When it comes to content and strategy, few people share a clear and common meaning of each word. Put them together, and what you have is downright perplexing.
This is a sales content strategy guide for the perplexed. It is for people in marketing and sales who must collaborate to get these strategic assets right. (See Content is a Strategic Imperative for B2B Selling Organizations)
The linked articles below are integral to a complete understanding of how to develop, document and execute an effective sales content strategy.
First, a few definitions.
“Content” includes sales messages, conversations, and stories which comprise what we refer to as the “contentS” of the media that package and deliver them. So content also includes conversations delivered by sales people, by referral sources, and even buyers. (For a deeper explanation see What is Content?)
Michael Porter from the Harvard Business School is considered the dean of business strategy. His definition is:
Strategy is the creation of a unique and valuable position. Strategy involves making trade-offs. The essence of strategy is to choose what not to do. Strategy is (also) about combining activities. Competitive advantage grows out of the entire system of activities.
By extension, content strategy involves decisions, trade-offs, and priorities for what to invest in and create, why, and how. It also defines the execution elements required to support the strategy.
Unfortunately, the phrase and practice of content strategy has a history that distorts common understanding. It’s important to understand the different ways marketers think about content strategy, to effectively converse about sales content strategy.
The early use of content strategy was by people who created complex technical publications. This evolved into content strategy for websites, which is still a significant content responsibility for marketing. (See Content Strategy for the Web).
With the evolution of content marketing, a role called “content strategist” evolved from website work. In this connotation, content strategy is focused on optimizing specific work projects, mostly for marketing tactics. Usually, what might be called content strategy for a business functions or tactic is really a content plan. (See Content Strategy Beyond Marketing and Websites)
Sales Content Strategy
Sales content strategy defines the strategic purpose and positioning of content for sales constituents. Sales content constituents include direct and channel, as well as their audiences. The result of sales content strategy are decisions about content requirements and priorities that justify and inform investment and content creation activities.
An important reality sales content strategy must address is that most content creators are not sales experts. They are separate from, lack familiarity with, the “job” sales people and their audiences are “hiring” content to do. (See What “Job” Do You Want Content to Do?)
This means sales content strategy must define frameworks for specifying content work products to insure creation of quality, effective content for a selling context.
This work must be conducted in the context of the organization’s primary business goals. Content strategy supports the organization’s sales and marketing strategies and plans. This sequence is important. But it is also iterative. There may be insights gleaned from content strategy work that also informs overall sales and marketing strategy and plans.
Several other important context considerations are discussed more thoroughly in Beware Out-of-Context Marketing Prescriptions.
Context elements that will have a significant impact on sales content strategy include:
- B2B vs. B2C customer engagement model
- The nature of a vendor’s offering and market demand — transactional vs. considered and complex purchase
- Average selling price
- Volume and Velocity of sales opportunities
Why Sales Content Strategy
Sales content strategy is needed to address the new requirements borne of digital-era buyers who self-educate through online content. In response to this reality, B2B selling organizations are shifting to become more buyer-centered, relevant and useful.
Leading organizations realize that “how you sell” is often a key differentiator and value creator for buyers. This means shifting from the traditional, product-feature-benefit pitch, to a problem-cause-value-centered conversation. It means being useful, by bringing unique insights to buyers.
Content is the vehicle for this shift. It’s also the currency by which sales professionals acquire B2B buyer attention. It both enables and leverages selling activities. This means sales content strategy must shift from a promotional orientation, to an educational purpose. The ultimate purpose is to have content lead buyers to adopt the vendor’s solution for a successful sale.
It is this customer and education oriented, sales context support content that is the primary focus of this article.
The Current State of Sales Content
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re not satisfied with the current state of your sales content. You have a lot of company. Numerous studies reveal most sales organizations are under-served with quality, sales ready content that’s needed to meet primary sales use case requirements.
Perhaps worse, content gaps may be filled by sales people who create content. Various studies indicate as much as 20% of sales people time is spent creating content. Often, sales people just go without using content.
Clearly, some creation is necessary. An effective content strategy sources sales people with the source assets they can edit quickly and easily for final content deliverables.
If your sales organization contracts specific content work products, it’s a sure sign of a broken system.
This activity is too late in the process for timely content availability. The cost could well be three times more expensive. As a result, this approach typically focuses on “big rock” content deliverables that justify the high cost. Content versions that address specific sub-issues, personas, buying stages, industry verticals, forms and formats are usually short-changed. This approach is not repeatable or scalable.
In most organizations, sanctioned groups develop customer facing content. They are resourced and experienced for this work. But the nature of sales engagement use cases and content is different than for marketing. And this applies even more for the sales channel.
Your content creators just don’t know how to create effective sales content. They lack clear content use case requirement specifications that guide development of sales ready content. (See How to Define Sales Use Case Requirements for Your Sales Content Strategy)
Outcome of Sales Content Strategy
Working from the end state, back through to the strategy process, the outcome of sales content strategy is to decide:
- The overall strategy for content to support sales functions and audiences
- What content to create — and not to create
- How to create content
- How much to invest
- How to execute sales content strategy — process and accountability
- Metrics — how to measure and report
To make effective sales content strategy decisions, leaders must know:
- Why sales needs content — the over-arching purpose of content for sales
- How content will be used — sales content use case requirements
- Expected audience and business impact — this should be tested and validated
- The content strategy of competitors
- Specific content options to consider and prioritize
Guidance for Sales Content Strategy for a B2B, Considered, Value Sale
It’s helpful to think of sales content in two broad categories: internal and external.
Internal sales content supports the development and preparation of sales professionals for the sales program and process of the vendor. Content topics include:
- Sales playbook topics
- “About” topics: about the company, products, markets, customers, competitors
- How to Sell: skills, sales strategy and process, what to say, how to say it
We recommend external sales content be considered in three sales phases:
Phase 1 — The Buyer’s Problem – (See CEB “Breaking Down the ‘A'”)
This content helps buyers understand their business problems differently. This requires compelling, differentiated insights about what buyers are currently missing, including significant new business possibilities.
Since B2B buying teams have a natural predilection to the status quo, insights and content must help buyers understand the cost of not changing. It must shift decisions about problem solving and vendor solutions from the “nice to have” to the “must have” category.
As well explained in the CEB’s Challenger Customer (See Unpacking Challenger Customer Insights), sales conversations, buyer education and content must help diverse buying teams reach alignment and consensus around the need to prioritize the business problem and related investments.
Your content might need to “unlearn” buyers who, through online, self-guided research, have developed opinions about their business that are mis-guided or not helpful. Perhaps they have misunderstood their business problems. Perhaps their thinking is unhelpful as a basis for your solution approach.
When vendors bring up these issues in the context of discussing specific vendor solutions, they risk negative customer perceptions of bias. By dealing with these issues before the vendor solution conversation, as part of helping buyers conduct accurate assessments of their problems, this risk can be minimized.
We have termed this the “first sale” that must be completed before buyers are really ready to listen to a vendor solution proposal.
Unlike marketing content, sales content must address the specific nature of the each selling scenario or conversation. Unlike training content, it must “set up” the commercial conversation to come.
Phase 2 — Define the Solution Approach – (Build Up the ‘B’)
For this “second sale,” sales conversations and content must gain buying team enrollment and consensus about an overall solution approach to resolve the problem. Buyers must also identify the value they expect to realize. Value can come from both solving the problem (removing the cost) and realizing additional value from the solution.
By having this conversation in a buyer oriented context, versus a vendor solution context, similar bias based conflicts can be minimized or avoided. This is why we advocate seeing these as two, sequential, sales engagement stages.
Phase Two conversations and content help buyers understand options and the consequences of those options. An example of a key difference between sales and marketing content is the design and use of educational content. Content that sales people, as well as internal sponsors or “Mobilizers” as CEB calls them, use to educate buying team members is especially important in this phase.
In this phase buyers identify the capabilities they need to acquire to implement their desired solution approach. Conversations about expected investments required to acquire those capabilities are important here. In effect, this defines the business case and budget buying teams are willing to endorse.
The gap between the expected value and the current state cost, minus the investment required to acquired required capabilities, frames the buyer’s value model.
Phase 3 — About You
This is the content companies are most proficient creating. Unfortunately, it probably represents about 20% of overall sales content required. At this point, the vendor(s) who has been most effective supporting and influencing the first two conversations, generally has favorable status when the buying team reaches this decision.
The solution approach and decision ground rules are set. It is someone’s deal to lose. It will be a long shot for sales technique or content to persuade buying teams to change important criteria and perceptions at this point.
As a very loose guide, mostly to make a relative point, B2B sales organizations should consider the relative priority, investment or mix of sales content as follows:
- 20% internal
- 30% Problem – A
- 30% Solution Approach – B
- 20% About Us
General Guidance to Develop a Sales Content Strategy
We’ve said content strategy is about decisions and prioritization. A good starting point is to identify key customer touch points and conversations. Examples include prospecting, early meetings, qualifying, value, your insights and key points, and negotiating conversations.
Look for where content can provide:
- Analysis and discovery support (analysis questions are a critical content category that marketing regularly neglects and sales often doesn’t document)
- Visual Support for key conversations (as well as formal presentations)
- Support for 3rd party delivery: audio/video guidance; education about problems and solution approaches
- Answers to buyer questions, technical explanations, important and difficult to explain concepts
- Proof: Focused on specific elements within the A and B categories; analyst research and perspectives, customer explanations, facts, problem-cost calculators,
- Stories — focused directly on specific elements within A, B and C categories
The Process to Develop a Sales Content Strategy
Your marketing department should (ideally already):
- Develop a foundational, Business Level Content Strategy based on sound frameworks, expert facilitation, input and validation from the right resources. For guidance on this work, which must be completed for an effective sales content strategy if it doesn’t exist, see our 6 Competency Framework for Business Level Content Strategy.
- This should yield a deep understanding of buyers, how they see (or should see) their problems, the cost of those problems; how they see their options (and hear from your competitors); as well as their buying decision process. Details of this are explained below. (See Understand Audience/Buyers Competency)
- Based on this understanding, develop the foundational language, stories and other elements required for effective messages and conversations.
(See Conversation Support Competency)
The sales organization should:
- Design key sales conversations. This will yield insights for specific conversation support content: emails, voicemails, linked content, visual support, facts and research, stories and proof points. (See Sales Conversations — By Design)
- Define your content use case requirements for key buyer touch points and sales engagement conversations. Consider the methods of engagement and delivery (channels); the nature of the conversations at each touch point and the content support they require; the information and decisions buyers are making at each buying stage; key relevance factors: buyer persona or role, industry vertical. (See Need Better Content? Define Your Use Case Requirements)
- Document content specifications to guide non-sales oriented content creators to develop the final deliverable with the right inputs.Think of this in a manner similar to defining product feature specifications for product engineers or software developers to execute. See our simplified “Content Header” as an example. Our complete Content Requirements Documents typically go to several pages. For examples and a detailed process guide see How to Define Sales Use Case Requirements Your Sales Content Strategy.
- Prioritize content required for key conversations and touch points; assess existing content inventory; identify gaps; define core content and expected highly used content.
- Decide what to create, why, how, how much to invest.
Requirements to Execute — Create, Package, Deploy, and Deliver
There are many ways to package and deliver content. The best way will depend on each engagement and conversation scenario. Sales people, and others familiar with each customer engagement, are often best to make this determination.
The traditional content process has content creators pre-package content as a finished asset. To optimize content relevance and situational effectiveness, leading organizations shift final content assembly to just before delivery.
A supporting trend is to deploy modular content assets. This should be content that can be edited, personalized, configured and packaged for each “downstream” tactical activity. Examples include prospecting and lead generation, social media, and specific direct and channel sales scenarios.
Creating content as modular, editable and configurable components for sales people to package as finished content that is relevant to audiences, and suitable for sales purposes, should be a key consideration of sales content strategy.
To support this objective we recommend deploying inventories of smaller content “assets,” such as:
- Conversation starters and guides
- Social posts: Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, other relevant channels
- Buyer questions and answers to buyer questions (objections) with support and proof: facts, research, stories
- Diagnostic analysis and other questions to ask buyers
- A high level, over-arching point-of-view, and accompanying storyline
- Key Points for educating buyers — Unique insights
- Key Messages – Differentiated value points
- Facts and Research Results, Quotations
- Stories and Examples: Problem related stories, Customer Stories, Key point stories
- Language inventory – Topics, themes, words and phrases to use and avoid
- Links to related, supporting content
- All tested for resonance with buyers
Get Real About New Realities and Requirements
Content plays a much more important role for selling in this digital era than ever before. Many sales leaders never experienced the new realities and new requirements of using content to sell in these ways. This has lowered their urgency and advocacy for better sales content.
Sales content is no longer “marketing’s responsibility.” Lagging sales organizations are missing a strategic asset that significantly impacts new customer acquisition, revenue growth, and lower selling costs through improved sales productivity and efficiency.