Most of the people who read your thought leadership will not buy from you in the next six months. In fact, 90-95% of your audience is not currently planning to buy the services you sell from any of your competitors either.
The reality of long B2B sales cycles means that the vast majority of your audience is not ‘in market’ at a given time. This means that any immediate uptick in sales when you launch a thought leadership campaign is likely to be pretty modest. But that is not the primary purpose of creating this type of content. Instead, it’s all about forging positive associations with your brand in the audience’s memory that can be triggered in future buying situations.
When your audience does reach the point when they are ready to buy what you offer, they will draw on the memory structures that you have helped to construct over years of producing thought leadership content and other brand marketing activity. And those brands that come more readily to mind during that buying situation (that are known in the marketing jargon as having ‘brand salience’), will be more likely to enter the consideration set and, crucially, be more positively viewed than those with lower brand salience.
Most advertising works in this way. For example, Coca-Cola has advertised consistently at Christmas since the 1930s because it wants to create and maintain the association between the drink and happy, family celebrations.
B2B marketing and thought leadership are no different. The primary goal is to create and strengthen associations between your brand and the positive attributes that are likely to influence purchasing behaviour at some point in the future.
Refreshing your memory
Given the importance of these associations in B2B content, it is worth considering how memory actually works. One of the most commonly accepted theories of memory is the Associated Network Theory. This states that memory consists of nodes, holding particular information, that can be linked through association. When two things are thought about simultaneously (for example bacon and eggs), they become linked in our memory.
In any buying situation, whether it’s Coca-Cola or enterprise software, the associations between a brand and its attributes are drawn down from long-term memory into working memory. The stronger the associations, the more likely they are to be drawn down.
One important constraint of working memory is that it has limited capacity, so only a small number of associations can be held at any time. This means that your brand has to fight for space in working memory with other brands when a prospect moves into a buying situation and is considering potential suppliers. Most of this process happens unconsciously as opposed to being based on a ‘rational’ process of selection.
So how should companies incorporate memory structures into their content? I would recommend the following:
1. Get noticed
The first battle of building memory structures is to get your content noticed in the first place. If your content doesn’t attract the audience’s attention, then you have no chance of lodging any associations in long-term memory. In our recent ebook Influence and impact, we put forward the SURE framework, which comprises four essential requirements for getting content noticed. Your content has to be:
Simple. Too much B2B content tries to communicate an overly complex message. This does not work. It is essential to keep your message simple in order for it to be noticed.
Urgent. Your audience is busy and only has time for key priorities. You have to answer the question “why now?” and ensure that your content will help the audience solve their immediate problems if they are to engage with it.
Relevant. Getting someone’s attention with your content means answering their questions and offering something of value. Relevant content answers the pressing questions and is as targeted, timely and tailored as possible.
Eye-opening. Unexpected messages secure the audience’s attention because they distort our models of reality. This is known in psychology as the Von Restorff effect, which describes the tendency to remember more easily anything that stands out or is unusual.
2. Think about the associations you want to create
I would argue that there are two sets of associations you need to create in order to increase your chances of success in a future buying situation – let’s call them first-order and second-order associations. First-order associations are the higher-level, more general attributes that you would like people to think of when considering your brand: typically more emotional concepts like innovation; experience; reliability; and trust. Second-order associations are those that are more rational and specific to a particular offering in your business, and are all about communicating expertise, knowledge and experience in a particular domain.
The best thought leadership producers create content that builds both first- and second-order associations: large, global, emotional “brand” campaigns designed to communicate higher-level attributes; and then more targeted, rational content linked to specific offerings. A portfolio approach is key as the two must work together.
3. Be distinctive and consistent
It’s not enough to have great ideas or content. If the audience does not associate those ideas or content with your brand, and build memory structures around that connection, then your thought leadership investment is wasted. Distinctiveness is vital in B2B content – and there are two key aspects to consider. First, the messages you choose to present must be ‘true to the brand’ and readily associated with your company. Generic topics that could be produced by anyone will fail to build the right associations in long-term memory. And second, the brand assets, visual messaging, tone of voice and formats also need to be distinctive in order to reinforce those associations over time. Both aspects of distinctiveness need to be consistently applied to ensure success.
4. If you don’t repeat yourself, you won’t build memories
There’s a common tendency in B2B content to chase after the latest business fad. Too many companies switch abruptly from one topic to another in an attempt to stay current and on trend. The problem with this approach is that the associations that are built between the brand and the topic are fleeting and there is no opportunity to lodge them in the audience’s long-term memory. Instead, companies should pick a core message and stick with it over a fairly long period – ideally for the length of the buying cycle in their sector, which may be between one and two years. This ensures that they have the opportunity to target every potential buyer in their category with their message, and lodge it in the audience’s long-term memory.