Content marketing is merging with sales

Marketing and sales teams are becoming increasingly inter-dependent as the nature of selling changes, writes Edwin Smith


The shifting relationship between marketing and sales has been well documented of late. And there is no shortage of analysis to explain just what’s been going on.

A recent CEB study shows that the typical business-to-business buyer’s decision is 57 per cent complete before they make direct contact with the supplier company for the first time.

This, as the well-worn explanation goes, is because the internet has changed everything. Buyers have an almost infinite amount of information at their disposal, so can do a huge amount of research before taking the step of making contact with a supplier and initiating something that more closely resembles the traditional “sales” process.

Realising this, many suppliers have turned to content marketing in order to join and influence the conversation before they’re actively invited to be part of it. Now, 30 per cent – almost one in three – of business-to-business companies’ entire marketing budgets are set aside for content marketing, according to a report this year by the US-based Content Marketing Institute. Business-to-consumer companies aren’t far behind with 24 per cent of marketing spending going exclusively on content marketing.

This doesn’t mean sales departments aren’t still important, of course. Just that their role now begins later on in the “buying journey” and, if they are to be successful, that they must work more closely than ever with their colleagues in marketing.

While this is an important shift, it’s no longer new – and the debate is moving on apace. Technology, systems, individuals and entire business models are developing to get to grips with the new relationships between buyers, marketers and sales. And, as you’d expect, some businesses are even driving the change themselves.

“In our company, the marketing and sales teams work almost as a single, well-oiled machine,” says Shafqat Islam, co-founder and chief executive of Newscred. “Marketing generates leads through content, then nurtures those leads by sending more content – white papers, blog posts, e-mail marketing, native ads. [According to their interaction with that content] those prospects are scored and, once they reach a high enough score, they enter into the sales team’s purview. A lot of times, if the prospect isn’t ready, the sales guy will send them back to marketing to nurture them further. This happens seamlessly and it’s a constant cycle.”

Mr Islam adds that the company also operates with a small five-person team of “sales development reps” who sit between the 12-person marketing team and a 20-strong sales team.

LEADING WITH CONTENT

The NewsCred model is instructive, not just because the startup has grown quickly – from 120 to around 200 employees since receiving $25 million of series-C funding in January – but also since it describes itself as an “end-to-end content marketing platform”. From planning to approvals, to analytics, it helps clients, such as Procter & Gamble, Xerox, Visa and AIG, find and create content for their own customers. So the company has a direct line of sight to the changing relationship between marketing and sales, but also to the forces driving that change.

The way that NewsCred internally scores prospective customers relies heavily on data about those prospects’ demographics and how they interact with content. But Mr Islam says an important part of the company’s approach has been to acknowledge that the old paradigm of the buying process no longer applies.

“The purchase path is more complex. It’s no longer a funnel with ‘awareness’ at the top, ‘purchase’ at the bottom and ‘consideration’ along the way. I think that’s a limited, old-school view of it. We actually think it’s more like a pretzel than anything else – with different people coming in and out of the funnel at different stages. You can’t be too prescriptive about the way prospects progress,” he says.

The marketing and sales teams work almost as a single, well-oiled machine

This sentiment chimes with the thinking of Pat Spenner, managing director of CEB, who believes that understanding the influence of group dynamics on real-world buying decisions is crucial for the success of both sales and marketing. He says: “Heretofore, marketers’ entire MO has been to ask: ‘How do we get individual stakeholders to connect with us as a supplier; to like us and favour us, read our white papers and so on?’”

In reality, Mr Spenner says, it’s more powerful to connect individual employees within a company to one another. He uses the phrase “consensus marketing”, but stresses that, in itself, this isn’t a new idea – just the way that consensus is created in the context of the modern buying journey, where suppliers tend to be part of the process much later on.

“Now we don’t have sales guys in there trying to knit this consensus together,” Mr Spenner says. “We have to start priming for consensus before the sales team gets in and that means marketing has to really start thinking about how they can create a consensus before sales reps are on the ground talking to that company.”

CREATING PERSONAS

He points to qualitative research by CEB that revealed the practice of creating inter-personal personas. These are models that marketers can use to understand the motivations and fears of different people working together within the same organisation. Using this method, marketing automation company Marketo has gone as far as to create guidelines for chief marketing officers who are minded to convince their colleagues from different departments that their business should invest in marketing automation software.

Mr Spenner says there are even differently worded scripts, with specific language and phrases, which address the key concerns of people from different departments. And, he adds, the consequences of this for the sales-marketing relationship should not be underestimated.

“In the best commercial organisations, it will draw sales and marketing closer together. Because if this consensus-knitting happens before sales gets in, when sales does come in, they’re going to pick up that exact same thread,” he says