience Pre-Event

Leading up to MPB2B, our team created some killer content to help whet the appetite of conference attendees. Below you can find each of these awesome experiences: 

MPB2B Speaker Interviews

As part of the pre-MPB2B experience, our CEO Lee Odden conducted these fascinating video interviews with some of the top event speakers to dig deeper into their expertise and top insights. 

Ann Handley on Being a ‘Badaxe’ Marketer

Interview Ann Handley

Jay Baer on Employee Generated Content

Jay Baer Interview

Ty Heath on Optimizing ABM & Social Sales with LinkedIn

Ty Heath Interview B2B Marketing

Neen James on How to Make Attention Pay

Neen James Interview

Interactive Experience

Struggling to whip your content marketing into shape? Our team tapped into the minds of 16 speakers to get their top tips for improving content performance.

B2B Marketing Fitness: 16 B2B Experts Share Top Tips for Optimized Performance

B2B Marketing Fitness

MPB2B Top 50

Which speakers are walking the walk and talking the talk? This list from the team at TopRank Marketing includes an analysis of MPB2B speakers to identify which speakers are most topically relevant, have great network engagement with on-topic content and overall network size and reach. 

50 Top B2B Marketing Influencers, Experts & Speakers in 2019

B2B Marketing Influencers 2019

Sharing Expertise with Attendees

When you spend every day with the people you work with, you recognize that they are smart and talented, but are they influential? Lee shared an idea a few years ago that has always stuck with me: 

“Everyone is influential about something.”

And one of the ways to showcase your team smarts is to participate as a speaker at industry events like MarketingProfs B2B Forum. And yes, while speaking may not be for everyone (and does require a certain level of effort to build your presence, pitch speaking ideas and comfort speaking in front of a crowd), it can be an excellent way to evangelize a message that aligns with attendee needs. This year at MPB2B we had two team members that took the stage. 

Lee Odden – CEO, TopRank Marketing

First up, our CEO Lee Odden helped attendees get their content marketing into shape with a talk titled: Content Marketing Fitness – 10 Exercise to Build Your Marketing Beach Body. Here are some of the top attendee takeaways from Lee’s session: 

Ashley Zeckman – Senior Director of Digital Strategy, TopRank Marketing

I also had the honor of presenting again this year and shared a whimsical look at creating and scaling B2B influencer marketing programs with a talk titled: Through the Looking-Glass – Enter a New World of Successful, Always-On Influencer Marketing. Here were some of my favorite tweets from the audience: 

Most Talked About at MPB2B

Chris Penn, the master of data/data visualization created one of his famous interactive maps showcasing who was most talked about at this year’s event. I was excited to see that our brand, our clients Amisha Gandhi and Konstanze Alex, as well as Lee and I, were both mentioned. 

Covering Stellar Sessions

When attending an event like this one, it is IMPOSSIBLE to see everything. That’s why you’ll see our team furiously typing and publishing session coverage throughout the conference. A very special shout out to TopRank Marketing’s Nick Nelson for his amazing session coverage at MPB2B!

Breaking Down Barriers for Healthy B2B Marketing with Lee Odden #MPB2B

As we alluded to earlier, Lee presented an energy-packed and informative session on B2B marketing fitness that enthusiastically wove his personal journal of losing 65 pounds during the course of a year together with how to best deliver long-term marketing fitness and health.

Lee’s B2B marketing acumen and prowess are among the best in the business, and both were on display as he shared a powerful array of actionable tactics for handling the barriers to healthy marketing, including methods that can lead to breakthroughs in the areas of delivering sustained growth using always-on marketing, integrated strategy, empathetic content planning, and more.

A Journey Through Always-On Influencer Marketing with Ashley Zeckman #MPB2B

Ashley Zeckman Presenting at MPB2B 2019

In my session, we covered the ins-and-outs of always-on influencer marketing strategy. Taking my cue and inspiration from Alice in Wonderland, we explored the whimsical world that is always-on influencer marketing, sharing a connected, relationship-based approach to scalable influencer success — from finding your topical sweet spot and identifying a balanced mix of influencers to creating a repeatable engagement model.

The Truth About Marketing Personalization, According to Arm Treasure Data’s Tom Treanor #MPB2B

Arm Treasure Data’s Global Head of Marketing Tom Treanor presented a spirited session that looked deeply at the vast power and occasional perils of B2B marketing personalization.

Tom explored the changing B2B customer journey and how personalization is more of a critical challenge now than ever, and offered up a series of informative examples from global leaders in personalization, along with how the greatest successes come from those who can use data to work in a way that’s smarter, wider, deeper, and faster.

Tom also shared a selection of the tools and technologies he uses to simplify B2B marketing personalization and dug into how the right timing and context play key roles in getting it all right.

A Primer on Combining Account-Based Marketing and Social Selling, from LinkedIn’s Ty Heath #MPB2B

LinkedIn’s Ty Heath led a fascinating and informative session on how account-based marketing (ABM) and social selling align for a better B2B strategy in a complex world where the lines between sales and marketing have significantly blurred.

Ty shared smartly-aligned ABM and social selling tactics, tools, and insights for creating a professional brand, by focusing on the right prospects, engaging with insights, and building trusted relationships — ranging from social media cues to demographic data, and she even previewed some of the new relevant features forthcoming from LinkedIn.

Tales from the B2B Influencer Marketing Trenches with Leaders from Dell & SAP #MPB2B

Konstanze Alex and Janine Wegner of Dell and Amisha Gandhi of SAP combined to present a powerful and information-packed session on the latest B2B influencer marketing insights from their respective firms, and each explored how a keen understanding of influence can provide measurable business success.

Konstanze, Janine, and Amisha each shared their own first-hand experiences building successful and scalable influencer marketing programs, and dug highlighted specific must-haves such as setting the right objectives, finding influencers who align with the values of your organization, gaining leadership buy-in, and nurturing relationships for long-term value.

How Intuit Surmounted Stagnating Lead Gen with Customer Insight

Intuit Digital Director Brian Hood led a thorough presentation on how customer insights can pair with data to significantly improve and rejuvenate lead generation, while also looking at customer empathy’s growing role.

Brian shared how both prospect and customer observation contribute to lead generation innovation, and how smart testing contributes to hitting existing goals and achieving new levels of success.

Connecting with Clients

Events also provide a great opportunity to connect with clients that you might not get to see as often as you’d like. We were excited to spend some quality face-to-face time with our clients from Dell, SAP, LinkedIn, Arm Treasure Data, Antea Group and Prophix at this event. 

Connecting Speakers Around a Unified Idea

Our friends and clients at LinkedIn did a fantastic job of taking the online experience offline by hosting fun, intimate happy hour for many of the speakers that we partner with as part of this program.

This event was a great opportunity to spend some quality time getting to know more about these industry experts and also provided them an opportunity to connect with each other prior to day 1 of the conference. Thank you to Garnor Morantes and Judy Tian for hosting this phenomenal gathering. 

Saying Thank You

The team at TopRank Marketing also hosted our own special event for clients, partners, speakers and friends at MPB2B. This has become somewhat of a tradition and something we all look forward to. In addition to breaking bread together, it gives us all an opportunity to get closer and exchange lessons in marketing and in life. Thank you to everyone who made this an epic experience!

Creating Content for the Future

Have we mentioned how important it is to take advantage of in-person interactions? Over the course of two days, Susan Misukanis and Kelly Hogan from our team interviewed 13 speakers, clients and attendees from the event. Thank you to all of you for taking the time to sit down with our team and share your smarts!

Thank You All!

I must say, it truly was a beautiful two days in the B2B marketing neighborhood at MPB2B. Thank you to the entire MarketingProfs team for putting on a great event, the amazing attendees for bringing your energy and questions, the phenomenal speakers for helping educate our community, our clients for spending time talk through programs and to Ann Handley…the woman who brings us all together. 

Disclosure: Dell, LinkedIn, SAP and Arm Treasure Data are TopRank Marketing clients. 

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Here’s something you might already know about Intuit: The leading financial software company has been around for 35 years, buoyed by its primary software offerings, TurboTax and QuickBooks.

Here’s something you might not know (at least it was news to me): While Intuit does market to consumers, B2B customers comprise a large portion of the company’s base – its ProConnect division sells products to tax and accounting professionals, while Intuit, in general, is reliant on such pros to recommend TurboTax and QuickBooks to their own clients.

And on this B2B front, Intuit was facing a challenge: Leads had been flat for five years. Despite extremely high product awareness (I doubt anyone reading this hasn’t heard of those two main products) and strong tax firm industry retention rates around 90%, Intuit simply wasn’t bringing in new business at the desired rate.

To rejuvenate its lead generation, the company completely refreshed its strategy last year with an experimental approach driven by empathy and customer insights. Intuit’s Digital Director, Brian Hood, detailed their story during an eye-opening session full of practical takeaways at MarketingProfs B2B Forum last Thursday afternoon.

A New Spin on Customer Observation

When digital marketers think about customer insight, we usually think in terms of harnessing data and deriving useful conclusions. This is, of course, an important aspect. But Brian and his team at Intuit wanted to get a closer view. While their brand name might be defined in the dictionary as “to understand or work out by instinct,” they weren’t satisfied to rely on their gut.

Customer empathy is something Brian values immensely in his job. That was instantly clear. And speaking of definitions, I really like the one he shared for empathy: “Having such a strong understanding that it’s hard to tell the line between us and our customers.”

Customer empathy is having such a strong understanding that it’s hard to tell the line between us and our customers. @bw_hood Click To Tweet

Any marketer should aspire to this level of empathy, but it is not easily attained. Data and conversations with the sales team are certainly key pieces of the puzzle, but the team at Intuit sought a more direct perspective. So they decided to observe their prospects and customers – choosing 20 and connecting with each for an hour, via video or in-person.

One thing Brian has come to notice is that leading questions are problematic; either intentionally or subconsciously, people will often tell you what they think you want to hear. So his team made sure to be vague in direction, to obtain genuine insight.

“We asked, ‘Imagine you you were looking for a new bank. Here’s a computer. How would you start looking?’ ” he says. And a revelation quickly came to light: “What they say and what they do are very different.”

One unexpected finding: Many of these individuals went to the question-and-answer website Quora as a first step. “Our data never would have told us that was the No. 1 place they were going to do research,” Brian says.

With this knowledge about audience preferences in hand, Intuit’s marketing team was able to make some strategic adjustments, committing more dollars to paid media testing. Through these efforts, they saw a 15% growth in absolute leads.

“If you have flat leads, go talk to people,” Brian urges. “Find out what they’re doing and see if you can find some new insights.”

Innovation through Smart Testing

If you want to truly innovate for your customers, you can’t simply ask them what they want, because their imagination is inherently limited by existing solutions and capabilities. To illustrate this, Brian points to a classic example: Before the invention of the automobile, when consumers wanted to get to their destinations more quickly, they could only ask for a faster horse.

His team stays nimble and creative by following a broad-then-narrow testing model. “Start with what’s possible, then narrow down,” he advises. By developing empathetic customer insights, then using them as the basis for testing new techniques and rapidly iterating, Intuit maintains an innovative focus with its marketing strategy. But they offset the risks by committing only 5-10% of working capital to these types of tests.

“New experiments might fail, and probably will fail,” Brian acknowledges. But fear of failure can be a major detriment to meaningful progress.

He cited another use case where his team was feeling pressure to increase close rates and boost funnel conversion, and through this model, settled on a high-effort email and direct mail campaign. It wouldn’t have been their first choice, given the cost, but the experiment paid off as they hit their goals.

Insight through Empathy

“Make sure your marketing teams are out with your prospects and customers,” Brian urges. “Make sure that you use deep observation to understand how your products are actually helping them.”

Make sure your marketing teams are out with your prospects and customers. Make sure that you use deep observation to understand how your products are actually helping them. @bw_hood Click To Tweet

Granted, it’s not feasible for every company to set up the same types of investigative customer interfaces as Intuit does, but it’s always worth thinking about how you can better combine direct observation with data, surveys, social monitoring, and other methods to gain a full understanding of the audience you serve.

Until it becomes hard to see the line between you and your customers, there’s always more work to be done.

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TrendHunter Feature – The Self-Reliant Entrepreneur

Author and marketing expert John Jantsch released his sixth book, The Self-Reliant Entrepreneur, on October 22, 2019. Mindfulness has become a hot topic of late, but Jantsch takes a unique approach to the subject, looking at modern mindfulness through the lens of transcendentalist writings of the mid-1800s. Jantsch considers these authors to be some of […]

The Story Engine Podcast Interview – The Self-Reliant Entrepreneur

Author John Jantsch sits down with Kyle Gray to discuss his latest book, The Self-Reliant Entrepreneur, published October 22, 2019. With 30+ years of entrepreneurial experience himself, Jantsch decided to share some of the lessons he’s learned over the years with other entrepreneurs, viewing them through the lens of literature from transcendentalist authors. On this […]

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If you know your small business needs marketing, but don’t have the time or resources, look no further. The Duct Tape Marketing podcast covers everything from earning referrals to managing time and being more productive.

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This week marks the launch of my latest book, The Self-Reliant Entrepreneur. Each day this week, I’ll be sharing an excerpt from the book, along with some additional commentary and a challenge question for entrepreneurs to ponder, as it relates to the reading.

“Congruence. No person for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, 1850

Quite often the very thing that leads many to strike out on their own is an attempt to bring their business and personal lives in alignment. The corporate culture they had entered and adopted no longer feels congruent with their personal goals.

Congruence by definition implies sameness, agreement, harmony or compatibility, all concepts made wholly real by following an entrepreneurial vision. So it’s terribly ironic then that when the amazing fresh opportunity afforded the entrepreneur is coupled with the day-to-day pressure to build a business, people are easily pushed farther and faster out of congruence than when they started. Remember playing crack the whip at the ice skating rink as a kid? It kind of feels like that. This looks like working more hours than is healthy or necessary, promoting products and services you don’t use or believe in, asking others to do things you are unwilling to do, or worse, wearing one face to yourself and another to your team, your employees, and your loved ones. In geometry, when starting two triangles are congruent, you might use a complex formula, but in your entrepreneurial quest, it’s even more complex.

The challenge question: How is your life a reflection of the gift you need to bring to others and how is it not?

Order your copy of
The Self-Reliant Entrepreneur

by John Jantsch

“A book that deserves a spot in every entrepreneur’s morning routine.”
—Ryan Holiday, #1 Bestselling Author of The Daily Stoic and The Obstacle is the Way

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