They say that mapping out and creating content for every stage in this journey is the holy grail of inbound marketing.
Do that and you will own your niche and won’t leave a single chance to any of your competitors.
However, like the automatic seat belts and the Star Wars prequels, this is the kind of idea that’s good mostly in theory.
As you’ll see in this post, following the buyer’s journey is a “unicorns and rainbows” strategy. It may work in some cases, but not nearly as often as you’d imagine.
If you want real results, you will be much better off following the strategy we’ve laid down below.
What is the Buyer’s Journey?
Essentially, the buyer’s journey is the research process that a consumer goes through before making a purchase decision.
Think of all the questions a buyer asks himself before deciding what to buy. These steps can be divided into three discrete stages:
- Awareness Stage — A buyer starts off with trying to understand his problems better.
- Consideration Stage — Once he understands his problem, he starts searching for solutions.
- Decision Stage — Finally, after settling with some specific solution, he’s looking for a place to buy it.
However the buyer’s journey is not always symmetrical and linear. A buyer can jump straight from Awareness Stage to the Decision Stage (say, shopping for a last minute Valentine’s Day gift from Amazon). Or he may dawdle on the Consideration Stage just to decide that he doesn’t want to buy anything at all.
For marketers, this journey seems to be important for two reasons:
- 94% of B2B buyers research online before making a purchase decision.
- 67% of the buyer’s journey is completed before buyers even talk to a sales rep.
But let’s dig deeper into this interesting concept…
The Buyer’s Journey Works… Not
In theory, if you map out your buyer’s journey and create content for each stage, you can completely own the buying process.
The idea is that when someone sees your brand name repeated in the Awareness, Consideration and Decision stages, they will be more likely to buy from you because they’ve already had a positive interaction with you before.
Kind of like Gary Vee’s “Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook” approach, except applied to inbound marketing.
I can’t say that this concept doesn’t work, because it actually does!
For example, I’m sure you’ve heard of HubSpot. This inbound marketing behemoth absolutely owns its buyer’s journey.
Take a look at some of these keyword searches:
I. Awareness stage: “What is inbound marketing”
II. Consideration Stage: “Best inbound marketing software”
III. Decision Stage: “HubSpot vs. Marketo”
Clearly, creating content for each stage of the buyer’s journey works for HubSpot.
This means that you should quit what you’ve been doing and start hammering out buyer’s journey content, right?
Here’s Where the Buyer’s Journey Fails
In a perfect world, you would have enough resources to create content for all three stages of the buyer’s journey.
But since we do not live in a perfect world, we have to be a bit more pragmatic.
The buyer’s journey for most products can stretch to hundreds and thousands of keywords. Creating content for all of them is expensive, time consuming, and not always effective.
It is, for all intents and purposes, an “inbound marketing unicorn” (INC Magazine even called it one).
You, however, are not a unicorn.
I doubt that you have have HubSpot’s resources or their expertise. Nor do you have $100.5M in funding.
So, if you are running a startup or a small business, what options do you have?
Buyer’s Journey On A Budget
When you’re running a small business, your main priority should be to maximize ROI.
You can’t go around creating content for every keyword; you have to judiciously pick out keywords that will actually land you customers.
This leaves out Awareness Stage keywords. While these are great for brand building, they don’t have the best conversion rates.
Let’s take a look at a few examples to understand this:
Moz gets a lot of traffic from head keywords like ‘SEO’. According Positions Explorer, it occupies #3 for ‘SEO’:
Much of this traffic is of poor quality. These are often businesses that have no clue what SEO is, and how it can help them (it’s top page, after all, is a ‘beginners guide to SEO’).
Selling them SEO tools is hard. You first have to convince them that they even need a SEO tool.
This means more effort and longer sales cycles = low ROI.
TopTenReviews.com is a popular review site that helps buyers consider different products before making a purchase decision. It falls smack in the middle of the Consideration stage.
These guys rank for all sorts of review keywords and I guess this single fact helped them raise $60M in funding.
Consideration stage keywords are nice to own as you can tell, but they’re still one step away from actually owning the purchase process.
Which brings us to…
The Decision Stage is is the “last mile” of the buyer’s journey – the stage where buying decisions actually happen.
If you own this stage, you own the most important part of the buyer’s journey. You also get customers way more easily than from the Awareness or Consideration stages.
Amazon owns an enormous number of Decision stage keywords:
It has almost no content for the Awareness or Consideration stages. Instead, it creates long, useful pages for each product. This helps the buyer make a better decision, and nets Amazon its enviable search dominance:
If you own the decision stage, you essentially let someone else do the entire job of educating the buyer, then show up when they’re about to buy.
This is akin to letting someone else level the land, sow the seeds and tend the crops. Then you stroll along and take the harvest.
As the saying goes:
“Pioneers get slaughtered, and the settlers prosper”
If you’re a small business or startup, it’s wiser to be the settler, not the pioneer. Let others do the hard work of educating the audience. You only have to step in and own the stage where they actually make decisions.
Don’t Forget Your Buyer Personas
Based on the above, you might think that all you need to do is dominate decision stage keywords and make bank.
Not so fast.
While decision stage keywords do yield higher ROI, it is more important to create content that fits your buyer personas.
“Creating content that doesn’t directly speak to your audience is like accidentally gifting your mother-in-law a men’s razor and some aftershave”
Your buyer personas help you understand whether your customers already know their needs, or whether a need has to be cultivated first before you can sell them.
Let’s take a look at a few examples to get a better idea.
InfusionSoft provides marketing automation software for small businesses.
“Marketing Automation” is a very recent buzzword. Unless you already work in marketing, you wouldn’t even know what it means.
For InfusionSoft, it’s important to first sell the idea of marketing automation before it can sell its product.
This is why it invests heavily in Awareness Stage content.
You’ll find lots of ‘How-To’ posts on its blog – “How to host a webinar”, “How to organize a small business”, etc.
InsideSales.com is a pioneer in inside sales. This is a new field and customers first need to be educated about inside sales before they make a purchase decision.
Hence, Ken Krogue, co-founder of InsideSales.com, creates content like this – “What is Inside Sales”.
This is the first result for “What is inside sales”
Now compare this with a SEO software like Ahrefs.
Ahrefs is aimed at SEO professionals. These are people who already understand SEO and need a tool to make their job easier. Their question is not “What is SEO?”, but “Which backlink checker is the best one?”
For this audience, it is more important to help them make a purchase decision, than to focus on SEO awareness.
This reflects in our rankings as well — Ahrefs ranks regularly on the first page for keywords only SEOs would search for — ‘backlink checker, backlink tools’, etc.
Here’s what you can learn from this:
- If your product is competing in a completely new market, focus on cultivating need first, i.e. Awareness Stage content. Applies to only a handful of businesses.
- If your product is targeting professionals and businesses who know they have a need, focus on helping them make better choices, i.e. Decision Stage content. Applies to most businesses.
Match Your Content Types to Your Business Needs
With your knowledge of buyer personas and buyer stages, you can now pump out blog post after blog post for your target audience.
Except that your blog posts won’t always do well. Depending on whether you’re targeting B2B buyers or B2C consumers, your content might be a big hit or a total dud.
Here’s how you can create the best content for your target market.
Content formats for B2B
Three things determine what kind of content you need to create for B2B sales:
- Sales cycle length
- Average Customer Value (ACV)
- Number of decision makers
Generally speaking, as length of sales cycle, ACV and number of decision makers increase, you need more compelling content, and more of it.
Overall, sales cycles are getting longer (up 22% over last year), with the average B2B deal involving at least 7 people.
Selling to this market requires that you create the right type of content. However, most marketers are simply investing in content that doesn’t yield results.
Take a look at this chart from Demand Gen:
And this one from MarketingProfs:
Whitepapers and webinars are among the most effective content formats, yet they are only the 9th and 11th most used content type among marketers.
The lesson is simple: create more ‘high value’ content types such as webinars, whitepapers, eBooks and case-studies.
For example, InsideSales.com publishes several webinars, whitepapers and research reports every month.
Mailchimp creates a lot of well-loved guides and eBooks:
Content formats for B2C
B2C buyers aren’t nearly as discerning as B2B buyers when it comes to purchase decisions. The product prices are a lot lower, there are almost zero integration issues, and the number of decision makers is limited to one or two at most.
If you start creating whitepapers, webinars and case-studies for your B2C buyers, you’ll likely just put your audience on snooze mode.
What works is fun, interactive content that is easy to share.
Take a look at Zappos’ blog. They publish at least one post a day with some nice visuals featuring a selection from the Zappos store:
Indian travel site MakeMyTrip.com does a great job curating and creating picture-filled blog posts on travel locations:
Bill Marriott’s blog on Marriott.com is a great example of connecting a brand to its founder.
Sample topics include “Remembering my mom on Mother’s Day”, “Selling underwear to lumberjacks” and “Finding new ways to serve”.
It’s intimate, insightful and does a good job of conveying the Marriott values :
WholeFoods absolutely kills it on Pinterest:
And Delta nails Twitter:
You probably get the picture – content that solves problems and invites shares wins.
To recap, here’s what you should do:
- In B2B, focus on ‘high value’ content, especially if you have more discerning customers and higher priced products.
- In B2C, focus on solving customer problems without making it dull. Blog posts and social media do wonders.
Bringing It All Together: “The Right Content Strategy for Seamless Market Domination”
We’ve already concluded that focusing on all three stages of the buyer’s journey is a waste of time for most businesses. It divides your attention, increases your workload, and makes it difficult to maximize ROI.
You will see much better results by dominating one stage (the decision stage, for most businesses) by creating relevant content offers.
Follow these three steps for market domination:
- Understand your buyers. Figure out whether they need to be educated about the problem, or whether you can piggyback on what work others have already done.
- Figure out what’s the best content-type for your business. Blog posts and social media work great for B2C, whitepapers, webinars and case-studies for B2B.
- Create your content for the buyer’s journey stage that delivers the best ROI, i.e. the Decision Stage.
But all of my dissertations above were quite controversial, weren’t they?
So I’d love to hear your own thoughts and maybe even argue with you in comments quite a bit 😉