More than ever, B2B buyers rely on content – all types of content – to research and make purchasing decisions. That’s good news for content marketers working to validate their approach and secure more resources for their campaigns.
According to our 2013 B2B Content Preferences Survey, however, content marketers also face a growing number of challenges. Many buyers say they are overwhelmed by the amount of content available to them; they are more concerned about finding trustworthy content that focuses on hard data and demonstrable value, rather than still-typical sales messages.
Content Matters More Than Ever
Here’s the good news for content marketers: B2B buyers continue to attach growing importance to the role of content in their purchasing decisions. Our 2013 survey found that more than 68% of the respondents rely more on content than they did a year ago, and just 1.4% say they rely less on content. That’s a notable trend, given the important role that content already plays in the B2B buying process.
There’s also evidence that buyers are seeking out an increasingly diverse range of content assets. Out of nine common content formats, five gained in popularity, two remained about as popular as they were in 2012, and just two – podcasts and interactive presentations – saw a significant drop-off in popularity since last year’s survey (see chart).
We also asked respondents to rate the value of each of these content formats, on a scale of 1-5 with 1 being most important. The results generally showed the same trend: Buyers attached a higher overall value this year to every format except for podcasts and interactive presentations.
In terms of overall value, however, three formats stand out in 2013: white papers, E-books and webinars. Even as other content formats play an important part in the B2B decision-making mix, it’s increasingly clear that these three “staple” formats will remain essential for most companies’ content marketing activities.
Content May Be King, But Web Search Holds The Crown
Of course, even the best content isn’t very useful if buyers can’t find it. That’s why we once again asked respondents to rate the importance of a variety of common channels for seeking out content used in B2B buying decisions. The data we gathered on this topic is complex, and some of the findings are more statistically significant than others. Here are a few key points that stood out:
SEO is still a critical tool. Once again, “web search” stood out as the single most important channel for finding B2B content. This may sound obvious, but it’s worth repeating at a time when social media gets so much attention: SEO can still make or break a content marketing campaign.
Some social media is valuable. Survey respondents attached increased value to two social media networks in this year’s survey: LinkedIn and SlideShare. Neither channel is as valuable to buyers as web search, peer referrals or even vendor web sites, but both stand out given our next finding:
Some social media is far less valuable.Twitter fell a bit in terms of its value to B2B buyers this year, but not as much as some other social media channels. In fact, Facebook and Google+ were virtually tied for last place on this count; whatever their merits in other areas, neither plays a very significant role for B2B buyers seeking out content to guide their purchasing decisions.
We also asked respondents how they share content with their colleagues, and the results once again pointed to a growing dichotomy between winners (in this case LinkedIn and Twitter) and losers (everybody else). The biggest winner here, however, was good old-fashioned email, which handily beats any other content-sharing channel (see chart).
Less Time, More Choices Add Up To Big Challenges
Buyers are using more content to make purchasing decisions, and they are also using a wider range of content. Yet according to our survey, more than 78% of the respondents say they have less time to devote to reading and research, including 24.5% who strongly agree with this statement. Clearly, given this tension between relying more on content and having less time to spend with content, B2B buyers are going to face some hard choices about what they read and when they read it.
Given that fact, it’s important to note two other findings. First, 71.6% of our 2013 survey respondents say they now “place a higher emphasis on the trustworthiness” of the content they view. Second, while 92.6% of the respondents say they are willing to consider vendor-created content as trustworthy, a much smaller 30.4% strongly agree with this sentiment.
Here’s our take on these findings: Given growing pressure to make the most of limited time, B2B buyers are going to make trust a critical issue when they decide whether to spend time with a vendor’s content. At the same time, buyers are expressing “soft” support for the notion that vendor-supplied content deserves their trust. This sets the stage for a potential shakeout as buyers decide whether individual vendors are trustworthy – and whether their content is worth considering.
Mobile Matters, But Don’t Count Out The Desktop
Another question in this year’s survey told us something we already suspected: mobile devices continue to gain importance as platforms for consuming B2B content. In 2012, 30.9% of our respondents said they rarely or never used a smartphone to access business-related content, and 50.4% rarely or never used a tablet for this purpose. In 2013, these “don’t use” numbers fell to just 19.8% for smartphones and 44.8% for tablets.
The takeaway is clear: With four out of five B2B buyers accessing content on their smartphones, mobile-ready content is no longer a “nice to have” option for many vendors. On the other hand, it’s a mistake to dismiss the desktop just yet: a whopping 98.6% of our respondents said they occasionally or frequently access content on a desktop or laptop system.
More Content, But Also More Challenges
No matter where B2B buyers view content, they are often asked to provide at least some personal information in exchange for access. It’s a fundamental part of the prospect-vendor relationship – and it’s also increasingly under attack.
According to this year’s survey, it’s still fine to ask prospects for basic information, such as their name, company and email address. The problems start when vendors ask for more detailed information:
The number of buyers who say they’ll provide detailed information in return for access to a white paper fell from 10.8% in 2012 to just 4.8% in 2013;
The number willing to provide this information in return for an E-book offer fell from 11.6% to 5.1%.
The good news is that the number of buyers willing to provide detailed information as part of a webinar registration skyrocketed from just 10% in 2012 to a remarkable 21.6% in 2013. That’s a remarkable and highly significant increase; combined with the value B2B buyers attach to webinar content, it indicates that webinars are becoming an even more valuable part of the marketing mix.
Sales Messages (Still) Kill The Deal
In last year’s survey, buyers overwhelmingly agreed that vendors need to minimize the sales messages in their content marketing mix. It looks like marketers are at least beginning to get the message; while 72.2% of respondents in 2012 said sales-heavy content was a problem, that number fell to 61.6% in this year’s survey.
Nevertheless, our 2013 respondents told us that they would like B2B marketers to take a number of actions to improve the quality of their content:
Make content more readable. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents (63.7%) strongly agree that B2B vendors should stop overloading content with text-heavy pages and small print. Last year, only 46% identified this as a problem; clearly, vendors aren’t getting the message about creating more readable (and scannable) content.
Focus on value. A majority (57.8%) of respondents strongly agree that B2B vendors focus their content too much on product specifications and not enough on value–the ability to solve specific business problems. That’s about the same number as last year; here, too, it looks like vendors and content marketers.
Show readers your research. For the first time this year, we also asked respondents whether vendors need to use more data and research to support their content, and a solid majority (59.9%) strongly agreed with this statement.
Finally, a very significant finding: two thirds of the respondents (66.7%) strongly agree that vendors need to make content easier to access by using shorter registration forms. That’s a wake-up call for B2B marketers to take advantage of data-appending and progressive profiling solutions – especially since, as we noted above, a growing number of buyers are reluctant to provide detailed information in return for most kinds of content.