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Relevance, Resources, Relationships: How to Create a B2B Content Marketing Strategy

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In 1895, John Deere, the agricultural machinery company, debuted a slight publication called The Furrow targeted at farmers and ranchers. Back then, The Furrow was a simple newsletter containing pen-and ink-drawings, articles about farming techniques, ads for new plows, and a section tailored for women readers that featured products like cream separators. Fast-forward 118 years to today: The Furrow is still published - albeit in glossy form, complete with its own website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed. It has circulation of 1.5 million.

The Furrow is one of the earliest examples of content marketing, an approach that involves creating, distributing, and exchanging information to attract, engage, and retain a clearly defined audience, with the ultimate goal of driving sales. According to a recent survey by the Content Marketing Institute (CMI), 91% of North American B2B marketers use content marketing as part of their current marketing strategy.

Information has always been a great way to connect with consumers, establish credibility, and gain trust. And today, with advances in digital technology and the increasingly fast-paced and competitive nature of the global business environment, it is even more vital. Decisions have to be made quickly and we are inundated with information--not all of it trustworthy. Disseminating knowledge in an honest, credible, and neutral way keeps the customers you already have loyal and helps win over the ones you're trying to entice.

What makes for great B2B content marketing? The content must be sharp, trustworthy, and relevant to your customers' business decisions. This will also help your salespeople sustain relationships with existing customers and generate solid potential leads. Below are some tips--a set of best practices if you will--for creating a smart content marketing strategy.

Become a relevant source of expertise for your customers. The aim of content marketing is to become a trusted source of useful information that your customer seeks out to run his or her business better. Begin by defining your customers' areas of interest. If you run a medical supply company, say, the areas your customers are concerned about might be health department licensing, distribution technologies, or warehouse issues. Based on these areas, figure out where to develop your business' expert content.

The information you provide must be cutting-edge and visionary--and importantly, honest and unbiased. If you run a diverse portfolio, be attuned to the nuances of your different customer segments. Go as granular as you can with specific content given your resource constraints.

IBM has done well here. It recently started an "influencer program" geared toward the midsize business market. The company has assembled a group of bloggers who include business partners, IT analysts, and authors. These "influencers" focus on IBM's business priorities like cloud computing, business analytics, data security, and virtualization. According to Leslie Reiser, IBM's Program Director for Digital Marketing Worldwide, the influencers: "have independent followings and a network." In an interview with the CMI, she says: "By leveraging their very balanced, objective opinions and educating them on our portfolio suite, we can educate the broader marketplace and drive that relevance and, ultimately, the profit that we desire."

Use your resources wisely. Once you've identified where to focus, next determine the human and economic resources needed to execute your strategy. Do you need external bodies, or can your current employees handle the job? What kinds of digital and non-digital vehicles do you need to put your plan of action in place? What metrics will you use to assess the success of your strategies?

SAP, the German software company, is an example of a firm that uses its existing resources to brilliant effect. In a recent article in Fast Company, Hubertus Kuelps, SAP's head of global communications, describes how the company uses its employees as brand ambassadors. "It's not about the seven spokespeople in our PR department but in how we can use our 60,000 employees as communicators, and how many folks within the company can produce content."

A paid sponsorship through Forbes.com provides SAP with a blogging platform that several dozen employees regularly post to on topics from work-life balance to reverse psychology to leadership. Last year, that sponsorship produced over one million page views, SAP says.

Build a relationship with your customer; don't hawk products. Content marketing is a wonderful way to forge relationships with current clients and prospective ones. To do this, you need to build a foundation of trust. The content you offer cannot be self-serving. The minute your content starts to look, feel, and smell like a sales pitch your customers become skeptical.

Follow the lead of American Express. In 2007, the financial services company launched OPEN Forum, an online community for small business owners to share insights, get advice from experts, and build connections with fellow entrepreneurs. Canned marketing messages extolling the virtues of an Amex card do not exist here. Rather, the tool is packed with productivity tips, tax advice, and articles on topics such as how to run meetings more effectively and how to travel for business more efficiently. According to a case study, OPEN received more than 10.5 million page views in 2010.

A well-executed content marketing strategy can be invaluable in attracting, acquiring, and retaining customers. Effective engagement involves the three R's: wisely using resources to create relevancy and build relational bonds. After all, it is deep relationships with customers based on company experience that differentiates businesses and allows them to thrive in the long-term.

Sharmila C. Chatterjee is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing and the Academic Head for the Enterprise Management Track at the MIT Sloan School of Management