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Five B2B Trends in Content, Social Media in 2011

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • Five trends that will affect B2B marketing in 2011
  • What you can do to stay ahead of those trends

As an editor and marketer, I spend a lot of time thinking about the "how to"—in other words, how to translate the best and most interesting marketing ideas into truly actionable steps for organizations looking to grow their businesses.

But, every once in a while, it's good to take a step back—to take stock of the bigger picture, to put ideas into perspective. Like at the start of a new year, for example.

So at the start of 2011, here are a few bigger trends I see shaping the way B2B marketers will do business in the coming year.

1. Social media = Lots of room for improvement

It's true that B2B marketers are embracing social tools as a way to connect with customers and grow their businesses. Most businesses have some kind of social presence or say they plan to launch something: Most have attempted a blog or Facebook page, or have peeked at Twitter. (For instance, when Guy Kawasaki asked a room full of B2B marketers at a recent MarketingProfs event, "How many people think Twitter is stupid?" only two brave souls raised their hands high.)

Still, most B2B marketers have yet to truly embrace the full social toolset for their business. A mere 12% of business executives say their companies are using social media effectively, according to a recent study by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services.

Why is that? Sometimes, it's because they are unsure of the real value of social media, and sometimes it's because they aren't sure how to approach social channels. (How do you foster engagement on Facebook? What's the value of social-streaming platforms like Twitter, where your content quickly vaporizes? Why doesn't our blog have any comments?)

In other words: B2B marketers + social = lots of room for improvement.

2. Content isn't enough

Most B2B marketers have embraced the notion that they are also "publishers." In other words, they understand that in addition to being in the business selling whatever they sell—shovels or software—they also need to be producing content as a cornerstone of their marketing, both to engage and to educate their would-be customers.

In a survey MarketingProfs conducted last spring with Junta42, almost 90% of B2B marketers said they were using some form of content in their marketing:

But, at the same time, producing any old content isn't enough. B2B companies have to produce the right kind of content: Web content that is honestly empathetic and seeded with utility for your customers; content that reflects your business's core values and is inspired by your unique perspective and authentic "voice."

In the same survey, B2B marketers said "producing engaging content" is their biggest marketing challenge.

So how do you produce the right kind of content? That bit about being "honestly empathetic" above is the key: Put yourself in the shoes of your customers, and consider what you can do to best suit their needs. Be that expert who can help them with their problems and offer solutions. Be a voice of trusted reason in your industry, about whatever problem it is that your service or product solves.

And do it in an interesting way. "Tweet is the new haiku," as Guy Kawasaki says. By learning how to write a compelling tweet or an interesting blog post, or by creating video or curating information that speaks to the heart of an issue, you will elevate your status from someone who merely sells stuff to someone who has an expert point of view and is a go-to resource.

3. Serving is the new selling

As I've written in the past, serving is the new selling, and support is the new marketing. Smart companies will increasingly be "brand butlers," focusing on how they can help their customers or prospects make the most of their daily lives (versus the old model of selling them a lifestyle).

Content is one way that you can meet the needs of your customers—by delivering information that's timely, needed, helpful, and on-brand, as we talked about in No. 2, above.

But there are other ways—via iPhone apps that help customers accomplish certain tasks, or via real-world support that might assist people in their daily lives. Virgin Atlantic's Flying Without Fear course is an example; so is HP's Planet Partners Recycling Program.

So is simply rethinking whether your website navigation really helps your customers accomplish what they need to do, as Gerry McGovern writes in his new book, The Stranger's Long Neck (A&C Black, 2010). (Or, whether it just offers them marketing "Frankenspeak.")

4. Content = More than words

When I say "content," B2B companies should be thinking not just text and stuff people read like blogs, ebooks, and whitepapers. Creating content also means producing audiovideochartsinfographics, illustrations (like this collection by David Armano), photoscartoonsanimationSlideShare ... and even puppet shows.

Online video is becoming more important as a source of business information and a driver of work-related buying decisions among today's senior executives: 83% are watching more online video today than they were a year earlier, and 65% say they have visited a vendor's website after watching a work-related video, according to a recent survey from Forbes Insights.

Think about "reimagining" content you already have (or are planning to create) into video, audio, or other formats. Record a video interview with your whitepaper author, release a Q&A interview with a webinar speaker based on the audience's questions, and publish that together with the presentation on SlideShare.

As C.C. Chapman and I write about in Content Rules, "reimagining" your content means you think of other ways to use the content you already have, versus creating one-off content items. It's a way to efficiently harness your content marketing efforts and ensure consistent messaging. It's kind of like recycling, but with far more intent and purpose.

5. Focus is on wins and losses

Social media is like baseball, says Brian Watkins, social media manager of Adobe. True baseball nuts love to pore over the stats of their favorite teams and pet players. They love to compare stats like stolen bases, strikeouts, ERAs, RBIs, sacrificed hits, and so on; meanwhile, all the League really counts is two things: wins and losses.

Similarly, social media fans love to pore over their own endlessly fascinating (but ultimately meaningless) stats: number of fans or friends or followers, number of retweets, number of views on YouTube, comparative social clout, and on and on. Meanwhile, all the C-suite really counts is sales.

The important thing is to recognize that it might be interesting and satisfying for aficionados to indulge in their own stats, but what really matters is the biggest picture.

For B2B and social media, that means connecting socially with your customers in a meaningful way that actually makes them do business with you.

* * *

So those are a few things on my radar this new year. What about you? What trends do you see affecting your business as we move deeper into 2011?

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Ann Handley is chief content officer of MarketingProfs, author of Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Ridiculously Good Content, and co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, Content Rules. Ann co-founded, one of the first sources of interactive marketing news and commentary.

Twitter: @MarketingProfs and @AnnHandley.

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  • by Shepdaddy Mon Feb 7, 2011 via web

    Hi Ann,

    This is a great article. My clients are all in the B2B space and haven't got a clue what they should be doing with Social Media and your article supports what I've been telling them. Thanks for posting.

  • by D.R. Hogg Mon Feb 7, 2011 via web

    Right on! Content needs to be engaging and that means more than just text online (whitepapers and such). In more conservative B2B environments, how can organizations present expert information or insight in more viral formats?

  • by Cathy Burrell Mon Feb 7, 2011 via web

    Hi Ann,
    GREAT article. As a Retail Consultant it is SO HARD to get clients to embrace the benefits of blogging or tweeting, when they don't see actual dollars related to their efforts ending up in their cash registers! The point I try to leave them with is: People do business with people they 'know' and like. You have to be THAT person to your customers!

  • by Mon Feb 7, 2011 via web

    Good perspectives. The findings certainly support the interactions we have with our clients. Commonly, even when enough content is produced, it is not in the same "voice," as the others. Having a common voice is one of the most important elements to any social media strategy. Thanks.

  • by Ann Handley Mon Feb 7, 2011 via web

    @shepdaddy: You're welcome. Glad it helps to distill some of your thinking, too.

    @DR: I always advise B2B companies to follow some of the "rules" in our book, "Content Rules," particularly focusing on the Rule "Show, don't tell." In other words, tell the stories of your clients. Show how your product or service helps them, improves their lives. Show how your product lives in the world, to tell your story in a more tangible, engaging manner.

    BTW: I don't really think companies want to aim for "viral." That's an impossible goal. Instead, aim for enjoyable.

  • by Ann Handley Mon Feb 7, 2011 via web

    Hi Cathy: I couldn't agree more.....! There are lots of reasons to embrace content as a cornerstone of marketing, particularly the reason you mention. But also because content is increasingly the front line of sales for any company and any product.

  • by Ann Handley Mon Feb 7, 2011 via web

    @innerbridge: Yes. "Voice" applies to a general point of view of perspective, too; what differentiates you from others in your space. "Voice" doesn't apply to just the words and tone you use, in other words.

  • by Chris Parente Mon Feb 7, 2011 via web

    Anne -- super baseball analogy -- I'm going to use that one! Our socmed engagements are very tactical -- do we help move the bottom line for clients? Lead gen, deal capture, prospect id, etc.

    Other things can sometimes indicated progress -- traffic growth for example -- but not end to themselves.

  • by Mike Zeller Mon Feb 7, 2011 via web

    Great post Ann. I am also enjoying your new book "Content Rules." The book's title really sums up the name of the social media game today.

  • by Ann Handley Mon Feb 7, 2011 via web

    @chris: Totally stole that baseball analogy, as I said. But feel free to steal it, as well!

    @mike: Thank you so much!

  • by Molly Griffin @ Dydacomp Mon Feb 7, 2011 via web

    Thanks for sharing these tips! I know here at Dydacomp a number of our clients are having trouble understanding how to use social media effectively and many don't realize the value that is found in content. You did a great job with this article and the graphs are just more resources i can use to explain the value of content to clients.

  • by Ann Handley Mon Feb 7, 2011 via web

    Thanks, Molly. I think you need to figure out your Content before you can figure out Social Media. In other words, how can you start talking before you know what you are going to say, and what you are going to sound like?

  • by Dhana@Loyaltics Mon Feb 7, 2011 via web

    Excellent article. I reflects the problem I am facing with my own clients here in this part of the world (Asia, I mean).

  • by @alextechy Mon Feb 7, 2011 via web

    good article. I work for a B2B industry (raw materials for bakery). My audience are not heavy users of social media tools or very tech oriented. Do you have any suggestions on how to deliver cheap, relevAnt and engaging content through any other media?


  • by Brijendra Dharampuria Tue Feb 8, 2011 via web

    I am agree with your points 1. Social media = Lots of room for improvement and 4. Content = More than words. Social media is getting popularity with leap and bounds among internet users and it increase the possibility to use it for raising business. On the other hand Content is not sufficient. Now visitors expect more than content when they visit a website.
    Visit me@

  • by Ann Handley Tue Feb 8, 2011 via web

    Alex: I'd have to know more about your audience and products, really. But video is a easy way to literally show how your products live in the world, and your product is inherently more interesting than a lot of, say, soulless high-tech products. Perhaps a YouTube channel featuring your various customer-bakeries? Telling their stories, and how the materials help them create the tastes of their childhood, or heritage, and so on?

  • by Ruth Henry Tue Feb 8, 2011 via web

    Great article especially the content =more than words part, some times I get stuck writing and have countless no. of draft posts because I always want to cover all bases. But I remember I have earlier videos that was just me talking that naturally got views because it wasn't over thought and more original than competitors

  • by Harry Hallman Tue Feb 8, 2011 via web

    Good article. However, you made this statement "As I've written in the past, serving is the new selling, and support is the new marketing."

    Selling is so much more than just communications and marketing is much more than just content. It goes without saying (although it seems companies don't listen when you do say it) that service is a big part of marketing and sales, bust saying it is the new way of business is very simplistic.

  • by Ann Handley Tue Feb 8, 2011 via web

    Hi Harry -- Thanks for commenting.

    Yes, you are totally right. It is simplistic. But it's more of a mantra than a prescription. In other words, serving ("helping") your customers vs. just broadcasting messages to them is a new way to frame marketing.

    Content is one way to do that, but it's not the only way (as we talk about extensively in the book).

  • by Rick Falls Tue Feb 8, 2011 via web

    This is a terrific breakdown of what businesses need to be doing to survive and thrive. Number 3 really hits it on the head.

    Serve is in, Sell is out.

    It seems like the much needed shift to new media, comes with old media thinking that pitches "I just write a check and magically my business is fine". How's that working for you?

    What we can do now, versus what was available just a short time back is astounding ! But we need to actively use these tools to consistently engage with our customers. The world is interactive, deal with it.

    Many business owners and marketers tend to be stuck in "the old way" baggage, and the costly, lazy and expensive habits of business promotion, while these new opportunities offer countless ways to increase customer contact at a fraction of the cost of old media.

    Thanks for such a clear look at what's working now, hopefully more and more people will start to "get it", when they do, they thrive !


  • by Erwane Wed Feb 9, 2011 via mobile

    Hi Ann,
    I am a student in marketing in second year and the more I study marketing the more passionate I become about it... Your article is really good and easy to understand. When I browse and read the different articles that you put up, it shows me a real insight of marketing practice and I can understand how the theory is applied by professional marketers which is fantastic! Social media is clearly growing and offering new opportunities... Thank you for your expertise and insight! Great reading to support my studies! :)

  • by Rachel Thu Feb 10, 2011 via web


    Great article and thank you so much for the info.

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