Senior Marketing Manager and copywriter for Articulate Marketing. Specialist in writing about writing, marketing, strategy, technology and geekery. Writer of puns and the words between puns. They say talking to yourself is the first sign of content marketing. Expert parenthesis user (so it is said).
The B2B Brand Differentiator
Is your business brand more milquetoast or marketing genius? Bland or bold? Try our Differentiator to find out!
‘Stop apologising! It’s OK if your ideas are different, your goals are big — don’t be afraid of what others would say. You are skilled, capable, and talented — you deserve to be a leader, and you are enough.’
More than 60 percent of respondents say their positioning and marketing failed to differentiate their business, according to 2022-23 data from our High Performance Marketing Scorecard. Those same respondents had low scores in other key areas such as lead generation. There is a correlation between undifferentiated businesses and poor performance across marketing more generally.
What do we mean by the term ‘differentiation’, then?
Well, we mean your identity as distinct from others. The things that make you original. Maybe even odd. Worthy of attention, expressive, diverse, value-added, authoritative, helpful, customer-focused, people-led, more than the sum of your parts.
OK. That’s differentiation, so what’s the “engine” all about?
Glad you asked. Grab your anorak and enter our weirdo workshop. Watch out for things that go whizz or possibly bang.
Introducing ‘The Difference Engine’
The Difference Engine is a philosophy of marketing and differentiation best practices that we’ve honed as an agency over the twenty-something years we’ve been in operation.
It’s the brainchild of our collective experience, innovation and expertise.
It’s also a process of steps and activities that businesses can follow and adopt themselves. We won’t go into too much detail about every step here because it’s a huge topic that we’ll be exploring in other articles and papers (watch this space). What we will do is outline the framework so you know where we’re coming from.
The Difference Engine, then. It’s refined. Balanced. Thoughtfully constructed and validated.
With a Difference Engine firmly embedded in your business, you will have the power of differentiation at your fingertips. It will help you accelerate your growth and build the momentum you need to reach even your most ambitious goals.
Through various iterations of the Difference Engine, and the thinking outlined in later works, Lovelace and Babbage created the principles of computing that we use today.
After some experiments, the Difference Engine was envisioned as a crank-powered “computer” made of stacks of gears. Those gears or “figure wheels” interlinked in a complicated fashion to calculate numerical problems and then print the results. These calculations unlocked future innovations. The types of innovations that got us the internet and space travel.
Paying homage to the original, in our Difference Engine, eight pillars — or columns — make up the main part of the engine. They are comprised of 48 components that stack, interlock and impact one another. Every one has a part to play. The more parts are in motion, the better, bigger the results, and the more advanced problems you can solve. Conversely, if too many components are not moving they will likely jam your engine and halt progress. We don’t want that, do we?
Marketing is a system. It’s a complex machine. Everything is connected to everything else. Our Difference Engine reflects that reality.
What fuels the Difference Engine
Engines convert one form of energy into another.
That means they require an input, like fuel, to feed into a mechanism for transformation, calculation or good old-fashioned combustion. Only then do you get the outcomes you desire. Car goes vroom. Apollo 11 gets to the moon. Quantum computer solves the answer to life, the universe and everything…
So, what do you need in order to fuel your engine?
The better quality your fuel, the more efficiently the engine will run. Plus, the bigger the engine, the more you can put in, the faster you can go and the more you get out at the end. Quality and quantity both play a part here.
Despite all this talk of engines, it’s not, in fact, rocket science. You need to put in the usual resources:
On the other side, for all that energy you put in, what do you get out?
We’ve talked a bit about this already, but let’s get specific. A differentiated business will grow bigger, faster. It will get record profits, because it stands out from competitors and attracts an engaged audience of paying customers.
We’ve told you more than half of respondents to our survey felt that their business was not properly differentiated. Clearly, there has never been a greater need for a consistent, tried and tested framework for companies to construct better positioning and engineer sustainable differentiation.
In actual fact, there’s more to differentiation than the bottom line. It triggers a chain reaction that leads to even more valuable outcomes that boost innovation, employee wellbeing and other positive impacts.
Think about what you would do if you had such a healthy pipeline that you end up with a waiting list of potential clients. You could pick and choose who gets to work with you. You’d go from order-taker to esteemed partner. Got a disengaged client that takes up too much of your time? You no longer have to hold on to them just for revenue’s sake. Let them go their own way and focus on the people that want to partner with you. Conversely, the joy of having keyed-in clients cannot be underestimated. Have we mentioned how much we love our clients, lately?
Businesses in this position get the chance to work with companies that share their values and that are a force for good in and of themselves. They become part of a community that drives positive change. They can lead the charge. Why not? There is no rule saying you can’t be a for-profit business that is sustainable, contributes to important causes and treats employees well. You could have a business that is an ideal place to work, which attracts and empowers the best talent, with a culture that makes clients want to work with you. All while having a net zero impact. How about that.
Lastly, what wouldn’t you give to be a household name? A brand name that is used as the generic term, even? Hoover. Biro. Google. If you were the most trusted voice — the “thought leader” in other words — for your audience, you get to set the terms of the conversation. You become the authority in the market. The advisor. The one everyone else looks up to and tries to copy. That also means you’re the one innovating so you can give the best advice and make the smartest moves possible. That’s how you future-proof your business.
Components of the Difference Engine
Right. We understand what fuels the Difference Engine and what the benefits are. Let’s take a look at the engine itself.
Here is where we get to the heart of it: the parts that make the engine work. These are the components that have to be in place to achieve all those lovely outcomes. First, take a look at the eight pillars that house the 48 parts of the Difference Engine as a table:
1. Your mission
2. Talent and culture
3. The toolkit
4. Strategic blueprints
5. Brand architecture
6. Thought Leadership
7. Lead generation
8. Iterative optimisation
Customer relationship management software
Tone of voice
SEO keyword plan
Ideal client profile
Qualification and lead scoring
Personalisation and segmentation
Reporting and metrics
Skills and resources
Technical search engine optimisation
Upsell and cross-sell
Now, let’s look at each pillar individually. We’ll explain a bit about what the pillars mean and how you can think about implementing the components for your own situation.
The analysis, metrics and strategies that will help you achieve your goals as a business. These are contextualised within your industry and benchmarked against competitors. This is how you position your organisation based on where you are, now, and where you’d like to get to in the future.
You need stand-out ideas, ambitious goals and to measure your activities in order to succeed.
Industry analysis - "What is happening in the industry and where do we fit in?"
You can’t create effective goals without two things: context and data. An industry analysis gives you the context. It tells you what the current size of market is, where you fit on that scale, the history and forecasted future for growth, how your industry compares with other industries and what you can learn from that, who your competitors are, your total addressable market, behavioural shifts and trends that influence buyers, and so on. This is the sort of research project you would want to conduct on a regular basis, every year or every few years. Document your findings as a PDF or presentation deck to refer back to and to share with stakeholders.
Competitive positioning - "How does my business compare to competitors?"
In your industry analysis you will have identified your core competitors. You may have come across these names before, having lost or won deals against them. One way of measuring your own success is to benchmark yourself against competitors. Looking at competitors is a good place to find ideas to bring into your business. You’ll want to compare quantitative and qualitative data, with metrics like company size, site speed and number of forms, as well as subjective comparisons such as positioning, messaging, pricing, product niche, company culture and visual assets.
The goal is not to be just like your competitor; it’s to learn from them how you are different and why that matters to customers, while making sure you have all the basics covered.
Product-market fit - "How well do our products and services solve for the client?"
You’ve looked at your industry and considered the competitive landscape. Now, you want to sense-check your products or services and how they stand up to the test of market demand.
Consider if there is suitable demand for what you do, or if you need to pivot. Here, you’re taking a broad view on how well your products or services solve for the client. You may need to change your positioning (or even your target audience or verticals) to be more saleable, in light of the information you now have. If you can align your products or services with the right market-fit, it’s that much easier to engage your audience with targeted marketing.
Business vision - "What needs to happen and how do we align objectives to get there?"
This is where we start goal-setting. The business founder and key senior stakeholders are in charge of the business vision. They have to point towards land; then, it’s everyone’s mission to hoist the sails, fend off pirates and swab the decks.
In terms of planning methodologies, we highly recommend using Objectives and Key Results (with these results being SMART goals - specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) and/or Northstar goals, which may be the business vision at an even higher, more abstracted level. These help to bring your strategies to life. Stand-out businesses have ambitious goals, one hundred percent of the time.
Reporting and metrics - "What can I measure to see the value of our activities?"
Alongside OKRs, we suggest having metrics such as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to help you measure your activities and act as leading indicators for your Key Results. They aren’t milestones; they’re signposts. They tell you if you’re heading in the right direction or of you need to course-correct.
And (more on this later) you want some means of visualising reporting data. Ideally, you’d have dashboards that are available for anyone to see. These should be easy to understand and show ONLY the metrics that you actually care about. With the right reporting you can compare past performance with current performance, and make predictions about future performance. This is how you start to see the return on investment (ROI) for your activities and optimise that ROI moving forward.
Marketing strategy - "What are the best ideas that we can implement this year?"
Goals are not strategies, but the two work hand-in-hand. You need to know where you’re going, and how you’re planning to get there. As a business, you’ll want to have those visionary goals that are supported by departmental strategies.
When you’re ready to consider your marketing strategy, then, you want to have a high-level plan in place for the year, covering major projects, themes and promotion plans. Include your targets and processes, again, on a high level. Make some consideration for headwinds and tailwinds — leave room for unexpected variables. Be realistic, accounting for workload and skills, as well as what you might need to achieve your goals, such as new technology or outsourcing.
The idea here is to make the right decisions for the right reasons. It doesn’t have to be complicated. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You just need to think critically and realistically about where you are now and how to get to where you need to be.
Talent and culture
The people. The company culture that empowers them to do their best work and the purpose and values that makes that work worth doing. And, the repeatable, scalable processes that keep the wheels turning.
All differentiated businesses have a distinct culture, one that attracts and retains talent, operates efficiently, inspires others and tells a story worth hearing.
Company culture - "What holds our company together?"
You can sell the same thing as a thousand other companies, but still differentiate your business entirely based on culture. Of course, we recommend differentiating your products and services too, but culture is the other side of the coin and just as important. Consider what makes your company culture special. That would be anything from your working practices to your values to how you communicate to how you react in a crisis. We put a lot of stock in culture, and — as such — believe it’s a worthwhile endeavour to build a culture that stands out from the rest.
Your mission covers what you do. Why you do it is another matter — that is, the emotional reasoning behind why your organisation exists. ‘Why?’ is the question your ‘Purpose’ answers.
Unlike your goals, which may change as you make progress, your purpose remains the same. It’s the guiding value and can often inform your whole brand — as is the case with brands who champion a social cause, for example. You might be a business that makes delicious chocolate, but if your purpose is ‘providing a fair income for all cocoa farmers’, then that’s going to impact every decision you make, every piece of marketing, every interaction. As you can see, a strong purpose is something your audience can get behind. It gives them, and you, something worth caring about. That’s memorable. That’s powerful.
Sustainability - "How do we make choices that have a positive impact on the world?"
Every nation is looking for ways to be more sustainable. That responsibility extends to businesses. Businesses have the power to be more sustainable, for the planet, for employees, and for the community as a whole. Companies that have a positive impact, whether that’s by offsetting carbon or planting trees in the community, are already setting themselves apart from other businesses who only care about the bottom line. By making sustainability a priority, and taking action, not just talking about it, you have a sure-fire way to elevate your business above competitors from a marketing perspective. More importantly, it’s a must-have: investors, governments, potential clients and employees will be scrutinising your business.
Employer branding - "How is my business viewed by potential recruits and existing talent?"
As well as client-side branding, it’s worth considering how your employer brand impacts your overall image, as well. Talented people are attracted to high salaries and good benefits, sure, but also culture, opportunities for career growth, contribution to the community, wellbeing support and so on. You want to showcase the best you have to offer for recruits as a business, which in itself helps to differentiate you from other businesses. Then, in turn, by having the best talent operating within your organisation, you will inevitably stand out because of the skills, creativity and drive of your employees. It’s a win-win.
Skills and resources- "How does my organisation get the best work done?"
You’ve got a talented bunch of individuals on board. Nice — but that’s not where employee-based differentiation ends. For your existing workforce, it’s worth taking stock of the skills and resources you have in-house, and how that can be optimised (or outsourced). This may require you to invest in devices, training, workshops, certifications, even automations — all of which will empower your employees to do their best.
This is a two-way street, of course. You as a business must deliver on your promise to support employees, and employees must be self-motivated to achieve goals that benefit both themselves and the company as a whole.
Then there’s outsourcing, as we mentioned. If you don’t have the skills you need in-house, you may benefit from interventions and support from a third party expert.
Processes - "What steps will it take to be effective and efficient?"
Processes are what you do to execute your strategies effectively and efficiently. But, they’ve got to be people-led. The best processes are built around how people work, with accessible documentation, good briefs, clear tasks and Service Level Agreements (SLAs).
Processes should be viewed as part of your company culture. In a company with good processes, the atmosphere will be calm and orderly, with work done in an effective and efficient manner. Bad processes lead to confusion, stress, lack of accountability and a whole host of issues that will wear away at your culture. Plus, bad processes will be obvious to your clients, which may be the deciding factor on whether they stick with you or not, even if you deliver good outcomes. Therefore, processes in and of themselves are a piece in your differentiation puzzle.
The platforms, channels and playbooks that power your marketing and put your customers at the heart of your business. These tools, when integrated as part of a fit-for-purpose tech stack, enable real-time collaboration, data visibility, analytics and sales and marketing automation.
You need the right tools to craft a Difference Engine that works well.
Customer relationship management software - "Where do we keep data about leads, deals and customers?"
A CRM platform is the central hub where all your contact data is stored. Ideally, you want a dynamic system with sufficiently clever, intuitive and easy-to-use features that automatically pull in things like company and location data to a contact record. And, a system where contact records are accessible for multiple teams, such as sales and marketing, with a history of activities, all in one place. This way, you have a core audience of subscribers, leads, customers and even information on other categories of people such as competitors who have downloaded something from your site. That’s also worth knowing.
Tech suite- "How does our tech stack fit together to best serve my business’s needs?"
Alongside your CRM platform, you’ll be using a range of applications to run your business and your marketing. That may include project management and document sharing software. It’s likely to include marketing, sales and service tools (such as ticketing). It may well include HR tech. As we operate more and more in a digital workspace, the tools we use and how they fit together, and how data is shared between them, is all the more important.
However, to differentiate your business you don’t have to shell out for the most popular, most expensive tools on the market. Rather, differentiation comes from the wisdom to build a tech stack that’s right for you, in the moment, with room to grow and adapt as needed, securely, accessibly, with minimal risk or fuss.
Marketing automation - "How can our marketing be more efficient, with the help of technology?"
Marketing is rife with opportunities for automation. As your audience grows, you can’t manually sift through new contacts. Instead, you want to automatically segment your audience, only passing on viable, high-quality leads to your sales team. And, you want to trigger certain events within your marketing system based on things like behaviours. For example, if someone downloads an offer by filling in a form, you want to send them follow-up emails, or add them to a list, or assign them a lead score, or any number of things. Automation is a powerful, differentiating, tool.
Sales automation - "How can our sales be more efficient, with the help of technology?"
As with marketing automation, sales automation will help your sales reps spend time on building relationships, rather than bureaucracy. Automation can never replace that human element, but it can empower your people and fit within their workflow. There are any number of things you could automate, such as creating a task for follow-up based on the prospect viewing certain pages on your website, or a task to check back in on closed-lost deals. No deal left behind, right? By building automation into your marketing and sales processes, you’ll create a seamless, timely experience for your leads, and spend your team’s time wisely while you’re at it.
Playbooks - "What resources can our team create and use consistently?"
We’re willing to bet there are some things you do over and over again. For those projects, deliverables, campaigns and so on, you can save yourself some mental effort by making templates and step-by-step playbooks. For example, an email marketing playbook may contain templates for certain email types and guides to sending each kind of email to your database.
Armed with this library of resources, you will bring the same value with less effort, improving your profitability with no discernible compromise to the quality of your outputs. In fact, having playbooks improves consistency overall, so you are more likely to produce your best work, every time. Think of the best restaurants. They are praised equally for innovation and consistency. Having playbooks, then, will help you on your path to a profit and value model, not a revenue and resources model. That’s how you get those Michelin stars.
Marketing channels - "Where should we be communicating with our audience?"
Every business has to work out for themselves where their audience is spending their time. In a B2B context, you can be fairly certain that email and LinkedIn are solid bets. Of course, there are other social media channels, as well as forums, podcasts, events, video platforms or publications, and so on. Find where you get the most engagement and focus your efforts to optimise comms on those channels.
Use these platforms to share information freely, build connections and establish a consistent and recognisable brand voice. Post regularly, but only as frequently as your bandwidth for a certain standard of quality allows. If you can, use scheduling software, workflows and tools to set up a central framework for your promotional channels.
The strategic foundation, the positioning, your USP (unique selling point) — those core elements that influence everything from your content to your website. It includes the messages you want to communicate to your customers, in a voice that is all your own. Plus, who that audience is, what they care about and how they can be targeted at every stage of the buyer’s journey.
Positioning - "How do we make the business and our offerings more memorable?"
The right positioning statement is the culmination of your brand’s differentiating position from a storytelling and visual perspective. For example, our positioning statement is ‘We build Difference Engines’. Let’s unpack that further. That statement opened up the lexicon of engineering terminology, which is relatable for our B2B tech audience. It speaks to our credibility as differentiators, and our emphasis on differentiation itself as the linchpin for exceptional marketing.
Brand positioning statements might be short, but they’re hard to pin down. Too many opinions from too many stakeholders and you get “word salad” (a.k.a. meaningless nonsense). A lack of engaged voices and you get the loudest person’s opinion (with no buy-in across the business). Overwork it and you end up crafting something generic and banal. Underwork it and you may overemphasise the wrong thing entirely and fail to resonate with your customers. It’s a fine line, but get it right and the rest of your positioning should feel easy.
Tone of voice - "What does my business’s ‘voice’ sound like and is it recognisable?"
Tone of voice (ToV) is the attitude of your communications. It’s the unspoken but ever-present voice of your business. What we mean is, when it comes to ToV, you show, don’t tell. You speak confidently, you don’t say ‘we are confident’. You embody professionalism in every email, but every email doesn’t start with ‘As a professional…’.
Think of your favourite brand. How would you describe their attitude, their tone of voice? Is it bold, welcoming, witty? Is it Innocent Drinks or McKinsey? How would you describe your own voice, by comparison? Stand-out brands have a memorable voice that comes through loud and clear across all platforms and channels.
Messaging - "What are the key messages we want to get across to our audience?"
Key messages are the pieces of information you want your audience to understand about your business whenever they interact with it. You want a select few of these, around three to five, so that your messages have a chance to come across clearly.
For example, one of your messages might be ‘we work in the trenches as part of our clients’ team’. So, throughout your website, emails, social media posts, adverts and so on, you embed that message, or a variant or part of that message.
Messaging stems from your brand positioning and operates alongside your tone of voice to showcase what type of company you are.
Ideal client profile - "Which sectors, verticals, and customer and company profiles are we targeting?"
An ideal client profile or ‘ICP’ reflects the parameters of your target audience.
Say you want to target B2B FinTechs in the UK with 200 seats and an annual revenue of £20 million plus. That’s an ICP. It doesn’t have to be a long document with loads of detail. It does have to be targeted. You need a narrow enough ICP that your marketing speaks directly to that audience, so you avoid the pitfall of trying to be everything to everyone.
Of course, you may end up working with customers outside this ICP. They may find you. But in order for you to find your ideal clients, you need to focus your attention. Remember, all marketing is targeting.
Personas - "What is an ideal representation of my customer(s) and what they care about?"
Your personas are semi-fictional representations of your ideal customers based on data and research. Alongside the ideal client profile, they help you to narrow your focus on your target decision maker. You may have several personas.
The key with personas is to know your demographic information without making this the focal point. Age, gender, education — this is information worth knowing and information worth forgetting. What we mean by this is you’re much better off focusing on goals, pain points and so on, than whether your client has a Bachelor’s degree. That way, you get to the heart of what motivates your prospects.
Buyer journey - "How does my customer’s journey look from the first touchpoint?"
A buyer journey is how your potential customer interacts with your business across several touchpoints. Every customer is different, of course. Some may have found you through referral or through clicking on an article on your website. However, you can guide this journey by creating assets, calls-to-action and triggers that move the buyer forward towards a sales engagement.
HubSpot breaks this down into stages of ‘Awareness’, ‘Consideration’ and ‘Decision’. That’s one way of marking those stages. We took inspiration from this model and went a little further with our customer journey mapping tool. This tool can help you document the buyer journey and identify gaps and opportunities across the whole customer lifecycle.
The visual assets for your brand and how they are experienced, both by search engine crawlers and by your audience. So, your logo, search engine-optimised website and overall brand imagery.
Often, this is your first foot in the door with prospects. Here is where you can make an instant impact and a lasting impression.
Logo - "Does my company logo stand out from the crowd and accurately represent my business?"
Some businesses think a logo IS a brand. That couldn’t be further from the truth. As we’ve already established, and will talk about more in this section, your brand is a lot of things. And in a digital marketing setting, your logo is the least of your worries. We operate on a website-first branding approach because this, moreso, is the most impactful part of your visual brand.
All that said, a logo is a visual cue that says something about your company and it must be recognisable, clear, consistent, flexible and modern. It doesn’t have to be a big effort to rebrand your logo to fit that criteria. A good logo in and of itself won’t differentiate your brand, but it will give you a signature to mark your content, which will — in time — become an easy indicator of trustworthiness.
Marketing collateral- "How do we represent ourselves visually as a business?"
Websites and marketing collateral together will be the playground where your brand thrives. To really have a “wow” brand, content and design must operate in harmony in this setting.
Marketing collateral are designed pieces of work that are on-brand. This means anything from PDF whitepapers to blogs with attractive calls-to-action embedded in the copy. Whatever marketing materials in whatever formats you choose, in other words. These are the assets you use to turn your website from a shiny brochure to a working marketing engine that generates leads. How? By gating content behind a landing page and a form requesting contact details in exchange for a valuable piece of marketing collateral. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that, but it’s a great place to start.
Design language - "Does my organisation have a well-documented set of design rules that ensures consistency?"
Concepts like positioning, tone of voice and messaging are as foundational to the visual part of your brand as the content on your website. They should inform the creation of your design language. Your design language can be documented in a brand book, brand guides or even a whole design system. In order to have a recognisable visual ‘tone’, document your colours, your fonts, how your logo should be used on different backgrounds and so on. We suggest having an up-to-date and accessible single source of truth that stipulates all of the elements of your visual brand, along with use cases.
User experience - "Is it easy for site visitors to find what they need on our website?"
User experience (UX) refers to how a site visitor experiences your website. One of the main considerations of UX is navigation and site structure. Good UX means people can find what they’re looking for easily and they can intuitively move around your website, no matter where they are. The less they have to think about how to get information, the better.
You can have a beautifully designed website, but if users can’t find what they need then what you’ve created there is art, not design. Good design is the art of functionality.
Technical search engine optimisation - "Is it easy for Google to crawl our website and does it find the site fast, accessible and authoritative?"
While the user experience is all-important, we can’t forget about the robots. Search engines like Google will crawl your site to discern its purpose, authority and structure. You’ll be penalised in search if you have a low domain authority or poor loading times. Page speed is a big tell of performance. Check how your site performs against Google’s Core Web Vitals (CWV). These provide a useful benchmark for measuring your site’s performance, and therefore your chances at ranking highly on search.
Website development - "Does the company website both look good and function well to bring in business?"
Your website is your digital storefront. It’s the home of your brand. As we’ve said before, we operate on a website-first approach to branding, because this holistic view can help you tell a more complete and intriguing brand story.
A website needs to look good and function well for the user. It should be built on a few core principles, such as clean code, optimisation for page speed, easy navigation, accessibility, and the ability to update the site easily, and — ideally — without developer input. A website must be a functioning, living part of your brand. Google knows a static and long-neglected site when it sees one. So does your audience. Brilliant brands have brilliant websites. Period.
The content that marks you out in your industry. This is the stuff that gets you noticed by search engines, by industry peers, by suppliers, by prospects. It’s the place where you establish your authority, knowledgeability and credentials (and personality!). It is how you communicate across channels, such as your blog, social media or email.
It’s the mechanism to inform, connect and inspire others.
Campaign calendar - "What do we put into the content publishing schedule and why?"
When it comes to campaign calendars, the old adage that plans are worthless, but planning is everything very much applies.
You want to have some idea of what you want to publish and when, but in order to be relevant, to be flexible and able to react to industry news or changing priorities, you can’t be overly prescriptive. A campaign calendar should be a sketch of the year’s topics that you fill in with more detail at around 6 months ahead, then more detail again at 3 months ahead. Leave gaps. Be agile. Plan what you want to achieve and what you need to do it, not exactly what gets published when. You’re looking for outcomes.
SEO keyword plan - "How does our business answer potential customers’ most pressing Google search questions?"
You already know the kinds of things you want to talk about, but what do your audience want to know? What will Google promote to the top of search rankings? With your SEO keyword plan, take your topic areas and use a tool such as Ahrefs or Moz, as well as the myriad of search intent tools that are available, forums, and so on. Plug in search queries, look for related topics, and find as many keywords as you can. Then, optimise your keywords for search volume and difficulty. Consider how to build topical authority over time and how your content might link together. This should help you to come up with title ideas on a more granular level, while ensuring you’re writing content that’s likely to attract organic traffic and stand out in SERPs.
Content creation - "How do I share my company’s unique knowledge and perspectives?"
Armed with a broad campaign plan and a solid cluster of keywords to choose from, you’re ready to come up with some truly inspiring content. Remember, you’re aiming for thought leadership here, the sort of stuff that demonstrates insight and expertise and all that lovely stuff, NOT monkeys on typewriters. That means well-researched, data-backed, structured, original works, with your tone of voice, messaging and keywords embedded throughout.
We’re on the cusp of a rather bleak future of content written by robots, read by robots. You can embrace AI — use it to prompt you, use it for research, use it to help you word a tricky sentence, but think like the artisan. It’s just a tool on your toolbelt. You’re creating an expression of yourself and your business here. You’re showcasing your individuality. Content must be meaningful enough to reach, help, inform and persuade your audience, as one person to another. That’s how you cut through the noise.
Product literature - "How persuasively do we talk about our products and services?"
A lot of companies mistake product literature for marketing. However, it’s only one cog in the machine.
Product literature is not a bad thing, of course. It’s necessary. It’s product pages and one-page PDFs and brochures and proposal decks. But it’s the stuff that sits at the very bottom of the marketing funnel. Not everyone who comes to your site is ready to buy. Often, they’re simply looking to solve a problem. They want answers, not a sales pitch. Once they’ve grown to trust your brand, however, you have that credibility to rely on. That’s the perfect time for product literature to shine.
Customer evidence - "What proof can we share that showcases our business’s capabilities?"
Customer evidence comes in a few formats, from star-reviews and short testimonials to longer case studies. We’ve won several HubSpot Impact Awards for our case studies, so we like to think we’re pretty good at them. This stuff goes hand-in-hand with product literature to help you become a trusted authority in your field.
People like a good story, they like evidence something works, they like to see themselves reflected back. And they want a glimpse of the end of the rainbow. That is, how to get from where they are to where they could be — to that pot of gold.
Promotion - "How do we tell the world about our content, offerings and culture?"
Content marketing is a cycle of creation and promotion. Ideally, while you’re promoting campaign A, you’re already working on campaign B, and so on. Promotion is the activity of using all of the communication channels at your disposal to get the word out to your audience.
You can promote company news, third party resources that reflect your values or your industry knowledge, content that you’ve created or anything else you can think of. Use social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter (good places to start, anyway). There’s also your email database, forums, press releases, adverts, even your internal comms or intranet. You can submit your work or your business for an award. You can stand from the rooftops with a megaphone, we won’t stop you.
Make your brand synonymous with high-quality insights and best practices, then make sure you’re everywhere your target audience goes for information. You don’t just want to be remembered, you want to be impossible to forget.
The way you nurture and process leads, such as with gated offers like white papers or eBooks. This is where companies must begin to build on that relationship with prospects, from first-touch onward. It covers the qualification and handover process between departments, with whatever assets are required to make that journey an unparalleled, positive experience.
Lead capture - "What does the business do to attract lots of quality leads?"
How do you measure the success of your Difference Engine? There are plenty of ways, some easier to quantify than others. One measurement that’s sure to stand the test of time is the number and quality of leads you generate.
Leads are people who are in your contact database and who you have a legitimate reason to contact. You can get leads through inbound and outbound methodologies. Outbound means you’re contacting cold leads directly. Inbound means your leads have come to you, perhaps by filling in a form on a landing page in order to access some premium content that you’ve created, or to request a demo or quote. Between the two, guess which ones are more likely to turn into a deal? If you guessed inbound, you’d be correct.
Lead nurturing - "How do we nurture leads so they are receptive to a sales pitch?"
There’s a story about a pottery teacher who told one group to make the single best vase possible, and another to make as many vases as they could. At the end, the best pots were all made by the group that had produced hundred of pots. The quantity of pots produced meant the quality of pots was higher. In a similar vein, the more leads you get, the more likely you are to find the best in the bunch. Lead capture, at its best, is a numbers game.
Then, to weed out the leads that are worth contacting, you need lead nurturing.
Lead nurturing takes your new leads and encourages them to re-engage with your content. In particular, it encourages them to engage with middle and bottom-of-the-funnel content, which ensures they are half-ready to buy before a sales person even picks up the phone. Follow-up emails are the perfect medium for lead nurturing, and something you can set up with automation. Lead nurturing makes you come across as helpful, responsive and authoritative in one fell swoop.
Sales enablement - "How can we align marketing with sales to enable a solid pipeline?"
The ideal scenario: sales and marketing singing from the same song sheet. You want what you do in marketing to align with sales, and vice versa. All-in-one tools with mutual accessibility across departments can help you get there.
But there are other things to consider, such as processes, automations and Service Level Agreements. Remember when we talked about brand consistency being a big part of differentiation? That consistency matters here, too. You want a smooth transition when handing leads over to sales (and back). And, you should ensure your sales team are empowered to track communications with leads and feed that data back into the collective system.
Qualification and lead scoring - "How do we define the quality of a lead, and who makes that decision?"
Both sales and marketing are responsible for qualifying leads. In fact, even client account managers bear some of this responsibility, which we’ll talk about shortly. That’s why it’s helpful to break down your leads into MQLs (marketing qualified leads) and SQLs (sales qualified leads). You decide how that qualification process is set up.
One way to qualify leads is with lead scoring, which means taking a defined set of characteristics and applying a score to each, giving your leads a cumulative score based on those characteristics. Leads who subscribe to your blog might get ten points, or leads who fill in two forms might get 20 points, as examples. This can help you prioritise who sales should contact first, and who might need a bit more nurturing. You can automate this process with a suitable CRM.
Sales collateral - "What assets do our sales team have to inform and persuade prospects?"
While we’re talking sales and marketing, we can’t forget sales collateral. This includes things like product literature and customer evidence. But, it can also be email copy or messages, crafted by experienced writers and deployed by sales people. It can include lists of relevant content resources, collated by marketers who know where all that stuff lives. Here’s an idea that we use ourselves: a list of summarised case studies for sales people to refer to during the sales process, which are not publicly available.
Infographics, diagrams, videos — marketing can support sales with all of this material, which is on-brand and curated for their needs and the needs of prospects.
Upsell and cross-sell- "How do we expand existing business relationships?"
We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about the opportunities posed by your existing customer base. Not only does this audience deserve ongoing attention from marketing. But, also, periodic check-ins from sales to run gap analyses and find opportunities for further collaboration. You want to be the business that builds long-term, deep relationships with customers. You’re the exception, because you’re constantly and proactively bringing value beyond your initial engagement. One step you can take today is to identify the total saleable worth you can offer a client, and compare that you their existing deal value. Then, you can work out a plan to get from where you are now to that full-service goal.
The continuous process that really steps your marketing up a gear. This is where the work you do can get you from one-of-the-pack to the tearaway leader.
Sufficient observation, testing and optimisation means you can build intelligence into your marketing. And do so at a level that reaches each and every person directly, delighting customers from new prospects through to enthusiastic evangelists for your brand.
Behavioural analytics - "How is my company’s audience behaving and interacting with our site?"
Content may be king, but data sits behind the throne and has the king’s ear. As much as possible, you want to be informed by data before you make changes. This is never truer than with your website, which can be a rich source of behavioural analytics and therefore a valuable insight into your audience’s interests.
Use tracked links and calls-to-action to see who clicks what. Install heatmap software to see where people are going on a page. Run experiments. You may be surprised at how people use your site — we’d bet it’s not how you expected. Probably, they’ve trodden their own path. It’s up to you whether you block that path off, or, better yet, transform it into a walkway fit for royalty.
A/B testing - "In what ways are we using data to test what works best?"
Once you’re tracking the right stuff, then you can run trials to see what works best. We suggest A/B testing or multivariant experiments. You could test all sorts of things. Copy on a landing page. Button copy. Links, forms, pay-per-click adverts and so on. Email is an excellent forum to experiment with subject lines, preview text, imagery and copy. The fundamental principle of A/B testing is to change just one thing at a time, so you can control all other variables. Then, you know for sure that the change is what made the difference.
Conversion optimisation - "How is my business trying to optimise conversions at every stage of the journey?"
Sir David Brailsford led Britain’s first ever professional cycling team to a sweeping victory at the Olympics. His philosophy for success? Continuous improvement based on marginal gains. You don’t need to shake up your whole brand to differentiate your business. You can simply make small improvements. Over time, these changes will stack up and make a big difference. As you consider conversions from new lead through to customer, aim to improve the percentage of conversions at every stage.
Personalisation and segmentation - "How do we automatically target subsections of our audience, and individuals?"
Now we’re really into the weeds of advanced marketing tactics. Personalisation is when you use tracked or provided data to speak directly to individuals, through automation. For example, by addressing an email recipient by name using a ‘Name’ field. Or using location data to suggest a language change for your site.
Segmentation means targeting subsections of your audience based on this customer data. So you could re-prioritise the navigation on your website, based on a cookie being dropped, for known clients, for example, prioritising portal logins and information they’d be interested in.
With artificial intelligence, the possibilities for personalisation and segmentation are growing. Imagine a future where the only marketing you see is for things you really need or want, and nothing else, with messaging tailored precisely to your requirements. It’s certainly something to think about.
Networking - "How do we build a connected network within and outside our industry?"
Marketing is person-to-person, even if it is B2B. When we talk about networking in this context, we mean the things you do to create a community around your organisation, of third parties, supporters, clients and former clients, partners, suppliers, groups and, and, and…
Find people you can collaborate with. Do joint publications or campaigns. Be a guest on a podcast, then invite your own guests onto your next webinar. Leverage another organisation’s existing audience to grow your own. But most importantly, make your business, your brand, a friend worth having.
You never know where your next referral is going to come from. It could just be from the person you gave a nugget of helpful advice to at an event.
Customer advocacy - "How do we keep customers engaged and eager to give us referrals?"
The gold standard of customer success is the moment your customer does your marketing for you.
You can encourage this, of course, by asking for testimonials or case studies, but what you really want is more business, right? You want them to refer you other prospects. You want your customers to say, ‘They’re amazing, don’t bother considering anyone else, just choose them.’
If they’re out there telling anyone who will listen how brilliant you are, you’ve truly made it. Eager, engaged advocates, in other words. You’ve made such a difference that you’ve helped them differentiate in some way, by growing their business, or being more secure, or innovating, or empowering their people. Every successful business should have a Difference Engine, we’ve said. That includes your customers.
How do you build your Difference Engine?
How to create and assemble all those components is a big question. Too big to answer here, but look out for content on our blog and resources page.
One last thought before we leave you. Differentiation means daring to be different. The “weird kid” at school. The busker that refuses to get a “real job.” The risk-taker and the out-of-the-box thinker. The out-on-a-limber. That’s a scary prospect, for some; an enticing one for others.
Take heart! Be bold! Be different!
You’ll find your audience, your customers, your tribe. That’s the road less travelled. That’s the journey worth taking, powered by the little engine that could.
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