The State of B2B Content Marketing: What You Need to Know (New CMI Research)

November 13, 2020

A woman sitting outside on park bench with her computer on her lap and phone in hand while wearing headphones. A large tree shades the area she seated in.

Of the many hats worn by a B2B marketer, "change agent" is among the most valued.

As primary links between a brand and its audience, we need to understand what's happening around us, analyze the impact and implications, and adapt business strategies in nimble fashion. That's one reason B2B marketers tend to keep a close eye on trends and research – we can't afford to fall behind the curve. 

So naturally, we always appreciate the insights and intel provided by the annual B2B content marketing benchmarks, budgets, and trends report from the fine folks at Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs. This year's edition is especially handy – as we navigate a challenging and unprecedented time, outside context is helpful.

The full report is well worth reading for info-hungry change agents, but here we've selected five findings from the research that stick out to as key points of emphasis as 2021 approaches. 

At a Glance:

  • A focus on nurturing leads and relationships is a key differentiator between the most successful and least successful organizations.
  • Live-streaming and virtual events are quickly rising in adoption as in-person events decline.
  • A relatively small percentage of B2B marketers say they’ve established an online community, or intend to do so in the next 12 months, pointing to a key opportunity.
  • Social media leads the way for both organic and paid content distribution, and LinkedIn is the most commonly used channel for both.
  • Content marketing as a function has shown resilience in the midst of a pandemic and economic downturn.

5 Notable Findings in CMI's 11th Annual Report on B2B Content Marketing

1. Successful marketers focus on nurturing leads and relationships.

The report opens with a look at the differentiating strengths of top performers. The chart comparing qualities of "Most Successful" vs. "Least Successful" exposes several large gaps – some invoking a "chicken or the egg" conundrum – but this 35-point chasm really caught my eye: 73% of the most successful organizations say they nurture subscribers/audiences/leads, compared to 38% of the least successful. 

I think this speaks to the general evolution we're seeing in B2B marketing, B2B sales, and business at large. Adopting a quality-over-quantity mentality means being more selective and thoughtful about who you want to reach, and then investing in them. "Nurturing" is the common term for this investment: staying in touch, delivering continuous value, and engaging throughout the buyer's journey. In other words, building relationships.

As that journey grows longer and more complex, the practice of relationship-building grows all the more critical.

2. Live-streaming and virtual events are fast on the rise.

It's the opposite of surprising, but worth calling out nonetheless. Among content types used in the past 12 months, in-person events were down from 73% to 42%, while virtual events/webinars/online courses were up by 10 percentage points, and live-streaming was up 19. As a pandemic forced us indoors and compelled us to remain physically distant, marketers turned to technology to stay closely connected with their audiences. 

Everyone's had to acclimate to this new reality, but as agents of change, B2B marketers have been quick to adjust and thrive. Content Marketing Institute itself just did a tremendous job of bringing its annual Content Marketing World conference online for the first time in mid-October, and we've seen plenty of creativity unleashed on the LinkedIn platform via LinkedIn Live and LinkedIn Events. Here's some reading material if you're interested in learning more about these tools:

3. Online community-building presents a ripe opportunity.

Even as marketers turn toward digital means of connection, not too many are committing themselves to online community-building. Less than one in three (32%) said they have established an online community, and only 27% said they were likely to establish one in the next 12 months. 

We're on record in saying that building online communities is now more important than ever (and also, luckily, easier than ever). This data suggests it's an opportunity to set yourself apart.   

4. LinkedIn remains the most-used social media platform for organic and paid B2B marketing activities.

Social media platforms were the No. 1 most common channel B2B marketers used for distributing organic content in the past 12 months, narrowly edging email and their organization's website/blog. Of those platforms, LinkedIn was by far the most-used.

And of the 72% of B2B marketers who used paid content distribution channels, social media was also the most common channel, healthily outpacing search engine marketing/PPC and sponsorships. Here LinkedIn also leads the pack.

It's always been our goal to make LinkedIn top-of-mind for B2B marketers who want to reach a targeted professional audience effectively. We're proud and humbled to be part of so many marketing strategies, and we'll keep working to deserve it – especially in the absence of in-person networking.

5. Content marketing is showing resilience in the face of a tough economy

Like any function, content marketing has sadly seen its share of layoffs and budgets cuts during this difficult year. But the report paints a relatively positive picture in this regard. More than half of B2B content marketers say their budget didn't change in response to the pandemic, and while 29% saw a decrease, another 18% actually saw an increase in spending.  

Eighty-eight percent of respondents said their B2B content marketing team's size either stayed the same or increased over the past 12 months, with 12% reporting decreases (half of those directly stemming from the pandemic's impact). 

Forge a Smart B2B Content Marketing Strategy for 2021

To my fellow agents of change: We've seen plenty of disruption and transformation here in 2020. There is sure to be more ahead. Armed with information and an adaptive strategy, we'll be ready to face whatever comes. 

Make sure to dive into the full report from CMI and MarketingProfs to get a comprehensive look at where B2B content marketing stands today, and to keep tabs as things keep changing, subscribe to the LinkedIn Marketing Blog.  

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