How to Write B2B Content That Drives Actual Results (Not Just Vanity Metrics)
The problem with working in B2B content marketing is that you spend a lot of time thinking about content marketing. Which is, you know, fine…I like to geek out about publishing cadence, and TOFU/BOFU content balance, and LinkedIn posts as much as the next person.
But what if we were to step back for a moment? Instead of getting caught up in the machine, ask yourself: what could ONE piece of content do for my business?
Then create a piece of content with those aspirations in mind.
A while ago, I wrote a blog post for Beam (this one, actually). I wanted to find out how the best minds in content marketing write blog post intros (mostly, if I’m honest, because I suck at blog post intros.)
The Beam team edited, published, and promoted it.
Within a couple of days, a few ideal prospects contacted Beam to set up a sales call.
Sure, I was pretty happy with how that blog post came out. It featured interviews with some of my favorite writers. It included practical tips and tricks. But, sadly, I don’t think the quality of my writing made the post take off.
It was what Beam did before I wrote it—and what we did with it afterward.
No, I’m not just talking about distribution and repurposing—although that’s a very good place to start.
I’m talking about the full B2B content cycle–from understanding your audience, to creating and distributing that content, to applying community feedback to make better content.
This is how to make your content actually work for you.
If you’re not doing it, you’re (probably) leaving money on the table.
So the next time someone tells you that content is a long game—and you shouldn’t expect results for at least six months—remember the right content, used the right way, can turn into leads, prospects, and sales within days.
Introducing the Connected Content Framework
Content can build relationships, educate, inform, and so on. But it can also be a B2B sales powerhouse.
Of course, the hard part is to create content that doesn’t suck—and then make sure that the right people actually read it.
So, to understand why my article performed well, I sat down with Sam and Brooklin, two of the agency’s co-founders. I wanted to figure out what they did with my article–and what, exactly, we’re trying to do differently here at Beam.
We ended up with a simple flywheel model that articulates the difference between content that will land with your target audience–and content that will just sit on your website doing nothing.
We’re calling it the Connected Content Framework. Because when it comes to content marketing, the whole point is to make a connection with your ideal prospects. That connection matters more than keyword rankings, or backlinks, or even click-throughs. Because sure, you can get an SEO article to the first page of Google. But if your audience doesn’t also find something valuable in it, how will you engage with them down the line?
Here’s how you build content that connects.
Step 1: Get to know your target audience—their questions, challenges, and interests.
Step 2: Create authentic and engaging content that answers those questions.
Step 3: Promote and distribute that content over social media.
Step 4: Build an engaged and relevant community on your social networks since you’re providing value.
Step 5: Get the community to share their insights and input with you.
Step 6: Create and distribute even better content based on those insights and input.
Step 7: Gain more engagement and increase your reach.
Congratulations! You’ve made your very own shiny little content flywheel.
Now, that all sounds rather simplistic. Here’s how it breaks down in real life:
Step 1: Start with the audience.
Great content doesn’t start with keywords. It doesn’t start with topics. It doesn’t even start with a strategy.
It starts with your audience.
To quote Andy Przystanski, the Content Marketing Lead at Lattice:
“Too many content teams fall into the trap of going all-in on SEO or conversions and subsequently neglecting the brand. Their blogs read like marketing, not content. The problem here is that you're prioritizing Google above your actual audience. You may rank, but you won't ever build reader trust.”
In other words, don’t base your content strategy on keyword research. That’s a great way to write content everyone else has already written.
If you start by doing keyword research, you’re not finding the answer to the question: “What’s my ideal audience interested in reading?”
You’re finding the answer to a different, much less helpful question: “What do my competitors wish their ideal audience wanted to read?”
Very few people want answers to questions like: “What makes [Your Product] so much better than [Competitor’s Product]?” Or, “What is [basic concept that I could find on Wikipedia]?”
It would be nice if they did because, let’s be honest, those blogs are really easy to write.
But people want answers to questions that are difficult. They want access to the knowledge you and your team have learned the hard way. They want the how to go along with the what.
In a phrase: you want to answer the questions your audience is actually asking, not the questions you wish they were asking.
If you understand your audience, and know what questions they’re asking, you’ll make great content right out of the gate. Answer those questions in a thorough and entertaining manner, and you have content that will sell.
“The number one thing you should prioritize is intent—and providing the reader the value they are looking for.”
- Yael Miller, Content Group Lead, monday.com
“Wait!” I hear you say. “Is this one of those ‘SEO blogging is dead articles?’”
Don’t worry, it’s not. SEO is far from dead. Ranking in Google’s top three is excellent work if you can get it.
But despite what so many content teams seem to believe, SEO is just a part of content marketing–it’s not synonymous with content marketing.
As always with marketing, you have to start with the end in mind:
Is ranking on the SERPs the best objective for your content team?
Is there a high search volume for topics relating to your product?
Or would you be better off creating in-depth, audience-led content that might not rank in the top spot on Google, but will provide immense value to your target audience?
Bernard Huang is the co-founder of Clearscope, a keyword research and content optimization tool, so you might expect him to be “all keywords, all the way.” But he insists that SEO content is the right approach for some businesses but not for others.
“For example, a new healthcare product might want to invest heavily in SEO content since a lot of people search for their conditions (e.g., diabetes symptoms, diabetes treatment),” Huang says. “Meanwhile, a new enterprise software solution would want to invest heavily in customer case studies and sales enablement content since it's likely there's low or non-existent search volume for the product.”
So, if you find yourself targeting keywords with a low sales volume—or worse, ridiculously competitive keywords—you’d be much better off trying to create valuable, detailed, and specific content instead. You may not find it puts you in the top three slots on the SERPS, but it’s very likely to have those juicy ideal prospects landing in your DMs.
Step 2. Find out what your audience is interested in.
So, if you can’t ask Google what your audience wants to read, who can you ask?
Try asking the audience themselves.
A. Ask your target audience.
Of course, interviewing your target audience is the perfect place to start. If you already have an engaged network, then you can use your social channel to throw out questions like, “What is the hardest part of your job?” or “What do you think about [spicy industry trend]?”
For instance, when we wanted to write a really in-depth guide to freelance finances, we went directly to the source:
Becca, our COO, turned that Twitter thread, packed full of great tips from experienced freelancers, into a massive deep dive into exactly what freelancers need to know about money management.
Plus, sometimes you need to find answers to the really important questions in life:
Andy says his content team members are “avid lurkers of Lattice's online Slack community, Resources for Humans, and always have a pulse on what People teams are grappling with week to week. If you have an equivalent community you can tap into, take full advantage of that.”
But if you’re just starting to build a community, don’t panic. Go where your target audience hangs out—community Slack channels, Quora, Reddit, LinkedIn comments, Twitter threads—and look at what themes are coming up. What questions are people asking? What’s frustrating people?
A word of caution here: always check your sources. A lot of the posts on Quora and Reddit these days are actually being written by other marketers. Make sure that, when you’re doing audience research, you only include questions and threads that are written by your target audience.
If you’re in B2B SaaS, don’t forget that review sites like G2 and Capterra aren’t just good for competitive analysis. You can also find great insights into what’s driving your target audience nuts, or what problems they’re trying to solve these days. Use them to see how your target audience talks about their work—the vocab they use, the phrases that keep coming up, and the ways they conceptualize their day-to-day tasks.
B. Ask your team
Find the people in your organization who most closely resemble your ideal reader, and find out what interests them. If you’re selling software to product managers, look for your company's product managers. If you’re selling organizational software for freelancers, talk to your freelancers.
Here are a few ideas for what to ask them:
- What keeps you up at night?
- What’s something you looked up online recently?
- What do you find yourself ranting about with your colleagues?
- What was the last article you bookmarked or shared? Why did you like it?
Boom, you’ve got 50 topic suggestions that will be genuinely useful for your target audience.
C. Ask your in-house SMEs
Don’t forget about the wealth of expertise right in your own backyard—your SMEs. Your internal subject matter experts are a rich source of inspiration for content that will connect with your target audience. Here’s how you can work with them:
1) Topic generation and validation
Kane Jamison, the founder of Content Harmony, suggests that “if you have subject matter experts in your company, helping them identify undercovered topics and more cutting edge industry concepts is the right place to start.”
A few topic-related questions to ask your internal SMEs:
- What trends are affecting your industry?
- What do most people get wrong about [your area of expertise]?
- What do you know now that you didn’t know last year?
- What do you find yourself explaining again and again about [your area of expertise]?
- What’s a controversial opinion you hold about your area of expertise, and how do you justify it?
- I’m working on a piece of content about topic X. What would you be most interested in reading about that?
2) Feature-style how-to articles
Instead of writing a how-to based on articles from the first page of Google, interview your internal SMEs and turn those interviews into the far more powerful “How I…”
As the content writer, focus on asking open-ended questions, encouraging them to share their stories and expertise, and then adding a little polish and a narrative flow. Your 30-minute chat will produce a high-impact, first-person account that will resonate with your target audience and showcase your company’s expertise.
Here’s an example from the content team at ThoughtSpot. Megan Boone, the head of their demand-gen team, put together a walk-through of how their demand-gen team uses ThoughtSpot, why it works for them, and what the impact is on the day-to-day. They worked with Beam to turn that into an engaging long-form piece of content that successfully connected with their audience on multiple parts of the customer journey: ToFu (someone looking into analytics), BoFu (because it functions similar to a case study), and customer marketing.
3) Background on more technical pieces
If you’re writing a highly technical piece, like a process walk-through or a deep dive on a more advanced topic, you should always involve your internal SMEs, not just the content team. Why? You have the opportunity to use direct quotes, their expertise lends a richness and depth to your content that the audience will notice, and they can also make sure you don’t make any embarrassing errors or inaccuracies.
D. Ask external experts
What about if you don’t have relevant subject matter experts internally—or if they’re just too busy to talk to you? Go out and find them. Kane suggests “partnering or interviewing external contributors to fill this gap by hosting an interview-based podcast and video series.”
But even if that’s outside the budget, you can reach out to external experts—the kind you know your target audience would love to hear from—and ask them for their opinions.
An example of this technique in the wild:
When Joshua Palmer joined OnBoard as the Head of Content, he knew he’d be facing a challenge. OnBoard is a board intelligence platform—so their content needs to resonate with board directors, often a demanding and sophisticated audience.
Palmer wanted to create content that “spoke directly and authentically to our readers as humans. We didn’t need more content like, ‘What is a board meeting?’ Directors know what a board meeting is. What we needed was content that explored: ‘Here's how you should approach board meetings, and here's how other directors have boiled down those skills.’”
Palmer partnered with Beam to create an audience-led approach to content. He describes his philosophy as: “Go talk to cool people and see what they have to say about the topic.” With our combined network, we’re able to reach out to experienced board members and ask targeted but open-ended questions. This loosely structured interview technique produces new insights and nuggets of expert advice, which a good writer can transform into effective content.
E. Ask your sales team
Everybody says to talk to your customers. You know who talks to your customers every single day? Your sales team. Spend 30 minutes with a handful of sales reps and you'll understand the questions they get, the objections they hear, and the insights into what's top of mind for your audience.
It's a shortcut.
The bonus point: everybody also talks about sales and marketing alignment. Imagine what would happen if you started publishing content that makes your sales team's job easier? Find out the questions their prospects are asking, and use this to inform your content marketing strategy.
After all, content doesn’t sit alone in a silo. Great content should be as helpful for your sales team as it is for your audience.
F. Ask yourself.
“As a content creator, you have to find yourself in the subject matter for it to be relatable,” Andy says.
Find ways in which your identity overlaps with your target audience. For instance, I often write for HR managers. I am not an HR manager, but I used to be—so I can draw on that knowledge to make a more relatable blog post. But even if you don’t share a background with your targets, you’ll definitely share something. Use it.
And before you hit publish, don’t forget to ask yourself: “Would I share this?” It’s not enough to ask, “Would someone share this?” Would you? Look at the last article you bookmarked or shared with your network. Why did you share it? What made it worth sharing? Why was it different?
Step 3. Write content that isn’t boring AF.
So, you have the information, unique perspectives, and audience insights to create great content.
Don’t fritter all that juicy insight away with boring writing. Find good writers, and let them have some fun.
Take a stance. Be a little controversial. Be weird. Be opinionated. Write content that is content, not just marketing.
As Palmer puts it, “You have to give them something to remember your brand by.”
Now, we’ve already covered this in truly exhaustive detail, so we’ll sum things up with a quick checklist for how to write not-boring content:
- Interview SMEs and internal experts to gain unique insights, critical thinking, and original quotes.
- Have a single argument, purpose, or narrative in mind (that you could summarize in a single sentence).
- Use relevant research and double-check your facts.
- Present stats in context. (The average American generates 4.5lbs of trash per day—the equivalent of five cans of Campbell’s Tomato Soup.)
- If brand-appropriate, throw in memes, cartoons, and GIFs. If not, then at least keep your tone light and breezy. Include humor. You’re not writing a PhD thesis.
- Be conversational. Delete every “however,” “therefore,” and “in order to.”
- Use short sentences.
- But resist the temptation to write broetry.
- Remove every sentence that doesn’t add any meaning. If you start to sound like this, stop immediately.
- Be specific. If you make a point, back it up. Provide concrete examples. Imagine you’re writing for a crotchety and argumentative college professor.
- Remember your ideal reader. Ask yourself at the end of each paragraph or section: Would they find this helpful?
It all comes down to value. Style and grammar are important only when they add to the value your readers can gain from your content. Being entertaining adds value, but so does being clear and concise. Good content is either engaging or informative. Great content is both.
An example of great content that passes the not-boring checklist? Lattice’s Templates Hub.
Lattice offers free templates for HR managers to use, adapt, and implement in their own companies—like questions for employee engagement surveys or a format for individual development plans. Sure, not everyone will find a template on performance reviews interesting, but for the right reader—a stressed HR manager with too much work and not enough time—they’re pure content gold.
“At my last job, I overheard an external consultant say that content marketing's job isn't to inform but to drive action. I disagree: You can and should do both. We have internal stakeholders we need to support, too—from product marketing to demand generation. The trick is to find the right mix of editorial that empowers our marketing team to hit its goals while still resonating with readers.”
Step 4. Promote and distribute your content
For many B2B content marketing teams, content promotion and distribution looks like this:
“Here is a generic statement. Did you know that 99.5% of people make generic statements? Check out our latest blog post if you’d like to know more. (Link in comments).”
No shame—it’s not like I could do any better. So I asked someone who can and frequently does:
Beam’s Head of Creative, Sam Hembree. She explained that effective social content isn’t simply a question of copy-pasting a chunk of a blog post and popping a link in the comments.
Rather, if you’ve done Step 1 well—you’ve created content for the audience, not the keyword—it will translate naturally across your different channels. In fact, for Sam, that’s the real test of your content. If you’ve created high-quality, audience-led content, “You can tell when you go to repurpose something for social how easily it plugs in and takes different shapes and forms.”
In other words, it’s not about promoting the content. It’s about promoting the ideas within the content.
Take one section of your blog and turn it into a LinkedIn post. Take your headers and one-line summaries and turn them into a Twitter thread.
For example, that blog post I mentioned earlier. I sent it over to Beam. They teased it out over their socials (both the company accounts and the team’s personal accounts) by extracting core messages and juicy quotes, over multiple days.
By the time they shared a direct link to the article, they'd already promoted the core ideas. They’d pulled snippets they knew would resonate with readers. They’d generated comments and questions. They’d given away value without demanding anything in return.
That’s how to make your content work harder.
Step 4. Build a community through value.
The key is giving people value—without making an Ask. Give them great content without forcing them into a sales funnel. Use your social media channels to tell them what you’re learning or something you think they’d find useful—without forcing them off the platform to find out more.
When I asked Andy from Lattice what he was most proud of, he told me:
“There are all the usual measures of content marketing success, like increasing organic traffic by X percentage or influencing a certain number of deals. Those definitely matter, but for me, it's the less tangible stuff that means the most.”
For Andy, it’s all about when a customer reaches out to share how meaningful a story was, or when one of their freelance writers shares how much they enjoy writing for Lattice. “Tripling organic sessions in two years is definitely a feather in the cap, but it's the intangibles that make for a truly awesome content team.”
Ironically, it’s taking your focus away from the MQL funnel, and onto how you can help people, that actually fills that funnel up these days.
Amanda Natividad, VP of Marketing at SparkToro, calls it Zero-Click content—content that provides value without asking for anything in return.
We’d go further, and add in Zero-Ask Networking.
Hop on a Zoom call with someone, with no agenda other than getting to know each other. Refer someone else if you can’t take the gig, or aren’t the right product for the prospect. Give away your advice for free.
That’s how you build a community of people who don’t just read your content—they comment, share, and promote it for you.
For example, sometimes they very nicely publish a link you sent them in the Marketing Brew newsletter:
Step 5. Put it into practice with a content curation flywheel
So, to put together a piece of content that drives real-world actions (sales calls, DMs, engagement) rather than just vanity metrics, start thinking of content as a flywheel, not a funnel.
Yes, promote your content–but it’s not enough to stick your article up on social media and forget about it.
It’s also not enough to repurpose it as juicy little social media snippets, or videos, or bring it together into an ebook. (Although yes, definitely do all that!)
Instead, try this. Take a piece of long-form content—a blog post, let’s say. Find your most opinionated and most interesting idea in it, and post it out on your social media channels. Then ask an open-ended question. If you’ve already done Steps 1 through 4—creating high-value content based on expertise, then giving it away to create an engaged and relevant community–you’ll get a lot of responses. You’ll get new perspectives, more questions, and a strong sense of what your market wants to hear.
Then you’ve got a recipe for a follow-up article where you can get even deeper into the topic. And here’s the kicker. Pull those perspectives and questions into the article as quotes. And then, when you publish your new article, send it to the people you're quoting, and ask them to share it with their networks. There’s your new distribution strategy.
Suddenly, you’re not just shouting into the void. You’re in a conversation.
So, there you go. There—in a (ahem, rather large) nutshell—is how you can take a blog post, and turn it into a sale, in a few days, with a team of four (plus a group of freelancers), and a start-up budget.
Or, in a more general sense, it’s how you can use content to build a community, engage that community to have conversations, and use those conversations to create better content.
Content that starts with conversations—and finishes with conversions.