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Beyond the PDF: Why B2B Content Marketing Demands an Evolution

Predicting the “death” of a media-related technology will get you in trouble most quickly. The next worse trouble-making prediction? Saying there will be no replacements at all.

Watch me try to stay out of trouble.

Our journey starts in 1995.

In that year, we were 22 years removed from the invention of the internet. (In this year, we are 22 years removed from I’ll Be There for You, the Friends theme song, hitting no. 1 on the pop charts.) But I digress.

In February 1995, then weekly national print magazine Newsweek predicted: “(N)o online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher, and no computer network will change the way government works.”

In the richest of ironies, 26 years later, Newsweek is now available only online, tens of millions of students across the world attend school virtually, and the effect of social media networks on government can only be described as transformational.

But predictions of the internet’s evolution would kill legacy media formats have proven to be just as false. In many ways, as Miracle Max in The Princess Bride might say, they’re “mostly dead.”

Are you asking when?

How do you know when to make a move? Are old formats worth clinging to? Is your B2B content marketing like Blockbuster video?

Are old formats worth clinging to? Is your B2B #ContentMarketing like Blockbuster video, asks @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent @GetFoleon. #Research Click To Tweet

These questions come up quite a bit with the marketers we work with. A financial service company wants to know when it should stop sending its thought leadership email with a PDF attachment in favor of another format. An e-commerce company wants to know when to stop printing its brochure in exchange for a digital version. A tech company wants to know when to evolve its resource repository of PowerPoint presentations and PDF files into something else.

Avoiding anchor approaches

Though legacy media formats successfully exist today, they also can be an anchor, slowing a business’ ability to innovate and transform. Businesses cling to old media formats purposely or have obstructed views of the customer experience evolution.

A great example of the on-purpose reasoning is The New York Times. In 2014, in their groundbreaking, leaked innovation report, the internal team lamented their transition to fully digital as “most difficult”:

Companies with no legacy platform have the advantage of being able to focus entirely on creating the best digital reports. For newspaper companies, making this transition can be so challenging that several of our competitors have handed responsibility for the daily [print] paper to small, standalone teams so that everyone else can focus on digital.

Originally digital news organizations already recognized the benefit of going all-in with digital consumer experiences. But a legacy brand like The New York Times was at a disadvantage because it started in the print era. Thus, they argued, any efforts to speed the digital transition would be helpful because print news had now been made outdated.

A great example of the obstructed view reasoning is the Blockbuster vs. Netflix battle in the early 2000s. Now, it’s far too simplistic to say that Blockbuster was “ignorant” to internet streaming and Netflix evolved faster. As more balanced explorations into the history have concluded, Blockbuster attempted (and almost succeeded) to evolve into a digital business. It was an ability to convince shareholders of the need to reinvent itself in a timely manner combined with the anchor (and high cost) of physical DVD management that destined Blockbuster to its demise.

But is that trap inevitable for all companies?

Thinking whole

Context, not format features or quality, dictates what content experiences consumers prefer today. The concept is known as whole product theory – consumers choose more than the core (media) product itself. They choose a core product in combination with the complimentary and contextual attributes that surround it.

Context, not format features, dictates consumers’ preferred #content experiences, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent @GetFoleon. #Research Click To Tweet

Put simply: Content consumers are more likely to value a media format because it more readily fits a desired personal context than whether it is new, offers superior quality, or has more features.

Thus, just like in Blockbuster vs. Netflix, legacy media experiences are not made outdated when a new, better media type emerges. They are made outdated when the legacy experience is made contextually irrelevant to the consumer.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: You Say You Want a Digital Transformation?

What’s a B2B marketer to do?

B2B businesses have seen the whole product theory at work. The last 20 years have been one long race to keep up with the pace of digital content development. Eight years ago, SiriusDecisions (now owned by Forrester Research) found up to 67% of the buyer’s journey was digital. Research firm Gartner has found 27% of B2B buyers’ time is spent reviewing content they research independently online.

A 2020 McKinsey study found “B2B companies see digital interactions as two to three times more important to their customers than traditional sales interactions.” CMI’s own research has found the biggest investment by B2B marketers in 2021 is digital content creation (70%), followed closely by “website enhancements” (66%).

70% of B2B marketers expect digital #content creation as their biggest investment in 2021 via @CMIContent @GetFoleon. #Research Click To Tweet

B2B audiences do, indeed, expect more from digital experiences today. And yet, most B2B resource or learning centers are legacy repositories of siloed assets divided and subdivided by classic, static format types.

Conclusion: It is not the death knell for classic digital file formats, but to address the context of today’s buyers, B2B businesses must evolve to create more compelling digital content marketing experiences.

To determine when your best opportunity is to change, start by pondering these four questions:

  • Are we able to meet the content quantity and quality necessary to drive differentiated and personalized content experiences?
  • To what extent are our content experiences “interusable” and integrated into our content marketing technology infrastructure?
  • How measurable are our content marketing efforts?
  • What capabilities do we have to gather intent data or to offer interactivity through our content experiences?

B2B content marketing is undergoing the same transformation as The New York Times, Netflix, Blockbuster, and every other media company out there. We can no longer be saddled by or have an attachment to legacy processes, technologies, and digital experiences. As marketers, we must realize new disruptive competition is coming from every angle and be ready to answer the questions – and act on our answers.

In the spirit of the conversation in this article, you can read our take on the future of creating these digital experiences – along with a discussion guide for the questions you should ask – in this downloadable PDF or new digital experience we created with our partner and sponsor of this research Foleon.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute