As a former hockey player and salesperson, I know a lot about goals – whether in the context of a hockey game or in a sales environment. If you can’t get goals in hockey, your team will never win. In sales, if you don’t achieve your sales goal/s you’ll soon find yourself on the outside looking in.

The good news is that in today’s sales environment, you now have a new tool to assist you; content marketing. The question is how to use it most effectively to align with where your prospects or customers are in the sales funnel to maximize the ROI.

The use of content marketing is not a new idea. It has been around forever, but has become more plentiful and ubiquitous due to the emergence of social media and other content delivery channels. Furthermore, it now comes in multiple flavors. It’s no longer a case of reaching prospects and customers with brochures, ads in trade magazines, postcard mailers or the like. Now it might consist of email campaigns, infographics, white papers, social media campaigns, direct mail, or any of the other numerous marketing tools that can be utilized to engage with your prospects or customers.

What has really changed, however, is the way that people buy. Due to content being readily accessible online to address questions potential buyers might have concerning a product or service that you are offering, salespeople are no longer as they once were in the buying process. Today, buyers are often well beyond the product awareness stage in the funnel before interacting with salespeople at the very last stages of the process making it very difficult for them in closing deals and meeting their sales goals.

In fact, as noted in a recent blog post by Articulate: “Nearly 60 percent of the traditional sales process has gone out of the window, according to research by Google and CEB. Customers are not waiting for companies to tell them what they need to know; they’re doing the legwork and seeking out the information themselves online, stealing the sales department’s thunder.”

The real challenge for marketers and the salespeople they are working with is in providing the information to prospects and customers at the right time, the right place, and in a manner that is consistent with how they consume it. This all has to be accomplished within the framework of where they are in the sales funnel. Content has to be aligned so that it properly addressed at each stage of the funnel journey or else it will be perceived as being annoying or irrelevant.

The Content Tsunami

The reason I feel that it could be annoying is that we’re experiencing in the content marketing world the equivalent of a content tsunami. We’re being bombarded with content from every conceivable direction. In fact, at times I feel like I’m back in the hockey net playing goalie. Instead of being shot at by pucks from every conceivable direction during practice, however, I’m now being subjected to constant streams of endless emails, blog posts, videos, or whatever content marketers have conceived to try to reach me to create awareness for their products or services and convince me to buy.

There’s no way that I, or any of us, can possibly consume all of the content that is being generated. The result is that we’re selective on what we consume and when. The prospects and customers that we’re trying to reach are, as well, and you need to take this into account before you publish any more content moving forward. It needs to be relevant to each stage of the process and clearly address their wants and needs.

The Value Of Content Marketing

Content marketing is valuable and plays a key role in creating awareness, providing knowledge, and nurturing relationships with prospects and customers. According to a study done by Kapost in conjunction with Eloqua titled: “Content Marketing ROI” content marketing produces 3 times more leads than paid search over a 36-month time frame. It’s a great sales tool for assisting a salesperson in meeting their goals. Notice that I used the word assist, as it’s not a panacea and the salesperson still has to close the deal in all but transactional-based sales. He or she has to put the puck in the net, which in the case of sales is a purchase order or actual sale.

The challenge for the salesperson and marketer supporting him or her is utilizing content at the right place, at the right time during the buyer’s journey to ensure the highest possible ROI. It might start out simply as creating awareness for your product or service, in which case, impressions might be the goal to help set up the play to enable the goals to be met.

Matt Heinz of Heinz Marketing recently alluded to the role that impressions play in the entire process and that “Impressions Still Matter.” The era of Don Draper and the Mad Men may be behind us; however, great content can still go a long way in creating favorable impressions of your company’s products and services and a solid brand, as well. The question is what type of content to use and when? Also, for what purpose?

Where Do I Start?

Given this, you’re probably asking where do you start in ensuring that your content marketing strategy aligns as part of the strategy, aligns with the sales funnel, and enables you to reach your sales goals? This is a complex issue, but as a starting point, you should really revert to business basics. I refer to it as ensuring that you have your own house in order before you do anything.

Is Your Own House In Order?

Before embarking on your content marketing journey and ensuring that it is aligned with the sales funnel and the ultimate objective of meeting your sales goals, you really need to make sure that your house is in order. If not, all of your activities will fall flat. A few years ago, I published an article on LinkedIn titled: “The 9P’s of Marketing- A Framework for the Social Media Era“. So much of what I stated in it still is true today.

Goals and Objectives

Once you know that your products and services are ready and aligned with your customer’s values, you need to determine what your overall goals and objectives are regarding content marketing. This should be clearly mapped out with quantifiable goals that are written down and periodically reviewed.

The Plan

As with anything that you do in business you need a plan for content marketing. A roadmap for what you’re doing. This should start with your target customer as all roads lead back to them in whatever you do.

Target Customer

Who influences buying decisions along the journey? In a B2B environment, multiple parties are usually involved in the decision process. It will not only include procurement, but people in supply chain logistics, quality, engineering, and any others where the onboarding or use of the product will have an impact.

You need to ensure that you have the right content for each stage of the buying cycle and that it is personalized as much as possible to address the needs of the customer or prospect at that touch point during the journey. How does it address their wants and needs at that time? These are questions you need to be asking. Also, remember that not one size fits all. This is not only true of the customer or prospect themselves, but also where they are in the buying process.

Determining how do you best reach them with content is of prime importance. Where and how are they most likely to consume their content? Content, like ice cream, comes in many more than one flavor. The key to success is ensuring that what you’re producing is aligned with what your customer or prospect wants to see.

This point has been hammered home to me by marketing and branding expert, Sylvia France. I recently had the pleasure of attending one of her presentations concerning content marketing and came away with these, as well as other valuable tips including the need for a content marketing calendar. Whatever you do, think about creating and implementing one as part of your overall process, as it will provide you with a disciplined, organized, and coordinated way of addressing your content marketing process. If one is in place, you will ensure that you have the right content at the right time to address your customer’s needs. Furthermore, if properly structured, it can be effectively utilized for monitoring your performance.

Additionally, I would recommend that you have a buying cycle content calendar in place and the content that supports it, so that you can immediately react with the right content at the right time. If it’s done in an organized and systematic manner, it will be more efficient and on target.

In conjunction with the above, you need to make a determination as to how you are going to deliver this content and what tools to use? If it’s just content directed at a wide audience via social media than scheduling it via Hootsuite or Buffer might be viable solutions. If it is more targeted, then email might be your channel and you should ensure that you have the right email marketing tools in place to facilitate it. If it’s for a B2B company with a large sales force, a tool content distribution platform such as those offered by Go Yip Yip, Social Joey, or Social 5 might be the solution. They allow for pretty much “hands-free” dissemination to the customers and prospects of salespeople via their social media channels.

Metrics

After you’ve distributed your content, you need to know how you’re doing to maximize your ROI. Are things working? If not, you need to consider slight adjustments to what you’re doing or pivoting entirely. Marketing involves constant experimentation and A/B testing might be part of this whole process to see what really resonates with customers or prospects at each stage of the buying cycle.

As Samantha Owens Pyle was quoted recently in an article titled: 3 Ways To Ensure Content Marketing Positively Affects Your Bottom Line: “Being able to track the number of impressions, leads, potential sales opportunities and new customers all the way through the buying cycle is critical. Rather than taking a shotgun approach to content marketing, you need to be able to measure how each type of content performs and then leads customers toward taking the next step. “

Map The Journey

An additional requirement of this whole process is in mapping the customer journey of your best customers and prospects. This should only be done after you’ve completed a thorough analysis of who they are as alluded to above. Do a deep dive on your existing data and do your homework. If you don’t, you will be doing yourself a real disservice by focusing on customers who are not really aligned with your business and profits. The “best” customers will not all fall in the same bucket. You must segment them into a few categories to ensure that you are accurately measuring their importance.

Once you’ve conducted an audit of your ideal customers and their journey, you should have a pretty good understanding of the touch points where they are interacting with you during the sales process. You really need to look closely at this, as not all points will be of equal importance. You need to rank and categorize them in descending order of perceived importance and then move on from there. One of the first categories you might consider within a B2B framework is ABM.

Account-Based Marketing

If you’re involved in B2B sales and marketing, one of the easiest ways to segment and manage them is by establishing an account-based Marketing program, if you don’t already have one. This allows you to focus on those accounts who are providing you with the greatest revenues, profits, and/or strategic values. Although the term ABM is relatively new, it has been highly promoted by my friend, Sangram Vajre of Terminus, one of the foremost global marketers of his generation. I am very much am in awe with what he has been able to do with his whole “Flip My Funnel” movement.

Sangram has essentially taken a concept which has been in existence for decades and repackaged it with the latest and greatest content marketing delivery tools that have emerged over recent years, and its reliance on sales interacting heavily with the marketing department. It is very similar in approach to something which I have personally been involved with over the years known as strategic account marketing. This involves placing specific teams of individuals on focusing in on the sales activities of accounts deemed to be most valuable based on existing revenues or those with the greatest future potential.

Flip Your Funnel

As a starting point in your content strategy, I would highly advocate that the first place you should address is that the sales funnel, or so-called customer journey, is not actually at the beginning of the funnel or the acquisition stage, but at the bottom of it. This is the stage where you are nurturing the relationships with your existing customers. I’m amazed at all of the attention that continues to be paid in customer acquisition by today’s marketers and social media pundits. There seems to be an almost total disregard for existing customers. Wouldn’t you agree?

What I’m advocating is that, unless you’re a startup, you and your company should Flip The Funnel, as I briefly discussed above. Start at the bottom of the funnel and work backwards toward the awareness and acquisition stage. It is at the bottom of the funnel where the money is. This concept was highlighted earlier this decade in a book by Joseph Jaffe titled: “Flip the Funnel: How to Use Existing Customers to Gain New Ones.”

Other Touch Points

Once you’ve successfully developed a framework and strategy for addressing your existing customers, you can then move backward up the funnel to the other touch points that are involved in customer acquisition based on the order of their importance to your business. You would then determine what content best fits each juncture and how it can be most effectively delivered, to reach the prospect, at the right time and placed, to accelerate their transition from potential to actual customer.

 

Making sales goals is not easy. The use of content marketing helps, but it is not as straightforward as one might believe. It involves many variables and requires a lot of analysis and experimentation in order to be effective. It is imperative that you be prepared to address it in this manner and realize that a one size fits all approach will not only be ineffective, but could be detrimental. Whatever you do, for maximum effectiveness and greatest ROI, start with your existing customers unless you’re a startup.

Nurture your relationships with them via content marketing, and face to face interactions where possible. This will help provide you with cross- and up-selling opportunities and lead to further revenue growth and higher profits versus the high costs of trying to acquire new customers and trying to “lead” them through the funnel. At the end of the day, this will help you meet your sales goals. You’ll put the proverbial puck in the net and content marketing will have played a key role in assisting with your achievement.