Understand Your Growth Constraints, Then Deploy Content Marketing Strategically

b2b content marketing

Content is traditionally used to drive top of funnel traffic and move users towards free trial signups. And that works really well—assuming that creating awareness of the product is the main constraint.

But often—in fact, very often—this B2B content strategy is applied to businesses with different constraints, rendering it ineffective. The model, visualized below, is an oversimplified view of content marketing.

What about businesses with plenty of awareness but few paying customers? Or startups selling software to large enterprises?

Content should be used to alleviate constraints on growth. That means that content marketers need a keen understanding of the business’ pain points long before doing keyword research or putting together an editorial calendar. Content marketing works best when applied strategically.

Let’s look at a few different businesses, all with different constraints on growth, to see how content strategy should be re-evaluated.

Content Strategy for Freemium Products

More than 10 million people have installed the Grammarly Chrome extension. Without a deep understanding of the business, it’s pretty safe to assume that the company’s real challenge is converting free users to paid users, not filling the top of the funnel.

This is a perfect example of a business where the traditional content marketing model will actually exacerbate a problem: more free users means the company has to spend more money serving users who don’t generate revenue. Take a quick look at your Chrome extensions and you might see a pattern. The free versions of many products are good enough, so you don’t bother to upgrade to a paid version. Here are a few examples from my own browser: Grammarly, Evernote, Zoom, Buffer and Dropbox.

In each case, the company’s only source of revenue is subscriptions. And in each case, the company has scaled considerably by getting users to sign up for its free product. Acquisition of free users isn’t the bottleneck, therefore the traditional content marketing model won’t be an effective use of the marketing budget.

Let’s take a step back to consider who uses these products vs. who pays for them. In many cases, individuals adopt the products, then businesses pay for them. The implication here is that content marketing could be applied to a different audience and at a different part of the funnel.

Instead of thinking, “We can use content to drive organic search growth and get more free users,” they should be thinking, “We could use content to target managers whose employees are already using our free products.” That represents a significant shift in a content strategy:

Less Important More Important
SEO Email
Reach Personas
Tactical Content Strategic Content

The strategic application of content makes all the difference. It’s far cheaper and much more effective to use content to relieve constraints than it is to blindly chase keywords.

Content Strategy for Marketplace Companies

Sometimes the traditional sales funnel is too limited to help companies visualize where content can help. Take a marketplace company like ClassPass for example. ClassPass customers pay a monthly fee for access to a large network of gyms and studios.

On one side of the marketplace, ClassPass sells memberships to consumers. On the other, they partner with gyms and studios. Marketplaces run on supply and demand—they need members to entice gyms to partner with them, and they need gyms to make their offering interesting to consumers. This means they have to market to two distinctly different groups.

marketplace content marketing

It’s hard to know exactly where the bottlenecks are, but let’s assume that:

  • On the consumer side, ClassPass needs more awareness and top of funnel traffic.
  • On the partner side, ClassPass needs middle and bottom of the funnel traffic to convert more gyms and studios.

Here’s how the strategies for these two audiences might differ based on the questions we outline in our content strategy guide:

Consumer Partner
Who Will You Write For? individuals interested in fitness and a healthy lifestyle gyms and studios that need to fill empty spots in their classes
What Will You Write About? wide range of health and wellness topics with a focus on motivating readers to take action the business of running a gym or studio with a focus on data that supports the benefits of partnering with ClassPass
When Will You Publish? short posts published at least 5x/week in-depth, well-researched posts published 1x/week
How Will You Earn Traffic? search, social media search, email
How Will You Support the Business? grow top of funnel traffic to make more people aware of ClassPass offering convert gyms and studios to build demand for the consumer side of the business

The consumer-side content strategy follows a pretty traditional approach. The content is mostly top of funnel, and readers are asked to enter their zip code to see which nearby gyms and studios they could get access to via ClassPass.

The partner-side is more sophisticated. It requires a deep understanding of the challenges that gym and studios owners face. It needs to address the financial benefits of working with ClassPass. The content is non-traditional in that it should focus almost entirely on the product.

Some call this sales collateral—we call it content marketing because the pieces should be designed for consumption and engagement. There’s less focus on non-branded keywords since studio owners are likely to be searching directly for information about working with ClassPass.

Just like with freemium products, a marketplace company needs to understand where growth is constrained, then strategically apply content to provide relief.

Content Strategy for Flexible Products

Airtable brings a completely different challenge to the table. The model is freemium, but the product is so open-ended and flexible that users need to be educated on how to use it before buying into the idea.

There isn’t demand for a half-spreadsheet, half-database tool, but there is demand for the hundreds of use cases that the product finds solutions for. It can be a project management tool for a team of 30 or it can be a way for one person to keep track of books they want to read.

To solve for this, Airtable has created templates to help new users get going and a gallery of use cases called the Airtable Universe to showcase innovative uses of the product. It can collect data on how people respond to the templates and the gallery, then create content to attract users who already have a challenge that Airtable can help them solve.

A quick look at the Airtable blog shows they’re doing just that. Topics range from Building a better editorial calendar to A blueprint for streamlined event planning. While the blog can feel like a smattering of unrelated topics, the content is tied directly to use cases with existing demand. Instead of a single funnel, Airtable could segment funnels by use case and by constraint. The constraints will be different for each suggested use case.

They may, for example, need top of funnel content for users interested in building editorial calendars but bottom of funnel for users in need of a product to help with hiring workflow.

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A company like Zapier faces a similar challenge. Some users may be searching for a workflow automation tool, but the vast majority of people will be looking to solve app integration issues:

  • “How do I add Shopify sales to QuickBooks?”
  • “How do I add new MailChimp subscribers to Google Sheets?”
  • “How do I create invoices from new Stripe charges?”

The use cases are nearly infinite, so they need to do three things:

  1. Programmatically create pages that address every variation of apps (“QuickBooks and Shopify,” “QuickBooks and Google Sheets,” etc.). Here’s an example: https://zapier.com/apps/google-sheets/integrations/quickbooks
  2. Create content for people searching for non-branded automation workflows. How to Automatically Print Shipping Labels is a perfect example.
  3. Create content for the brand names of the apps in their ecosystem. Example: 8 New Google Calendar Features You Should Start Using Now.

Like Airtable, they have to anticipate desired use cases, then build content around them. And like Airtable, once users are in the door, they need to use content to suggest more use cases. Content serves acquisition and retention for businesses with multiple use cases.

Content Strategy for the Enterprise

It’s common that enterprise companies use content as sales collateral. They turn blog posts into white papers and one-pagers that sales reps can send to leads. If converting leads to accounts is the primary constraint on growth, this makes sense. For traditional enterprise companies—Oracle, Adobe, Microsoft, etc.— with a sales-heavy approach, this strategy is logical.

But not all companies that sell to the enterprise do so in the same way. Think about companies like InVision, Buffer and Shopify that started by selling to SMBs, then moved upmarket as the product evolved. Employees at enterprise companies almost certainly prefer the usability of consumer-grade products—this can, and should, have a significant effect on content strategy.

Take InVision, for example. The tool solves problems for designers. Designers work at both startups and enterprise companies, meaning the audience for the content is roughly the same across a wide range of businesses. Instead of creating content in the context of the company size, they can focus on creating useful resources for designers, regardless of where they work.

The constraint for a company like InVision, at least when it comes to enterprise growth, is likely a lack of awareness. The more designers who use Invision, the easier it is to gain penetration in large companies. This means that instead of focusing on building sales collateral, content can be created to grow the top of funnel traffic. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but InVision benefits most by growing the community of designers who find their content and product helpful.

When selling to the enterprise, it makes sense to get buy-in from the individuals using the products first. This doesn’t erase the need for good sales material, but it does keep the focus on creating value for the people who will be (1) hands-on with the product and (2) making suggestions to decision-makers about which tools they prefer to work with.

Find the Constraints, Then Apply Content Strategically

We work with 30+ companies on content marketing. And if there’s anything we’ve learned it’s that content is extremely flexible. It can work up and down the funnel, across different markets and help alleviate a wide variety of growth constraints.

Think big about how content can help your business, then think small about how to apply it.

Jimmy is the marketing director at Animalz, an agency that provides high-end content marketing solutions to SaaS and tech companies.