Consumer-facing brands have long used their own publications to engage with their customers, but many business-to-business brands are also investing in customer publishing to talk to clients and trade partners.
“This is a big growth area and we’ve seen huge amounts of innovation,” says Julia Hutchison, chief operating officer at the recently rebranded Content Marketing Association (CMA).
The likes of Fujitsu, Ernst & Young (E&Y), Hays and Orange are producing print and online magazines that clients in their thousands want to read. These titles are written by experienced journalists and in-house staff and include interviews with top business names.
“One of the changes that our industry has introduced is that we now employ journalists who understand how to create content that will be read,” Hutchison explains.
Agencies are reporting an increased interest from brands looking to communicate with their customers this way. To coincide with the rebrand in June, the CMA published the results of new OnePoll research showing that content now accounts for 21% of marketing spend.
What’s more, 73% of those quizzed believe they will increase or maintain their marketing budgets over the coming year, while 5% expect the budgets to increase significantly in 2013.
But before these forecasts can come true, B2B brands will need to first sell the idea internally. Sholto Douglas-Home, group marketing director for Hays, recalls: “When I was trying to convince the board to do the journal, their perception was of a glorified newsletter.
They envisaged me perhaps calling the managing director in Japan and bashing out some content. The clincher was when they realised that it would be a newsstand-quality publication about the world of HR and recruitment.”
Four issues in and Hays Journal, which is produced with guidance from Wardour, is proving an invaluable resource for its 30,000 readers and Hays staff, claims Douglas-Home. “I had difficulty selling it in, but if I took it away now there would be an outcry,” he adds.
Maintaining the interest of readers is critical for any publication but perhaps more so for business leaders. Quality content is king and while there is an admission throughout the industry that these titles are not The Economist or McKinsey Quarterly, they are becoming extremely valuable to the readers. And free.
Indeed, the sector has worked hard to fight off the stigma that free publications are somehow less prestigious and don’t have the bite of their newsstand cousins.
The likes of Hays Journal, which comes out twice a year, have something else in their favour – a close bond with the readership.
Douglas-Home says that colleagues have been able to get access to “very senior people” from companies that have largely been wary of the media spotlight. “The HR community is very collegiate and they like to share knowledge. It’s great for our relationship with clients that we can showcase their successes,” he adds.
Andrea St Hill, marketing director at London-based corporate finance firm Livingstone Partners, agrees. “Nothing can enhance our credentials more than by having our clients, who can often be very candid about their experience, bearing all for others to learn from.”
We’ve used the book as an engagement tool for existing customers and new prospects
There is also a growing trend for co-creation, with businesses working with clients to develop ideas and shape content. Fujitsu, for instance, has an advisory panel of chief information officers from its customers, and from that group came a hardback book entitled The White Book of Cloud, which provides information on the concept of cloud computing.
“Some 10,000 copies have gone out,” says Simon Carter, Fujitsu marketing director for UK and Ireland. “We’ve used the book as an engagement tool for existing customers and new prospects. It’s also helped us have a number of key conversations with stakeholders.”
Caroline Welsh, head of B2B communications at Everything Everywhere, the mobile network operator for the Orange and T-Mobile brands, says the content in Orange Exchange has to be relevant and interesting because there is “only one chance to nail it” and encourage readers to come back for more. “We are trying to encourage clients to engage in a category where it’s easy to switch off once you’ve chosen your phone and plan. The content has to be valuable and easy to access. Readers want information; they don’t want us to sell to them.”
This is one of the reasons why some brands value the presence of agencies on editorial boards. “If we brought everything in-house, the sales team would have their hands all over it and it would be a very different animal,” says Fujitsu’s Carter.
The IT systems, services and products company has been publishing Global Intelligence for the CIO for some years and Carter is in no doubt that it has helped to build brand awareness, with the emotional engagement in terms of time spent reading it equating to time engaging with the brand.
The CMA estimates that the average engagement time for a content marketing title is 25 minutes, which compares with 30 seconds looking at a TV ad and eight seconds looking at an outdoor ad. “This is quality time with clients,” says Carter.
“Through our publication [and complementary assets] we can emotionally engage with our audience on a global scale. If we wanted to do this through paid advertising, the number of truly global publications are very limited and, what’s more, they don’t target our real sweet spot.”
Mix of activity
More and more brands see customer publishing and other forms of content marketing as a key part of their marketing strategy, though not necessarily as a replacement for other types of paid-for advertising. “It’s important you look at it as a mix of activity,” according to Welsh at Everything Everywhere.
However, determining the return on investment (ROI) in this area isn’t always easy. Many use a number of metrics, including readerships, reader surveys and feedback from staff. “We can’t be scientific in terms of ROI,” admits Douglas-Home at Hays. “But the crunch point for me is when we review it at the management level and ask whether our competitors will be annoyed that we’re doing this; the answer is yes.”
Agencies also suggest the tide is turning with brands proactively seeking advice on content marketing. But E&Y EMEIA advisory marketing and communications director Rudolf Boehlke suggests agencies will need to adapt to new demands from clients.
“The agencies that prosper will be those that become more strategic partners and less execution-focused because firms of our size will attempt to produce more and more by themselves. A year ago we wouldn’t have been able to create our own app [for our magazine], but now we have the capability to do so.
“More and more companies will ‘do’ the content marketing, while agencies will advise them on ‘how’. This will include guidance on moving content online and making the most of other touchpoints like social media.”
Indeed, moving a B2B customer magazine online isn’t simply a case of dumping the printed content onto a website. The content is transferable but it requires skill and expertise to bring it to life online. E&Y adds audio to some of the diagrams and graphics, for example, while Orange, with help from Publicis Blueprint, has exclusive content online, online-only entry competitions, more timely news and reader surveys.
“One of the biggest costs is the publication itself. Take that out of the equation and it makes the ROI easier to understand,” says Fujitsu’s Carter. But Katy Mawman, marketing manager at Grant Thornton – which launched FD Intelligence in November for finance directors – warns: “There’s always a danger you could think an iPad app is the thing to do because your competitors have one, but that might not be the intelligent way to go.
“We are looking at how we can leverage our content through other channels, including social media feeds. Digital is certainly something that the firm is behind in terms of investment and we want to evolve what we’re doing with FD Intelligence.”
But these dilemmas demonstrate that B2B customer publishing is just as sophisticated and is facing the very same issues that the wider industry is dealing with too.
Value your content
Companies wanting to create great B2B content need to realise just how valuable the data, contacts or expertise they hold is to their clients. “From my time at Reuters, I learned just how powerful this kind of marketing can be,” says Sholto Douglas-Home, group marketing director at Hays. “When I arrived at Hays I made the mistake of thinking that it was a company that found people and put them into jobs.
When you start working somewhere you see the critical role that company plays – in Hays’ case dealing with people’s careers, their ambitions and their salaries. I wanted us to create a publication that demonstrates this and Hays’ global insight.”
Others are also realising the wealth of content at their fingertips. Ernst & Young recently carried out a survey of 25,000 consumers across 34 countries asking them about their purchasing activities, preferences and perceptions across 10 different products and services.
The idea, says advisory marketing and communications director Rudolf Boehlke, was to provide a clear picture of the new consumer and how businesses can keep up with their needs.
“We created 3 million data points in that research. Our challenge was not a lack of information, but how to find the most interesting trees in a very big forest,” he explains. “A report would only scratch the surface, so we invested in a web-based tool [within the web portal for Performance journal] that allowed clients, students and marketers to categorise the millions of data points to create their own profiles and compare them. This is pure content and it’s the first time we’ve given the external world the ability to work with our data in this way. It also tells the world that we are about a lot more than tax and auditing.”
In practice top tips you need to know
Content is king
“You have one chance to nail it because these are busy people. Helpful content will have them coming back for more,” says Caroline Welsh, head of B2B communications at Everything Everywhere.
The softer sell
“Our publication [Financial Management] allows us to combine a ‘push’ strategy of engaging our audiences with creating ‘pull’ for the additional services we offer,” explains Penny McLoughlin, executive director marketing at the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants.
Time it right
“Timing is key to the success of printed matter and we’ve received many comments from recipients that the magazine landed on their desks at a time when conversations regarding their strategic options were being held,” recounts Andrea St Hill, marketing director at Livingstone Partners.
Use your connections
“Nothing can enhance our credentials more than by having our clients, who can often be very candid about their experience, bear all for others to learn from,” adds Andrea St Hill.
Research from our clients showed that we were pretty weak in terms of providing finance directors with updates or talking to them strategically about their business decisions. We were coming at them from lots of different angles.
So, we worked with Seven to produce a portal that gives financial directors on-topic content in palatable chunks. FD Intelligence was launched in November and includes an email sent to finance directors every six weeks. These people are time-poor so the emails don’t go into lots of detail, are easy to digest and we keep things to three or four hot topics. Generally, the pieces are no more than 400 words, with links to further detail.
The Q&A video podcast series has been really successful as we try to build a peer-to-peer networking facility with lots of different touchpoints.
We try to be smart with the content, sometimes using some of the same content in different ways on different channels.
We are always grappling with the challenge of maintaining independence. We always have to consider why this matters to the reader and what they need to do next. And, hopefully, the real kicker is that they speak to us.