Why Marketing Automation Works for Long Customer Journeys

How To Procure Mind Share in Long Buying Cycles with B2B Content Marketing

Why marketing automation excels at selling to buyers on the long customer journey, and how to prepare campaigns for the long haul.
The competition for attention in the digital age is fierce, and only getting noisier by the day. As a result, too many B2B marketers are losing the battle for prospect mind share.

A recent report on content preferences by DGR shows that 78% of B2B buyers typically consume at least 3 pieces of content before engaging with a salesperson. Moreover, almost one in five buyers reports consuming 7 pieces of content or more.

For marketing professionals, this insight is a double-edged sword. On one side, it cuts through the muck to make clear that content is more important than ever in the buyer's journey, and especially in the early and middle phases of the journey—the stages when content marketing matters most.

78% of B2B buyers typically consume at least 3 pieces of content before engaging with a salesperson
2018 DGR CONTENT PREFERENCES SURVEY
But it also slices open our ever increasing anxiety about getting our content seen in the first place, with buyers swiping through the endless feed of competitive product messaging.

In a typical B2B customer journey, when complex purchasing decisions take time, and where buying cycles consist of months of evaluation, how do you get your brand, products and services to stand out? With so many other companies vying for our audience's time, what does it take to own a meaningful brand position in the prospect's worldview?

Understanding the Context of the Customer Journey
It seems obvious to say that before we can develop content that makes an impact with our audience, we actually have to know our audience. On the surface, most marketers and sales executives believe they know their prospects and customers very well. These are people who need and buy our products and services, we do business with them regularly, so of course we think we know them. But when we zoom out to look at the wider picture in our industry, what's missing from the scene?

Do we know what kind of content our prospects are consuming? Do we know what information problems they're trying to solve? Do we know who influences them, who they follow, and who they trust?

Moreover, those of us who spend our days crafting messaging for audiences can easily get carried away with the stories we invent. It's understandable—perhaps even desirable—that marketers become engrossed with the finer details of our brands. After all, our continued success as professional storymakers means allowing the ideas we're working on to occupy an exaggerated space in our minds. So it can be a challenge to remember that this is probably not the case for everyone else. It's too easy to forget that our prospects aren't discovering our brand with the same fluency we take for granted.

Also, like a tribe of Narcissuses staring into the pool at our own reflections, we marketers too easily fall in love with our own stories. Not only are we already convinced of our brand's importance, we actually create the narrative logic to persuade the world that we make great stuff in the first place.

But while we already deeply understand the value that our solutions bring to the world, our prospects usually begin their journey entirely unaware that we even exist. Not only are they not convinced that we can solve their problems, in most cases they don't even know that they don't know. Many times the unique value our wares bring to the world are "unknown unknowns." As a result, it's all too common that we approach messaging strategy with some distorted—albeit unconscious—assumptions about the context in which our prospects will consume our communications.

The Promise of Empathic Marketing Design
To combat this distortion, it's critical we maintain an empathetic perspective when designing our marketing strategy. Whether we like it or not, it's critical to keep in mind that our potential customers really don't care about our brands, products and services.

Your prospects—whether they already know your brand or not—most likely spend exactly zero minutes per day thinking about your offers. Click To Tweet Like you and I, these are real people dealing with real problems in the real world. Like us, they spend most of their time solving their problems task by task, moving the ball downfield using whatever tools and resources they can find. When they set off on the journey to find solutions to new problems, our products and services are neither the end destination nor the purpose of the story.

Of course, to be successful in the marketplace, our offers must be able to help our prospects solve their problems. But at the end of the day, in the epic narrative that is the customer's journey, our solutions will always only play a supporting role. It's important that we remember that the customer is the hero.

This is a critical insight because it reminds us that there are probably dozens, if not hundreds and thousands of businesses competing for our prospects' attention. In the long buying cycle, there is a real danger that the brand and product messaging we have worked so hard to build will only occupy a few brief moments of their journey.

In the epic narrative that is the customer's journey, our solutions will only play a supporting role. It's important to always remember that the customer is the hero of the story.
But if you're doing content marketing strategy the right way and producing content that truly helps your audience solve problems and gain insights that help them do their jobs, and if you have developed an intelligent content distribution strategy that gets your content in front of the right audience at the right time, you are indeed going to earn some of those cherished, brief moments in the journey.

Assuming our content marketing program is working the way it's supposed to, the real challenge we need to address is this: When we finally do earn our customer's attention, how do we turn those brief moments into long term opportunities to shape the customer experience and ultimately turn their journey in our direction?

Mapping The Customer Journey
One of the most important things any marketing team can do to assure success with content marketing is to document their content marketing strategy. And one of the most important parts of any documented content marketing strategy is the Customer Journey Map.

When you are developing your content marketing strategy, journey mapping provides a framework for thinking about how your prospects and customers experience your content. Assuming you have done the hard work to develop personas, you already have deep insights about your typical prospects' media diets and standard digital behaviors in your niche.

  Then—assuming you have used your persona research to develop value propositions and product market fit and you have also fine tuned a messaging framework that will uniquely distinguish your offer in the marketplace—the next thing you need to figure out is which content formats are best suited to convey your messaging, and what kind of content is going to perform best for your specific audience.

Of course, you started this work by doing the deep content auditing and research to know which content is performing best in your niche, for your targeted topics and search intent, and—since you have done your backlink profiling, influencer analysis, industry event research and you've mapped the social graph—you've established a strong understanding for why that content is performing so well. Your next task is to synthesize this information to formulate a content strategy that will help you guide your prospects to the promised land.

Creating a customer journey map not only helps you accomplish this feat, it gives you a really strong foundation for thinking about your entire content marketing operation.  When you're mapping your customer journey, you're engaged in an exercise that forces you to apply the knowledge you have gained about your prospects and their online behavior to plot a content strategy that anticipates their information needs at each stage of the buying cycle.

How you build your map will depend on your unique industry requirements, but in each case you will need to define a few key items.  For example, how many and what kind of stages will you use to understand the customer journey? The standard model—borrowing from the classic marketing funnel—breaks down into three parts, usually defined as the early (awareness), middle (consideration) and late (decision making) stages.

Then, for each stage of your customer journey, you will need to determine the highest performing content formats for your niche audience. Every industry audience is different, so your mileage will vary, but there is lots of research that shows cross sector benchmarks.

  For example, a recent study from CMI suggests that blog articles, white papers and case studies are among the highest performers at different buyer journey stages.


CMI Buyer’s Journey Content Types

The Most Common Content Marketing Tactics
Used by B2B Marketers to Nurture Their Prospects
The Content Marketing Institute asked content marketers which methods they use to nurture their leads. Email marketing and educational content remain the most popular nurture formats.

Email
    87
    %


  • Email Campaigns87%

Educational Content
    77
    %


  • How To & Education77%

Calls-to-Action
    62
    %


  • Clear Calls-to-Action for Next Steps62%

In-Person Events
    61
    %


  • Offline Meetings & Events61%

Storytelling
    45
    %


  • Relating to the Audience45%

Special Offers
    27
    %


  • Offers & Incentives27%
A recent study published at HBR by Nicholas Toman, Cristina Gomez and Brent Adamson (co-author of the ground-shifting "Challenger Sale") brings to light an important distinction that helps us think more clearly about the role of marketing automation in the content marketing universe.  
Responsive Selling Versus Prescriptive Selling
While content marketing has evolved, primarily, as a "responsive" mode of selling—following the prospects lead, feeding their cravings for more and more content by providing as much information as possible—marketing automation returns some control of the process to the supplier, making a "prescriptive" selling paradigm much more attainable.
Prescriptive suppliers give a clear recommendation for action backed by a specific rationale; they present a concise offering and a stable view of their capabilities.
With smart marketing automation strategy, we can not only gather actionable intelligence that allows us to better anticipate our prospects' needs, we avail ourselves a new, highly customizable communications channel that allows us to drive the sales process, expertly advising our prospects about the benefits of our offers. Standing out among our competition while our prospects evaluate all of the consumable content in our domain is not only about making great content. Our success will also depend on our tactical proficiency, our ability to deliver the right messaging at precisely the right time. Marketing automation is the tool that makes this possible, giving us the opportunity to occupy prospect mind share throughout the buying cycle.
Customers perceive prescriptive salespeople as being one step ahead, anticipating and eliminating obstacles. That translates directly into business results: Suppliers that make buying easy are 62% likelier than other suppliers to win a high-quality sale
Travis Simpson
Travis Simpson is a content marketing strategist and President of Symbolscape Inc., a boutique content marketing studio based in San Francisco. He works with his clients to create and deploy custom B2B content marketing solutions on the marketing automation technology backbone.