Demand generation is one of content marketing’s fundamental purposes. It’s also a function that seems much simpler to manage than it is.

Just when you think you’ve got your demand-gen processes running smoothly, the rules of the road change. Demand-gen strategists once had a clear view of their role: take in tons of unfiltered visitors, refine them through the sales funnel, and pour out a steady stream of high-octane leads.

Then account-based marketing (ABM) came crashing in, throwing a few monkey wrenches into the works along the way.

The good news is you may not need to completely rebuild your demand-gen vehicle just because you’ve added ABM horsepower in your marketing operations. If you’ve already got a working engine, a thorough tuneup of your customer insights and a more detailed map of their purchase path will keep you on the road to greater performance.

How demand gen and ABM play together

At its core, ABM just a different kind of demand generation. To understand why you don’t need to radically reinvent your demand-gen processes to benefit from this new model, let’s start with a few basics.

Here’s how I define demand generation in an ABM world:

A strategy developed by both marketing and sales that aligns with their buyers at every stage of their purchase path, using the content and channels their buyer prefer.

The underlying principles of demand gen remain largely the same, regardless of whether your function is built for the goal of high-volume impact or for ABM-driven targeting precision.

  • It’s about the buyer. Marketers must focus on understanding what information buyers need – not just what their brands want to say.
  • Channel choices count. Customers may prefer to engage on certain content channels over others when deciding on a purchase, and those choices can shift depending on their buying stage.

Yet, working with an ABM model does introduce some distinct operational challenges:

  • It’s not a marketing only exercise. In order to tune a demand-generation engine for ABM, marketing must engage and collaborate with sales – particularly when it comes to gathering useful insights about whom to target.
  • It goes beyond top-of-the-funnel activity. Successful demand gen under an ABM framework must align with all stages of a customer’s buying process. Yet, according to CMI’s 2020 B2B Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends Study, only 36% of respondents stated they create content for the mid and late stages of a customer journey.
The buying stage is just the beginning of the customer lifecycle.

On a related note: Whether your business uses ABM or not, if your demand gen efforts only address a fraction of the customer lifecycle (as illustrated in the image above), you won’t be able to maintain the baseline trust necessary for long-term customer satisfaction. This is why I recommend applying the process and approach I describe below to the later stages of the customer journey, too.

Step 1: Use buyer insights to diagnose your best opportunities

All demand-gen engines need to be fueled with relevant content. But relevance is a highly subjective concept – one that can be affected by several customer variables and conditions, many of which aren’t clear enough in the process to customize content for such a broad range of potential needs.

ABM-driven demand gen offers a significant advantage in this respect: It cuts down on some of the complexity of determining what content will be relevant because it’s focused on engaging key decision-makers at a pre-defined set of high-value accounts. Because the demand-gen process begins with a list of known targets that sales likely has already collected data on, marketers get greater access to customer insights, and are better able to deliver content that’s relevant and personalized to their needs.

Gathering data from multiple sources provides the richer insights you need for actionable buyer profiles, says @cahidalgo via @CMIContent Click To Tweet

When working under an ABM strategy, the first step for fine-tuning your demand-generation engine for optimal performance is to gain a deeper understanding of the decision-makers on those accounts – including identifying the factors most likely to steer their interest in your brand’s direction and keep them engaged as they progress along their buying journey.

Of course, this takes more than just outlining a simple funnel flow. Have you ever heard a buyer say, “I am in the sales-accepted lead stage of my buying process”? I sure haven’t. Buying cycles usually involve multiple stakeholders – all with different (and sometimes competing) motivations, priorities, and preferences.

Additionally, research indicates (gated) that B2B buying cycles are increasing year-over-year. But even with these lengthier purchase processes, many buyers are leaving sales out of the equation until they’ve already identified their needs. Some even prefer to consult with sales only after they’ve chosen a solution. This leaves marketers with bigger gaps to fill with content – and fewer opportunities to deliver that relevant information at the right time to influence a decision in their brand’s favor.

For demand-generation content to be most effective, document these factors (and others) in the form of a detailed buyer profile that includes who the decision-makers are and what information they’ll find valuable once they are ready to engage.

Here are a few sources that can inform those profiles and help your team learn more about the content types and topics they’ll find most relevant:

  • Direct input from customers: Ask customers what led to their purchase. What steps did they take? Who helped them along the way? What role did they play in their company’s decision, and how did they interact with other members of the buying committee? This will be instrumental for determining who holds the most sway in decision-making, and what information they found most helpful to guide them from stage to stage.
  • Direct input from non-customers: Reach out to leads who dropped out of your sales process to see if they would be willing to discuss why they might have chosen to work with a different provider. Not only will this give you a secondary perspective without your brand’s biases, it will enable you to compare their responses to those you received from your own customers.
  • Feedback from sales and customer support: Both sales and customer support engage with customers on a day-to-day basis, giving them a deeper knowledge of top challenges, buying objectives, and buying committee members that you may not get from direct conversations with the customers themselves. This can surface hidden purchase obstacles, knowledge gaps, and decision-making criteria you can use to steer your content creation in a direction they might find more valuable.
  • Secondary research: Conducting secondary research into the external factors impacting your buyers – such as trends and market forecasts – adds depth to your view of your customers’ informational needs and purchasing decisions.
  • Engagement and behavioral data: Mining available data from your customers’ content engagement activities and preferences can also reveal critical insights you might not receive from subjective sources. While this step can be challenging to execute – especially if the data resides in multiple systems – it’s worth investing the time and effort.

By collecting data from multiple sources, your team will have access to richer insights from which to build actionable buyer profiles. And as you analyze that data, you may also discover certain themes emerge across the various sources, which can serve as guideposts for determining the content topics, formats, and channels to work with once your demand-gen engine is tuned up and ready to roll.

Step 2: Map the buying journey

Detailed buyer profiles will give your content team a baseline understanding of what information your target accounts are looking for. But your demand-generation engine also needs to account for how those buyers reach a purchase decision. This includes identifying the fact-finding path they’re most likely to follow, the other teams and players who might influence their process, and what goals need to be met before they can move on to the next stage.

You can’t pinpoint every movement of each persona or buyer profile that might be involved in an organization’s decision-making. But you can map the major milestones along the buyer’s journey looking for opportunities to spark a connection with content they’ll find relevant at that critical moment.

Sample map showing four critical milestones: Trigger, requirement defined, gather Info, and business case defined.

As you map out the steps they’ll take when moving from milestone to milestone, note which personas are driving the process and which might fall back or drop out altogether. Don’t assume that every player’s role in the buying process will remain constant.

For instance, a CFO who is identified as part of the committee and has their own distinct profile may be involved in the final purchase decision but may not play a part in other steps in the process. I’ve found that C-level audiences often take part during early-stage “triggers” – i.e., the events or situations that spark an organization’s interest in entering the purchase journey – but only rejoin the process once it reaches the late-stage shortlist and/or approval stage. In such a case, there would be no need to create demand generation-specific content for the C-level in the middle stage of the buying process. Your journey maps would reflect that.

Step 3. Customize your lead management vehicle

As important as it is to know your buyers and their path to purchase, the success (or failure) of your demand-generation engine will ride on the strength of your lead management process.

Optimal management of the leads demand-gen content will generate involves more than implementing the right technology. It requires a well-defined (and documented) process that creates strong alignment between marketing and sales and ensures that the leads you attract will be evaluated accurately, qualified rapidly, and prioritized accordingly.

These elements will be essential to establishing that process:

  • Lead qualification model: This model defines every stage of your organization’s lead qualification process, starting with a prospect and/or inquiry through a closed-won account or lead. In most cases, an enterprise can use one qualification model across all its various lines of business. Below is an example of a lead qualification model.
  • An example of a lead qualification model.

  • Lead/account scoring model: This model defines the scoring thresholds that must be met at every lead qualification stage and should include firmographic, demographic, and behavioral attributes. There can be multiple scoring models that support various lines of business, but they should all align to the same lead qualification model.
  • Lead routing rules: Lead routing rules govern how qualified leads/accounts will be sent from marketing to sales, as well as how sales will pass those that do not yet meet qualification standards back to marketing for further nurturing. These rules should include the group responsible for each routing step, timeframes involved, and the specific actions that should be taken for each potential scenario.
  • Service-level agreements: These are established process checkpoints that both marketing and sales agree to and monitor to ensure the lead routing rules are being followed properly and that nothing is falling through the cracks.

Step 4: Fuel your engine with the right content

At this point, your content team should have the insights they need to craft engaging, laser-focused conversations that reflect the specific needs of each buying stakeholder – throughout each stage of their decision-making journey.

Of course, not all content is created equal, nor are all assets ideal for use at every stage of the marketing funnel.

For example, in the early stages of a purchase cycle, content needs to show buyers that, as a brand, you understand their needs, their challenges, and can help them solve their issues. Brand or product-focused content won’t put you on their radar. Providing useful engagement content and positioning your brand as a subject matter expert will. It will also help them feel more informed and supported – which builds their trust and encourages them to continue engaging.

The second content type will be nurture content. This content should surface the issues and challenges that initially attracted prospects to your early-stage content and begin to subtly introduce solutions – through formats like case studies, interactive tools and features, detailed webinars, and analyst reports. Nurture content isn’t necessarily part of a separate campaign; it should be built out as part of your demand-generation program, with the goal of establishing an ongoing dialogue.

The final type is conversion content, which comes in at the end of the buying process – the point where sales typically gets involved and needs relevant content to improve their ability to close the deal. This is where references, customer testimonials, and other product and brand-focused content should start to enter the picture.

Drive your demand-gen goals further and faster

As detailed here, developing a high-performance demand-generation program takes more than just creating new content. The reality is, vendors do not need more content, we need better and more relevant content. We need content that will help inform and nurture buying relationships.

However, we cannot do this well if we are not taking the time and making the effort to understand what is in the minds of our buyers and the path they take to purchase. While building this engine will not be done overnight, it is well worth the effort and will ensure a better overall result and more revenue from your demand-generation practice.

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