Today’s interview is with Deanna Cioppa, Director of Strategy Services at Contently.
Contently is the world’s leading content marketing platform and powers the content programmes of a huge number of household brands. As Director of Strategy Services, Deanna helps their clients create world-class content strategies. So who better to speak to about that very topic within B2B?
Deanna, thank you so much for joining us.
First question then. From your experience, what do the companies that make the best use of the Contently software have in common? And do you find that that varies between consumer and B2B or are the principles pretty universal?
Deanna: Well, first and foremost, I do believe the principles are carried, whether you’re B2B or B2C, I think that there’s nuance involved. But if I were to come up with a list of traits or behaviours that those organisations engage in, I would say buy-in is essential first. And by that, I mean buy-in to storytelling or content culture from the top, right? So those brands that I see produce content that actually drives marketing objectives, that drives business objectives and that delivers value to their audience, do so more efficiently when there is an understanding up and down the hierarchy as to why content matters, why giving people content that either helps them do their job better or helps them pursue a passion of theirs matters, right? From a brand perspective. And quite often we’re working with clients to help them deliver that message internally and help them gain that buy-in.
But once that happens, a lot of the red tape that we normally encounter, or that our clients normally encounter, rather seems to fall away in terms of how many pairs of stakeholder eyes need to be on a piece before it goes out, how long does it need to live in legal and compliance before it gets published? Where are we okay taking risks versus not? So I think that buy-in is critical. It’s really hard to create and scale a content programme without that, but I’d say only just inches behind that would be an understanding and a commitment to delivering on what the audience wants. And that means of course, first and foremost, understanding who your audience is, not just as a set of marketing personas, which is fine, you absolutely need that, but as a content consumers. So where do they live habitually to consume content? What kind of topics and subtopics are they most interested in talking about or ingesting? What are the unanswered questions they have that they’re searching for answers for and how do they prefer to ingest that information?
And that kind of goes to format and channel and story angle, things like this, but it’s buy-in from the top down and a deep understanding and a commitment to audience value from the bottom up, I think are two critical pillars for even getting to the point where you’re using our platform to do what it’s meant to do, which is to help you scale, help you create content efficiently, source ideas from a creative marketplace of freelancers. You’ve got to have those things in place first.
Dan: When people stop working with the Contently platform, do you ever find there’s a tendency for them to almost hope that the tech is going to do it all for them and actually they can sort of bypass some of that research process and they don’t necessarily need to, as you say, develop that really kind of robust understanding of who it is they’re trying to build that relationship with. Do you ever find that there’s ever that slight challenge there?
Deanna: Sure. You know, there’s a reason that I think some of our clients and some brands get going with us and then six months in, they decide to engage with us on content strategy services. Because they realised that there are gaps in their knowledge, whether that’s an understanding of who their audience is, as like I said, as content consumers, whether it’s an understanding of the gaps in the content market, if you will, the areas where their competitors have saturated audiences attention and brains and areas where there are still opportunities. Whether it’s an understanding of their own content inventory, what they have and what they can make the most use of.
If you approach it as though the tech is going to do everything for you – I wish it could. Why not? I mean, make my job easier, but, no, if the tech is the science, I think the rest of it that we’ve been talking about is the art. Right. And we are very much proponents of an art and science approach.
Dan: For sure. Well, it’s a good job because otherwise a lot of us would be out of jobs. Right. So I guess, yeah. Be careful what you wish for.
I sometimes feel like maybe in the consumer space, people are sometimes a little bit more prepared to take a bit of a long-term view to things and say, look, we’re going to do the hard work. We’re going to commit to a long-term strategy because we know what the power of brand looks like. And we know that if we can go on that journey, we know the great things that that’s going to amount to in 12, 18, 24 months from now. Sometimes in B2B, there can be, you know, understandably so, a relentless focus on short to medium-term ROI. And do you find that there’s a slightly different kind of philosophy there? And if so, what challenge can that present from your perspective?
Deanna: Sure. Well, it’s ironic, isn’t it? Right? Because in so far as sales cycles go, your B2B sales cycle can be excruciatingly long, right? So there needs to be a commitment to creating nurture streams and content paths for your audience.
But I think broadly you’re absolutely right. I think that first of all, consumer brands that have really committed to content programmes are splashy, big. They spend a lot of money over time, so they’re more visible and there’s more of this idea of, well, that’s kind of creative. That is something that we do. That’s what B2C is, that’s for consumers, that’s for people buying bikes and cribs and sides of beef or whatever people buy, maybe all in one day.
On the B2B side, I think you’re right that the drive toward ROI means that they have traditionally relied on mid and bottom funnel tactics.Everything is sales enablement – create urgency, get them to buy – case study after case study after case study. And there’s absolutely a place for that. But people don’t start at the bottom of the funnel as B2B buyers, right? B2B normally entails a lot of research, a lot of consideration, which means you need to meet an audience where they’re starting their research, which, you know, varies industry to industry, but it’s not necessarily at the brand name. They’re searching for solutions to problems or thought leadership in areas, and they don’t have a brand in mind yet. So that’s why organic search becomes so important. And that necessitates a top funnel content programme that again, talks about the issues and topics that the B2B buyer is interested in without getting into brand right off the top. Without talking about precise solutions that they offer right off the top.
We also know that doing that engenders trust within the B2B buyer, especially for those high consideration, high research purposes. And then that in the long-term, that trust and brand building, helps decrease price sensitivity and things like that. So there is a line from that top funnel content to the bottom line. It just takes, I think, a little bit more of a circuitous route than you get in the B2C space.
And, you know, that price sensitivity, that’s not my research. That’s Les Binet on your side of the pond. Who’s done some of that great work around brand building, but I think it’s yeah, that would be the primary that I say.
Dan: Do you think that may explain why sometimes – and I’m not sure if you’d necessarily have access to any data on this, so don’t worry if it’s a slightly unfair question – but I just wonder if that may go some way towards explaining as well, why very often in the B2B space, there might be a willingness to create great content because they don’t want to be associated with something it’s going to cheapen their brand, but it’s not necessarily matched by a willingness to then invest properly in the promotion of that content.
So most consumer brands, whatever they spend on a great piece of content, they’re probably then allocating, 3, 4, 5 times that to the media to actually get it out there, whereas in the B2B space, they may not even be willing to spend 4% or 5% on what they spent on the content. It can just be the notion of investing properly in media spend can just be anathema, in my experience, to some of these people, I’m probably exaggerating things slightly and probably being a bit unfair. But I just wonder if that might tie into what you’re explaining there.
Deanna: Yeah. I don’t think you’re being unfair at all. In fact, I’ve dealt with this with – I’ve dealt with it, like it’s some great hardship -I’ve addressed this with several clients in the past. Without a proper distribution strategy, your content is sort of pointless, right.
I mean, distribution and promotion, I think go hand in hand. So, yes, I have seen, whether it’s an unwillingness to invest or simply an ignorance of what you’re supposed to do once you’ve built this premium piece of content, I’m not sure. But the end result is that there’s a lot of really good B2B premium pieces that never see the light of day in any meaningful sense, right. They don’t end up in a paid campaign on LinkedIn. There’s no money put behind them. And that’s a real shame because when you do work with a brand that is willing to put the money into creating an ecosystem of content, it’s a shame to see it just live fallow.
Dan: For sure. I mean, sometimes I think they’d be better off creating less stuff, but promoting it properly, right?
Deanna: Oh, you’re absolutely right. I mean, there’s a lot of content on the B2B and B2C side these days. And part of the reason that I’m passionate about content strategy is not just for performance, but for efficiency and cost savings. I think the proper content strategy and the proper attention to distribution lead to an efficient and economic content programme, which is to say not over-producing and creating content for the sake of it, instead, doing fewer pieces, but better. And making sure those pieces end up in front of the right eyes. Getting your content in front of pre-qualified eyes, I think is key to the whole thing. And it’s something I shout at my customers at Contently often. It’s just that they have to stop. They have to cut down what they’re creating and instead put more thought into each piece and into the channel that it’s going to live on.
I think really all content should be conceived as a channel-first. And then format and then story. But a lot of times, you’ll end up with story first and then we’ll just cram it into whatever format we want to make and we’ll stick it on all the channels and now why isn’t it performing and why have I spent so much money?
Dan: Do you know, what’s really interesting is I’ve got to own up. I was definitely a champion of the really understand your position, create breathtakingly good content. And somehow the channels will take care of themselves. I was definitely an advocate of that. And I think there’s a little bit of truth in that. I think sometimes people could also be guilty of the reverse and being a bit too channel-centric, but I’ve definitely repositioned myself along that spectrum. And, it was something that actually that Joe Pulizzi said exactly the same thing. It was like, if you’re not nailing one channel, if you’re taking that spreaded everywhere approach, I think he described it as, then yeah, you’re going to create an awful lot of work for yourself and probably achieve not so great results at the end of it.
Deanna: Yeah. And then, and then you get back to the ROI conversation again. And it just cycles back around: “Well where are the results?” And that’s when we see content programmes start and then stutter to a stop, unfortunately.
Dan: So as you say, sort of starting and stopping is just about the worst thing you can do in a content programme. From my experience, and you may disagree with this, I think usually the very best content strategies are spearheaded by one particularly powerful initiative, such as Contently’s the Content Strategist, of course. But even then, as we’ve been talking about, it takes a long time and a lot of patience and a lot of belief in that long-term journey.
How does a brand know that it’s found the right angle and that that angle is, therefore, worth investing in, in the long term?
Deanna: Sure. Well, I think there are a number of factors that you can look at and this sort of gets into measurement and ensuring that you are looking at the right KPIs. We have an analytics dashboard that is extremely content-centric. We don’t even count a reader as a reader until they’ve been engaging with the content for 15 seconds because otherwise, they could have hopped on hopped off, left a tab, open, things like that. And they’re not truly engaged in the content programme.
So I think there are a few things that you should look for, you know, returning visitors is certainly key. I think what you want to do is first look at acquisition, right? From the first day, you’re going to start looking at acquisition metrics, visitors, page views, things like that. But over time, if you’re looking to measure success, you have to transition or at least start including engagement, right.
And engagement really comes down to how many people are coming back to your content over and over again. What channels are they coming through? Are they coming through channels through what you’ve captured them? Through newsletter, maybe? Or are they really invested in engaging with your brand? How much is your pages per session or your stories per session increasing over time? Are they spending more and more time each time they come back to your site? I think even a look at your SEO metrics can be great here as well. Are people starting to find you through long-tail keywords whose search volumes is increasing over time? In other words, are you starting to rank for higher-value keywords and is your content being surfaced via higher value keywords in that space? And then, of course, you know, across other channels, social engagement, backlinking, I guess you could call them social proof metrics, right? Indications that you are being perceived as a source of authority, expertise and trustworthy one at that. I mean, you can go by, Google’s E-A-T rubric if you want to hold yourself to that across all your channels.
I think that’s where you can then start, you know, in some cases you’re taking a few more chances, doubling down in some areas and getting a little bit more intimate with the audience now that you’ve started to build trust with them. And then certainly things like MQLs, demo requests, things like that, are pretty decent indications that you’re doing what you need to do. And you can track that through various attribution models. But yeah, I’d say look for that engagement. Look for those people who keep coming back to what you’re doing.
Dan: One of the things I’ve always liked about Contently’s content strategy is the use of the sub-brands. And I think often that can be a really useful tactic within B2B, because very often B2B brands are not very brandable in themselves and they can present all sorts of kind of psychological barriers from an engagement perspective.
I think when people sense that whatever that piece of content is or that blog is, or whatever form it might take is really just a thinly veiled, commercial tactic to gather their data and start selling to them. I just wonder how you perceive the kind of pros and cons of using sub-brands for B2B organisations? Because obviously there can be a cost as well. You can be distancing your content from your parent brand, and that does have its downside. So I just wonder what your view is on that?
Deanna: Sure. I think you’re absolutely right. There is occasionally a risk of diluting the parent. We haven’t found that with the Content Strategist, it’s always been an extremely strong trust builder and frankly, a source of inbound value for us. It’s been a primary channel for us and inherent to the work that we do now. I think in general, if you go with a sub-brand or a subdomain or some kind of publication that is not as not extremely strongly attached to the parent brand, you have to pick a focus, right?
I think the worst thing that you can do is say, we’re going to do a digital magazine and it’s gonna be a microsite or its own site or a subdomain. And it’s gonna cover topics A through Z. You’re setting yourself up for such a huge challenge. If you’re going to set up a sub-brand, stick to an area of focus, stick to a topic and ensure that you become the leading voice on that topic.
People are smart and people are all digital researchers now. So people will make the connection to your brand; if maybe not the first time, the second or third time, especially on the B2B side. So, you know, the Content Strategist has been that for us, the Freelance Creative has been that for us on the freelance side and people have, with the right use of our channels and cross-promotion, people have from the beginning associated Contently with the kind of thought leadership coming out of the Content Strategist. And I know other brands who have done something similar and are perceived similarly in the space, but you have to focus.
Dan: Absolutely. My next question, and this might be a tricky one for you to answer because you strike me as a very lovely person who probably has nothing negative to say about anyone or anything, but you must have some extraordinary insight into the good, bad, ugly and everything else within the Contently platform. I just wonder, on the less positive side, what are some of the common mistakes you see brands making? Be it B2B or otherwise. Are there certain frustrating things that you just see being repeated over and over again?
Deanna: Absolutely. You know, broadly a failure to even do the basic work of understanding your audience as content consumers. It gets me every time. Because what that leads to is it becomes apparent very quickly when you see content created, that is so loosely connected to anything that your end buyer ultimately would be interested in learning about. It drives me crazy, like taking a B2C approach to B2B content. Writing general interest pieces that have nothing really do with the reason that people are coming to you as an institution, right? Being a financial institution and writing about makeup – unless you have a small business programme or you’re profiling a cosmetics creator who is a customer of yours or a pillar of the community, and you want to do that – it’s really, really frustrating to see that. And again, I think it comes down to a habit of taking content ideas from the top being like, this is who we are, and this is what we want to write about as opposed to saying, what is it that our audience wants to learn about?
So that’s one area of frustration and yeah, I see it all the time. And it’s something that I try to take our clients away from. I think another area is overproduction. To be honest, I think a lot of brands are producing way too much content. And they’re trying to produce the same content as everybody else. Instead of trying to find the white space where nobody’s really talking about an issue that people have questions about and pursuing that doggedly until they become, again, the authority in that space. If I see one more Ultimate Guide to whatever, I’m going to lose my mind. So that’s another area.
I could keep going. An unwillingness to – and this kind of goes back to my first point – to adopt a tone of voice that your audience has demonstrated a preference for, right? This is our brand identity. So we’re going to speak like this. Okay. Well, is your audience consuming content that sounds like that? You know, of course, that’s going to vary. People don’t expect the same tone of voice from, you know, an insurance provider as they do from Buzzfeed, right? But you can look at what people are consuming in the topical area that you live in and kind of understand the tone that’s going to engage with them most.
Focusing on acquisition at all costs without looking at engagement. So happy that your traffic is up, but people are bouncing off your pages like crazy. They’re not finishing any of your pieces. That’s not being willing to look at those metrics. And most people are willing to, it’s more a matter of educating them around why it matters. That it is important.
And, I have one specific pet peeve, which is, unfortunately, is 80% of what I see in this area. And we’re only starting to crack it a little bit, but it’s corporate social responsibility content that’s just PR. That’s just, here are the things that we did. Here are the things that we’ve done. Here are the charities that we work with. Great. I’m glad that they’re doing those things. They should be doing those things. But if you’re in CSR and your approach to content is to talk about all the CSR work that your company does, then from a content perspective, you’re now away from CSR, you’re in the PR business. You’re in the brand image business.
If you are a mission-driven organisation or you’re in CSR at an organisation, and at least your CSR has a mission associated with it, your content should be driving that mission. Your content should be the social impact. We have a couple of brands that – one in particular – that we talk about a lot, Bank Of The West, that launched a content hub through us called Means and Matters, which is about sustainable finance, sustainable business. It does not talk about Bank Of The West. And it’s not about the other work that they do. Instead, it’s educational content, it’s thought leadership. It’s really important content that is designed to get people asking questions about where their money is being invested. To ask questions about how they can live a more sustainable life, whether as an individual, as the head of a family, or as a small business. It’s real journalism. It’s real, long-form magazine-style journalism. And it doesn’t talk about what Bank Of The West does. It’s designed to be part of their mission, part of their social impact. And that to me, is where, even brands who maybe care less about their mission, but care more about attracting more consumers, we know from research that we’ve done at Contently and research that many other agencies and institutions have done, that consumers have rapidly increased their brand loyalty when brands themselves make statements about their mission when they are clearly mission-driven, when they walk the talk.
We know consumers prefer that. We know consumers, based on our research earlier this year, now trust brands more than they trust traditional media outlets. So brands are in this position right now, not only to engage with their consumers and build trust, like never before, but also to reap the benefits of that very much at the financial level. And I think this goes B2B and B2C, maybe more so B2C. But consumers want that. It influences their buying decision, but I’ve seen so much of it. You know, so much of this CSR content is just about what we’ve done and that’s great. Save it for your PR team to do like, let them take care of that. If you’re in CSR, focus on the mission and make the content a driver of impact. So I’ll get off my soapbox with regards to that now, but I feel very, very strongly about this. I think it’s much needed.
Dan: Yeah. And I think genuine, strategic alignment between a nonprofit and a corporate entity can be a really wonderful thing. And I think where a company, really kind of places at the centre of its operations, the future of that charity and says: “Look, this is not a peripheral, cynical, CSR exercise. It’s not one of 25 different charity relationships we have this year and we’ll have another 25 different ones next year, but it’s actually kind of front and centre and it really stands for something.” I think that can be tremendously powerful, but I think that’s a really rare thing, in my experience. But I sort of have this feeling that we might see a lot more of that done well in the next decade, because I really do think that when you do see those two things coming together in a very authentic, meaningful, substantial way, I think the impact for both parties – both the charity and the business – can be profound and beautiful, but for every one of those, there’s, you know, several thousand where it’s much more peripheral and feels all a little bit cynical. And as you say, more for PR purposes.
Deanna: Sure. And yes, if you’re a brand with the budget to do so and partner with a good organisation, let them do the work that they do, help them do the work that they do, not only supporting them financially, but if you can educate the audience about why this matters, if you can educate and inspire alongside the organisation, you will be doing so much more. I mean, the money will be there, the money’s needed, but the exposure and the education of the audience are areas where nonprofits struggle sometimes, right? It’s hard to attract people to the nonprofit space. It’s hard to attract the money for that kind of content to work in that space. So if you’re a brand with the marketing ability and the marketing budget to do so, that’s another way that you can really, really support them and garner benefits yourself.
Dan: My final question then, so more from a sales perspective, it seems to me that Contently is the most trusted content platform on the planet. Certainly the brand that I always think of in that space, and I just wonder how important the content strategy is – be it, the Content Strategists sub-brand or the Freelance Creative – I just wonder how important those content strategies have been in developing the Contently position in the market? But more than that, I guess what I’m really interested in is from a sales perspective and from an acquisition perspective, how important that has been, and to what degree do the sales and marketing functions align?
From my experience, B2B organisations are pretty bloody awful at aligning their sales and marketing functions, even though it’s two sides of the same coin and they are all after the same goal. I just wonder what your experience of that is within Contently?
Deanna: Sure. Yeah, as I said, the Content Strategist has been an integral part of our inbound strategy for years and years and years. I don’t have the numbers off the top of my head, but it has been a primary driver of inbound business of inbound leads. And I think that the fact that it was something that we launched very close to the beginning of Contently is part of the reason for that. We didn’t wait until we were a name to start trying to associate thought leadership with ourselves. We started producing thought leadership, and that led to the recognition of our name. You could say, we ate our own dog food there, which yeah, anecdotally, I can think of a number of clients of ours who came to us through reading something on the Content Strategist or after saying we’ve been reading it for years and we finally got a chance to launch our own content programme, and wanted to come through you guys as much for the knowledge and expertise as for the prowess of the technical tools that we have.
So it’s very much a very active part of what we do now. We’ve expanded on it over the years and transformed how we use it. We now, I think, have gotten better at expanding on the channels that we use, especially now that LinkedIn pulse is allowing you to post long-form or post content as brands, as companies rather than as individuals. But we first started with our head of marketing, Joel Lazauskas, creating his own newsletter when LinkedIn launched the newsletter capability about a year, year and a half ago, and co-branded it with Contently and cross-posted a lot of the content from the Content Strategist to his newsletter. And that did great. That was fantastic. But now we have the ability to do that just as Contently ourselves on LinkedIn.
So we’ve gotten, I think, savvier at some of the channels we use from a sales perspective. I know our sales team uses the content from the Content Strategist, along with other sales enablement collateral that marketing creates as part of their outbound strategy and as part of their nurturing strategy. It’s also something – I run the customer success side – that we utilise to keep our clients engaged, to pass along thought leadership to them, to get them thinking about where they want to take their content programme. So it’s an integral part of everything. Our marketing and sales teams are very much connected and it’s rare that we create anything that goes out through the sales channel as an outbound function that’s also not present in some capacity in our inbound channels, like the Content Strategist. It’s also where we’ve published a lot of our lead generating content or we’ve associated our lead generating content with that. So yeah, it would be hard to separate it out because it’s part and parcel of our revenue-generating model.
Dan: And that’s exactly how it should be. Right. It sounds like you are the happy exception to the rule. That’s fantastic.
Deanna: Well, I mean, we’re in this business, if we weren’t actually doing the stuff that we tell our clients to do, it would be a sad state of affairs.
Dan: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for your time. I’ve already taken us way past what I promised I would, so apologies, but it’s just been absolutely fantastic. And it’s certainly made me challenge a few of my thoughts, my preconceptions, which is always a good sign.
Deanna: I welcome challenges back. Even if it’s a couple of days from now and you think, you know, I really don’t agree with what you said there. I like talking about this stuff and I like debating it. So, feel free to push back or shout at me or do whatever you have to do, but thank you. This was, this was really nice. And it was great to be able to talk about this stuff at this level. So I appreciate it. I can’t wait to see what comes of it.