One of my favorite questions when I speak to marketers about social media, content marketing, demand generation or sales alignment is also one of the most frequently asked:

I am a small business and cannot afford to pay tons of money to create content. Any advice for small business marketers?

I write a lot about social media but we all know it all really comes down to the quality of our content. Now you may be thinking: “what does this guy who works for a large company know about the challenges of small business marketing?” Trust me, I have been there. This article will tell the story of what I did while working as the head of marketing for a small business.

The interesting thing about the sub-headline of this article is that “talk to a customer” could be the answer for any marketing dilemma:

  • We need to re-design our website. Talk to a customer!
  • We need to develop innovative new products. Talk to a customer!
  • We need to improve our email effectiveness. Talk to a customer!
  • Our sales and marketing folks won’t align on a common objective. Talk to a customer…together!!!

So when the problem is how to generate effective content for any stage of the customer buying experience, of course the answer is going to be to go out and talk to your customers.

My story: I was working for a 40 person, under $10 Million per year software company. We had a great product and amazing customers. My first job when I arrived at the company was to align with the head of sales and to completely re-engineer our website as well as our lead management process and CRM system. Once that was done, we realized we had a HUGE content problem.

Step 1.  I interviewed our top customers very briefly and asked them how they found out about us, what information helped them chose us, what made us unique in their minds and whether they were open to being references. Fortunately, we had some very well known and highly respected brand names offer to help us.

Step 2. I scheduled a series of webcasts featuring our customers spanning our target industries and evenly spaced out over the year. We asked the customers to simply tell their story in traditional “Problem, Action, Result” format using a presentation. All webcasts were recorded for both audio and video. All presentations were made into shareable documents as well as into protected presentations we could share on sites like slideshare. So with just one webcast, we had an event we could promote to our target market and a portfolio of highly valuable content in multiple formats, in the customer’s language from the customer’s perspective. We did 12 of these, loaded the content on our website — and the traffic and our lead quality soared.

Step 3. One particular customer was a marquee name and a very satisfied customer. During my initial interview, our main contact there offered to be interviewed in a more in-depth way. So I took a trip to their offices and spent a few hours over lunch and shortly after conducting a tape-recorded interview about their business. We talked about the challenges they were having. The solutions they considered. The main reasons they chose us. The service they received. From that session, we created a series of podcasts. I myself wrote a whitepaper compiled from my notes and using real quotes from the customer. The whitepaper and podcasts were a huge success.

Step 4. Rinse and Repeat. From this process, our CEO realized the importance of our customers as a marketing tool. I proposed a customer advisory council, a user’s group, an annual customer meeting. All of these interactions led to more and more insights that improved the marketing content generated by this company.

Bottom line: it is not about the quantity. It is ALL about the quality and using customer language and benefits to frame the problem and the solution.

Check out my previous articles on Content Marketing:

For many, many more tips, tricks, and great articles on Content Marketing, I suggest you go to Stephanie Tilton’s blog from Ten Ton Marketing.

Or look into the book “Content Rules” by MarketingProf’s Chief Content Officer Anne Handley and Founder of Digital Dads, C.C. Chapman. Youu can read all about ”how to create killer blogs, podcasts, videos, ebooks and webinars.”

I have great respect for Michele Linn from Linn Communications and the Content Marketing Institute. You can see a recent article on her blog that also covers the famous Content Grid from Joe Chernov, Director of Content from Eloqua.

Finally, check out Rachel Foster for guidane on strategy and tips on copywriting and how to drive leads with content.

Image from Flickr Creative Commons user: smemon87

About Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is the Vice President of Global Marketing for SAP where he leads content strategy and serves as the managing editor of the company’s award-winning Business Innovation thought leadership blog site. He is also the author of B2B Marketing Insider, a contributor to Forbes and a frequent speaker at industry events covering topics such as marketing strategy, social business, content marketing, digital marketing, social media and personal branding.  Follow Michael on Twitter (@BrennerMichael)LinkedInFacebook and Google+ and Subscribe to B2B Marketing Insider by Email

6 Comments

  1. Daniel Oyston said…

    Nice post. I myself work for a small company and find myself in exactly that situation. While I, sometimes slowly and painfully, are doing the things you once did, it is still nice to know I am roughly on the right track.

    Reading your post, two things occurred to me.

    1 – The concept of “ask the customer” is not new. It’s what real marketing starts with. However, I feel we often lose sight of the tried and tested building blocks/theory of marketing such as “ask the customer” (market research and developing solutions based on needs/problems). Often marketers focus more on the tools instead.

    2 – I am a big believer that the message should be the same regardless of the tool. This means there is great leverage a content idea. I like to re-cut it into different channels (blog, whitepaper, podcast). When you are trying to get other people onboard and engaged in the business they can often look at the wide variety of tools employed (blog, whitepapers, newsletters, twitter etc) and they can think that unique content needs to be created for each tool. Not the case.

    • Michael Brenner said…

      Thanks Daniel and you raise two excellent points on market research and consistency. I think the common thread is that once you understand the customer and your content is on target, then it applies to all stages of a customer journey. Thank you so much for stopping by!

  2. Sam Gaddis said…

    Great info, Michael. We’re ramping up our content strategy right now and this is very useful.

    One question: in Step 2, what exactly are you asking your customers to do and what’s in it for them? A simple problem, action, result presentation is great for us, but I can see it being a big ask for busy clients.

    • Michael Brenner said…

      Hi Sam, Thanks for the comment and great question. A couple of points here:

      1) I would never suggest making this a requirement. When speaking to customers, only ask to what level they are willing to spend the time and effort. Many more than you might think will say yes because people generally appreciate it when you ask them for their opinion, especially if the goal is to help your company.
      2) What’s in it for them? A couple of things. They get personal exposure if they give permission for you to use their name. Their company gets “free” exposure when you are allowed to use their company name. They are helping you improve which makes some people feel good
      3) It helps your company and its image when you use customers’ inputs to drive your strategy. This can create a situation where your customers actually start wanting to be part of the process and ask you if they can join in sharing feedback and helping to drive strategy.

      I have been involved in putting together customer advisory boards in 3 separate companies and it is one of the most satisfying and positive professional experiences I have ever had.

      So apologize for the long answer but I really appreciate the question and opportunity to clarify.

  3. Toby Murdock said…

    Thanks Michael for this.

    I wonder what your thoughts would be on taking this one step further: Speaking to *Prospects* to generate content.

    I’m working on launching a content marketing site (in fact, our audience is content marketers, given that we provide a content marketing platform). As I talk to customers and prospects, I find that they really want to learn about the experience of other content marketers, what’s working and what’s not working.

    So–using writers (not my sales team)–we are going to reach out to prospects, but not on a sales basis. just on an interview basis, and give them a chance to tell their story.

    Curious to hear what you think. And thanks for the post.

    • Michael Brenner said…

      Toby,

      I think it’s a great idea. I think the closer we are to speaking in prospective buyer’s language, the more trust and engagement can be gained from our content marketing objectives. I’ve tried this as well where I’ve interviewed prospects about a particular business challenge and asked them to explain in a blog posts how they are addressing it. The objective is to help show our prospects that we understand their challenges (and oh by the way we can help solve them) but we do not need to make the selling points. “Telling not selling!”

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