Want to make your customers happy? Stop selling for a minute and give them something to read. It can be detailed product information or even jokes. But it may be time to learn what other b-to-b merchants already know: that content is king.

Take Carhartt, a manufacturer of clothing for field and construction workers. Visitors to the firm’s Website can learn about the flame-resistant clothing worn in the oil, gas and utility industries.

That includes tips on how to care for the garments and data on government standards. Customers can even download videos.

What’s the point?

“There are other retailers offering similar things,” says e-commerce director Thadd Tucker. “We look at content as a way to sell the brand and image.”

Then there’s Lab Safety Supply, a seller of industrial and safety products. The firm’s Website details how products like cut-resistant gloves comply with standards.

Is this right for you?

“I can’t think of a company where providing content isn’t a good idea,” says Terry Jukes, CEO of consulting firm B2B Direct Marketing Intelligence.

That’s because b-to-b customers are on the market for knowledge as much as they are for widgets. And suppliers perform a training function in many organizations.

Not everyone agrees.

Content “costs money and doesn’t drive sales for us,” says Hy Schwartz, vice president of sales and marketing for S&S Worldwide.

S&S markets non-technical educational supplies — there’s no need for technical information. Customers want “quality service and products at a good price,” Schwartz adds.

Content can be a “value-add service,” that helps customers solve problems, says John Favalo, managing partner, group B2B, with Eric Mower and Associates.

Or it can show them that a purchase complies with regulations — a critical factor for people working in the public sector, says Mark Amtower of Amtower & Co., a consulting firm that helps firms federal government. That by itself is good content.


Websites aren’t the only vehicle for delivering content-many b-to-b marketers send regular e-mail newsletters.

“By offering potential customers a free subscription to your e-zine, you can capture their e-mail address and add them to your online database,” writes copy expert Robert W. Bly in “The White Paper Marketing Handbook (Racom Communications and Thompson, 2006). “You can then market to these prospects, also at no cost.

What can you put in the e-letter? Tips, how-to articles, previews and case histories about customers.

Firms operating in multiple channels can even build content databases containing hundreds of articles. These will provide “the bulk of the material for a wide variety of newsletters,” says David Fish, CEO of IMN.

Those e-zines can be personalized with material from local offices or stores. And the metrics they provide can help in targeting.

If a person clicks through to an article on office copiers, for example, it’s safe to assume that they’re on the market for one.

Can you sell in e-mail newsletters?

Sure, although it’s generally not wise to do a hard sell. Above all, clearly separate content from advertising.

“Whether you are generating leads or direct sales, there are two ways to sell your products and services to your e-zine subscribers,” Bly writes. “One is to place small online ads in the regular issues of your e-zine. These ads are usually a hundred words or so in length, and include a link to a page on your site where the subscriber can read about and order the product. Or you can send standalone e-mail messages to your subscribers, again promoting a specific product and with a link to your site.”

Quality control

Let’s say you’ve decided to start a newsletter. Don’t think you can serve up any old slop. The information must be relevant.

For example, a firm that provides posters and information on Federal and state labor laws could run an article on changes in the minimum wage, Amtower says. Most customers need to know this.

Make sure the content is appropriate. There’s no need to offer general new — that’s what trade publications are for.

And stay focused, Favalo urges. A story about corporate network security shouldn’t instruct consumers on how to protect their personal information online.


Above all, don’t ignore your Website. Many prospects will come in through a search engine and never see your newsletter.

Carhartt stays away from buzzwords and abbreviations. For instance, it will spell out “flame resistant clothing” or “personal protective clothing” at least once on every page that discusses this topic, as the search engines are less likely to recognize acronyms like “FRC.”

The site design also is structured to take advantage of “key word density,” says Tucker. That is, rather than scatter information on fire resistant clothing here and there throughout the site, it’s concentrated in a special section. A page dedicated to fire-resistant clothing will rank higher according to most online search algorithms than a page that includes information on a variety of topics.

And while each page should be informative, they also need to load quickly, Tucker says. Web pages should load in several seconds, while the videos should load in less than a minute, he says. Given that most of Carhartt’s customers log on using T1 cable, this typically doesn’t present a problem, Tucker adds.

Carhartt also places the most important information on each page “above the fold.” In other words, the information is visible once visitors open the page, so they’re not forced to scroll down.

Online content needs to be well-organized, so that users can get to the information within several clicks from any page, says Amtower. Registration should take no more than about 10 to 15 seconds.

In addition, follow-up correspondence should contain information that is related to the content the customer initially accessed. If the person downloaded a white paper on computer network security, a follow-up article might discuss intrusion detection.

And make sure your site has a comprehensive search function, says James Narus, professor of business marketing at Wake Forest University. This should accept synonyms and common misspellings for product names, and be able to search a variety of formats, such as Word documents, PDF files, and spreadsheets.

Age plays a role in what people will read. Customers in their 20s may prefer to see videos and illustrations over plain text documents. Similarly, visitors for whom English is a second language may want pictures or photographs.

Jukes adds that content can help turn prospects into long-term clients.

“If your customer can rely on you to keep him educated as well as supply products, it’s a different level of relationship,” Jukes says.

Back to print

While the term “content” implies information that’s available via the Web, print remains a viable medium. Just ask Jim Garlow, publisher of five magazines produced by CDW Corp., a distributor of computer and related accessories. All are printed on heavy paper and are full-color. They focus on technology, although each is geared to a different market: federal government employees, state government employees, K-12 educators, college-level educators, and business owners.

Each publication contains several articles that address topics of interest or concern to readers, Garlow says. For example, one story in a recent issue of “FedTech,” which reaches IT employees within the federal government, covers the FDA’s drive to use RFID to track the ownership history of prescription medications. Another looks at the use of virtualization to conserve computing power.

To ensure the stories are relevant, CDW bases its stories, at least in part, on discussions its employees have with customers at industry events and trade shows. Each magazine has a corresponding website that contains archived stories and complementary publications. For instance, visitors to the sites can download 64- or 88-page books that focus on a specific topic, such as disaster recovery.

Garlow periodically tries to match the addresses of individuals receiving the magazines with the addresses of CDW’s customers. That provides a rough idea of the publications’ effectiveness, although many recipients of the magazines receive other CDW marketing materials, which also could prompt sales.

As CDW’s experience shows, printed material likely will remain popular for some time. Some content is easier to use when it’s printed, says James Narus, professor of business marketing at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

That’s often the case with lengthier, more complicated material; most readers want to print and take the information with them.

Even information that begins life online often is printed out, notes John Favalo, managing partner for Group B2B with Eric Mower and Associates.

As a result, articles, stories and the like should be formatted so that they’re easy to read and look at when printed.

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