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Learning a Lesson from B2C, Where Content is King

I recently listened to an interview on NPR's On the Media with Michael Hirschoern  which gave an interesting history lesson on an idea advanced by Whole Earth Catalog's Steward Brand at a "hacker conference", that "Information wants to be free"....and that this concept was embraced and adopted without attention to the rest of his comment, that "Information wants to be expensive, because in an Information Age, nothing is so valuable as the right information at the right time." I found the NPR interview so interesting that I dutifully picked up the July/August edition of The Atlantic to read Hirschoern's successfully promoted article ...and I'm glad I did.

While I found it interesting to think about as a consumer, I couldn't help but try and digest it from a B2B perspective, where we've long known that creating content that our customers value is expensive, difficult to create, and more difficult to sustain.  Anyone in B2B can recall instances of customer newsletters/magazines, tech tips, seminars, satellite conferences and the like started with great enthusiasm only to fade over time under the burden of sustaining the production of powerful, relevant, and credible customer content.

Of course the internet is awash with valuable B2C content, much to the chagrin and potential demise of newspapers, movie studios, and "record" labels.  Hence, lawsuits against peer-to-peer sharing of songs, aggressive pursuit of illicit copies of videos on the web, and news content creators experimenting with subscription access to their online content.  Makes sense to me...if there's value in the content, people will pay.  And from a business model perspective, if there's costs associated with creating the content, either people will pay (if there's value) or they won't (and those businesses will, and argueably should, ultimately fade away).

Back in the B2B world, we've also tried to bend the physics which govern business models by accounting for content creation costs under customer satisfaction and retention rationals.  After all, if customers are successful with our products, then switching will be harder for them.  And given the rising complexity of many B2B products, scaffolding our customers to be 'expert users' will help not only retain them as customers but also help them rationalize the investment they made in acquiring our solutions.

Having said that, I believe that there's two primary classes of content being created by B2B companies, and if you think about the customer lifecycle (hat's off to David Aaker and the other marketing gurus at Prophet), one class of content is focused on the awareness and adoption part of the customer lifecycle and the other class is focused on the implementation and utilization of our solutions (which I talked about above)....but they're both important, expensive content that if well done, will have value and relevance to the business customer.

But what about the content that gets created in the service of raising customer awareness of an unmet need (for which, of course, you have the perfect response), of potential solutions in the market, and for your company and brand as a credible leader in a market?   Ahh, you say, that's PR and Advertising...the promotional push that accompanies the launch of your new entrance into a market or provision of a new product.  We know that this part is expensive, especially if well done.  We also know it's tough to measure it's impact (brand awareness, positive market perception, purchase intent, win/loss/deal participation rates, and sales all some of the "traditional" ways of measuring impact).

As I've hinted, I think the whole content discussion is invaluable to B2B marketers for three reasons:

  1. Content "framework":  For a 21st century citizen, it's relatively easy to think of news or a song as "content".  In the B2B world - and setting aside those organizations that provide information (aka content) to their customers as their raison d'etre - the rest of us often see content as ancillary to or a byproduct of the products and services we develop, market and sell....and rarely do we think of the PR, customer training or seminars in the rich content framework that exists in the B2C world.  In fact, content is often lost in the discrete tasks which create that content, whether it be issue advocacy as advanced by strong Public Relations, end user tech tips and training, or user documentation.  Rarely do these content creators gather together and set out, with content creation at the center, to think about creating the content ecosystem that will be needed to support the entire customer lifecycle, from awareness through happy utilization.  Perhaps the content "framing" suggests ways of re-engineering the discrete processes for more productive, effective content creation.
  2. Attuning content to the customer lifecycle:  In the business environment it seems intuitive that content that supports different phases of the customer and product adoption lifecycle will need to meet different objectives.  That's not to say that core content couldn't satisfy the needs for more than phase...in fact, I'm suggesting the opposite.  If you start with the lifecycle requirements and understand how the need changes, it is likely that content will be able to be leveraged and built upon over time.  If you start out by envisioning the content lifecycle, the development plan can be established to support ongoing requirements.  For example, in the medical device space, the data that get's generated to support regulatory submissions may be leverageable for PR, sales and customer training, and promotions.  Indeed, some phases of the content delivery may have a revenue model associated with it (advanced training, seminars, use optimization training, etc.) which could help underwrite the entire content creation process.
  3. New Measurements:  The consumer world is very comfortable with having customer engagement and affiliation with a brand as important endpoints of content sharing.  Meanwhile, in the B2B world, more traditional measures predominate around the brand, product, and user experience.  NPS, a relatively newer measure, may be awkwardly stuck between the new and old measurement worlds, with new measures shedding interesting light on the vitality of the customer relationship (and by extension, whether they will recommend others to buy from you).  Regardless, taking a page from the B2C content perspective, measuring the quality of customer interactions with our content may provide meaningful insight into the health of our customer relationships, their satisfaction with our product and service delivery, and ideas for future solutions (Michael O'Toole and the digital mavens at PJA can help with this).

I think there may be synergy between the three ideas, with the content focus creating more customer engagement across the customer lifecycle, with a revenue model which supports sustained content creation....that is if, and it's an important if, the content is remains valuable to the customer.