The Trouble with Tribbles in B2B Marketing

5th February 2017

In 1967, an early episode of the original Star Trek television series featured an adorably furry little creature called a Tribble that made a comforting cooing/purring sound when happy (and a horrifying shriek when upset!). One is brought aboard the Enterprise and before they know it, this Tribble has multiplied and multiplied until there are so many of them that they are popping out of storage bins and overflowing into the corridors. The trouble with Tribbles is that although the crew become enamoured of the sweet little fur balls, they reproduce to the point where they become unmanageable and overwhelming, much like the explosion of data we in B2B marketing experience every day.

ST_TroubleWithTribbles

OK, perhaps I’m pushing the analogy a little (or a lot!), but the point I want to make is that the data we rely on to inform our marketing efforts has grown to the point where we’re becoming overwhelmed by it all. And often without even intending to, we use it to validate what we think we already know, or to prove a particular point of view. Furthermore, with the over-abundance of B2B marketing surveys done every year on practically every subject we might be interested in, we have a tendency to accept the high-level statements for the findings and not do our own due diligence with the data.

We’ve all done it, and that’s all right…to a point. The problems begin when we become so fixated on our own point of view or accept as true the conclusions of the surveys that we ignore what the rest of the data may really be telling us.

Last month I finally took a look at the third and final instalment of the Content Marketing Institute’s (CMI) annual look into the state of B2B marketing, the 2017 B2B Content Marketing Benchmarking Report for Australia. The CMI concludes that ‘as Australian marketers continue to grow in experience and content marketing maturity, so too does their overall success with the approach’.

I can’t really argue with this conclusion. Most of us get better at just about everything as we gain more experience. Yet I have trouble with the fact that the data is actually telling a far different story.

For those of you who may have missed my posts (Is content marketing failing us? and Committed to content marketing?), the CMI found that although the ‘tide had turned’ for content marketing, B2B marketers in both the US and the UK still weren’t doing it right.  For North America, it’s a lack of strategy that’s inhibiting B2B content marketing success and for the UK, it’s a lack of commitment.

For Australia, it would appear to be lack of experience. And the findings are meant to encourage marketers to keep following the CMI route to content marketing success:

  • One Type of Content
  • One Main Platform
  • Consistent Delivery
  • Over Time

And of course, as they found with the US and UK surveys: have a strategy for and a commitment to content marketing.

This advice is neither wholly right nor entirely wrong; it only becomes an issue when there remains an insistence that content marketing is the be-all and end-all for marketing, instead of one tactic among many in the B2B marketing mix.

Before I address this further, let’s take a look at the overall CMI findings for the Australian survey:

CMI Austrlia comparative chart(Click on thumbnail image to bring up the chart)

What is this chart telling us? Let’s look more closely at the data:

  • Firstly, it should be noted that 119 marketers (of which 104 were B2B, the rest B2C) participated in the survey, a 20% decrease from the 148 who participated in 2016.
  • 35% of those surveyed responded that they are sophisticated or mature content marketers. That is a total of 42 people. Though this is a 5% increase year-on-year, it is actually a slight decrease in real numbers, down from 44 people in 2016.
  • Only 25% of the total respondents – 30 people – are finding success with their content marketing efforts. This is a 3% decrease from a year ago and down from 42 people.
  • Less than half have clarity on what effective or successful content marketing looks like – at 49% significantly less than the 55% of a year ago.
  • Fewer Australian marketers have a documented content marketing strategy – down 2% year-on-year – that’s 52 people down from 68, although as with the US and UK reports, the survey specifically asks about the elements of the strategy and every single one of those elements are elements of a plan, not a strategy.
  • A significant 20% fewer will produce more content next year – but it’s still high at 68%.
  • Although only 4% will produce less content, it’s more than last year’s 1%, that’s 5 respondents producing less content than last year’s lone respondent.
  • Social media remains the top tactic for content marketing but there has been a dramatic decline, from 92% down to 47%.
  • Email moves into the top distribution channel this year (95%); it wasn’t even on the radar last year.
  • The top goal changes – from lead generation in 2016 (84%) to engagement in 2017 (72%)
  • Website traffic was the most used metric for content marketing success at 71%, yet only 35% of respondents felt it provided ‘truly measurable results’.

Of particular interest is that in 2016 lead generation, as measured by sales lead quality, was the top goal for B2B marketers, as opposed to 2017’s goal of engagement as measured by website traffic.

How does experience impact these findings?

While it’s noteworthy that those who are more sophisticated marketers have higher percentages of overall success within every category surveyed, there are some telling data-points:

  • 91% of the 42 sophisticated/mature marketers in the survey are extremely/very committed to content marketing;
  • 71% of them have a documented content marketing strategy (or plan as I read it);
  • Yet, only 56% of them are achieving content marketing success. So, experience in this case is not necessarily translating into results.

My conclusion? As with the US and UK surveys, it’s pretty clear to me that not much, if anything, has changed for Australian content marketing year-on-year. We still don’t understand what’s working and what’s not, and we’re still unable to measure it.

So, what do we do?

The real challenge we’ve faced as B2B marketers with content marketing is looking at it as our marketing approach, instead of simply one tactic among many.

While I don’t like the term itself, I’m fine with it being used to describe an online asset where we create content that is not about what we sell, but is about our customers’ issues and challenges. And this can be – and is – good marketing. The CMI just happens to call it ‘content marketing’ and describes it as: one type of content, on one main platform, delivered consistently and over time in order ‘ultimately, to drive profitable customer action’.

But let’s be very clear, this is not a marketing strategy, this is a tactic – a good one when done well, to be sure, but not an entire marketing approach. A single approach is simply not good marketing. Our customers move across multiple channels and platforms, they engage with us when and where they choose, and we can’t capture our customers’ time and attention by driving them to a single asset where we expect them to read our content…and then do what?

The trouble with Tribbles

In the Star Trek episode, the solution for the avalanche of Tribbles was to beam them to a Klingon ship. We have no such easy answer to the explosion of both data and content in B2B marketing, but I do have a few suggestions:

  • Create less content – yep, let’s do far less, but let’s take the time and thought to craft far better content that can be used more widely to create better impact and engagement.
  • Think about marketing in its entirety, not just a single element of the whole.
  • Clarify what we really want to achieve with our marketing efforts and only then focus on how we will do it.
  • Perform due diligence on interpretations of data because there is so much of it that it can be made to mean anything we want it to mean.

We really need to understand for ourselves what’s working, what’s not and why or why not. And not kid ourselves about what we’re finding. Otherwise we’ll just end up with an awful lot of cute, fuzzy Tribbles and no credibility at all.


Heidi Taylor is an award-winning senior marketing strategist with 25 years' experience of helping organisations engage with their customers, creating impact and differentiation. She is a sought-after speaker at marketing conferences in the UK and internationally, and regularly contributes articles to marketing journals in print and online. You can follow her on Twitter @TaylorMadeInKew.

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