Edward C. Malthouse

Erastus Otis Haven Professor at Northwestern Medill IMC

Edward C. Malthouse is the Erastus Otis Haven Professor of IMC and Industrial Engineering and Management Science at Northwestern University and the Research Director for the Spiegel Center for Digital and Database Marketing. His research interests center on customer engagement and experiences; digital, social, and mobile media; big data; customer lifetime value models; predictive analytics; unsupervised learning; and IMC.

B2B Content Marketing For Professional Services: In-Person Versus Digital Contacts

Background and Hypotheses

Content is usually provided for free by a service provider, who invites account employees to engage with the content. Typically, such content is not around the service provider’s offerings but is designed by the service provider to help account employees  to build relationships with them. For example, the service provider can share industry news along with information to help account employees identify opportunities and challenges in their own industries. In fact, both business-to-business (B2B) marketing practitioners and researchers emphasize that content marketing (CM) requires a business culture change from “selling” to “helping.” In particular, B2B practitioners state that “great content adds value by helping the audience to do something better, or by solving a specific problem or pain they have in their professional life.”

Offering content to customers can thus be thought of as a customer engagement initiative, an opportunity for the customer to engage with the service provider via the content. Customer engagement can be defined as “the intensity of an individual’s participation in and connection with an organization’s offerings and/or organizational activities, which either the customer or the organization initiate.” When an account employee engages with CM activities, he or she may derive intrinsic or extrinsic value from the content. Account employees might derive intrinsic, hedonic value from a CM activity simply because they enjoy it. Moreover, their desire for knowledge may be satisfied by the content, from which the account employees derive epistemic value. Likewise, account employees may be said to derive functional value, economic value, or learning value from the content because it provides relevant information on the problem they are solving and/or helps them enhance their efficiency at work. The more valued the content, the more engaged account employees are, and the more likely they are to trust the service provider and share positive word of mouth about the service provider within the account. Ultimately, the account may be more likely to purchase the service provider’s offerings because the buying center is more likely to have account employees who trust the service provider and are affected by positive word of mouth for the service provider.

B2B CM activities may also increase the degree to which relational norms appear, especially in the relationships between the service provider and its existing customers. In particular, when account employees engage more with CM activities, they may be more likely to perceive the existence of the norms of information exchange or assistance, because CM activities provide information beyond a pre-specified contract and help account employees in idea generation or problem analysis. The stronger these relational norms are, the more likely that, compared with its competitors, the service provider can gain the account’s attention and obtain more purchases from the account.

Thus, with B2B CM, the service provider hopes to affect the buying center and purchase decision process. The service provider may not know whether any particular account employee on its contact list is involved in any particular purchase decision. However, some account employees will at times be involved in purchase decisions or affect colleagues who are related to the purchase process. Therefore, by engaging account employees through CM activities, the service provider hopes to elicit more sales opportunities from that account. Therefore, we hypothesize that a B2B service provider obtains more sales opportunities from accounts that engage more with its CM activities (See Figure 1 for the model framework of this study).

Discussion and Conclusions

We found that the more an account engages with the service provider’s digital events, such as webcasts or digital content on its websites, the more sales leads and won opportunities come from the account. Thus, we demonstrate that engagement with digital CM activities is more effective in advancing business outcomes. This implies that marketing can play a complementary role to the sales force’s orientation to personal selling by emphasizing digital CM.

We further found that the association between engagement with digital events and the number of sales leads or won opportunities is even stronger when account employees with high job titles engage. Specifically, even though the engagement with digital events has a positive association with the number of sales leads, regardless of account employees’ job titles, it is only the engagement with digital events of employees with high job titles that has a positive association with the number of won opportunities. Care must be taken in interpreting the lack of an effect on won opportunities for employees with low job titles. This effect is borderline significant, so sample size may be an issue. Moreover, it is the case that CM for employees with low job titles is related to sales leads, and sales leads are necessary for won opportunities. The conversion rate of sales leads to won opportunities is about 60% (and the rate remains around 59–61% across accounts of different relationship lengths). The correlation of won opportunities to the number of sales leads in the previous period is 0.89. So, CM for employees with low job titles is linked to won opportunities in that it generates more leads that could be potentially converted to wins. Therefore, we caution against concluding that service providers should focus CM activities on employees with high job titles, or that CM targeted at employees with low job titles is wasted. Instead, we suggest additional research on this topic. For example, it could be that employees with low job titles are instrumental in the necessary step of getting the lead, but do not have the authority to award the contract. But leads from lower level employees could influence higher level employees in a way that results in leads from the company. Low level employees may be promoted, and brand associations about the service provided may persist over time. Further research is needed to understand how interactions in the buying process are affected by CM. Establishing relationships with all employees of the client organizations may well be a sound strategy as opposed to focusing mainly on employees with high job titles.

We did not find that an account’s engagement with in-person events is associated with the number of sales leads or won opportunities from the account. Attending an in-person event would seem to require more involvement from an account employee than attending a digital event because the employee must physically travel to the event, requiring additional time and travel expenses. Through face-to-face contacts, the firm’s representatives would also seem to have greater opportunities to deliver content and bond with the client.

Therefore, it might be surprising that engagement with in-person events did not have a significant positive effect on lead generation, and we suggest further research to explain this. One possibility is that the monetary and non-monetary costs incurred by attending an in-person event may offset the value derived by the account employee attending the event. This argument could also explain the significant effect of engagement with digital events and digital content because it incurs minimal costs for account employees to engage with digital events or digital content.

This research was adapted and abridged from an article by Wei-Lin Wang, Edward C. Malthouse, Bobby Calder, and Ebru Uzunoglu published in Industrial Marketing Management (2017).

Written by Ed Malthouse, Erastus Otis Haven Professor at Northwestern Medill IMC

Edited by Omar Ijaz, Medill IMC Class Of 2018

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