How did IBM transform an underperforming rented email list into a whopping 11% conversion rate on site with one lead generation campaign?

IBM was in a position that will ring true for many B2B marketers. They were pushing out emails to unresponsive lists, and following an outdated strategy. They needed a lead generation overhaul, and that’s what they did.

Marketingsherpa shared a case study a few years ago that goes into the nuts and bolts of what they did, but I want to focus on why it worked, what we can learn from their approach and how you can use the learnings to build a content fuelled B2B lead generation strategy.

Why does content work so well for B2B lead generation?

There are many strategies that companies adopt for lead generation, these can range from free trials to webinars, but there’s usually one thing that these strategies are based on, whether inherently or as a consequence of, and that’s content. We all interact with content almost every minute of every day and, we each devote different levels of attention to it depending on our interest, our need and want for the content, our schedules and a thousand other things. What makes B2B content work for the audience well is understanding the why.

Consumer behaviour

Psychology has a huge part to play in lead generation and you’ll find hundreds of articles written on the subject. Elements of particular relevance to B2B lead-gen content are authenticity, reciprocity and social proof or influence.

IBM’s strategy worked because they built it around the goal of becoming a thought leader. They established their authenticity and authority within their subject before any inbound promotion took place. Authenticity is one of the reasons we choose to read, cite or share one article over another. Building this in your industry is crucial.

In business terms, we tend not to do something for nothing. That’s just the way business works. It runs on reciprocity. So why should the business of lead generation be any different? IBM was able to gain so many valuable leads and convert such a high percentage of them into customers because they offered something of actual value in return for their information: An expert industry analysis. Hero content is the kind of material that many business execs will be happy to part with their email address for.

They might even be willing to share it with their peers; which leads me on to social proofing or influence.

Brilliant content gets shared. But what goes on in the minds of the sharer? The c-suite has an elusive mind, indeed, but it is partial to the same social cues as the rest of us. Give them something to share that will enhance their influence among their peers, and you have not only given them a winning piece of content, but you’ve also potentially doubled, trebled, quadrupled your lead-gen reach.

Great content can also reaffirm or change the status quo within a company. I asked Ross Simmonds, B2B content marketer extraordinaire why he thinks content works so well for lead generation:

Content works well for B2B lead generation because we live in the information age. Brands, professionals and teams across the world know and realize that quality information can single-handedly reshape the trajectory of a company.

- Ross Simmonds, Marketer, Strategist and Founder of Hustle & Grind.

3 psychological elements influencing content for b2b lead generation

Decision making and trust

Speaking of going social; there are some sociological reasons that content is so good for B2B lead generation. The first is the ever-mysterious act of making a decision. In a B2B transaction, the risks and rewards are much, much higher than that of a B2C, and this means that decision making is more laborious, takes longer and involves more people. But it presents an opportunity for B2B content marketers. Once we know our audience’s pain point, and that of their boss and their boss, we can create content to help alleviate these pains and bring that person closer to a decision, or grant them access to the winning piece of hero content that they can take to their board of directors to make that decision.

These decisions are often based on a collection of hard metrics like price, timings, location and capacity, but they are also based on trust – both cognitive (research-based) trust and emotional (gut feeling) trust. IBM already has a lot going for them in this realm; they are a globally recognised and respected brand, but they alleviated any cognitive, practical elements of trust relating to investing in one of their products by bringing the leads they gathered through thought-leader content on a nurturing journey, with even more relevant and pain point soothing content.

Trust is seen to include both emotional and cognitive dimensions, and to function as a deep assumption underwriting social order trust involves a degree of cognitive familiarity with the object of trust that is somewhere between total knowledge and total ignorance.

- Trust as a Social Reality by J. David Lewis and Andrew Weigert. Published in Social Forces, Volume 63, Issue 4, 1 June 1985.

The psychology of the pain-point

Imagine if you will, that you are in desperate need of a haircut and you have problematic hair. The last time you went to a salon, you mentioned the odd parting, the baby hairs that never know what they’re doing and the general misbehaving, and said you just wanted a trim. The stylist heard ‘trim’ and went into a hair-cutting-robot mode. She ignored the pain points leading up to the solution. And she botched the job.

So you’re in the market for a new salon, and you come across a headline that grabs you on a website:

There’s No Such Thing As ‘Just a Trim’

The last time you got a cut, you looked at yourself and said: ‘hair grows’. Am I right?

At our salon, we start every job with a hair consultation. No scissors shall pass your scalp until we’ve agreed to a game plan.

When we say there’s no one-cut-fits-all, we mean it.

You’ve just been hit with some classic problem-agitate-solution copy. And it works. Knowing your audience’s pain point and poking at it with a stick gets results. And B2B buyers have very painful pain points. What motivates them impacts more than their self-confidence, it affects the future success of their company, and might even impact their job security.

The nature of hero content

I’ve used the term ‘hero content’ a few times already in this article, but what is hero content and why the hubbub?

There are three main categories of content in content marketing (some may say more, but I don’t like to overcomplicate); hygiene content, hub content and hero content. Hygiene content is the content that keeps things ticking over; the blog posts, email newsletters and the likes that are covered in your marketing calendar and wouldn’t, shouldn’t and couldn’t miss a publishing date. Hub content is a level up from that; content that offers a little more and is usually timing-based. An example of this might be a series about a particular topic that addresses your users at a specific point along their journey. It is content that serves a particular purpose and is therefore given a bit more weight than hygiene. Hero content is the stuff that’s making a significant and definite impact on business goals. It’s the whitepaper that you had commissioned by an expert, the webinar that featured the industry’s most knowledgeable source and the video or advert that you put a shed load of effort, time and money into. In short, hero content is aimed at and built for conversion. We expect it to reinforce a thought or issue, we expect it to be shared, and we hope to see a conversation around it. It’s why it’s so important to get right, and so important that it deserves a creation and promotion strategy of its own.

And that’s why IBM’s B2B lead generation content performed so well. Because it was treated with the care, attention and respect it deserved, and it paid off.

So, we’ve spoken about the ‘why’ of content for B2B lead generation, but what of the ‘what’?

What kind of content works for B2B lead generation?

I gave a couple of teasers above, and yes, it’s hero content. Below, I’ve broken hero content into three categories:

1. Research-based content

Research-based content involves a deep dive into the potential problems that your audience is facing and selecting a topic or subtopic within their industry to cover. It should help to alleviate their problem by focusing on an in-depth solution. Popular formats include:

  • Whitepapers
  • Interviews
  • Slideshare decks
  • Webinars (research-based webinars involve a lot of preparation and an experienced moderator).
  • Mini or micro sites
  • E-books
  • LinkedIn articles

Here’s Ross again on research-based content:

"Over the years one of the best types of content I’ve seen B2B brands leverage for generating leads and emails has to be proprietary research. It’s the assets that provide valuable insight to an industry that no one else has conducted before that often will be more likely to generate downloads, capture the attention of the press and act as an authoritative piece of content that can be used for years to come."

2. Personal experience or past success stories

Think back to a particular client you had, a problem they had and what you did to solve it. Case studies and personal success stories can be excellent for B2B lead generation content. It allows the reader to visualise and personalise you as the problem-solver, and analyse how you went about solving the problem. It adds another dimension to the content. Popular formats include:

  • Written case studies
  • Videos
  • Slideshare decks
  • Podcasts
  • Landing pages

3. Relevancy-based content

Relevancy-based content centres around what’s happening in your audience’s industry right now, and how it’s impacting their day-to-day operations. It can be content based on timely news (e.g. new taxation, falling market prices, environmental issues etc.) or it can be a different slant on a topic trending within the industry. Quite often, it will be a mix of both. Because of the nature of this content, turnaround times are usually fast. So the format choice needs to reflect this. Popular formats include:

  • Emails
  • LinkedIn articles
  • In-depth blog posts
  • Podcasts
  • Infographics

Sidestep: Why do people share?

Not that shareability will be or should be your goal with creating lead generation content, but what you publish should be good enough to share. B2B readers will share a piece of content if they deem it is valuable enough for their peers. It is a form of validation, and we all seek it, this kind of reader is not exempt from this fact.

Sharing content also helps to manage information in our minds, helps us understand it better and process it more deeply, as was found by a New York Times study on the Psychology of Sharing.

With more content, more sources and more people to share with, many users find sharing is a useful way of managing information. 85% of respondents said that reading other people’s responses helps them understand and process information and events. 73% said they process information more deeply, thoroughly and thoughtfully when they share it.

What content typically performs the best for this audience, I hear you ask? Well, Eccolo Media found that B2B tech buyers prefer white papers, brochures, data sheets, case studies, detailed guides and video/multimedia in that order. (Top tip: Head on over to Ross Simmond’s Content Marketing Insights article to see a much more in-depth and well-rounded breakdown of the content shaping B2B marketing).

How to get started with b2b lead-generation content

Here is a simple process that can be applied to any content creation, but is especially crucial for B2B lead generation content.

1. Decide what content is right for your audience.

OK, so we know the piece of content we’re going to create is something that will hit your user at the research/decision-making point along their user journey (If you haven’t mapped content to the user journey yet, read how to do it here). But do you know what kind of content is right for your audience? Are they in the market for an industry report or whitepaper? Or are they active and savvy enough to join a webinar or download a podcast?

2. Source an expert creator, if that’s not you.

You might be the expert in your field, and you might have the time to create the whitepaper or to host the webinar, but if you’re not, don’t pretend to be. Your audience will see right through it, and it will be bad for business. Hire the expert writer and commission them to research and write a hard-hitting piece. Reach out to the industry expert and pay them good money to feature in your webinar or live Q&A session. Nobody said hero content costs you nothing. Doing it means doing it right.

3. Create, edit, reiterate and test.

Do not rush getting the content live. Once you’ve received a draft, go through it with a fine-toothed comb. Proof and proof again. Get a copywriter to proof it for you. If you’re hosting a webinar or doing something that relies on third-party software, test it within the office with a small group of participants. Don’t expect everything to go off without a hitch. Plan for mistakes.

4. Have a promotion plan in place.

Have a dedicated promotion plan for the content. Don’t expect it to be found and start converting without putting time, money, and effort behind it. This is the kind of content that deserves its very own promotional plan that can be measured against specific business goals as I mentioned above.

5. Make it work. Don’t forget about the leads, start nurturing.

Success! You’ve gained some leads, and the hard work has paid off, don’t muck it up now. Have a post-promotion lead nurturing plan in place and get converting those leads into customers.

Ross kindly backs me up on this:

The biggest piece of advice that I’d give a business starting out with content for lead gen would be not to assume your job is done when you press publish. A lot of marketers make the mistake of assuming that once they’ve conducted the research and shared it on their site or Twitter that the job is done. It’s not. In reality, that’s when the lifecycle of your content truly begins and it’s important to invest just as much (if not more) time in distributing that content effectively.

People to follow and further reading

That’s it from me for now. If you want to keep on this learning track, here are some experts who are sharing valuable content regularly, so follow them for wisdom. Oh, and don’t forget to follow me and share your thoughts on this article! I’m on Twitter here.

If you haven’t already, check out Ross Simmonds since I’ve gone on so much about him.

Another bunch of folks I talk a lot about here on The Content Strategist blog is Velocity Partners: A London-based B2B content marketing agency who publish stuff that is informative, thought-provoking and often downright funny.

Mandy McEwan posts from ModGirlMarketing with inbound strategies for startups and growing agencies. They cover lots of topics, including lead generation.

And here’s a great article by Codeless pleading with B2B content marketers to look past the ‘best practice’ and implement tactics that everyone else isn’t doing.

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