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There are plenty of playbooks about content marketing. How to create content. How to organize content. How to update content. How to socialize content. How to track content. How to repurpose content. How to get your sales team to use content.

For example, this “Guide To Essential Content Marketing Tactics” includes nearly 50 pages of advice about content opportunities, content types, and content distribution formats. There is plenty of sound advice in this guide. But all of that advice is useless unless you have access to an engaged audience willing to read your content.

There’s a massive black hole among the “how-to” advice for content marketing. And it’s arguably the single most crucial part of content marketing, period. How to reach an audience of the right people who want to engage with your content.

The success of a content marketing strategy hinges on having an engaged audience of your buyers to interact with your content. Yet maintaining an engaged database is the most challenging part of content marketing.

You can’t build an engaged audience by crafting catchy headlines or hiring an SEO expert.

You can’t buy a list of names and magically transform that into an engaged audience.

You might be telling yourself, “We already have an audience. We’ve been around in our market for a long time. We have a massive email database. We’re good, thanks.”

Sorry to disappoint you, but even your homegrown, massive email database isn’t as effective as you think it is for getting buyers to engage with your content. It’s important to understand this about the B2B buyer’s journey: your prospects spend 73% of their time doing something other than engaging directly with suppliers (that, according to Gartner). That means 73% of buyers’ time is not spent signing up for your newsletter, not spent clicking around your company’s blog, not spent on a call with your sales team, and not spent reading your marketing automation emails.

Only a very, very small sliver of your buyer’s time is spent reading B2B content. Oh, and those B2B buyers are reading your competitors’ content too, making your piece of their attention span pie even smaller.

So how do you build an audience? Before you keep reading, this is a fair warning that you might not be happy with the answer. You’ll need to settle in to read a long list of best practices. Building an audience is a time consuming and resource-intensive endeavor that isn’t for the faint of heart.

How To Build An Audience Of Engaged B2B Buyers

When we opened the doors to our B2B magazine publishing company nearly 40 years ago, the answer to the “how do you build an audience” question was relatively simple. Keeping a mailing list clean was a chore, yes. But it was a manageable process to coordinate with our printer and USPS to update mailing addresses.

Back then, the phrase “data integrity” was not in our vocabulary. Regulatory measures like GDPR and CASL didn’t exist. In the good old days of B2B publishing, someone signed up for a magazine, we printed and mailed that magazine to that someone, and the process repeated for thousands of subscribers.

Yes, there are plenty of vendors who will sell you a list of buyers. But that only gets you so far. You can’t buy brand awareness (more on that here), and you can’t buy an engaged circulation.

In today’s digital-first era, it’s extremely difficult to build an engaged reader database. It takes a ton of resources and an army of expert team members solely dedicated to audience development. Before you try to build your own database with the hopes of being your own publisher, here’s a behind-the-scenes look at 10 things it takes to start, maintain, and grow an audience.

  1. There’s no shortcut to cleaning, appending, and maintaining a good database.

It’s a manual, labor-intensive process to work with audience data. Someone has to find a business email if a reader joins our database through a personal email. Someone has to add demographic and firmographic information so we can track things like company type and size, buyer’s journey stage, and decision-making role. Someone has to make sure that readers from Johnson & Johnson and J&J all sync to the same company engagement profile. Someone has to append contacts with incomplete information (for example, we’re able to uncover complete contact information for the majority of readers who join our database through email-only signup). Someone has to remove inactive subscribers so they don’t become a drag on your deliverability. The keyword here is someone, not “some software,” because maintaining good data hygiene can’t be fully automated. We have both a local and an offshore team to help with this tedious activity.

  1. Buyers are stingy with their contact information.

We’ve all been there, entering our dog’s name and a fake email address just to see if a white paper will instantly appear without the repercussions of daily spam emails and weekly SDR voicemails. It’s not that your buyers aren’t interested in your latest and greatest content. It’s just that they aren’t interested enough to trade their personal contact information in exchange for accessing that content. The more information you ask for, the less your buyer wants to give. Nearly half of B2B tech buyers never talk to a vendor while making a purchase decision, and that’s not limited to the tech world. Buyers consider handing over contact information to be “talking to a vendor,” and they’ll jump through hoops to remain anonymous. 

  1. Deliverability is an uphill climb, and you’ll never reach the top.

Just because you could get your message to a buyer’s inbox today doesn’t guarantee tomorrow’s message will deliver. Your content needs the correct balance of images and text, needs to avoid keywords flagged as spam, and needs to render properly across different email clients as well as on mobile devices. And if you’re selling to large enterprise buyers, the stakes are even higher – good luck getting through Fortune 500 firewalls and security settings to reach those inboxes. It’s not as simple as asking your buyers to whitelist you. Deliverability best practices are always changing, and new email security vendors and protocols pop up every day. Plus, even when you can get an email to delivery, you need to be ready for what comes after the email: the conversion. Does the landing page load quickly, is it the correct page, and does it drive the desired kind of engagement? 

  1. Not all buyers are easy to find.

You can buy your way to a decent database, but only if you only want to reach well-established companies with a long list of incumbent suppliers. What if you want to get in on the ground floor and have your solutions/services scale along with your buyers? Good luck buying a list of startups or emerging companies. 

  1. Engaging buyers isn’t a short-term effort.

Let’s say you have enough content for six months of messages. And let’s say your internal team can produce a handful of new content assets each month. Can you sustain that effort one, two, or three years from now? Do you have customers and industry thought leaders contributing content for you? Is there someone internally who can curate news and industry analysis from trusted third parties? It takes a lot of content – and not just your own content - distributed over a long, long period of time to build audience loyalty.

  1. Verifying buyer engagement is harder than it seems.

Just because it looks like a buyer clicked on a piece of content doesn’t mean that buyer actually clicked on a piece of content. If that sounds confusing, it’s because it’s difficult to verify that engagement activity is real. For example, a buyer's company might use an email server that tests every link in an email before it passes through the firewall. All of those test clicks could be disguised as engagement if you don’t have a data cleansing and verification system in place. And even if a real human clicks on your content, you also need to consider if that person spent enough time viewing your content to read, understand, or find value in it. You should establish minimum criteria for time spent on a page in order for an engagement to be considered a qualified lead. The combination of our proprietary software tools and the expertise of our audience engagement team helps us filter robotic and/or invalid time-based behavior to ensure only legitimate engagement activity is shared with our partners. 

  1. Regulatory issues apply to every B2B marketer, not just the Fortune 500s.

You may have heard about Google’s $57 million GDPR fine in January 2019. But did you know about the €500,000 GDPR fine handed down by French regulators in November 2019 to the insulation and heat pump equipment company with fewer than 100 employees? It’s not just the Googles of the world that are targets for data security and compliance issues. For example, how will you handle a CAN-SPAM complaint? Do you have a system for the immediate and proper handling of unsubscribe requests? Do you know whether or not the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) applies to your business? Like it or not, you need to play by the rules or risk losing your audience and a lot of cash. 

  1. Managing – and paying for – martech tools is a full-time headache.

You can’t house your database in a spreadsheet. Will you use Marketo or HubSpot to manage your audience? What about MailChimp, Drip, or Act-On? Who will be responsible for researching, evaluating, and implementing these tools? How much of your marketing budget are you willing to shell out to pay for these tools? Will the tools you use seamlessly integrate with your internal systems and your sales enablement tools? 

  1. Standardizing internal rules. 

How many times will you email a buyer each week? What day of the week and time of day will you send your message(s)? Will you segment your list? And if so, when someone opts out of messages from list A, does that also mean they won’t receive list B? Who will write, review, and ultimately approve your messaging? It can be a hassle to agree on the mechanics of contacting your buyers. 

  1. The process never ever ends.

Each year, 25 percent of your list goes bad. The next year, a different 25 percent won’t deliver. And the cycle continues. People change jobs, buyers get acquired, and email addresses change. It’s not as simple as removing unsubscribes and bounced emails. Who will monitor responses and know to update your database when someone leaves a company, but that email remains active or is forwarded to a different contact? If you’re not regularly removing bad names, eventually, the deliverability to your good names will be compromised. That’s why we remove contacts who have not been active in the last 18 months. And it’s why we continually run engagement campaigns to add new audience members to replace those who fall off the list. There’s nothing you can do about this list turnover except to keep plugging away at acquiring new audience members.

This list of audience building best practices could extend well beyond 10 categories. Remember what we said nearly 2,000 words ago: The success of a content marketing strategy hinges on having an engaged audience of your buyers to interact with your content.

It might be tempting to build an audience on your own, but keep in mind that decision will either make or break your content marketing strategy.

About the author

Chief Editor, Follow Your Buyer

You might know me as a writer, coach, content marketer, dog lover, editor, golfer, sales strategist, Diet Coke enthusiast, speaker, Allegheny alum, project manager, feminist, networker, or St. Louis Cardinals fan. 

We will not be great by what we accomplish, but by what we help others accomplish.

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Learning to follow your buyer is a change in mindset

A transition from selling buyers on what you do to helping them accomplish what they do.