Before you can understand how content marketing plays a role in the three stages of the B2B buying cycle, it’s important to make sure that you know exactly what content marketing is, and at what stage in the Internet Marketing process it needs to be used.

The simplest definition is that it is content that a business creates and shares in order to promote a service that they offer or a product that they want to sell. But in contrast with a typical advertisement that you might see on television, content marketing doesn’t have to directly mention the product, service, or even the company – at least in the earliest stages. Instead, the content should be designed to entertain or help people solve a problem. In this way, it serves the purpose of making businesses aware that there are solutions to issues they might be facing in addition to promoting your company as a thought leader.

Content that you find on social networks and in blogs, videos, white papers, articles, and case studies can all be considered forms of content marketing. When looking at the B2B buying cycle, it’s important to know the different stages and which kinds of content work best for each stage.

Stages of the B2B Buying Cycle

The B2B buying cycle has three stages or phases: the Awareness Phase, the Consideration Phase, and the Decision Phase. During each of these phases, the potential consumer is at a different place in their mental buying process, so the way that you engage them with content marketing should reflect that.

Awareness Phase
In the Awareness Phase, your potential customers know that something isn’t working right and that they need to fix it, but may not even be sure what the problem actually is. You can reach them in this phase by creating content marketing that pinpoints exactly what issues they are dealing with and defines what would be required to solve those issues.

For example, if you run a shipping company, you might create content detailing common shipping problems faced by the businesses you want to target – customers aren’t getting their orders fast enough, packages are damaged, and delivery personnel leave items unattended – and offer a solution. In this case, your content could suggest a more reputable shipping company that provides tracking information and has rules and standards in place to deal with such problems. Some of the best content marketing during these early stages utilizes:

  • Social networks – You can quickly catch people’s attention with short posts, tweets, and so on that include statistics, pieces of relevant news, and links to more robust sources of information. The great thing about using social networks in the beginning is that you can cast a wide net for people on services that they already use, which makes it easy and unthreatening.
  • Search engines – The easiest thing in the world to do is type your problem into a search engine and see what comes up. In the shipping example used above, someone at the company that’s experiencing problems might search for “shipping trouble,” “damaged packages,” “slow delivery,” or something else related to the issues they’re facing. Maybe they’re not even looking for another shipping company at that point, but if content from your company pops up and they take a look at it, you have a leg up at convincing them to go with you.
  • White papers – These types of documents make an argument that a specific type of product or service is the best way to solve a particular problem, often using scientific studies and research to back up their claim. Because of the way these documents employ research and logical arguments, they are particularly valuable at this early stage to convince people that your solution to their problem is the right one.

Consideration Phase
At this point, your potential customers know what’s wrong and have an idea of how to fix it, but they might not be completely sure. They’re still researching different solutions to find the best fit for them, and will then move on to looking for people who can help them locally. Towards the end of this phase, they may even bring in several vendors to interview.

  • Articles, blogs, and videos – Where are those links in social network posts taking people? To articles, blogs, videos, infographics, and other kinds of more in-depth content. The goal is to provide them with further information that will help them define their problem and come up with a way to fix it. This kind of content marketing is also valuable in the Awareness Phase, but people will use it more and more often as they start considering different options.
  • Case studies – As potential customers examine their options, case studies are a fantastic way to get them to choose you. They help companies to see in greater detail how you dealt with specific businesses in the past and what your product or service was able to provide.
  • Product literature – Businesses further narrow their focus by looking into product and service literature at this point. That means descriptions of your offerings and what you or your product will be able to do to make their lives easier.

White papers and search engine content marketing also continue to be effective as people focus more on specific products and businesses and their search terms narrow the playing field by becoming more local and more clearly defined. People may also sign up for email marketing at this point, but it becomes even more important in the final phase of the buying cycle.

Decision Phase
As potential customers enter this final phase, they already have a pretty good idea what they want. All that’s left to do is compare their top choices and take a final look at cost and references to make sure they’re making the right decision. You can help to continue to push them in the direction of hiring you with the following kinds of content marketing at this stage.

  • Email newsletters. Once you get someone to sign up for your newsletter, it means that you can market to them directly and tip the scales in your favor by letting them know about important new information and content all in one place, as well as possibly offering promotions and discounts to entice them. But the best part is that it comes to them, so all they have to do is open their email and start reading.
  • Case studies, online videos, product literature, and search engines. All of these kinds of content marketing can still be used effectively in the Decision Phase because people may not have seen them earlier, or might be more willing to spend extra time with your products and services now that they’re trying to decide between you and just a few other businesses.

As you can see, it’s very important to tailor your content to fit people at different phases of the buying cycle. Someone who doesn’t know what their problem is yet won’t be interested in signing up for a newsletter, but companies on the verge of making a decision aren’t likely to be spending time on social networks looking at infographics, either. Know where people are more likely to turn at the various stages and you’ll have a better chance at making a sale.