Let’s rip the Band-aid right off: For B2B content marketers, eBooks are overrated. (I will now dive for cover under my desk.)
Now before you bombard me with every object within an arm’s reach, let me first explain that I don’t have some weird personal vendetta against eBooks. I find them to be quite a gentle content species. I just think we obsess over creating them a bit too much in B2B, and I know we can do better. Not only have I watched eBooks generate diminishing returns lately, but I think it’s time to inject much more creativity into what we produce in order to stand out. Isn’t that the point of our work? Don’t content marketers count as creative professionals — at least in part?
But if not eBooks, then what kinds of content should we be creating to both gain attention and drive audience action? To understand where I’m headed here, let’s first take a look at what’s been happening to this tactic, and introduce a new way of thinking in Year 1 “Ae” (After eBooks).
“Be better than the Gap”
There’s a great scene in the romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love (which you can go ahead and assume my wife made me watch. Yup. That’s totally what happened…). Anyway, in the scene, Ryan Gosling looks at Steve Carell’s drab, average attire, grabs him by the face, and demands that he “be better than the Gap.”
As content marketers, it’s time we had a similar inspirational moment. But since Ryan Gosling isn’t likely to jump in here (damn), you’re stuck with me (double damn). So, here goes: Marketers, we can — and should — be better than the eBook! Say it with me: “I am better than the eBook.”
Yes, it’s time we focus some of our energy on actual creativity and content production, not just the mechanics of distribution and measurement, as the days of us trying to make dud missiles fly are all but over. It’s time to give “content” just as much attention as “marketing,” which will yield better business results to boot. I promise.
And here’s how to approach it all…
A new rule to guide B2B content production
Prior to my current role at NextView Ventures, I led content production at HubSpot. Right around the time I joined, we noticed that our eBooks had started to underperform. Looking back, it shouldn’t have been a surprise — the phrase, “how-to marketing eBook” alone yields 107 million results on Google. But we as B2B marketers acted like, well, B2B marketers: We found a tactic that worked, and then we beat the snot out of it.
Dozens of competitors emerged in that niche (and other niches) and started to use this tactic, blanketing the world in eBooks about marketing. They were no longer considered a unique content format. And, even worse, readers felt they were no longer worthy of the extra effort (i.e., conversion) it took to access their information. Asking for a handful of personal data started to seem like a lopsided request for a business to make, when all it could offer in return is one of the hundreds of millions of eBook options out there (literally, if you believe the Google results).
But while our eBooks began to underperform, we noticed that one experimental content effort continued to stand out: a collection of free stock photos. When marketed to our audience, they generated double or even triple the results of our other content efforts, as shown below:
We wanted to know what was happening here. Why were these B2B content launches so much more powerful than eBooks? And how could we replicate this success?
Clearly pumping out more and more eBooks (as every B2B content marketing machine seemed wired to do) was not the answer. No, there was something much simpler yet extremely powerful at play here. And the way I codified it was this:
Will this piece of content save our audience time, money, or both?
Asking this simple question became our rule, our bar to measure an idea. If we thought it would, we’d move forward with that content effort. If not, we would kill it, even if it might make a great long-form thought exercise. (Note that this applied only to our lead-gen content efforts. HubSpot continues to write eBooks and other long-form content pieces for other purposes.)
This rule makes a ton of sense from a B2B standpoint. When you think about it, B2B companies exist primarily to solve the problems faced by other companies and their people — regardless of whether those solutions come in the form of marketing software, sales analytics, HR services, training, or what have you. And the bulk of those solutions can be distilled down to saving the buyer time and/or money (which an executive may deem as one and the same).
It makes just as much sense when you zoom in on the marketing tactic angle, as well. Giving away a free collection of stock photos saves audiences the time it takes to search for individual image providers, sort through their collections using their (often sub-par) search engines, and decipher paragraphs of legalese on how you can and can’t use their photos. These free giveaways save users money too — stock photos are typically items for which you must pay to access. It’s no wonder the results were so much better.
EBooks, on the other hand, don’t necessarily save their readers time or money. Maybe several years ago, back when paying for an eBook was standard practice, a free one was a big deal. But in 2014, eBooks are largely considered free items in the minds of most business audiences. And as one of the longest-form pieces of content marketing there are, eBooks are more likely to cost readers extra time, rather than saving it.
So what should we create instead?
There’s no way I could sit here and propose everything you could create to save your audience time and money — as usual, it comes back to knowing your audience intimately. I’m also not sure I’d want to propose every idea possible to replace the eBook, since we could wind up repeating the repetitive, dead-end approach I described above all over again. No, the idea here is to be unique and creative when you create content. But to give you a few ideas, here are six formats that you might want to try your hand at:
1. Workbooks, playbooks, and blueprints
What they are: The cousins of the eBook, these formats are less about reading and more about using documents as a step by step way to guide readers through a recommended process or activity more efficiently and effectively.
For example, at NextView Ventures, we just launched a Growth Guide for content marketers, with the motto: “Less reading, more doing.” It aims to help startups launch and execute their content strategy. Instead of reading it cover-to-cover, we recommend that marketers keep it at their side as they work, only moving on to the next section once the task at hand has been completed.
How to brainstorm your own ideas: Examine your competitors’ content, as well as your own. Think about ways to make that content more actionable, and package the very specific steps that are involved into a foolproof PDF format that is easily distributed. For these formats, you should try to limit any discussion of theory to one or two pages — stick to discussing the actions your reader should take instead.
2. Project templates
What they are: Guardrails that direct your buyers to complete a project more efficiently or effectively than existing best practices would for that task. For example, sales teams often share cold outreach emails amongst each other — this presents a perfect opportunity for a content marketer to create a collection of boilerplate content that sales can grab and customize. Another example: Marketers need to set up multiple social media profiles for their brands. So a template that helps them resize all their brand’s images to fit the most common social networks would make for great content.
How to brainstorm your own: Line up all the steps your buyer takes to complete his or her daily tasks, and list out ideas for resources that can replace or remove those tasks. This may not save them money, but it should save them significant time.
3. Collections of free assets
What they are: Packages of items that can be plugged into your audience’s projects. The stock photo giveaways mentioned earlier fall into this category, as do collections of free icons, buttons, fair-use music clips, and so on.
How to brainstorm your own: Again, think about the steps your buyer might take to complete a common task that your product also helps them accomplish. Identify the small, annoying parts of the process that feel repetitive (like searching for stock photos for every single blog post) and curate or create a package of free assets they can return to time after time.
4. Reporting templates
What they are: Spreadsheets, presentations, and other files that can be used to report performance to executives and other stakeholders. These templates should be outlined and wireframed by you, including any computational formulas that you might want to include in a relevant spreadsheet (should you choose to create this type of template). Your target buyer can then simply plug in their own data whenever they need to build a report. For instance, at NextView, we’re planning to give away templates of great presentation decks we’ve seen startups use, along with some light descriptions on what makes each style or slide valuable in a presentation to a board of directors. And at HubSpot, we created a monthly reporting template for content marketers that broke performance down into specific channels used.
How to brainstorm your own: Move through your buyer’s month or quarter in your mind again. (Notice a pattern here?) When and to whom do they report their performance? What elements should be included? Whether they’re presenting data to their boss and/or their teams or are just trying to keep themselves honest, most B2B audiences could find some kind of value in having templates like these to work from.
5. Educational videos with info capture
What they are: Short instructional videos that make one activity abundantly clear to an audience (which saves them the time it might take to read and learn that activity if they had to track down and reference multiple sources). Wistia stands above most other companies as the prime example. They’ve built a huge audience and converted thousands of customers through video content marketing… and not an eBook to be found. Here’s an example (note the call to action at the end).
They’re so good, their content all sits in front of the form, which I think is tremendous. There. I said it (as I cower further under my desk).
How to brainstorm your own: Rather than educate through long-form text, consider shorter (1–3 minute) instructional videos that you script ahead of time. Luckily, the same example I used above, Wistia, offers an entire Learning Center to help you learn more about this exact tactic. The goal is to save your audience time by delivering knowledge in quicker, more snackable segments than really long eBooks.
6. Interactive tools and apps
What they are: There might be a tech gap when it comes to scaling these right now, but I’d bet that this approach to marketing winds up replacing a good amount of the formats we use today. These projects feel more like technology than they do media, and they actually help your audience produce work, at least in part. Two of my favorite examples are blog headline generators: There’s this one from HubSpot (though I take only copy editing credit), and BlogAbout from IMPACT Branding and Design, which is just plain beautiful.
How to brainstorm your own: Mock up the exact steps a user would take in PowerPoint, and shop the idea to developers, product teammates, and potential users. You are basically developing a small product, so proceed with caution — there could be considerable up-front time and cost elements here, though the resulting efforts could be well worth it.
Robots haven’t replaced writers… yet
The ability to create content that truly stands out still rests squarely on our human shoulders — so it’s time we all embrace it a bit more fully. The marketing side of content marketing gets a ton of thought, just as it should. But it’s high time we direct more of our attention to the creative side of the equation.
In doing so, remember this: B2B content marketing involves finding ways to solve your buyers’ problems — just like your products and services do. And thus our marching orders are also very much the same: Save them time and money.
(Can I come out from under my desk now?)
Looking for more inspiration on delivering unique, compelling content experiences? Read CMI’s Content Marketing Playbook: 24 Epic Ideas for Connecting with Your Customers.
Cover image via Bigstock