How B2B Marketers Can Get Closer to Their Customers

Professional with cellphone and laptops image.

Last year I finished up my fifth full year as a B2B marketer. A lot has changed in that half decade.

When I started, there was a growing movement: “B2B marketing doesn’t have to be boring.” 

Now we’ve finally moved on to, “B2B marketing can’t afford to be boring.” We’ve finally acknowledged that B2B buyers are people — they want useful information, they want to be entertained, and they’re just as bored by corporate-speak-laden white papers as everyone else.

To our credit, I think marketers already knew this. We just had to convince the rest of the organization. 

For the most part,  we marketers have more leeway to choose the best way to reach our audience. And, of course, with that freedom comes responsibility. 

How do we hit the sweet spot of what our audience wants to hear, and what our brand is trying to get across? How do we give them that value that inspires reciprocity?

Here’s how B2B marketers can get closer to their audience in 2021.

#1: Ask the Sales Team

Let’s make 2021 the year we finally ditch the sales v. marketing mentality for good. Tighter alignment between the members of the Revenue Squad can only benefit everyone. 

The sales team has a wealth of insights about your target audience. They’re the ones taking meetings, answering questions, talking one-on-one with members of the buying committee.

In short, sales can tell you where the sticking points are, where more persuasion is needed, and what type of content ultimately sways people toward a purchase. Tight alignment with sales will make your content more relevant to your audience and more useful for your sales team.

#2: Flip the Script on SEO 

Are you still thinking of SEO as, “The way to get search engines to recommend our content?” If so, it’s time to update that mentality. 

The most valuable function of keyword research right now is to determine what humans are searching for and how those queries are worded. It’s all about guiding content creation to match your audience’s demand, from the planning stages through execution.

The best SEO strategy is to create content that genuinely meets — and exceeds — your audience’s needs. If your content doesn’t meet a proven need, no amount of keyword stuffing or H1 tagging will grant it visibility.

Make your keyword research a tool for understanding your audience. What do they want? How are they trying to find it? How can you be the best answer?

“The most valuable function of keyword research right now is to determine what humans are searching for and how those queries are worded.” — Joshua Nite @NiteWrites Click To Tweet

#3: Broaden Your Horizons

B2B buyers don’t spend their entire waking lives thinking about work. If we want to know our audiences better, we need to think about the broader context of their lives, too. 

When we see our potential buyers more holistically, we have a much broader canvas for relevant content. We can talk about maintaining work-life balance, the challenges of remote work, even the challenges that working parents face in relating to their children.  

Any topic for content is relevant, provided that 1) Your employees or brand has expertise on it, and 2) It serves to make your audience’s life better in some meaningful way. 

If you’ve been stuck writing “X more reasons you should try our solution” style content, let this broader context inspire you to write more useful, helpful content that takes the whole person into consideration.

#4: Explore Influence

At the heart of it, marketers are trying to earn people’s attention. It makes perfect sense to take lessons from the folks who have already captured that interest — people who are already engaging and serving your target audience.

Tools like Traackr and Buzzsumo can help you determine which voices your audience is listening to. From there, you can see what type of content they’re creating, how they’re capturing interest, and let that inform your own content creation.

And, of course, you can take it to the next level: Co-creating content with these influencers and reaching their audience directly (see our 2020 State of B2B Influencer Marketing report for more).

#5: Above All, Be Useful

When we see our target audience as people, rather than B2B buyers (or a target audience, for that matter), we can begin to practice truly radical empathy. Not just the empathy that lets us walk in someone’s shoes long enough to sell them something, either. 

I mean the type of empathy that leads us to find out how to improve their personal and professional lives, to be genuinely useful, to lift people up because we care about them. Content that sets out with this aim in mind is guaranteed to pull you and your customers closer together.

And, of course, helping people and caring about their success is a great way to earn attention, build relationships, and develop long-standing loyalty to your brand.

“Helping people and caring about their success is a great way to earn attention, build relationships, and develop long-standing loyalty to your brand.” — Joshua Nite @NiteWrites Click To Tweet 

In fact, it may be the only way we have left to do all of the above.

Need help creating content that gets you closer to your customers? We’ve got you covered.

How To Move From A Pilot B2B Influencer Marketing Program to Always-On Success

Light Bulb Turned On

It sure is a good thing that the internet turns off at 10:00 PM every night, and doesn’t flip back on until 8:00 in the morning. And thankfully, business buyers completely tune out after they finish work, which is always at 5 o’clock sharp in this world of reliable and universally consistent routine.

Marketers and brands would really have their hands full if these things weren’t true.

Wait, what’s that? None of them are remotely true?

Welcome to the World of Always-On

There is no off-switch. The internet is open for business 24 hours a day. Buyers and decision makers are engaging with content in unpredictable patterns, thrown further askew by the pandemic-driven disruption of workday archetypes. An increasingly lengthy and complex buyer’s journey challenges B2B marketing strategies to be more versatile, agile, and perpetually present than ever before.

“There is no off-switch. The internet is open for business 24 hours a day. Buyers and decision makers are engaging with content in unpredictable patterns.” @NickNelsonMN #AlwaysOn #B2Bmarketing Click To Tweet

Earlier this month, Howard J. Sewell wrote at Business 2 Community about marketing success and the accident of timing.

“For more companies than not, marketing success is rarely about convincing a given individual, on a given day, to buy what it is you’re selling,” he argues. “Rather, it’s a question of being the company that the buyer finds, or thinks of first, when the relevant need occurs.”

This essentially makes the case for adopting always-on marketing programs, which are gaining traction as more organizations see the value. It’s a convention that can apply to many different elements of a strategy, including (and especially) influencer marketing.

Today we’ll explore taking the step from pilot B2B influencer marketing program to always-on success — why and how?

Taking B2B Influencer Marketing from Pilot to Autopilot

Running a pilot program is a great way to get a feel for influencer marketing and validate it as a smart tactic for your organization. Earlier this year I shared tips for jumpstarting a pilot B2B influencer marketing program in five steps, which included:

  1. Get buy-in throughout the organization
  2. Compile a list of influencers who align with your brand
  3. Start priming influencer relationships
  4. Integrate B2B influencer marketing into your strategy
  5. Co-create a piece of content with one or more influencers

The key here is not to treat influencer engagements as one-off, transactional encounters. As TopRank Marketing CEO Lee Odden put it during an interview for the Social Media Marketing Live Streaming Show over the summer, “If you only have one interaction with an influencer and then you don’t ever see that person until the next time you need them, that leaves the influencer feeling very transactional, and not very special.”

Running a pilot program doesn’t need to entail a long-term commitment to influencer marketing in your strategy, but it should always be built on a long-term, relationship-building mindset.

This sets you up to take the next step: from pilot to autopilot, where your always-on influencer program becomes a self-sustaining community of genuine brand advocacy and affinity. That’s not to say it’ll become completely hands-off — maintaining and nurturing influencer relationships takes work, as do the collaborative efforts with these influencers that drive business results — but once you’ve laid proper groundwork and set a clear vision, much of the heavy lifting is done.

Lee makes this point in explaining why always-on influence costs less and provides better ROI. Some things he recommends keeping in mind:

  • Pay-to-play doesn’t always pay off: Organic relationship-building can take a little more time and effort up front, but tends to be far less expensive than one-off, paid influencer campaigns, with much greater all-around value.
  • Old friends know the brand ropes: Deeper ongoing engagements with influencers leads to better mutual understanding of needs and guidelines, with less hand-holding required.
  • Return on relationships: Building authentic relationships with influential experts in your industry yields word-of-mouth and proactive advocacy benefits that money can’t buy.
  • Repurpose with a purpose: Always-on programs bring new efficiencies in terms of repurposing and refreshing co-created content in ways that support the brand, influencer, and audience.
  • Advocacy at scale: Developing and strengthening relationships over time leads to compounding benefits, as trust grows and new contacts enter the fold.

When considering these advantages, it comes as no real shock that — according to the 2020 State of B2B Influencer Marketing Reportonly 5% marketers who do periodic campaigns are very successful vs. 60% of marketers who implement always-on influencer marketing programs. That is a sizable chasm.

“Being ‘always-on’ has allowed our team to build meaningful relationships with influencers,” says Garnor Morantes, Group Marketing Manager for LinkedIn (a TopRank Marketing client) in the report. “This approach means that the relationship ceases to be ‘transactional’ (what can you do for us) when we’re in a state of ongoing activity. Because of this foundation, we are in a situation where, when urgency strikes, we’ve been able to immediately activate influencers, whether it be for private, direct, unfiltered feedback and consult, or for external, public-facing advocacy and amplification.”

““Being ‘always-on’ has allowed our team to build meaningful relationships with influencers.” Garnor Morantes of @LinkedIn #InfluencerMarketing #AlwaysOn Click To Tweet

That’s the kind of marketing engine built for our modern-day environment, where buyers and decision makers are essentially active and consuming content round-the-clock, seven days a week. An always-on influencer strategy allows brands to be reactive, nimble, and responsive to change. You can learn more about LinkedIn’s successful program in our case study.

LinkedIn Case Study Image

Take the Next Step with Always-On Influence

The good news is that a properly executed pilot influencer marketing program — one focused on relationship-building and brand synergy — helps facilitate the transition to an always-on program that can become a pillar of your marketing strategy. At TopRank Marketing, we’re happy to help out with whichever stage of the journey you’re in.

Check out the 2020 State of B2B Influencer Marketing Report to learn more about always-on influence, why it makes sense, and how to make it work. Reach out to us if you’re ready to get rolling.

B2B Marketing Technology in 2021: 5 Key Focuses

Marketer Using Laptop Keyboard

If the 1982 movie Blade Runner and its dystopian depiction of what the world would look like in 2019 were accurate, this is what we’d have been living through last year:


Needless to say, our predictions of society’s future state, and technology’s long-term evolution, are not always on the money. While certain aspects of Blade Runner’s vision might’ve been frighteningly accurate, Los Angeles is not yet inhabited by flying cars or giant video advertisements projected onto the entirety of skyscrapers.

With that said, today’s marketers can much more easily look ahead to 2021 — suddenly only a few short months away — and make educated guesses about what the year will hold. Many of the marketing technologies that will transform business and drive strategies are already on the rise, if not gaining mainstream traction.

Martech 2021: 5 Trends to for B2B Marketers to Watch

Businesses and marketing departments might be facing spending restrictions and budget cuts amidst the turmoil of 2020, but marketing technology is not an area that’s widely being affected. On the contrary, in fact: The latest Pulse Survey from ClickZ found that marketing technology budget shares rose from 32% to 42% between May and late July.

Where are organizations investing, and which technologies will rule the roost in the coming year? Here are five evidenced trends I’ll be following:

1 — Content experiences are at the forefront

In ClickZ’s research, this is the category that was leading marketing technology’s growth here in 2020.

“People being indoors and looking for new ways to educate themselves about the current climate and consumer content can safely be considered as one of the reasons businesses are tirelessly looking to enhance their target audiences’ experience,” wrote Kamaljeet Kalsi.

ClickZ Image


This isn’t such a novel concept — TopRank Marketing CEO Lee Odden was among those preaching experiences as the future of content marketing many years ago — but technology is continually improving our ability to deliver content in ways that are more interactive, immersive, and impactful.

I think back to last week’s blog post on storytelling, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s assertion that video games offer the most promise on this front. Technology will continue to bring more capabilities to the table in terms of gamification, interactivity, and innovation.

Making content consumers feel like participants rather than onlookers holds the key to heightened engagement.

2 — Facilitating a socially distant world

Will there be in-person events in 2021? It’s possible but doesn’t feel very likely right now — certainly not at the scale of annual conferences and summits we’ve come to love. As brands keep working to build relationships with prospects and customers from a distance, technology will need to do much of the heavy lifting.

We’ve already seen some great new tools and capabilities arise this year in terms of teleconferencing, live-streaming, and virtual events. What else might emerge, with a litany of tech companies now centering their focuses on what has suddenly become a ubiquitous need?

In a way, this development helps to level the playing field for smaller businesses. While it may not be feasible for a startup sales enablement shop to organize a massive gathering like Dreamforce, bringing people together through interactive virtual events is a different story. In fact, this format can actually make it easier to follow up, convert, and attribute results concretely.

It’s not just about technology that helps engage customers from afar. It’s also about technology that helps marketers collaborate and work together in distributed settings. And adopting these tools will benefit companies and agencies long-term, because the remote work trend was already on the rise long before COVID struck.

In 2021, marketers will truly equip themselves for the future of work. We’re already well on our way; according to a recent survey, “companies reported that responding to the new circumstances of the pandemic accelerated their digital communications strategy by 6 years on average.”

“As brands keep working to build relationships with prospects and customers from a distance, technology will need to do much of the heavy lifting.” — Nick Nelson @NickNelsonMN Click To Tweet

3 — Data privacy and cybersecurity gain urgency

Data exploitation became a huge story after the 2016 election, and I regret to inform you it’s likely to bubble up again this fall. Even outside of that, cybersecurity has been a growing concern for many years and becomes all the more pertinent as customer data is increasingly decentralized and cloud-based.

While these matters have often fallen under the purview of IT in the past, marketing needs to have a seat at the table and a voice in the discussion. Sending a convincing message that it’s safe to do business with your brand — sensitive data won’t be shared, lost, stolen, or misused — and backing it up is essential to building trust in the new world of business.

4 — Simplicity and synchronicity are vital 

In its latest marketing technology landscape visualization, Chief Martech charted some 8,000 different solutions in the wild. Eight thousand!

ChiefMartec Image

The beauty of this vast landscape is that marketing technologies now exist to address almost any need imaginable. The downside, of course, is that the sheer volume and range of options can feel completely overwhelming. The balance between not enough martech and too much martech is a delicate one.

In the near future, streamlining will be the name of the game. How can you carve down your tech stack to the true essentials? Which solutions can cover multiple needs for your team? How can you solicit a continuous feedback loop so users are able to openly communicate when a tool isn’t working for them, and action is taken rapidly?

Finding the answers to these questions will help marketing organizations find greater efficiency and effectiveness with martech in 2021.

“The balance between not enough martech and too much martech is a delicate one.” — Nick Nelson @NickNelsonMN Click To Tweet

5 — Artificial intelligence keeps growing and embedding

The buzz around marketing technology seems to vary from month to month, with a new category or niche entering and then exiting the spotlight. One that never seems to lose its luster, however, is AI. This is because the technology is powerful and endlessly applicable.

We already see AI being widely leveraged in modern marketing strategies — chatbots, predictive analytics, deep learning, etc. — but the potential remains so much greater, and I believe we’ll continue to see it realized in the coming year. One threadline I’ll be keeping a close eye on is formative AI, cited as a trend driving Gartner’s hype cycle of emerging technologies in 2020.

“Formative AI is a type of AI capable of dynamically changing to respond to a situation,” according to Gartner. “There are a variety of types, ranging from AI that can dynamically adapt over time to technologies that can generate novel models to solve specific problems.”

How could formative AI come into play for marketing in order to drive more personalized and memorable B2B marketing experiences? Go ahead and dream on it. That’s what separates us from the machines, after all. (Or at least one of the differences pondered by Blade Runner and its source material.)

Marketing Technology Will Always Have Its Place

This chaotic year of 2020 has served to reinforce the immense value of technology in my day-to-day. Without having easy access to chat apps, video-conferencing platforms, shared documents, and other digital tools, a day in the life of a content marketer during the pandemic would be far more challenging and inefficient. Instead, I’m basically able to do my job seamlessly without much disruption, other than the lack of seeing my coworkers’ faces IRL.

I do miss that very much, and for all the talk about technologies to watch in 2021, I’m most hopeful for a return to semi-normal human interaction and physical proximity. Up until then, and after, martech will help us continue to keep audiences (and ourselves) educated, entertained, engaged and connected through the digital space.

I don’t know about flying cars or skyscraper billboards, but I can say with confidence that the future of marketing and its technologies is going to look a lot more like 2020 than any years preceding.

For more insight into what the next year may hold, click over to our post from Lane Ellis on 8 Things B2B Marketers Need To Know About Reddit in 2021.

Break Free B2B Marketing: Latane Conant of 6sense on Reinventing the CMO Role

Latane Conant

What’s in a job title? In my tenure as a marketer, I’ve met gurus who don’t live on mountaintops, ninjas who don’t know martial arts, and evangelists who don’t preach on Sunday. 

At worst, these creative job titles are pure puffery. But at best, they serve as a statement of purpose. I’m thinking of titles like Shep Hyken’s Chief Amazement Officer, or Ann Handley as Chief Content Officer: They tell us something about what the person — and their organization — values.

Latne Conant from 6sense has a subtly unusual job title: Chief Market Officer. She dropped the ‘ing’ from ‘Marketing,’ and that tiny change signals a major shift in the way she approaches her job. Instead of focusing on the verb of marketing — what tactics to deploy to reach an audience —  her job is to deeply understand the market, the people her brand is trying to reach.

For Latane, getting rid of that ‘ing’ makes all the difference in turning marketers into revenue-generating dynamos. In her Break Free B2B interview with our president and co-founder Susan Misukanis, Latane elaborated on how 6sense’s approach is unique, what technologies they use, and how they’ve achieved some truly impressive results.

“If I am engaging accounts more effectively than my competition, I will generate more pipeline, I’ll win more often, I’ll have bigger deals, and I will set my relationship off with those customers better.” #B2BMarketing @LataneConant… Click To Tweet

Break Free B2B Interview with Latane Conant

Timeline and Highlights

:58 – How can CMOs better understand customer insight in the age of the “dark funnel?”

2:52 – Changing focus from the tactics of marketing to knowing your audience

4:00 – The Chief Market Officer – losing the “ing”

6:45 – Not accepting limitations in pursuing a career

7:29 – Getting what you want is easy; knowing what you want is hard

8:30 – The Fun Factor in managing a team

9:00 V2MOM and organization

10:15 – If you’re not effing up, you’re not pushing the envelope hard enough

12:21 – Inverting the org chart — leading from the bottom

13:45 – Leads are not the primary measure of success

16:10 – Marketing is a revenue team

17:25 – Engagement is the new oil

18:45 – The new standard for marketing executives


You were recently quoted saying that today’s CMOs need to be the masters of understanding customer insights and putting them to use. So are CMOs progressing in this area of insights, or is it just still a massive black hole, and that’s why you’re preaching? 


Well, first of all, I hope I would never seem preachy, because we are all in this together, we’re all in the black hole together. I think the challenge that we have is only 13% of sales and marketing teams have any confidence in their data, because it’s primarily opportunity data in CRM, or it’s map data, which is basically lead-based. 

And if you think about the buying journey, most of it happens anonymously, or what we at 6sense call your “dark funnel.” So that’s where all the rich research is really happening. 

No one’s coming to your website and downloading your content anymore. It’s also a buying team. It’s not a lead or contact, and buyer journeys aren’t linear. So you think about this new modern buying journey, which is anonymous. It’s a buying team, not a leader contact, and it’s not linear. And you look at the tools that we have at our disposal as CMOs, and it’s sort of like we are a Model T trying to get to the moon. 

And so thinking about the black hole, it’s really looking for platforms that are AI and big data based. Because at the end of the day, even if you’re amazing, your data is gonna suck, and it’s okay. So I think admit that all our data sucks. Yeah, we’ve got to marry our data up with a much bigger platform and be able to understand that anonymous activity so we have a true picture of this nonlinear buying journey. Once you have that, you can start to re-imagine a better what I call prospect experience.

How do you manage your teams and get them motivated? How do you hold the bar where you hold it?

I would say the first thing is I’m clear that my expectations are high. And I’m very clear in the interview process, that my expectations are going to be very, very high. And you have to want that! Some people don’t want that. So the first thing is, do you want to do good work or do you want to do great work? And it is okay if this is not the gig for you. So I think that’s the first level of it.

The second level of it is, I really believe in having fun. So my old CEO, Chris Barban, taught me this: He said, eight out of 10 working days, you must be having fun. And that’s we call the fun factor. And so everyone on my team, what’s your fun factor? And if it’s not an eight, what’s going on, but it’s also up to me to bring the fun, right? To say, hey, let’s go grab a soulcycle class or let’s go for a run or let’s — you know what, we’re all strung out — let’s do something fun together. So, I think having fun and enjoying each other is allowed. We laugh a lot. We joke around a lot. 

And then the third really key thing for me is a strategic planning process that I use called V2MOM. And it originated with Salesforce. But it’s now really popular — a lot of tech companies use it and I’ve used it at two companies now, and two of the boards that I work on have adopted it, and it’s all about prioritization. 

I don’t know if I can cuss on this show, but I consulted The CMOs that I work with, from an advisory perspective, I say you have to know what you give an F about. And know what you don’t give an F about, because you can’t give an F about everything. So what V2MOM forces is everything is time-bound, and everything is prioritized. 

So I have high expectations for these things. I don’t care. Don’t wait. Like, if you’re spending one second over there — that’s not going to be an excuse for missing on this. And we all agree to those priorities every single quarter. So it’s very clear what we’re doing and we’re gonna do it right.

I actually just changed my title to Chief Market Officer. And it’s an important distinction that a lady who was actually on our board — who’s amazing, her name is Christine Heckard, And she’s been a CMO. And now she’s the CEO. And she’s talked a lot about the role of the CMO. And we have gotten ourselves really mired down in ‘ing.’ “I did a blog, I did webinars, look at all these MQLs I pass to sales, here’s my funnel, here’s my tech stack.” That is all ing ing ing. 

Her challenge to CMOs is to redefine that. We are the seat at the table that needs to understand the market. That is customers today and customers tomorrow. That’s why this audience-first approach and understanding the market, then you can apply the ing. But it’s not a cheap financing offer sir or cheap selling officer. We sort of diminished our role by not taking that seat at the table. 

Stay tuned to the TopRank Marketing Blog and subscribe to our YouTube channel for more Break Free B2B interviews. Here are a few more highlights from this season:

Classic Marketing Insights to Celebrate the Internet’s 50th Birthday

High-tech image of Earth from space with connected communication lines.

The collection of technologies that make it possible for you to read this are now 50 years old, as the Internet recently celebrated its first half-century milestone, and we wanted to mark the occasion by sharing a selection of top digital marketing and tech insights from the 1960s to 2020 and beyond.

Starting with the 1960s and working our way through the 2010s, we’ll explore some of the classic technology and marketing that has become synonymous with the Internet, and we’ll also look ahead to an unknown but surely fascinating future.

Decade 1 — The 1960s

The 1960s.

On October 29, 1969 the first online message was sent, between computers at UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute, using ARPANET — which would eventually morph into the Internet we know today.

The first message was planned to be the command “login,” however the system crashed upon typing in the second letter.

A second attempt at sending “login” was made — this time successfully, infamously cementing “LOL” as the first three characters ever sent online, combining the “lo” from the first failed message and the “l” from the start of the successful second message.


Early researchers and users of the ARPANET and the computers it eventually linked paved the way for what would become the Internet and — decades later — the Web, and some had keen insight into the possibilities of the new online technology.

In the 1968 publication “The Computer as a Communication Device,” Internet pioneers Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider (1915–1990) and Robert W. Taylor (1932–2017) wrote:

We believe that we are entering a technological age in which we will be able to interact with the richness of living information-not merely in the passive way that we have become accustomed to using books and libraries, but as active participants in an ongoing process, bringing something to it through our interaction with it, and not simply receiving something from it by our connection to it.” (Kurzweil Library)

The Web and the rise of social media revolutionized and globalized the type of ongoing online interactions Licklider and Taylor predicted more than 50 years ago, and they also went on to change the face and future of marketing.

Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard offered up an early technology industry marketing quote that’s still relevant today:

“Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department.” — David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard Click To Tweet

Marketing departments are vastly different today than when the first “LOL” was sent in 1969, however, utilizing ever-growing numbers of digital and traditional channels and techniques, and offering expanded methods such as content marketing that even Packard may have admired.

An even earlier visionary in predicting online possibilities is philosopher and sociologist Ted Nelson, who coined the term “hypertext.” In 1960 his Project Xanadu sought to create a global computer publishing system using hypertext linking to build a universal library, an idea that was a forerunner to what would become the Web.

Decade 2 — The 1970s

The 1970s.

The 1970s brought the first e-mail, e-commerce systems, secure online transaction processing, and the bulletin board system (BBS), the true precursor to the Web.

Ward Christensen is the father of the BBS, programming the CBBS software during a Chicago blizzard in 1978, and also the creator of the XMODEM protocol that made early file transfers easier.

“CBBS was certainly the most fun programming project ever,” Christensen has said. “My original idea of a message system was to have users contribute articles for our [computer] club newsletter, but as it formed, a message system seemed more interesting,” he added. (Slashdot)

Christensen’s BBS technology grew to connect personal computer users around the world in a way that had never been seen in people’s own homes, freeing information exchange from the often-exclusive hold that educational, military, and government computers had previously held.

An early e-commerce patent was filed in 1972, while 1976 brought secure online transaction processing for financial institutions, and in 1979 the first online shopping system was demonstrated. Here’s a 1977 ARPANET logic map, showing popular computer nodes of the day such as the PDP-11:

1977 ARPANET Map

In the world of marketing, the 1970s brought the creation of so-called synergy marketing, and the amount of ads consumers saw daily grew.

“The more you tell, the more you sell.” — David Ogilvy Click To Tweet

The American Association of Advertising Agencies has estimated that in the 1970s the average U.S. consumer was exposed to some 1,600 daily ads, with just 12 of those generating a reaction.

The 1970s also saw the rise of  “positioning” as a top marketing strategy, and 7UP’s famous “Un-Cola” campaign sought to take market share away from industry leader Coca-Cola, eventually doubling 7UP’s sales. (AdAge)

The campaign went on to become one of the most famous campaigns of the twentieth century, as Duke University explored in “Uncola: Seven-Up, Counterculture and the Making of an American Brand.”

Here’s one of the Un-Cola videos:

The “un” theme is still used today, as 40 years later marketer Scott Stratten published his “UnMarketing” and “UnSelling” books, as our CEO Lee Odden explored in a 2014 interview here.

“Focus on the stories behind the logo — create current positive experiences and long-lasting ‘wow’s to delight and move your market into comfort and loyalty.” — Scott Stratten @unmarketing Click To Tweet

Decade 3 — The 1980s

The 1980s

The 1980s saw the first development of database marketing, the precursor to the powerful customer relationship management (CRM) and social media marketing systems we have today.

The ‘80s also saw the emergence of relationship marketing, guerrilla marketing, desktop publishing, and the first computer-oriented spam — although some claim to have encountered spam in the late ‘70s.

In 1983 the film “Wargames” came out, and for teenagers like me it was an early mainstream exposure to home computer modems and online hacking. A year later I bought a Commodore 64 computer and a modem and started my own BBS, which I operated until 1990.


Here’s a screen-shot from my old BBS:

BBS Login Screen

Marketers often point to Apple’s Macintosh-debut television commercial as not only one of the top ads of the 1980s but of all time, having been selected by both Advertising Age and TV Guide as the greatest commercial ever.

Perhaps one of the best commercials and marketing strategies of all time was the Orwellian Apple Macintosh advertisement entitled ‘1984,’ which launched the Macintosh revolution. The one-time airing of the 60-second spot during the 1984 Super Bowl became a watershed of American advertising.” (AdAge)

Here’s the commercial, which ran during the 1984 Super Bowl:

In the briefing for the commercial, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said, “I want to stop the world in its tracks.” (Adweek)

“I want to stop the world in its tracks.” — Steve Jobs Click To Tweet

Decade 4 — The 1990s

The 1990s

With the 1990s came the launch of the World Wide Web and its first webpages, the incorporation of Google and Amazon, the first forays into SEO (Search Engine Optimization), viral marketing, CRM, and Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC).

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web, one of his biggest goals was to make it easier for people to find information on the Internet — an ambition that has undoubtedly seen tremendous success perhaps beyond any other technology in history.

The Web as I envisaged it, we have not seen it yet. The future is still so much bigger than the past. — Sir Tim Berners-Lee @timberners_lee Click To Tweet

Decade 5 — The 2000s

The 2000s

The decade of the 2000s saw the emergence and meteoric rise of social media, as LinkedIn (client) and MySpace launched in 2003, Facebook in 2004, and Twitter in 2006. It also brought the widespread use of integrated marketing.

One Internet pioneer who has worked at the forefront of online technology since the 1960s is Vinton Cerf, who in 1973 co-developed the TCP/IP protocol that the Internet uses, and who has worked for Google since 2005 as a vice president and chief Internet evangelist.

With such a lengthy history in technology, Cerf still finds time to look ahead. “I’d like to know what the Internet is going to look like in 2050. Thinking about it makes me wish I were eight years old.” (Esquire)

“The closer you look at something,the more complex it seems to be.” — Vinton Cerf @vgcerf Click To Tweet

Decade 6 — The 2010s

The 2010s.

The 2010s have so far seen the continued development of influencer marketing, the founding of Instagram in 2010, Pinterest in 2011, and TikTok in 2017, the latest in a history of marketing that stretches back over 1,000 years.

“Make your customer the hero of your stories.” — Ann Handley @MarketingProfs Click To Tweet

Happy 50th birthday, Internet, and here’s to a marketing and tech future filled with continuing innovation, meaningful storytelling, and even more powerful connections.

We’ve also taken time this year to look ahead to the trends and tactics that will unfurl in 2020 and beyond. Here are five recent articles to help your marketing efforts as we take online marketing into its next 50 years.

Break Free B2B Series: Amanda Todorovich on Creating Content that Pays Off

Amanda Todorovich is the Senior Director of Health Content at Cleveland Clinic. That title kind of undersells what she did over there. She turned a neglected blog into a revenue stream. That’s right –  something that is generating money and is getting over 7 million visitors a month. Now Amanda is a true believer, like our agency, in the power of audience-centered content.

She is living proof that investing in this kind of content pays off. Join us in learning more from Amanda. She is one of the leading lights and is at the vanguard of next-generation content marketers, and we are thrilled to speak with her. View the entire interview below.

Below are a few of our favorite snippets from the interview.

Sue: Recently on your Twitter channel, you retweeted that Cleveland Clinic has monetized its blog successfully. Can you share details?

Amanda: Sure. So we actually started monetizing the site in 2015. We started really small – experimental at that point. We were getting about 3 million visits a month. And we started with a Google pilot, like, let’s just slap up some Google ads and see what we get. If we get any kind of negative reaction internally, or we see a drop in traffic, which we didn’t basically, we got no reaction because people are so used to seeing ads, I think that they just accepted it.

So that was fine. But it’s a lot of work. And as a nonprofit, there were a lot of rules around what we couldn’t have as advertising on our site, and managing that was a lot of work and for not a very high payoff. So we knew that we could do it, we knew that it wouldn’t really affect our traffic much. But, we knew that we needed to think about it a little differently, so we partnered with another publisher very well. They sell and manage all of our inventory. Since then, we’ve tripled our ad revenue and we definitely have evolved and expanded our monetization efforts outside of just our health center’s blog into our constant PT physician blog, as well as our health library content. So it’s revenue that comes directly back into our marketing division, and supports a lot of the work that we’re doing now.

Sue: In terms of SEO, where’s your focus in terms of your really big concepts.

Amanda: SEO has evolved a lot for us over the years and honestly, I just formally took responsibility for our overall SEO strategy this year. It used to be a whole separate thing. So we were trying to work through that and, you know, it had its challenges. Plus, it wasn’t a real big focus for us. Over the years, we’ve shifted from where 60% to 70% of our traffic was coming from social media. Today 80 to 90% comes from organic search. Our SEO strategy today is extremely data-driven, the way that we prioritize the work and the way that we look at what we’re going to focus our time and effort on is really around a couple of things – competitive analysis and content gaps that we have, as well as the difficulty for ranking. Where do we have an opportunity with existing content to potentially climb the ladder a little easier with some tweaking? Now, it’s also a little bit more around assembling a comprehensive, integrated team, and not just from an editorial writing perspective, but from a multimedia perspective. What animation, illustration, and video imagery can we bring to that page to make it the best experience on the internet.

Sue: You retweeted this from one of your team members, and I love this- “Yes, content campaigns are the devil.” So your integrated marketing campaign, it’s focused on selling to customers?

Amanda: I think it’s really important content marketing is not a campaign, it’s not a project, it’s not a one-off. We like to talk about our content channels and process like products, you know, you really need to invest in them. It’s a long-term strategy. It’s something that you really have to think about how you build a long-term committed relationship with that user – it’s not a one-and-done. There’s never really an end to it. It’s continuous and iterative.

It’s imperative that people understand that content marketing isn’t a fling, it’s not a blip, it’s not done and move on to the next. Again, we talk a lot about optimizing existing content, reaching the right people with your content, being hyper-relevant, making it amazing. That’s the focus. That’s how you have to think about it. Because the start and ends and start and stops and buying for a campaign – all these different people and departments slow you way down, and your audience sees through it. People are savvy and smart. They know when something is meant to sell. You really have to be careful with that. Most kinds of marketing programs are about relationships and trust-building. And every time you take a step or stab at that, it dilutes again, your results and your ability to be successful.

Be sure to listen to the full interview above to get all of Amanda Todorovich’s insights as we B2B marketers “Break Free”.

Class Is In Session: 8 Opportunities From the 2020 B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks Report

Anyone who went to public school as a kid remembers Report Card Day. Sometimes, it was a day to celebrate — to see the results of our efforts written down in black and white, suitable for framing. Sometimes it was a sobering reminder of a misspent semester cutting class to browse the local CD shop (or was that just me?). 

I get the same vibe from the annual B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends – North America Report from Content Marking Institute (CMI) and MarketingProfs. We can rejoice in big improvements and gains. (More of us are documenting our content marketing strategy! Good for us!) And, of course, we can also see where we could benefit from study hall.

If you find you’re on the wrong side of these stats, there’s good news. You don’t have to show this content marketing report card to your parents. No one’s getting grounded for underperforming. Better yet, the report is also a handy guide for improvement! So let’s take a look at some of the key takeaways that can help you move to the head of the class.

B2B Content Marketing Opportunities for Improvement

Unlike a report card, this report can actually help you improve your grade for next year. It highlights the inconsistencies between what we say we want, and what we’re actually doing. And it shows what the most effective marketers are doing differently.

Opportunity Type 1: What We Say Versus What We Do

Are your content marketing practices consistent with your goals? If not, you’re not alone. Here are four opportunities for your team to stop working at cross purposes with itself.

#1: Are You Building a Subscription Base?

The vast majority of survey respondents (87%) agreed that email newsletters were the highest performing tactic for lead nurturing. Given marketers’ ever-pressing need to prove ROI and seamlessly get customers all the way through the funnel, that means we should be focusing on successfully building subscribers for those newsletters, right?

However, less than half of respondents (45%) said their content marketing efforts were successful in building a subscribed audience. Top performers are doing better, but there’s still a lot of opportunity — 68% have had success.

While building a “subscribed audience” can certainly go beyond a traditional newsletter list (e.g. YouTube, blog RSS feeds, etc.), the email implications and opportunities are real.

As my colleague Nick Nelson so elqouently stated in his recent post Email Marketing is NOT Dead, But It Needs Rejuvenation: “Email marketing is alive and well… This channel can still be a key fixture in your content strategy if you give it the care and attention it deserves.”

#2: Are You Creating Content for the Customer Journey?

I will do my best not to lecture here. As a father of a 10-year-old and 4-year-old, lecturing is a reflex action, but I’ll do my best. But folks:

Less than half of respondents said they’re creating content for specific stages in the customer journey. Only 48% are making it happen.

New Report: Less than half of B2B marketers are creating content for specific stages in the customer journey. @CMIContent @MarketingProfs #B2BContentMarketing Click To Tweet

That means 52% are not guiding their audience to take logical next steps that lead to a sale. That means 52% are not actually doing content marketing. They’re just creating content. 

Content marketing requires knowing who your audience is, where you want them to go, and what steps they will need to take to get there. However, only 32% of respondents say they will prioritize getting to know their audience better in 2020. 

If you’re not creating content beyond the top of the funnel, your homework is to take the time to gain deeper audience insights to develop a strategy for meeting your prospects and customers wherever they are in their journey.

#3: Are You Using Your Budget Effectively (And Can You Prove It?)

The content marketing gold rush of the early 00s is a distant memory. Nearly 40%  of respondents said their content marketing budget would stay the same or decrease compared to last year. About a third said their budget would increase, but by less than 9%.

I’m sure 100% of these respondents believe they could do better with a bigger budget. So why are the purse strings so tight?

The best way to get more marketing budget is to show results from your existing budget. But only 43% said they measure content marketing ROI. And of that 43%, less than two-thirds said they were excellent or very good at measuring.

New Report: Only 43% of B2B marketers say they measure content marketing ROI. @CMIContent @MarketingProfs #B2BContent Marketing Click To Tweet

Marketers need to elevate our profession by tying our efforts directly to revenue. We have the data and the tools to show the dollar value of every optimized blog post or influencer asset. Even top-of-funnel tactics can tie to ROI. 

Marketers need to elevate our profession by tying our efforts directly to revenue. @NiteWrites Click To Tweet

If you know your expected conversion rate for each stage of the funnel, and you can properly attribute those conversions, and you know the value of a sales-qualified lead, you can express your value directly in dollars and cents. Which, as we know, is the native language of the folks who sign off on budget proposals.

Read: How to Rally Around ROI and Prioritize Your Digital Marketing Efforts in the Face of Budget Cuts

#4: Are You Pursuing Sophistication?

First, the good news: 69% of marketers say they are more successful now compared to one year ago. However, that perceived increase doesn’t correspond with an increase in sophistication. Only 9% say they’re truly sophisticated, with the ability to provide accurate measurement and scale across the organization.

If your results are improving, but you’re not pursuing sophistication, those gains are likely to be temporary. Without the ability to scale, there’s a hard limit to what you can accomplish. Without the ability to measure ROI, your budget is likely to stagnate, even if you’re getting results.

To keep growing your program, expanding and exploring new opportunities, even chasing a few shiny objects, it’s crucial to aim for increasing sophistication.

Opportunity Type 2: Borrowing from Top Performers

The other way to identify opportunities is to look at how tactics vary between the most successful and least successful respondents. What are these butt-kicking marketers doing that the rest of us haven’t picked up on yet?

Here are four attributes of the most successful marketers that are the least common in the less successful.

#1: Delivering Relevant Content

Here’s a breaking news item: It’s hard to have a successful content marketing program without delivering “relevant content, when and where a person is most likely to see it.” So it’s no surprise 93% of top performers are doing just that, while only 37% of least successful can pull it off.

Delivering relevant content starts with audience and SEO research to create best-answer content. Then it means distributing said content through paid, organic, and influencer channels to get it to the right audience.

#2: Providing Optimal Experiences

Eighty-three percent of top performers can provide optimal experiences across the customer’s engagement journey. Only 23% of less successful marketers say the same. 

What does it mean to provide optimal experience? It goes beyond just creating great content. It means knowing every stage of your customers’ journey, knowing who they are and what they need to hear. And it’s focusing on what they need, not just what you want them to know.

Creating a great customer experience goes beyond creating great content. It means knowing every stage of your customers’ journey, knowing who they are and what they need to hear. @NiteWrites Click To Tweet

#3: Documenting Content Marketing Strategy

I’ll be brief: Only 16% of the least successful folks have a documented content marketing strategy, while 69% of the most successful have one. It’s one of the strongest correlations in the whole report and has been for at least the five years I’ve been covering it.

Make a thoughtful and data-informed plan and write it down. Please. Don’t make Joe Pulizzi cry.

#4: Committing Budget

On average, according to the report, the most successful programs have double the budget of less successful programs. 

That doesn’t mean that throwing money at your content is automatically going to make it more successful, of course. It’s more likely that the top performers are better able to justify their budget, prove their results, and inspire more investment. That kind of success builds on itself.

So if better results get you more budget to invest in better results, how do you get on the cycle of improvement in the first place? 

It all comes back to measurement. Bake your measurement — metrics, KPIs and goals — into your content creation. From vanity metrics like page views down to dollars-and-cents, measurement is key to both improving your results and showing your work when you pitch next year’s budget.

What Will Next Year’s Report Card Look Like?

If you felt nervous looking at the B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks this year, now’s the time to start planning for next year. Invest in closing the opportunity gaps in your marketing efforts, increase your audience knowledge, pursue sophistication, and measure, measure, measure.

With a more strategic outlook (and a documented content marketing strategy — can’t stress that enough) you can anticipate the 2021 benchmark report with the serene confidence of a 4.0 student. 

Tighten up your core marketing strategy with advice and insights from some of the industry’s best and brightest. Check out our interactive B2B Marketing Fitness eBook featuring 16 B2B marketers.

B2B Marketing Experts

Imagine What’s Possible: Top Insights & Favorite Marketing Moments From #MPB2B 2019

If we had to describe the experience at this year’s MarketingProfs B2B Forum in one word, we would probably have to go with “neighborly.”

Yes, this vibe was intentionally embedded by the event organizers, who constructed the main stage and supporting elements at MPB2B around a “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” theme. But the speakers and attendees at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center all did their parts to foster a helpful, friendly, and kind environment. 

As a result, we’ve returned home with our mental batteries recharged, full of inspiration and motivation to help our clients, partners, audience, and coworkers achieve new heights with B2B marketing strategy.

So hang your coat up on the rack, untie your shoes, and settle in for ways that you can reimagine the way your team approaches events and to read our most memorable moments from a few beautiful days in the MPB2B neighborhood.

7 Ways to Reimagine How Teams Approach Industry Events

Amping up the Audience Pre-Event

Leading up to MPB2B, our team created some killer content to help whet the appetite of conference attendees. Below you can find each of these awesome experiences: 

MPB2B Speaker Interviews

As part of the pre-MPB2B experience, our CEO Lee Odden conducted these fascinating video interviews with some of the top event speakers to dig deeper into their expertise and top insights. 

Ann Handley on Being a ‘Badaxe’ Marketer

Interview Ann Handley

Jay Baer on Employee Generated Content

Jay Baer Interview

Ty Heath on Optimizing ABM & Social Sales with LinkedIn

Ty Heath Interview B2B Marketing

Neen James on How to Make Attention Pay

Neen James Interview

Interactive Experience

Struggling to whip your content marketing into shape? Our team tapped into the minds of 16 speakers to get their top tips for improving content performance.

B2B Marketing Fitness: 16 B2B Experts Share Top Tips for Optimized Performance

B2B Marketing Fitness

MPB2B Top 50

Which speakers are walking the walk and talking the talk? This list from the team at TopRank Marketing includes an analysis of MPB2B speakers to identify which speakers are most topically relevant, have great network engagement with on-topic content and overall network size and reach. 

50 Top B2B Marketing Influencers, Experts & Speakers in 2019

B2B Marketing Influencers 2019

Sharing Expertise with Attendees

When you spend every day with the people you work with, you recognize that they are smart and talented, but are they influential? Lee shared an idea a few years ago that has always stuck with me: 

“Everyone is influential about something.”

And one of the ways to showcase your team smarts is to participate as a speaker at industry events like MarketingProfs B2B Forum. And yes, while speaking may not be for everyone (and does require a certain level of effort to build your presence, pitch speaking ideas and comfort speaking in front of a crowd), it can be an excellent way to evangelize a message that aligns with attendee needs. This year at MPB2B we had two team members that took the stage. 

Lee Odden – CEO, TopRank Marketing

First up, our CEO Lee Odden helped attendees get their content marketing into shape with a talk titled: Content Marketing Fitness – 10 Exercise to Build Your Marketing Beach Body. Here are some of the top attendee takeaways from Lee’s session: 

Ashley Zeckman – Senior Director of Digital Strategy, TopRank Marketing

I also had the honor of presenting again this year and shared a whimsical look at creating and scaling B2B influencer marketing programs with a talk titled: Through the Looking-Glass – Enter a New World of Successful, Always-On Influencer Marketing. Here were some of my favorite tweets from the audience: 

Most Talked About at MPB2B

Chris Penn, the master of data/data visualization created one of his famous interactive maps showcasing who was most talked about at this year’s event. I was excited to see that our brand, our clients Amisha Gandhi and Konstanze Alex, as well as Lee and I, were both mentioned. 

Covering Stellar Sessions

When attending an event like this one, it is IMPOSSIBLE to see everything. That’s why you’ll see our team furiously typing and publishing session coverage throughout the conference. A very special shout out to TopRank Marketing’s Nick Nelson for his amazing session coverage at MPB2B!

Breaking Down Barriers for Healthy B2B Marketing with Lee Odden #MPB2B

As we alluded to earlier, Lee presented an energy-packed and informative session on B2B marketing fitness that enthusiastically wove his personal journal of losing 65 pounds during the course of a year together with how to best deliver long-term marketing fitness and health.

Lee’s B2B marketing acumen and prowess are among the best in the business, and both were on display as he shared a powerful array of actionable tactics for handling the barriers to healthy marketing, including methods that can lead to breakthroughs in the areas of delivering sustained growth using always-on marketing, integrated strategy, empathetic content planning, and more.

A Journey Through Always-On Influencer Marketing with Ashley Zeckman #MPB2B

Ashley Zeckman Presenting at MPB2B 2019

In my session, we covered the ins-and-outs of always-on influencer marketing strategy. Taking my cue and inspiration from Alice in Wonderland, we explored the whimsical world that is always-on influencer marketing, sharing a connected, relationship-based approach to scalable influencer success — from finding your topical sweet spot and identifying a balanced mix of influencers to creating a repeatable engagement model.

The Truth About Marketing Personalization, According to Arm Treasure Data’s Tom Treanor #MPB2B

Arm Treasure Data’s Global Head of Marketing Tom Treanor presented a spirited session that looked deeply at the vast power and occasional perils of B2B marketing personalization.

Tom explored the changing B2B customer journey and how personalization is more of a critical challenge now than ever, and offered up a series of informative examples from global leaders in personalization, along with how the greatest successes come from those who can use data to work in a way that’s smarter, wider, deeper, and faster.

Tom also shared a selection of the tools and technologies he uses to simplify B2B marketing personalization and dug into how the right timing and context play key roles in getting it all right.

A Primer on Combining Account-Based Marketing and Social Selling, from LinkedIn’s Ty Heath #MPB2B

LinkedIn’s Ty Heath led a fascinating and informative session on how account-based marketing (ABM) and social selling align for a better B2B strategy in a complex world where the lines between sales and marketing have significantly blurred.

Ty shared smartly-aligned ABM and social selling tactics, tools, and insights for creating a professional brand, by focusing on the right prospects, engaging with insights, and building trusted relationships — ranging from social media cues to demographic data, and she even previewed some of the new relevant features forthcoming from LinkedIn.

Tales from the B2B Influencer Marketing Trenches with Leaders from Dell & SAP #MPB2B

Konstanze Alex and Janine Wegner of Dell and Amisha Gandhi of SAP combined to present a powerful and information-packed session on the latest B2B influencer marketing insights from their respective firms, and each explored how a keen understanding of influence can provide measurable business success.

Konstanze, Janine, and Amisha each shared their own first-hand experiences building successful and scalable influencer marketing programs, and dug highlighted specific must-haves such as setting the right objectives, finding influencers who align with the values of your organization, gaining leadership buy-in, and nurturing relationships for long-term value.

How Intuit Surmounted Stagnating Lead Gen with Customer Insight

Intuit Digital Director Brian Hood led a thorough presentation on how customer insights can pair with data to significantly improve and rejuvenate lead generation, while also looking at customer empathy’s growing role.

Brian shared how both prospect and customer observation contribute to lead generation innovation, and how smart testing contributes to hitting existing goals and achieving new levels of success.

Connecting with Clients

Events also provide a great opportunity to connect with clients that you might not get to see as often as you’d like. We were excited to spend some quality face-to-face time with our clients from Dell, SAP, LinkedIn, Arm Treasure Data, Antea Group and Prophix at this event. 

Connecting Speakers Around a Unified Idea

Our friends and clients at LinkedIn did a fantastic job of taking the online experience offline by hosting fun, intimate happy hour for many of the speakers that we partner with as part of this program.

This event was a great opportunity to spend some quality time getting to know more about these industry experts and also provided them an opportunity to connect with each other prior to day 1 of the conference. Thank you to Garnor Morantes and Judy Tian for hosting this phenomenal gathering. 

Saying Thank You

The team at TopRank Marketing also hosted our own special event for clients, partners, speakers and friends at MPB2B. This has become somewhat of a tradition and something we all look forward to. In addition to breaking bread together, it gives us all an opportunity to get closer and exchange lessons in marketing and in life. Thank you to everyone who made this an epic experience!

Creating Content for the Future

Have we mentioned how important it is to take advantage of in-person interactions? Over the course of two days, Susan Misukanis and Kelly Hogan from our team interviewed 13 speakers, clients and attendees from the event. Thank you to all of you for taking the time to sit down with our team and share your smarts!

Thank You All!

I must say, it truly was a beautiful two days in the B2B marketing neighborhood at MPB2B. Thank you to the entire MarketingProfs team for putting on a great event, the amazing attendees for bringing your energy and questions, the phenomenal speakers for helping educate our community, our clients for spending time talk through programs and to Ann Handley…the woman who brings us all together. 

Disclosure: Dell, LinkedIn, SAP and Arm Treasure Data are TopRank Marketing clients. 

Content Marketing Interview: Annie Granatstein on Creating Emotionally Engaging Content Experiences #CMWorld

Interview with Annie Granasteing of The Washington Post

We are all products of our environments, and the experiences we carry are invariably influential to the way we approach and think about our jobs. 

Recently we shared an interview with Margaret Magnarelli, who spent nearly a decade as a magazine editor before moving into a content marketing leadership role. With her background in journalism, she offers important perspective for marketers everywhere.

The same is true for Annie Granatstein, who lives at the center of the convergence between investigative journalism and brand marketing. Annie runs The Washington Post’s BrandStudio unit, which takes The Post’s award-winning proclivity for immersive digital storytelling and leverages it on behalf of brands and advertisers.

Peruse BrandStudio’s archive and you’ll find a wide range of multimedia techniques applied to bring stories to life. These include 360-degree environments, photo tours, augmented reality applications, choose-your-own-adventure journeys, and more. With the theme of this year’s Content Marketing World being show-stopping experiences that delight our audiences, the work being done by Annie’s team deserves our full attention.

She was one of the CMWorld speakers who contributed to our interactive conference preview experience, where she proclaims that engaging our audiences emotionally should be an utmost priority. 

The Greatest Content Marketing Show on Earth

In her extended interview with TopRank Marketing, Annie elaborates on how BrandStudio is pursuing this objective, with plenty of examples and insights to illustrate.

Annie Granatstein on Immersive, Emotional Content Experiences

1. What do your day-to-day duties as Head of WP BrandStudio entail? 

I oversee a multi-disciplinary team of content strategists, writers, editors, interactive designers, developers, program managers, producers, and social media and onsite performance strategists. We work together to conceive, create, and promote branded content programs for Washington Post advertisers that are story-first, data-driven, technology-forward. On any given day I move between pre- and post-sale, and also between high-level management and hands-on creative oversight. So I might spend some time developing business strategy or strategizing team structure and then move to editing an article, giving notes on a video cut, or providing creative direction on proposals.

2. Compelling stories are table stakes for content marketers these days. To stand out, we need to elevate these narratives through more immersive and engaging experiences. How can we all better embrace this central philosophy of BrandStudio?

The key to creating more immersive experiences is collaboration between different types of talent. As a content leader you must find ways to continuously encourage and improve that collaboration. One way we’ve done this is by creating multi-disciplinary initiatives such as our Emerging Media Taskforce. 

This group of about eight creatives from across the Studio’s disciplines gets together once a month to discuss which innovations in storytelling are most promising, plan for researching and prototyping them, and report back to each other. Innovations such as in-browser AR and development of proprietary emotion recognition technology arose out of this Taskforce. We then can use these innovations to create out-of-the-box content for advertisers. One example is we used the emotion recognition technology in a 360 campaign for Mike’s Hard Lemonade where our audience was able to see how good news affects their emotions in digital content (see The Good News Effect) and at an exciting experiential event.

In addition, it’s essential to use data to show advertisers the ROI of immersive experiences. For example, we have found that immersive experiences tend to drive higher time spent, and we’ll show this data to advertisers to encourage them to invest in this type of content. 

The key to creating more immersive experiences is collaboration between different types of talent. @anniegranat Click To Tweet

3. Your team uses a variety of multimedia techniques to bring content to life, including 360-degree experiences, photo tours, motion graphics, illustrated articles, and more. Which formats and features do you see as most promising and versatile in the marketing world?

It’s all about what works best on mobile since the majority are engaging with content on the small screen. Certain interactive experiences are truly mobile-friendly or even mobile-first such as 360 experiences which can be navigated with your finger or by moving your phone. 

Augmented reality is still fledgling but exciting as it’s truly mobile-first, and recent technological developments have allowed for the experiences to be available in-browser (versus in-app), reaching a larger audience. For MGM National Harbor, for example, we enhanced an article about cherry blossom season with an AR experience of cherry trees blossoming through your phone (open Hanami at Home on your mobile device). As we made this experience available in browser we saw 4x the scale of AR experiences only available on the Washington Post app. 

Custom podcasts are also a great way to reach people on mobile—deeply. We’ve had a lot of success engaging audiences for long periods of time with a variety of podcasts, including multiple seasons of a personal finance podcast for T. Rowe Price, The Confident Wallet, which garnered six-figure downloads and 4.5/5-star average ratings on Apple Podcasts.

Custom podcasts are a great way to reach people on mobile—deeply. We’ve had a lot of success engaging audiences for long periods of time with a variety of podcasts. @anniegranat Click To Tweet

4. Given the diversity of topics you cover, what are some steps BrandStudio takes to better understand specific audiences, and what might resonate most with them?

So many! Understanding The Post’s different audiences is a number one priority for the team. The better we know our audience, the better we can create content that resonates with them, providing more value to our advertisers.

We tap into many data sources, like content performance and audience interest surveys. We test experiences in our UX Lab. We derive insights from this data to understand what will resonate with different audiences. We also think of our audience in three categories — consumer, business, and thought leader — and use these insights to dive deep into the characteristics, interests, and content habits of each. We then use these insights to inform the story, content type, and distribution tactics.

5. Can you cite one or two of BrandStudio’s most successful and well-received programs, adding your perspective on what made them pop with audiences?

For Optum insurance, we created a multimedia investigative feature on the opioid crisis, Working to End the Epidemic, that blended educational elements such as infographics and interactive maps to inform our audience of the scope of the epidemic with emotional, human elements such as video interviews with recovering addicts and treatment providers. 

The program was incredibly successful, garnering high time spent, a flurry of social media activity (including organic tweets from important influencers such as Katie Couric), earned media (named to the top of Ad Age best branded content partnerships list), and awards. This blend of educational and emotional elements on a pressing topic resonates deeply with our intellectually curious and highly intelligent audience.

6. Which speakers and/or sessions are you most looking forward to seeing at this year’s Content Marketing World?

I’m always interested to hear the perspectives of folks leading content inside brands since it’s the flipside of my perspective running a publisher-based content studio. So, really looking forward to talks from execs, such as:

  • Maliha Aqeel, Assistant Director of Brand, Marketing & Communication, Ernst & Young
  • Carlos Abler, Leader of Content Marketing Strategy, 3M
  • Ann Bakuniene-Milanowski, Director of Editorial, Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic is also a valued, long-term partner of WP BrandStudio and The Washington Post overall. We have created truly innovative and important content together such as this multimedia feature on treating brain disorders as we age, Keeping Your Mind.

More Memorable Stories Await

You’ll be able to witness plenty of of immersive storytelling on-stage at Content Marketing World 2019, and you’ll definitely want to check out Annie’s session on Sept. 4 at 11:20 a.m.: Speaking Their Language: How to Engage Different Types of Audiences with Content that is Uniquely Meaningful.

Until then, you’ll find plenty of uniquely meaningful content (plus a couple of fun games to play) in our interactive experience, The Greatest Content Marketing Show on Earth!

How to Refocus on Your Audience for Better Content Marketing Results

Clearly focused eyeglasses on a blurry background image.

Is your content audience-centric?

“Of course it is!” Says the hypothetical person I just made up. “We do intensive research for all our content. We look at questions our audience is asking, we hit up SEMrush and BuzzSumo…our content is all about our audience!”

Marvel's Thor sarcastically asks "But is it, though?"

Here’s the big question:

Beyond learning about your brand, which will enrich their lives in many exciting ways, what is your consumer getting out of your content? 

Creating or deepening a brand relationship can’t be the only reason your content exists. Raising brand awareness can’t be the only reason your content exists. That’s not audience-centric content. People will quickly realize that and move on.

Most marketers want to offer a genuine value exchange to our consumers. We’re not shriveled-hearted gargoyles trying to trick people into paying attention to us. 

But it’s easy to think you’re putting the audience first, when it’s really the brand in the spotlight.

What follows are four questions that marketers commonly ask when creating content. These questions are crucial to content strategy — I’m not saying to throw them out. But let’s follow each one up with a question designed to center the content on the consumer. 

Four New Questions to Ask for Audience-Centric Content

Make these new questions part of your content planning process, before you blog a single word or create a single promotional tweet. The answers will vary depending on your industry, your audience and their goals. It’s the asking that will help keep the balance between customer and brand-centered content.

1. Earning Attention

We Ask: “How can we get people’s attention?”

One of the fundamental challenges of modern content marketing is simply getting anyone to look at the content. People are distracted; every brand is creating content, and most of it is pretty good. Amplification is at least half of the battle for any content marketing.

We Should ALSO Ask: “How can we reward people’s attention?”

Note this is not the same as “what message about our brand should people take away from this content.” This is the promise your content makes to the consumer. What new skill, new idea, or more efficient way of polishing billiard balls are you giving them? 

And yes, I know, this is content marketing 101 stuff. But it’s something that’s easy to lose sight of — the fundamental value exchange at the heart of content marketing. Make it part of your content planning. Add it to your template: “What promise are we making, and how are we fulfilling it?”

2. The Next Step

We Ask: “What action do we want people to take?”

Content marketing should inspire action. If we don’t know what next step we want people to take, we’re not marketing — we’re just publishing content for funsies. So this is a central question to content marketing that meets KPIs.

We Should ALSO Ask: “What action can we help people take?”

So a customer comes to your website, reads your latest asset, fills out a form, and gets on your mailing list. That’s a win for the brand. What constitutes a win for the customer? What is the next step in their personal development, professional development, or career path? How can your brand and your content help them take that next step?

For example: Our client Prophix, a finance software company, wanted to get the word out about their new PowerPoint integration functionality (brand goal). Together we helped address a bigger issue: Finance leaders need to give better presentations to have more influence in the company. We created a page where people can learn how to be better presenters. Instead of devoting the page to promoting Prophix’s new feature, we devoted it to making finance folks better at their jobs. 

And here’s the kicker: All that audience-focused content led to stellar results for the brand goal, too.

3. The Purpose

We Ask: “How can we raise brand awareness?”

Familiarity with a brand is a big part of making a purchase decision. That’s especially true in B2B. Your family might take a chance on a new brand of soda, but your business likely wants a well-known, trusted name for a multi-million dollar purchase. For many of our clients, just getting their name in front of people, building awareness and credibility, is a big goal.

We Should ALSO Ask: “Why would people want to be aware of our brand?”

If you’re looking to establish a relationship with your customers, what are you bringing to that relationship? We can’t be the one who sits on the couch playing video games while the other person does all the cooking and cleaning. 

What higher purpose makes your brand inspiring, uplifting, worthy of being aware of? Here’s your challenge: Write a secondary mission statement for the brand that doesn’t mention your product or service area at all. Before you try to raise awareness and build relationships, discover the values that will make your brand attractive.

4. The Long-Term Goals

We Ask, “How do we define success for our marketing efforts?”

Measurement and optimization are the building blocks of exceptional marketing. We should always have a clear idea of what success looks like to measure against and optimize toward. That means establishing KPIs, the metrics to measure them, and benchmarks to compare progress. We use a combination of industry benchmark results from campaigns with similar clients for comparison purposes.

We Should ALSO ask: “How do we define success for our audience?”

This question ties in with the purpose question. It requires your brand to have values beyond your product offering, values that reach out to customers even outside of their brand interactions. If your company truly prizes your customers and is dedicated to helping them succeed, what does that success look like?

Think about what your marketing would look like if you had as strategic a plan for your audience as you do for your business. “This content will help them look great in front of their boss. This campaign will help build the confidence they need to get promoted. This content will put them on the executive track.” 

Imagine measuring your audience success along with your content’s KPIs. Of course, we may not go as far as to stalk people on LinkedIn to see if our content is helping them… but plan your content as though you were.

Audience-Centered Content Gets Results

You don’t have to choose whether your content will serve your marketing goals or the customer’s needs. Best-answer content that puts the customer first will do more for your marketing goals than the most aggressively promotional content you can imagine.

Most marketers start off with an audience-focused mindset. But it’s easy to get caught up in promotion, in moving people through the funnel, and lose sight of what value you’re offering consumers in return.

Before you start the next content planning session, take a step back, ask these new questions, and confirm that you’re focused on your audience, rather than asking your audience to focus on you.

Learn how audience-focused content helped the SAP App Center boost engagement by 116%.