White papers can be great lead generation and sales support tools when properly constructed with purpose, impactful design and digestible content. But sadly, many technology companies publish white papers that miss the mark and fail to engage readers. Today’s executive decision makers are busy. They don’t have time to sift through text-intensive white papers in search of a few great nuggets of information. Boring, unformatted or overtly marketing-focused white papers will collect dust while hampering the sales cycle and negatively impacting your brand.

To make sure your white papers work for you, and not against you, follow these 5 essential steps.

Step 1: Define the Purpose. Before you write a single word, define the, “Who, What, When and Why?” of your white paper. The answers to these questions will help keep the paper on target and the content interesting.

  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What problem is your reader trying to solve?
  • When in the sales cycle will the paper be used?
  • Why should the reader spend his/her valuable time reading your paper?

For more tips on writing with purpose, read, “Sales Collateral Success Tips: 4 Questions to Ask Before You Write

Step 2: Build the Outline. I know plenty of writers that skip this step, but you are more likely to stray off course or be repetitive without the outline as a guide. An outline forces you to think logically about how to best present the information before you invest time in writing. That said, an outline should be fluid. Make adjustments as needed to eliminate issues or incorporate new ideas that arise in subsequent steps.

Step 3: Give it an Attention Grabbing Title. The title is one of the most important determining factors for whether your paper is read or passed by in the search for better content. A seemingly endless number of books, blogs and articles are dedicated to the mechanics of writing effective titles. If you are unfamiliar with these resources, you may want to search out some of them or view my post on the topic, Get More White Paper Downloads with a Great Title.” Otherwise, here’s some basic tips:

  • Focus on what’s in it for the reader.
  • Be specific.
  • Balance relevance with creativity.
  • Be succinct.

Step 4: Create an Impactful Design. In the old days (as in 5 years ago), the writer wrote the paper and then the graphic designer formatted the content and added a few graphical elements to make the piece visually impactful.  The written word ruled supreme and the layout was just the icing on the cake.  Today, this is no longer the case. With increasing job demands, constant disruptions and less time to do more, I think it is fair to assume that nobody actually reads any more – well at least not until they are convinced that the read will be worth their time. Within as little as 5 seconds, your prospective buyer will decide whether to read your paper or move on to the next task. Stack the odds in your favor by contemplating the design first. Aim to teach your reader something useful in 2 minutes or less, and make sure the design helps you accomplish this goal. Headings, call out boxes, tables, diagrams and imagery can help make your paper visually interesting and quickly demonstrate value. For each section of your paper, define what graphical queues will help tell your story before you write.

Step 5: Make the Content Digestible. When writing content, understand that your reader will probably not read your paper from start to finish in the first pass. “Reading” for most has become a 3 step process. Step 1) Skim the entire paper in search of interesting information. If the information presented is engaging, move on to Step 2) Review sections which stand out as potentially useful. Finally, if value is derived, move to Step 3) Read the entire paper.  Support the 3 Steps process by avoiding text-heavy papers. Instead offer the reader relevant section headings, bulleted lists or tables and section summaries that can be easily consumed when skimming.

So you are finally ready to write that piece of marketing material that your sales department has been begging you to write for months. You know all the marketing mumbo jumbo about how your product or solution is better than any other thing out there. You know all the industry jargon and buzz words to include. You “know” because you read all the industry pubs and you keep tuned into the sales department – gathering feedback from the executive team and their people with feet on the street, who talk to sales prospects day in and day out.  And they’ve told you what to write… and what sales needs to close the deal easier, faster and for more dollars.

But if you take a step back for just a moment, you might just find out, what you don’t know is of the most critical importance. At times we all get so close to the products and services that we represent, that we are guilty of “drinking the company Kool-Aid.” Meaning we lose perspective of who we are marketing to and what our potential buyers actually think and need.

Understanding the answers to the following 4 questions and the impacts to your sales collateral strategy and messaging can make a huge difference to the effectiveness of your marketing materials. Ask these questions before you write any sales copy to arm yourself for success.

  1. Who is the intended audience? Consider whether your sales targets come from a business or technical orientation, and know the titles and job responsibilities of your prospective buyers. Understanding the persona of your perspective buyers (their goals, concerns, preferences and decision process) is critical to the development of engaging collateral. Avoid the “one piece will appeal to all” approach even if your buyers vary greatly from industry to industry or company to company. If necessary, write targeted collateral for each audience to maximize the effectiveness.
  2. What problem is your reader trying to solve? All too often sales collateral is written from the perspective of the vendor with little or no understanding of the business or technical issues the reader is trying to solve. If at all possible, talk to actual customers and ask them to explain the problem and how your product/service solves the problem. You may be surprised in the differences between your vocabulary and your customers’. Using their descriptions and terminology will make your collateral more impactful.
  3. When in the sales cycle will the collateral be used? The interests and attention span of your target buyer will vary greatly throughout the sales cycle. Let the stage define the depth of content and focus of the collateral. Early in the information gathering stage, keep the piece short and high-level with industry relevant and vendor neutral analysis of the topic. During the evaluation stage, supply your readers with more depth and useful product/service specific information that can help support the their decision process.
  4. Why should the reader spend his/her valuable time reading your collateral? Your prospective buyers are busy people, who suffer from complete information overload. To be worthy of their time, your collateral must offer something of value that cannot be easily accessed from other sources. Become familiar with content offered by competitors, analysts and media within the industry you serve. Strive to offer something with unique perspectives and value.

For this week’s blog post, I’ve asked long time colleague, friend and content marketing expert, Rachel Medanic, to help our readers understand how companies can demonstrate thought leadership through content marketing in today’s digitally overloaded world.  Rachel has been a marketing pro for over 15 years.

Have you ever visited a house being shown for sale and you walk in to the smell of cookies baking or a scented candle burning? The realtors are using a form of content marketing to engage your olfactory senses (and influence your visit with content). How humans perceive scent is closely connected to how the brain processes emotion and associative learning. Making a house “smell like home” could help persuade a potential buyer. Because of the explosion of media and a dramatic shift in audience expectations around content, content marketing is experiencing huge growth. Audiences have now come to expect good, free content—regardless of industry.  B2B companies are as much on the hook to provide as B2C companies.

Last month, Lorraine shared a number of good strategies for ways to transform your company into a thought leader. A few days ago Content Marketing Institute founder Joe Pulizzi shared 7 Content Marketing Strategies for 2013. #3 on his list was “A new mindset:  Become the leading informational provider for your niche.” Think thought leadership. Pulizzi says brands aren’t taking their content seriously enough. Among 1,000 companies he surveyed, just 5% had a content marketing mission statement (an editorial mission defining why they were doing content marketing). So what? If you don’t know why you’re producing content, you probably won’t be satisfied with how your audience responds. Also this month’s eConsultancy Content Marketing Survey Report found that just 38% of companies have a content marketing strategy at all.

Making your company an industry thought leader is nothing new. What is new is the digitally overloaded world in which this practice has resurfaced. The eConsultancy report found 90% of marketers believed content marketing would become more important over the next 12 months. The odds of getting noticed are slimmer because media is a fire hose and audiences want just a sip. Thanks to the proliferation of social media, anyone can become an overnight authority. It’s more noise and distraction than marketers have ever had to compete with before. Content has to be relevant and in many industries, it must also be fresh. It has to engage by educating, informing, entertaining or a combination of all three. Companies that can do this and add the touch of their own brand perspective on top will find themselves more likely to be in the spokesperson position rather than just another company in the business.

Fresh-baked cookies are not going to make a company a thought leader—yet. (I keep waiting for olfactory technology to waft its way into the digital mainstream.) But thinking about cookies is a useful analogy when you design your own digital experiences. For potential home buyers, scent creates an unexpected adjacent content experience on top of looking at bedrooms, view, and landscape. The scent of cookies helps us more deeply imagine this house as “home.”

What are your adjacent content opportunities? How can you pleasantly surprise visitors to your Web site? If you know your industry well, it just takes a little creative thinking to uncover the answers and transform them into something that can be digitally consumed.

The old saying, “Nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM,” remind us that having the best information technology product doesn’t always translate to having the most sales. For startups, proving marketing credibility is equally important as demonstrating product fit in the early stages of the sales cycle.

Closing those initial deals (without a proven track record) is a challenge for even the most seasoned sales pros. IT decision makers are under extreme pressure to keep business operations running smoothly and efficiently. As such, they are keenly aware that if and when something goes wrong, their decisions will be called into question.

Choosing a new technology over the established IT vendor without solid justification can be a career killer. By building and promoting marketing credibility points, marketing can help arm sales with the arsenal they need to ease IT decision makers’ concerns and win the sale.

Score More Credibility Points

The goal of a marketing credibility program is to convince IT buyers that your startup not only offers the best solution but will be around in years to come—standing ready, willing and able to deliver promised product upgrades and support. Use the following checklist to creatively score and maximize credibility points with IT decision makers.

  • Talent: The long-term success of a startup relies heavily on the strength of its leadership team. Prove your company has what it takes to survive the test of time by promoting a track record of success based on the combined accomplishments and experience of your executive team, board members, advisors, and investors.
  • Customers: If you have users (paying or not), do everything you can to gain permission to promote your relationship. As a last resort, mask the brand but promote the details of the installation. It’s okay to get creative with your response to the question, “How many customers do you have?” but don’t over estimate your numbers if they can’t be justified—you won’t look credible if you get caught in a lie.
  • Partners: Associating your company with trusted brands can help lend your company credibility. Identify market leaders that have relevancy and reach within your target vertical and join their partner programs. Take advantage of their co-branding and partner marketing programs to extend your market reach and build your brand.
  • Influencers: Positive coverage from key industry analyst and media always helps to settle the fears of IT buyers. Build strong relationships with prominent influencers through consistent and well-executed PR programs to maximize your chance for success.
  • Awards: Aim to win 2-3 awards per year. Strategically placed awards on your website and in sales presentations will earn your company instant credibility. Look for award opportunities that honor startups or product innovations at national or regional levels and don’t forget about vertically focused award programs.
  • Knowledge:  Nothing kills credibility more than a lack of knowledge about the real life challenges your IT buyers face. And yet, lots of startups miss the opportunity to score knowledge points by focusing on product features rather than solution benefits as they relate to the pain points their product was designed to address. Don’t get caught in this trap. Demonstrate thought leadership by focusing on industry issues and proven solutions as visibly and vocally as possible. Speak at conferences, write articles, host webinars, publish white papers… just do what ever it takes to clearly communicate your understanding of the market.

Your Turn: Share Your Startup Marketing Advice

This list is compiled based on my ringside view from our marketing firm. I’m sure the list can be expanded upon and improved, so please feel free to agree, disagree or weigh in with your own startup marketing experiences.

Content marketing is about creating and distributing informative content that will help to convert prospects into customers and customers into repeat buyers. The goal is to gain opt-in permission from relevant target audiences to continually deliver content via email or other social media channels. Ongoing exposure fosters a relationship that provides multiple opportunities for conversion versus the “one-shot” all-or-nothing approach of traditional outbound marketing practices (such as, online ads, tradeshows or cold calling). Ultimately, the success of your content marketing plan hinges upon your ability to deliver content with independent value that builds trust, credibility and authority for your business.

If you don’t have a robust content marketing plan in place, now is the time to get one. Recent changes to the Google algorithm along with announcements that YouTube is entering the content creation game and Gmail’s addition of Smart Labels, which automatically sort out any kind of mass mailings highlight the fact that a sound content marketing plan has shifted from a “nice-to-have” to marketing essential in 2011.

  1. Google Dings Low-Quality Content Sites Although Google regularly changes its search algorithm with little recognition, the February 2011 change has definitely caught some companies off guard, devastating some websites’ rankings – and thus their traffic. Google made changes to reduce the high rankings of sites with duplicate content and low quality content (i.e., content farms with a low ratio of content to ads) on the search engine result pages. Companies with websites that had learned how to manipulate Google rankings (and were good at it) took a big hit. Google said the update was designed to provide better rankings for high-quality sites, those with “original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, and thoughtful analysis.”
  2. YouTube Becomes a Creator of Content If the changes to the Google algorithm isn’t enough to convince you that content will rule supreme in 2011 and beyond, then perhaps you will be impressed by the fact that YouTube has allocated $100 million to pay for the development of its own original content. This is no small bet. While the move was surely motivated by a desire to generate more profits from ad dollars, the interesting takeaway for B2B marketers is that online consumption of content is increasing and the playing field is leveling as consumers move away from traditional media outlets to whatever sources provide the best content.
  3. Gmail Allows Users to Give Email Marketers the Slip Google’s move to allow Gmail users to automatically filter out all bulk mailings (classified as any kind of mass mailing, including newsletters and promotions) emphasizes the fact that consumers are growing tired of the deluge of email. After years of spam and over zealous email marketing programs, consumers are looking for ways to reclaim control of their inboxes. Employing tricks to avoid the spam filters will no longer be sufficient. Moving forward, email marketers are going to have to earn their keep in the inbox or risk automatic exile into the dreaded bulk folder.

2011 Content Marketing Essentials

Search Engine Optimization
If you care about search engine rankings, Google has sent the message loud and clear, you better start paying attention to the quality of your online content. Sites that specialize in quality niche content (original and in-depth information on a focused topic) now rank better than sites with broad content on hundreds of different topics. This provides a great opportunity for B2B marketers. To capitalize on this shift, first consider what keywords define your business, then carefully evaluate every page on your site and get rid of the junk. Low-quality pages will hurt you – no matter what’s on the rest of your site. Next, focus on developing targeted content that is useful (let your keywords be your guide as to what is useful) and well written from top to bottom. If you can’t write great content yourself, hire someone who can.

Web Presence
The corporate website is often a company’s most tangible and visible face to the world. When properly executed, a website can become a powerful marketing tool that not only serves the needs of existing customers, but also provides an opportunity to capture new customers. To support your content marketing strategy (which relies on opt-in permission) your website must effectively engage visitors. Ask yourself the following questions: Are users encouraged to opt-in to marketing programs? Is a clear call-to-action present on every page? Is there sufficient incentive to opt-in? Remember, incentive is driven by the value of the content presented and trust in your ability to continue to deliver value. If possible allow users to select topics of interest and frequency of communications as part of your lead capture process. Finally, bypass bulk mail filters by reminding users to add your distribution email addresses to address books.

Marketing Automation
Once granted permission to engage prospects via email or other social media channels, be sure not to disappoint. Continue to provide relevant and meaningful content on a regular basis. Marketing automation tools help you categorize leads based on interests and actions so that you can continually provide targeted and relevant content. A “one-size fits all” approach can hurt your content marketing efforts and increase opt-out rates. Marketing automation tools offer you a wealth of information on demographics and response rates that should be used to guide your content development and distribution strategy. Pay specific attention to which types of content and topics perform well for each list segment so that you can adjust your strategy accordingly.

Social Media
A solid PR strategy that includes traditional and expanded social media engagement practices can help extend your reach. Remember that the purpose of content marketing is to engage prospects. PR announcements and media coverage can be used to create awareness and start the dialogue, but two-directional social media communications should be used to further develop the relationship. As Lorraine emphasized previously in her “Thought Leadership 101” blog post – to maintain the relationship, you must continually demonstrate understanding of the key issues, challenges, needs and requirements that truly concern your prospects versus spout off about your latest products functions and features. Use your SEO keywords as a guide on which social network conversations to join.

The Bottomline
Times have changed and so must you. Now more than ever, it’s time to re-evaluate your content marketing strategy and make a plan that will ensure favorable results based on solid content and intelligent strategy.

We’re several years into the era of “Marketing 2.0” and I’m still surprised at the number of B2B technology companies that have not modernized their marketing approach. Just take a look at the websites of so many technology companies, small and large, and it clearly looks like they are stuck in the early 2000’s – or even (gasp)… the 90s.

While I don’t believe in doing trendy things just for the sake of doing trendy things (a.k.a. keeping up with the Jones’), I do believe it’s prudent to take stock of the most current marketing tactics – learn what’s working for companies in the same industries you serve – and implement the most impactful changes.

For decades now, marketers have been focused on traditional “outbound” marketing programs such as television and radio advertising, trade shows, direct mail, online banner displays, pop-up ads, email blasts and the dreaded telemarketing, to name a few.

However with the advent of social media marketing and the social web, a dramatic shift has occurred. Today’s customer no longer wants to be “sold” – instead they prefer to find products and services online on their own or through friendly referrals. This shift is called “inbound marketing” and focuses efforts on web optimization, content marketing, social media optimization and customer referral programs.

Here are some basic tips that should help bring you up to speed on 2011 marketing must-haves and provide a solid foundation for inbound marketing success.

#1 Web Optimization (including SEO)
The corporate website is often a company’s most tangible and visible face to the world. When properly executed, a website can become a powerful marketing tool that not only serves the needs of existing clients, but also provides an opportunity to capture new customers. Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of making sure your business website is properly categorized in the search engines (especially Google) and comes up high in the search results. Another big ingredient of SEO is link building, or getting other relevant sites to link to yours. Although it has been around for years, SEO is still critical in making your business more findable on the Web. It is a long-term strategy, however, and the results may take time to kick in.

#2 Content Marketing
We’ve said it before but “Content is King”. Content marketing is about creating demand through compelling, highly relevant content. This is includes white papers, strategy guides, blogging, infographics, contributed articles, podcasts, videos, data surveys, news articles — anything that offers value to your target customer and helps differentiate you in the marketplace. This content, especially blog posts, gets picked up by the search engines and can help fuel your social media strategy.

#3 Social Media Optimization
Social media sites and associated spam are growing in volume every day as new-bees jump on the social networking bandwagon in hopes of growing their network and making a splash – or at least being heard. The key to successfully leveraging social media is to define the most appropriate channels and best ways to engage key audiences in the right environments, at the right time, with the right messages. This may include the major social networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn); specialty networks, such as Biznik; local directories, such as MojoPages.com and Kudzu.com; social bookmarking sites; video platforms; article directories and blog and forum comments.

#4 Customer Reference Programs
Word-of-mouth marketing is arguably the most powerful way to market your product or services. As discussed in a previous blog post, customer testimonials can greatly enhance the credibility of a company and result in increased sales, media coverage or add the fire to your viral social media campaigns. When customers talk favorably of your product or service, they send a free, credible and targeted marketing message. Customer endorsements can be used in one or more of the following marketing mediums: media/analyst outreach, collateral, social media and/or inclusion on the website.

It’s 2011 and marketing has changed, even in the world of B2B technology. Your customers have different expectations about how they want to find, buy and validate products. If your marketing tactics haven’t kept with the times, you may be missing out on lucrative sales opportunities. The good news is… it’s not too late to adopt an inbound marketing game plan to extend your marketing reach and win more business.

Among the biggest buzzwords in the business world today is marketing automation. But what is it – really?

Marketing automation is really just a software application that helps automate repetitive marketing tasks, based on specific input criteria. It is frequently seen in demand generation campaigns, with tools such as Eloqua, Affinium, and E.6. The idea is two-fold. First, most companies engage in demand generation campaigns such as email marketing campaigns somewhat irregularly. They’ll send an email today, then they’ll try to send another one next month or next quarter – whenever they get to it again. Second, when the follow-up communication is developed, no notion is given to if or how the prospect responded to the first one. Instead, everybody simply gets the same message.

With marketing automation tools, any action on the part of the prospect is recorded by the software. If he downloads a white paper, visits the Website, selects the full article, or inquires about the offer, the software logs it and provides a pre-determined “score” for the behavior. Based on the behavior and/or the score, a different email can be sent at the next scheduled interval, to coincide with the prospect’s behavior. The system can also be programmed to send an immediate correspondence, based on a particular action taken by the prospect, rather than necessarily waiting until the next scheduled communication. Most importantly, however, the scoring system will identify those who are more likely to purchase in the near future, and export those leads to the customer relationship management (CRM) system for telemarketing or sales follow-up.

If used properly, marketing automation can help companies develop a closer relationship with their current and prospective customers, and consistently deploy more fruitful outbound marketing campaigns. It’s important to remember, though, that marketing automation software requires programming at the front end, to be of any value. And, as with any sort of programming, the garbage in, garbage out rule applies. Companies employing a marketing automation system must determine the actions, demographic traits, and other identifiers that distinguish their key target market from the rest of their lead database, then assign those attributes the highest point value.

If the scoring mechanism is developed correctly, the most qualified leads will rise to the surface relatively quickly, and be sent to sales for a rapid close. But if it is not developed correctly, the marketing automation software will just be a wasted investment that delivers unqualified leads to waste the time and energy of the company’s valuable sales force.

So the lesson is this… When considering a marketing automation tool, make sure it’s robust and flexible enough to meet the particular needs of your industry, and that it can be programmed to score leads based on the specific attributes that are important to you. Then, make sure you take the time to truly understand how your ideal customer looks and acts, and develop a scoring system that will help you highlight them – and only them. Finally, have an open mind. You’re unlikely to get it perfect the first time. So talk with your sales people to determine the quality of the leads, versus the “ideal”. Then, modify your scoring criteria to deliver that ideal.

5 seconds to capture your website audience The credibility and purpose of a website is assessed in as little as five seconds time. That’s it. A cursory glance is all it takes for users to decide whether they might consider doing business with your company or not.

Poor navigation, cluttered pages and slow performance can lead to snap judgments about the legitimacy of your offering and the long term viability of your company. After all, the user reasons, if you can’t build a good website, how can you build a worthwhile technology product or company?

And yet so many technology start-ups undervalue the importance of their web presence. I’ve heard start-up CEOs say things like, “Our website isn’t great, but its okay.” Asked to expand upon these thoughts, the CEO might venture to say, “It might be a bit dated and it’s hard to find some of the content, but it gets the job done.”

Let’s face it – people are both task-oriented and lazy. They are willing to scan a web page for a few seconds at best. If they can’t quickly find what they are looking for, they will move on to the next competitor with a more than “okay” website.

The “okay” website mentality is perpetuated by the fact that most young companies don’t have mechanisms in place to measure and quantify the abandonment rate on their websites. As a result, they often underestimate the impact a poorly executed information design or content strategy my have on their business.

For one CEO, the threat of his “okay” website became crystal clear after a productive meeting with a prospective customer who announced in closing that he was really glad he came to the meeting but almost didn’t because he thought the company was on the verge of failure based on the state of its website.

After that meeting you can be sure the website became one of the company’s top priorities. But looking back, the number of opportunities lost by the website was impossible to calculate. It was a sickening realization for this CEO whose number one priority was to grow the business.

Take an honest look at your website – what impression might a first time visitor form of your company in 5 short seconds? As an extension of your brand, the website should reflect the same level of professionalism, quality of services, and leadership position that your company represents. So does it?

While this list is not exhaustive, here are some questions you may want to consider as you take an objective look at your website:

  • Does the home page clearly state the position and purpose of the company?
  • Has the design and functionality of the website kept up with the times? (Multimedia such as videos, podcasts or webinars, social media networks, sharing tools and live chat – or at a minimum contact forms – are prevalent today. Does your site include any of these communication tools?)
  • Are services and products properly prioritized based on user objectives (versus a company view of how services should be presented) so that users are not overwhelmed by information?
  • Is it easy for users to find the information they are looking for regardless of which stage of the sales cycle they are in (research through to post sales support)?
  • Does the overall tone and voice of the site content speaks to current and prospective customers in a way that is relevant to them?

If your website doesn’t measure up to the 5 second test. Get to work on fixing it. The corporate website is often a company’s most tangible and visible face to the world. When properly executed, a website can become a powerful marketing tool that not only serves the needs of existing customers, but also provides an opportunity to capture new customers.