The New B2B Content Playbook: Everything Old Is New Again

Content marketing has an exciting future ahead—if we can all just agree to get back to basics.

Sixteen years before Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, a lesser-known biologist named Richard Own identified an evolutionary phenomenon called “homology.” He observed that species in different habitats—even different parts of the world—evolved similar features. As an example, both whales and bats landed on echolocation as the best way to communicate.

This came to be known as convergent evolution. You get the idea—opposable thumbs are great for gripping, wings are perfect for flying, etc. Natural selection guides different animals in the same direction when it makes sense. 

But since animals come in all shapes and sizes, convergent evolution only creates similar features, not necessarily similar species. Birds and fish won’t converge as species, but brown trout and rainbow trout who thrive in cold mountain creeks will get more similar over time.

The same thing happens in business, especially within industries whose companies face similar types of constraints. Imagine 100 B2B SaaS companies. They are fighting for different customers but use much of the same underlying technology and are each funded in basically the same way. It’s not surprising when these companies behave in similar ways. As one makes a small breakthrough in sales tactics or performance marketing, others follow.

This is what we’ve observed in content marketing over the last decade or so. A swath of SaaS companies converged on a similar strategy—not because they were copying each other, but because a playbook emerged as an effective way to reach customers given the macro conditions (tech, funding, and types of customers, etc.).

There’s nothing wrong with this. And for the last decade or so, most of these companies have converged on a few variations of the same content strategy: an SEO-focused approach with occasional nods to sales enablement, product content, thought leadership and social media.

The Long Arc of Content Marketing

Many years ago, investor Andrew Chen wrote a now-famous blog post titled, “The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs.” It posits that all marketing channels decay over time. In his words:

There are a few drivers for the Law of Shitty Clickthroughs, and here’s a summary of the top ones:

  • Customers respond to novelty, which inevitably fades
  • First-to-market never lasts
  • More scale means less qualified customers

He cites examples like banner ads, Facebook ads and email marketing as examples. A lot of marketers, myself included, nodded along to this post but assumed that content marketing was exempt from this law due because it’s “organic.”

It turns out we were wrong. The “Law of Shitty Clickthroughs” applies to content marketing too, just on a much longer timespan. It took much longer for SERPs to become so saturated that the cost to rank outweighed the value of doing it. It’s been a long and great ride for many a content marketer. But all of that is changing now.

To summarize, a bunch of similarly structured and funded companies realized that content works. Everyone pursued it in mostly the same way, the playbook worked incredibly well and now the efficacy of that playbook is fading. But Facebook ads still work, email marketing is still underutilized in B2B, and content marketing has an exciting future ahead—if we can all just agree to get back to basics.

“...The playbook worked incredibly well and now the efficacy of that playbook is fading. But Facebook ads still work, email marketing is still underutilized in B2B, and content marketing has an exciting future ahead—if we can all just agree to get back to basics.” — Jimmy Daly, Co-Founder & CEO at Superpath

Everything Old Is New Again

Content marketing’s B2B origins started as a way to acquire customers. Along the way, it became a practice of its own. Content teams were formed and funded to think about content, not acquisition. A lot of us got very good at content marketing, but perhaps didn’t pay quite as much attention to acquisition as we should have. 

The purpose of content is to attract your target reader via useful and interesting content. SEO proved to be a great way to do that, and many content strategies evolved to look something like this…

…when, perhaps, a more well-rounded strategy might have looked like this:

Today, content marketers are rethinking this from first principles. The events of the last 12-18 months—the emergence of generative AI as mainstream, economic uncertainty, a wave of layoffs, higher interest rates, etc.—injected a dose of uncertainty into content marketing for the very first time. Many teams are getting back to fundamentals, thinking more deeply about what people might like to read, what novel ideas they could dream up to attract attention, and how they might collect proprietary data to report.

It’s quite possible that the stage is set for a content marketing renaissance, one where teams return to small b blogging, running more surveys and analysis (like Wistia’s kind of insane State of Video), publishing truly counterintuitive thought leadership (like this classic Intercom post from 10 years ago), building audience on owned channels (like Sparktoro’s 50,000-strong email subscriber base), and leaning on SEO only to the extent that it proves to be useful.

Content playbooks have always been a kind of math problem. You have to calculate the costs of the input, and at least guesstimate the return. That’s forced teams to optimize for content for specific channels, all while those channels slowly decayed in front of them. I’ve heard from dozens of content teams in the last few months who say their traffic is declining. They want to refresh content, prune, consolidate, etc. And while that may help, the real problem isn’t the content, it’s the channel. And if you optimize most of your content for one channel (*cough* SEO *cough*), you can’t be surprised when you’re left with a load of content that can’t easily be distributed anywhere else.

The new content playbook hasn’t been written yet. I suspect that a few companies will figure out something that works, and a bunch of other companies will converge on the same strategy. The short-term outlook is actually very exciting. We should expect to see some of the most novel and exciting B2B content that any of us has ever seen. The long-term outlook is the same: ten years from now, someone can write about how the new playbook is decaying and it’s time for something new.

In the meantime, here are few things every content marketer should hyper-cognizant of:

1 - The opportunity to use content to stand out and attract awareness has never been better. It’s the perfect time to start building a true content brand. A tactic as simple as writing first-person narrative-style content will stand out. There are burgeoning channels begging to be explored (just know they’ll decay eventually!) and mediums like video and audio that are still underutilized in the B2B space. It may feel crowded in the content space right now, but that’s because the SEO playbook has hit breaking point. It’s actually never been easier to stand out.

2 - SEO is only slightly less important than it was. Superpath’s recent State of Content survey found that SEO is increasing in importance for about 49% of content marketers. OGM’s B2B Survey found that Google is the #1 place where B2B buyers begin their search for new software. SEO will continue to be important. It may still be the center of your content strategy, but it can’t be a crutch any longer. Diversify channels, build an owned audience and create content that feels novel, fun, interesting or valuable even if the keyword research doesn’t back it up.

3 - The content skill set is changing. Content teams used to be groups of writers with a bit of project management sprinkled in. The role of the content team is changing, and so are the skills needed. Remember, content teams are tasked with customer acquisition, not content creation. Additionally, more teams are relying on outsourced than ever before. As such, the internal content marketer’s skillset requires some mix of:

  • Storytelling
  • Channel-specific knowledge
  • Tool-specific knowledge (e.g. Webflow, Ahrefs, Jasper, etc.)
  • Data analysis
  • Workflow automation 
  • Basic video and audio editing
  • Vendor management

4 - AI is your copilot. Every content marketer should be a generative AI expert. And I’m not just talking about finding ways to use AI to write meta descriptions, I’m talking about gaining real efficiencies by integrating AI into all of your content workflows. Generative AI adoption should include content creation, optimization, planning, briefing, design, internal comms, and brand/voice. Don’t just tinker with AI. It can make your life easier, but it’s also the most important new technology of this era.

Content Marketing’s Golden Era

Content convergence will happen again one day, but for now, we’re entering what could be a golden era. We have better tech or more funding than the last wave of B2B content marketers. We’ve learned from some of the mistakes of our predecessors and mostly overcome the skepticism of CMOs who used to question if content was a worthy investment. Tech, resources, wisdom and buy-in—there are no more excuses. It’s never been a more exciting time to work in content.

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