What is Content Marketing? A Complete Guide – 2023

20 minute read

Upland Admin

What is content marketing?

Does your company have a top-notch product? Great. Knowledgeable and persuasive salespeople? Excellent. A committed, always-on customer success team? Love it. But to successfully engage, sell, and retain customers, you need something more: You need the connective tissue that stitches the stages of the buyer’s journey together.

You need content marketing. 

This guide will help you understand the power of content marketing to capture attention, build trust, and speed up B2B sales cycles—as well as how you can harness that power for your business. 

Defining B2B Content Marketing

Content marketing is the strategic creation and use of valuable, consistent, relevant content to facilitate and accelerate exceptional customer journeys (also called buyer’s journeys). Simply put, content marketing makes it easy for the right people to find, engage with, and buy from you. 

But what does this look like in practice?

Examples are all around us. Take a minute to consider one of your favorite brands, B2B or otherwise. Their product or service is surely superb, but it’s probably not the only thing that won you over. Odds are that you identify strongly with the brand itself, and know exactly what to expect whenever you interact with it. For that, you can thank content marketing.

Content, from a page on a website to a case study sent over by a sales rep, is the primary way people understand and interact with your brand. And this makes content marketers some of the most consequential actors in the B2B universe. 

Different Types of B2B Content

The term “content” is a broad one. In the context of content marketing, we’re almost always dealing with digital material, but the term refers to more or less anything a customer might consume over the course of their relationship with your business, including:

  • Web pages
  • Blogs
  • Webinars
  • Podcasts
  • Videos
  • Social media posts
  • Infographics
  • Sales collateral
  • Slide decks
  • Case studies
  • Customer testimonials
  • Data sheets
  • How-to guides
  • Email campaigns
  • Physical collateral
  • Books

B2B vs. B2C Content Marketing: What’s the Difference?

Businesses of all shapes and sizes use content marketing, and while the general principles are the same for everyone, things look different when they’re put into practice, particularly when it comes to business-to-business (B2B) versus business-to-consumer (B2C) companies.

Let’s compare the approaches of two imaginary businesses. The first, a company that designs hiking gear for pets (we’ll call them TailBlazers), is B2C, meaning they sell items directly to individual consumers. The second, a company that sells human resources software (let’s name them HeRo Technologies) to large, international companies, is business-to-business, or B2B. 

B2B Content Marketing is More Targeted.

A B2C company like TailBlazers might know that their target demographic is millennial dog owners who like to spend time outdoors. Their content, therefore, should generally appeal to anyone who shares these characteristics.

Meanwhile, HeRo Technologies’ customers likely fit into a much smaller box. For example, HeRo Tech may sell almost exclusively to VPs of Human Resources, Heads of People Operations, and COOs. They might also know that their ideal customer profile includes, say, only companies of a certain size that operate in two or more countries and employ more than 25,000 people. As a result, HeRo Tech has a much narrower view into who their customers are, what they need, and how they buy, and can design content for that particular subset. 

B2B Content Marketing Values Quality Over Quantity.

To stay top-of-mind for its customers (both new and returning), our pet supply company, TailBlazers, needs to produce a lot of material. Emails about sales and new Patagonia merch colabs, Instagram photos of corgis summiting mountains, blog posts about the best dog-friendly hiking trails in all 50 states—you get the idea. If a TikTok of a yellow lab launching itself into a lake goes viral, all the better! 

Over at our B2B software company, HeRo Tech, going viral is decidedly not the goal. Dogs aren’t going to sell SaaS, no matter how cute they are. Instead, HeRo must tell its potential customers how they can tackle the obstacles standing between them and their professional goals. To do so, they’ll need to make their case with in-depth, thoughtful material that offers real insights. That might take the form of webinars about the impacts of new anti-harassment laws, benefit planning worksheets, or thought-leadership articles about what human resources looks like in a hybrid-workplace world. 

This doesn’t mean B2B content can’t be entertaining! In fact, the best B2B content is fun to consume. But when you’re engaging people who are on the clock, your content better offer value, too.  

B2B Content Marketing is More Complex than B2C.

A potential TailBlazers customer might sign up for emails or follow social accounts for a while before making a purchase, and TailBlazers’ marketing team may employ a host of advanced customer tracking methods. But the process of browsing the website for the perfect pit-bull sized sunglasses, choosing a color, and hitting “buy now” is a relatively simple one. 

HeRo Tech faces a much steeper climb to convert a prospect into a customer. B2B buyers aren’t spending their own money; they can’t spontaneously swipe the company credit card for a shiny new product on a whim. To make a purchase, they’ll have to understand the product’s complexities, comparison-shop its competitors, and assemble an internal buying group to vet, agree on, and win approval for the purchase. This means that HeRo Tech will need to build and deploy content not only for each stage of a long and considered buying cycle, but also for all of the key players involved in the decision.

The Evolution of B2B Content Marketing

B2B content marketing has been around for centuries, but with the rise of the digital age, it went from being an idea a few people experimented with to an industry-shaking phenomenon. As consumers streamed online, an informational powershift upended  the relationship between businesses and customers. From social media to review sites, customers could now research, discuss, and comparison-shop on their own terms.

The writing was on the wall: Brand stories were being told online, with or without the companies themselves. Seemingly overnight, marketing teams began scrambling to build content engines to engage these online audiences and regain control of the narrative. 

At first, the conventional wisdom assumed that if you built it, they would come. The goal, therefore, was to push out as much content as possible and flood your corner of the internet to attract attention (and with it, the logic went, dollars). In those days, B2B content marketing looked a lot more like B2C—an exercise in attention grabbing, flashy, and voluminous content.  Today, things look a bit different.

2010s: “Brand Journalism” | 2020s: Delivering Value

For a while, some of the most popular content marketing hires were ex-journalists: folks who knew how to tell a story and write a great hook. What these teams of ex-reporters were tasked with writing varied broadly, and they were often given large purview to chase the most fun, interesting, or engaging topics for new content. 

Today, the focus is on producing content that offers the consumer concrete value. Rather than trying to pull in the largest number of eyes to any given piece of content, marketers are in the trust-building business. With so much competition (and frankly, so much subpar content) out there, it’s the B2B marketer’s job to stand out by giving their audience valuable, relevant insights that will help them do their jobs better. 

2010s: More Content | 2020s: More Strategic Content

Once upon a time, the most important thing about a content calendar was that it was full. Many companies churned out daily blogs and oodles of social posts, all in the hopes that they could flood the market and keep all eyes on them.

A regular content cadence is still important, but we also know now that content for the sake of content isn’t worth publishing. Instead of firing off ad hoc eBooks and publishing any think-piece suggested by an executive, teams are finding that a structured, strategic approach to content is both more fruitful and more manageable. The most successful content marketing operations build content around predetermined themes and strategically reuse and repurpose assets to get as much mileage out of them as possible. They also analyze their coverage so they can see where there may be gaps across key personas, industries, geographies, and funnel stages and prioritize filling the most important holes. 

2010s: Primarily Top-of-Funnel | 2020s: Full-Funnel

At the outset of digital content marketing, teams largely thought about their impact at the top of the funnel. That is to say, how they were driving engagement with prospects via blog articles, social posts, and more. Content marketing today encompasses the entire customer journey, from first touch to renwal and beyond. We’ll talk more about this in the next section. 

Maximizing Your Impact with Full-Funnel B2B Content

Back when marketing was what’s been dubbed the “pens and mugs department,” it would have been fair to categorize our efforts as being limited almost entirely to the top of the funnel. Naturally, B2B content marketers still do, and should, direct much of their efforts toward building awareness, positioning the brand, and nurturing early-stage prospects so that they’re ready to enter a buying cycle. 

But content belongs at every stage of the buyer’s journey, helping to tell a coherent, meaningful, and personalized message that makes it easy for customers to buy from you. Let’s take a closer look at content at each of the three major parts of the B2B sales funnel: 

Top-of-the-Funnel (TOFU) B2B Content: Awareness

Consider the start of the customer journey as the courtship phase. Above all else, your content should be designed to stand out from the crowd, spark a prospect’s interest, and give them a solid sense of what your company is all about

Remember, in the B2B world, this doesn’t mean that your goal is getting everyone’s attention, nor is it to get too detailed, too fast, and overwhelm a potential customer with more information than they’re ready for. Content at the top of the funnel should offer your customers real value and build their belief that you may have the expertise and tools they need to solve their particular business challenges or achieve their professional goals. 

TOFU Content Types

  • Blogs
  • Webinars
  • Ebooks and whitepapers
  • Social media posts
  • Podcasts
  • Thought leadership 
  • Videos

Middle-of-the-Funnel (MOFU) B2B Content: Consideration

During the consideration phase, prospects have already been convinced that you’re interesting enough to have on their radar. Now, it’s time to start painting a clearer picture of how you’re uniquely positioned to help. In the middle of the funnel, it’s time to elbow the other suitors aside and differentiate what makes you special. 

MOFU Content Types

  • Webinars
  • Ebooks and whitepapers
  • Quizzes and assessments
  • Slide decks
  • Case studies

Bottom-of-the-Funnel (BOFU) B2B Content: Decision

Once your prospect reaches the decision phase, it’s time to seal the deal. If you’ve made it this far, it’s likely that your potential customer is considering just a small handful of options. It’s your job to make the choice easy with clear evidence that you alone can produce the best results. Bottom-of-the-funnel content will be used by your sales team.

BOFU B2B Content Types

  • Demos
  • Product sheets
  • Case studies
  • Customer references and testimonials 

Putting Content Marketing Strategies into Practice

Now that we’ve covered the what and the why of content marketing, it’s time to get to the good stuff: how to put content marketing to work for your business. In this section, we’ll tackle the key steps of a content strategy, from planning to distribution.

1. Start with a Campaign Brief

When you have an idea for a new content initiative in mind, it can be hard not to jump right in. But even if you think it will be a redundant task, writing a campaign brief (essentially, an overview of your plan) will be well worth the time for three reasons:

  1. Strategic alignment: Ensure your project ties into larger strategic objectives and adjust it to fit better if necessary. 
  2. Reality check: Plotting out all the necessary steps and contributors will give you a more realistic sense of when things can get done, how many resources it will take to do so, and whether the results will be worth the investment.
  3. Buy-in: Identifying everyone who will play a role now means you can make sure they’re on board before work begins. Plus, having your plans in one place means higher-ups can voice their opinions now, rather than forcing you to change course further down the road. 

Key Elements of a B2B Content Marketing Campaign Brief

  • Summary: What will your project look like, broadly?
  • Audience: Who is the content for? Consider persona, geography, language, pain points, buying stage, etc.
  • Purpose: Why does it make sense to do this project? How does it align to your larger strategic goals? How will it advance your message and objectives? Why should it be a priority now?
  • Components: What will the project entail? This is a time to get detailed about all the deliverables you’ll need to produce. Beyond the primary asset, will you be building social posts? Infographics? Promotional emails? A landing page?
  • Resources: What will you need to make this idea a reality? Will you need budget to contract with a freelance writer? Access to data? Ad spend?
  • Stakeholders: Who will you need to bring in to get this content over the finish line? Do you need insights or reviews from SMEs within your organization? Graphic design support? An email list from the MOPs team?
  • Distribution strategy: How will you get this content to your intended audience? 
  • Performance metrics: What will success look like? Which key metrics will you measure?

With a brief in hand, you’ll have a roadmap to guide your project from idea to reality.

2. Create More Strategically with Content Pillars

While a campaign brief keeps your process on track, a creation strategy based on content pillars keeps your message focused, improves your SEO, and makes the job of creating new assets a whole lot easier. 

A content pillar is a meaty anchoring asset from which other content can be developed and linked. It is a key part of an effective SEO strategy, because it allows you to effectively interlink content within your website and provide deep value on a particular topic. 

If you want to see a content pillar page in action, look no further! This longform page serves overview of an important topic while linking to relevant in-depth pieces along the way. This approach allows us to talk comprehensively about B2B content marketing while also providing avenues through which readers can dive into sub-topics in greater detail. 

Key Benefits of Content Pillars

  • Efficiency: Streamline creation by building many assets out of a single anchoring asset rather than starting from scratch each time.
  • Consistency: A guiding piece of content makes it easier to keep your message consistent across everything you produce.
  • Strategy: Rallying around a primary, important idea, lets you focus on creating content that works within a strategic ecosystem rather than producing one-off, ad hoc assets. 

3. Promote and Distribute Content with Integrated Marketing Campaigns

Now that you’ve created informative, valuable content on subjects that matter to your business and your customers, it’s time to get it out into the world. Creation is, of course, an essential part of content marketing, but true content marketing strategy is also concerned with how to distribute that content. After all, the world’s greatest content is useless if it doesn’t reach the people for whom it was intended.  Generally speaking, we can divide content distribution into two categories:

  1. External: Traditional outbound marketing in which your aim is to get your content in front of your target audience via integrated campaigns that span your website, emails, and third-party channels like social media and partners.
  2. Internal: Often overlooked, stakeholders within your organization, like sales and CS, can be some of your most useful distribution channels. 

A proper integrated marketing campaign incorporates internal and external promotion to ensure your content is reaching the right people with the right message at the right time.

External: Promoting Content Directly to Your Audience

Promoting content to customers directly happens at the top of the funnel, at the stage in which marketing fully owns the relationship with potential buyers. To succeed here, you’ll need to identify where various members of your target audience spend their time and how you’ll best be able to reach them. Promotional content should flow through:

  • Your website, via articles and SEO-driven hub-and-spoke pages, like this one
  • Third-party platforms like social media and podcast feeds
  • Email campaigns, including one-off series and subscription-based newsletters
  • Third party reach like partner content, guest posts, press releases, interviews, etc. 
  • In-person events, like conferences

Which Content Should You Gate?

As you send our content out into the world, you’ll be faced with an important decision: To gate or not to gate? 

Gated content is anything that requires a would-be viewer to provide their information in exchange for access (often seen in eBook download forms and webinar registration pages). The type and amount of information required from these gates varies from simple (name and email) to complex (key pieces of information, like job title and company size, for example), which allow marketers and salespeople to determine whether you fit their ideal customer profile. 

Naturally, you want as many people to see your content as possible. But you also want to collect information about who that content is reaching. Which goal should you prioritize? 

Obstructing potential customers’ access to your content seems counterintuitive, but the value of gating content lies in the data you get in exchange. With a gate, you’ll know the moment your dream buyer starts engaging with your content, as well as what they’ve consumed, which can be invaluable insight for the sales team. Gates also collect contact information, which means you’ll be able to grow your database and stay in touch, even if a particular prospect isn’t ready to buy yet. In the perfect world, of course, prospects would announce themselves at every turn. But the reality is that marketers have to be judicious about what they put behind a form, always weighing the risk and reward.

Before you gate an asset, here are a few questions to ask:

  • Is this piece of content valuable enough? Will a prospect be willing to enter their information because they know they won’t be able to find this material anywhere else?
  • Do we have a plan to put the data we collect to good use? If it winds up gathering dust in a database, there’s no reason to gather it in the first place.
  • Are we comfortable with the fact that we’ll lose people along the way? If you believe that most of the people who drop off will be those who aren’t your target customers to begin with, it may prove to be a worthy trade-off.
  • Are we inhibiting the customer journey? Gating an eBook, for example, might restrict access to information that could spur a prospect forward, whereas an ROI calculator might be more enticing. 

External: Distributing Content Indirectly via Internal Teams

Another critical content distribution channel? Your colleagues. Customer-facing teams like sales, customer success, renewals, and consulting use content to start and continue conversations, build credibility, educate, and move customers through the funnel. 

Helping them access it is where things get tricky. 

If you’re not careful, most folks in your company will end up with a few favorite (and possibly out-of-date) assets saved to their desktops, or worse, simply create their own material. Avoiding this unfortunate state of affairs requires a central, up-to-date content repository in which people can browse, search, and discover suggested material. To build a repository that works, you’ll need to ensure it’s reliably current and easy to navigate. The right content metadata (tags that indicate who it’s for, what topics it covers, and when it should be deployed) can make a big difference. 

It’s also important to communicate the value of content internally. Celebrate launches of key assets, host trainings, and help customer-facing teams understand how content can help them be successful. 

Measuring Success: Which B2B Content Marketing Metrics Matter?

You’ve planned, created, and distributed your content. But one crucial step remains: Measurement. You can’t just toss new content out into the world and hope it’s done what you wanted it to. At least, you can’t do so without leaving a whole lot of valuable insight on the table. If you know which content works and which falls flat, you’ll have the tools you need to be more strategic as you plan and create content in the future. 

But “How’s my content performing?” is a deceptively simple question. 

The most immediately obvious numbers, like asset downloads, page views, and social media post engagement, are useful as leading indicators, but they don’t tell the whole story. In fact, these numbers can sometimes be misleading if the people engaging with your material have zero chance of buying from you. For a more nuanced look, consider:

  • Who is interacting with your content. Is it a bunch of random people who will never be in the market for your products or services? Or is it a relatively small number of your exact target persona?
  • How well your SEO is performing. Does your site rank highly for key search terms? 
  • How much revenue is associated with particular pages and assets. In what percentage of closed-won deals did a customer interact with each piece of content? How often are customer-facing teams using content to support their deals? How many actual dollars can you attribute to each piece?

Identifying the right metrics is all about staying clear eyed about your mandate as a B2B marketing team. You aren’t just here to get people’s attention—you’re here to help move people through their buying journeys. When you zero in on the metrics that actually indicate success in that realm, you’ll get a clearer picture of which content is making a difference…and which is just making noise. 

Does that Answer Your Question on ‘What is Content Marketing?’

Content is the lifeblood of the B2B buyer’s journey. Marketing teams that wield content strategically across the funnel can build trust, accelerate sales processes, and contribute directly to their companies’ bottom lines. At this point, you should understand what makes B2B content marketing unique, what it looks like across stages of the customer journey, and how you can maximize its impact.  Whether you’re a writer, strategist, or overseeing the entire B2B content marketing operation, you have the power to transform the way prospects and customers interact with your brand and create better outcomes for everyone. 

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