According to the latest research from the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs, 91% of B2B marketers have embraced content marketing. In fact, on average, B2B marketers are now allocating 1/3 of their budget for content marketing initiatives.

Marketers are making a big bet that content marketing tactics will deliver the outcomes they need: brand awareness, customer acquisition, and lead generation. These are their top organizational goals:

Brand awareness is important, but hard to quantify. However, customer acquisition and lead generation can be quantitatively measured. And indeed, more and more organizations are now tying these metrics directly to their content marketing initiatives. The top 5 measurement criteria for B2B content marketing success — with the customer acquisition and lead generation metrics emphasized — are:

  • Web traffic (60%)
  • Sales lead quality (51%)
  • Social media sharing (45%)
  • Sales lead quantity (43%)
  • Direct sales (41%)

So how well are marketers doing at achieving their goals with content marketing? Unfortunately, not as well as they would like. Only 36% of B2B marketers believe they are effective at content marketing — down from 40% last year.

Part of the challenge is creating great content. But great content is only the starting point.

To harness that content for customer acquisition and lead generation, marketers have two other responsibilities: distribution and value capture. Much has been written about how to distribute content with social, search, and paid campaigns. But ways of effectively capturing value with content marketing have received less attention. I’m only half-joking when I say that content marketing plans sometimes look like this:

  1. Create amazing content.
  2. ???
  3. Get more leads and sales.

When you author terrific content and successfully deliver it to the right audience, you have accomplished value creation. You have given your prospects and customers something of value. Depending on how it’s presented — do the people consuming the content clearly associate your company with the value delivered? — this achieves the first goal of building brand awareness.

But in the crowded and noisy digital marketplace, and in the busy lives of most prospects, that brand moment is fleeting. The question for marketers — and frankly, many prospects — is: what happens next?

Active vs. Passive Content Marketing

Answering the “what happens next?” question is the difference between passive content marketing and active content marketing. With passive content marketing, the content is not attached to an explicit “next step” for the audience. If someone consumes your content and likes it, it’s up to them to figure out what to do next.

Maybe they wander through your website (and hopefully they can connect the dots with the content piece that intrigued them). Maybe they do a couple of related Google searches (and hopefully your competitors aren’t intercepting those keywords). Maybe they try to find a way to contact you (and hopefully the person handling the contact can provide continuity with the content that intrigued them). Or maybe they simply file that moment away — “thanks, that was interesting” — and move on.

Blog posts are often quintessential examples of passive content marketing. They can build brand awareness, and address goals further down the list such as thought leadership and generating website traffic. But presented in a passive fashion, they may not be effective at acquiring customers or generating leads.

Active content marketing, in contrast, builds customer acquisition and lead generation mechanisms directly into its presentation and delivery. These mechanisms may be simple email subscriptions or social network connections, or they may be more detailed lead forms or deeper-funnel calls-to-action. Whether they’re best implemented as required gateways in front of the content or as optional next steps surrounding or embedded into the content depends on the content, the audience, and the context.

Many content tactics lend themselves to being framed in active content marketing:

  • eNewsletters, both individual issues and ongoing subscriptions
  • Case studies
  • Videos
  • In-person events
  • White papers
  • Webinars/Webcasts
  • Research reports
  • Microsites
  • Branded content tools
  • eBooks
  • Virtual conferences

The Power of Framing Content

With passive content marketing, the only real content is usually the core content piece itself. With active content marketing, however, there’s often considerable content around that core piece — call it framing content.

A classic example of framing content is the use of a landing page to promote a lead-form-for-content-piece offer, such as a sign-up for a webinar or a request for a white paper. (And when I say “landing page,” I really mean any kind of highly-targeted, context-specific web or mobile web experience; it doesn’t have to be a cliché landing page.)

All the content on the landing page — its headline, body copy, imagery, bullets, call-to-action, etc. — is framing content. Framing content is an incredibly important ingredient in the overall content marketing equation. In cases where the respondent is being invited to take an action, either before or after accessing the core content piece, the framing content can have tremendous influence over the conversion rate for that action.

This is where the discipline of conversion optimization intersects with content marketing. You can run A/B and multivariate tests to find which framing content is most effective in achieving your customer acquisition and lead generation goals. You’re able to hone the value capture component of your content marketing.

But framing content is also valuable for the respondent, as it helps explain the relevance of the core content piece to the context from which they arrived.

Using framing content for relevance is especially helpful when you distribute the same content piece — say, an expensive report that you sponsored — in multiple campaigns or to multiple audience segments. It’s advantageous for you to reuse that report in as many contexts as possible, but the most intriguing aspects of it may differ for your different audiences. By using separate framing content — e.g., separate landing pages — for the presentation of the core content piece, you can make clear and compelling cases that perfectly match each context.

By using framing content to expand the reach of core content pieces, making them more relevant in more contexts, you can increase the ROI on the investment you made to produce those core content pieces in the first place. This enables you to invest more in the quality of individual pieces, rather than just continually increasing the quantity of new pieces. And the quality of the core piece is, at the end of the day, the heart of all great content marketing.

You’re probably already engaged in both passive and active content marketing already, maybe without distinguishing them this concretely. My hope is that by understanding the unique aspects of active content marketing, you’ll be able to systematically increase the efficacy of that set of content marketing tactics.