B2B Content Marketing in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Will the rise of Artificial Intelligence mean the end of B2B content strategies? B2B Web marketing, and primarily B2B content marketing, is intended to address customers’ “pain-points”. It is by discovering these “pain-points” and offering services and products that solve their customers’ issues that businesses will be able to fulfil their needs. Another trend in Web marketing is customer experience, as powerfully demonstrated by the likes of Amazon.

Content Marketing in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
Content marketing is about embarking readers on a journey that is either packed with information, useful or simply entertaining. What will happen in the field of content with the advent of artificial intelligence?

Computer science and artificial intelligence tools and software are at marketers’ disposal. These are only useful if they help marketers create superior, creative and quality content. This is where the added value of content lies.

Content Marketing in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
Content Marketing in the Age of Artificial Intelligence: Michael Bosworth‘s inevitable (and useful) pyramid

Forget about requirements, think about “pain-points”

In content marketing, and particularly in the B2B sector, very little thought is given to customers’ needs, the focus is on their pain-points. This notion comes from the book Solution Selling by Michael Bosworth. Solution Selling is about selling products and services ‘as a solution’ (to a problem), it has nothing to do with the selling of solutions or services (apart from the fact that solutions or services are sold in that way too).

Bosworth explains that there are several levels of customer pains: at the top of the pyramid (see above diagram) are the pains that customers are aware of and for which they have an idea of the solution: they know they have a problem and who can solve it. What Bosworth says is that if the customer is searching for a known solution to a known problem, you have already lost the battle. You had better forget about that category.

With the second tier of the pyramid, the client is aware of the problem but has no clue about what the solution may be. This case is relatively straightforward because when you propose your solution to this kind of customers, provided you understand their pain-points correctly, the customer will immediately link the solution with the problem.

When a salesperson says ‘you have a problem there, and I have the solution to that problem’, she usually leaves her customer’s office with a purchase order.

It has happened to me many times when I was a buyer, and I was too happy to find a salesperson interested enough in our problems that she would like to solve them. Then I’d call my assistant immediately and ask him to fill in the paperwork so that the vendor would start working on our problem as soon as possible.

At the bottom of the pyramid, lies the most demanding scenario. In the field of B2B high-tech, it is a familiar situation: customers have a problem that they are not aware of. So, first of all, one has to elicit the problem and to highlight it.

There are different ways of doing this. Consultative methods, whereby you carry out an audit to pinpoint the client’s problem, is one of them. If the customer decides to buy your solution after the audit, then you may waive the audit fee.

Whatever the relationship you have with your customer or prospective customer, you, as a vendor, must aim at delivering more value to them. The value that makes you stand out from your competition.

This is what Joe Pine calls the “economy of experience”. And few businesses know how to do that. According to Joe, retailers are lost, and they are at a loss trying to do this. Except maybe Amazon, which manages to create an outstanding experience, to the point that it is sometimes hard to understand how they make a profit from that.

Indeed, Amazon’s model is questionable. Many commentators point out that Amazon is selling at a loss. This is both true and false. Amazon does not sell at a loss; what it does is margin adjustment.

Amazon sells IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service, i.e. cloud computing servers and online resources in plain English) with high margins, and toothpicks that are delivered on Sundays, to quote Joe Pine’s example, at a loss.

Selling toothpicks makes no economic sense. Except that Amazon creates an economy of experience through this. If the customer is satisfied, even though they only need toothpicks at any given moment, when they need a more expensive product, they will most probably turn to Amazon.

This isn’t rocket science, but a classic retail strategy for you. Exactly what big-box retailing did to Mom and Pop shops 60 years ago. Now Amazon plays the same trick on them. Serves them right.

Content marketing and artificial intelligence

Be it with customer experience or content; some argue that the new opportunities of Artificial Intelligence (AI) may play a role in every customer relationship, possibly through personalisation.

I started my career in AI with the management of an expert, rules-based, system. Admittedly, sometimes you see spectacular things, such as the new Google Translate app based on deep learning, which is impressive because it has been fed with the work of other users. Indeed, there is significant progress in machine-based translation. Yet, this is still machine-based translation, which has practically no value, due to its blandness. But it does allow us to make a fairly quick first-cut translation, much better than what we did in the past. You have to recognise how useful the machine is in that case. At the same time, you must acknowledge its limitations.

Speech recognition is not something very new either. Its foundations date back to the 1960s and 1970s. A Russian man invented the basic algorithms. I’ve been using speech recognition intensively for the past 15 years or so. It is not AI, per se. Let’s call it clever statistics.

A speech recognition system, such as Dragon by Nuance, will not understand what I am saying. Besides, it sometimes makes serious mistakes—mostly grammatical ones.

The added-value of content marketing

Artificial intelligence is, therefore, less a threat than an opportunity in B2B content marketing. The reason for this is simple. In B2B, value is the result of the knowledge of your experts, and few machines can be expert at anything. At least for the foreseeable future. Let us see why and what content strategies are really about.

The content, who creates it, what is its added value, its differentiation, where it comes from, are all valid questions one should ask when setting up a content marketing strategy. I am often amazed by the fact that most businesses don’t, however. Instead, they ask questions about the technicality of content-production. That’s a very bad idea.

It is important to know that all scenarios are possible. Often the right solution is a mix of several content marketing strategies. If your business employs three people, it’s rather difficult, or demanding, to create a collaborative blog. Yet, if your business has 10, 20, 100, 1,000 or more employees, then it should be a lot simpler.

In large businesses, it is very easy to make collaborative blogs, at least on paper. Primarily, the more a company can gather its internal experts’ B2B skills to demonstrate their know-how through in-depth content, the better.

It’s typically what we do with our customers daily. We work alongside businesses to show them how to manage their content by themselves, especially in technological fields, when subject matter experts (SMEs) come forward to speak their minds. Often, customers think that writing skills are a problem, especially when they are engineers. Worse still, marketers tell engineers that they are no good at writing, even though I have found out that they often do a much better job than most marketers who tend to write trivial, bland things when they have no engineering background.

Historically, the marketing and communications department has shaped and screened all the content meant for customers and external audiences. Very often, marketers want the content to be checked or validated by a marketer who is not an expert in that area. This is a bad idea.

My advice to B2B marketers: stay humble and say “thank you!”

Marketers should remain humble, if he or she has suggestions, express them in a kind, positive and discreet way. Of course, marketers shall keep an eye on the content which is produced, yet it must be done is a proper and elegant way.

Avoid words that hurt subject matter experts such as “I will ‘validate’ your content”. If you aren’t an expert in a given technology, you have no right to validate a statement about that area.

B2B Content marketing is about trust, encouragement and supporting your experts: marketers must remain humble and say “Thank you!”

Marketers still have a job, don’t fret! Your role is to facilitate, foster creativity and encourage new ideas. In some cases, marketers will also be experts in their area — in a sense, this is what we are too, a mixture of content writers and experts and influencers —  and things will be entirely different.

Fortunately, in B2B, it’s not uncommon to find people in the marketing departments who are also subject matter experts and have communication skills. B2B Content marketing, in those companies where advertising is not an option, and marketing is based on its SMEs, is always on top of the agenda. And so it should be for a long time to come, despite the rise of Artificial Intelligence.

Yann Gourvennec
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