Tl;dr - Industrial sales is getting tougher. Outbound sales and inbound marketing must be improved to generate leads and support sales enablement. Both challenge most B2B industrials that prefer to focus on their products and services. So, an inbound marketing agency may seem to offer an "easy button." They can certainly help, but they're no replacement for building excellence yourself.
Domain & Marketing - Complex Knowledge Sets
Many industrial manufacturing firms have tried and given up on content marketing. They know they need a different approach to drive lead generation for their industrial sales team, but content has failed them.
Many gave it an initial go internally, seduced by visions of rapid success from creating a "blog" and publishing periodic newsletter-type posts. Neither technically optimized, nor written to answer buyer questions, nor even built around properly researched key terms and best practices, their content efforts failed to drive any results.
Later they tried some version of SEO consultant or B2B inbound marketing agency, often with emphatic assurance that the agency's team was well versed in manufacturing and could quickly learn the client's technology and business well enough to create impactful and meaningful content. The performance never matched the promises.
The model doesn't work.
Even if a B2B inbound marketing agency were to charge a manufacturer a retainer of $25K/month (beyond what a middle market industrial firm is willing to invest in an experiment) and hired full-time industry trade journalists, the details and nuance of each company's products are unique.
At best, the created content will require significant editing and technical review before a typical manufacturer is willing to publish it.
And in the more typical range of monthly fees - say $5-12K - the content is vapid and unusable.
I've consistently observed that marketing agency content fails to make the process feasible. Either the agency creates material they think is good but that just doesn't meet the client's expectations or resonate with buyers, or the client ends up investing so much time supporting the effort that they wonder why they're paying.
That being said, an inbound marketing agency can contribute if the client understands that they need to plan on the heavy lifting of content creation.
Marketing and Sales Operations
An agency can provide some important complementary capabilities to facilitate a robust content marketing and sales enablement effort for a capital equipment manufacturer or other industrial company.
Tasks for which a marketing agency may be well suited include:
- graphic design
- website development (however, they must be experienced in conversion optimization and build a site for UX rather than aesthetics)
- ad management
- workflow design
- marketing automation and sales force automation software implementation
- technical SEO
- sales enablement
- marketing and sales operations to boost sales effectiveness
They can provide value through some B2B marketing services. However, there's a big caveat.
A deep and nuanced understanding of your buyers, sales process, industry lexicon, capital equipment purchase decisions and long sales cycles will be necessary. The agency model doesn't deliver that, but most believe they do. That results in bruised feelings and friction, further impairing the effort.
However, an agency can do some execution - pushing buttons and pulling levers. They'll still need your oversight. And you'll have a learning curve to know enough to provide adequate oversight.
Agencies bring varying degrees of technical skill in various disciplines, normally bolstered by a very high degree of assurance and confidence, tempered by very little realistic expectation or humility.
For instance, they may have some average or even very skilled technical SEO specialists. How will you know? If someone knows any more than you, do you have the ability to gauge what they actually know, vs. what they should? Probably not.
Further, if they don't understand your business and the way your buyers think about the world, then the keyword research upon which they build their recommendations and implementation could render all the work worthless from your perspective.
So here's another way to think about it.
If you need to hire an internal marketing coordinator and pay that recent grad with 2-4 years of somewhat relevant experience $60-70K/year (call it 75-90 loaded), then hiring a manufacturing marketing agency might cost the same but bring a much greater breadth of skills and fractional access to more experience talent for specific requirements.
You Can't Outsource Your Marketing, Your Sales, or Your Content Creation
Manufacturers often evaluate parts, components, and assemblies to determine what might be most effectively outsourced vs. what's best kept inside for short turnaround, customization, and/or quality reasons.
It's time to take the same approach to thinking about content.
Written and video content are both critical to revenue growth. Sure, outbound sales is getting harder. We need to arm sales reps with the right tools to help them succeed. And yes, inbound marketing is getting more difficult as SEO gets harder, Chat GPT disrupts traditional search, buyers are overloaded with content, and website conversion rates are falling.
The fact that they're changing means that we need to adapt and improve. That means more, better, consistent content creation.
Therefore, manufacturers need to start having the same debates and discussions about content creation as insourcing or outsourcing machine parts. Some content can be created outside. Some aspects of content creation (e.g. the graphic design and document layout) can be outsourced. But every company needs to plan its own publishing and video production operations.
They may purchase this, or build it. And a hybrid may make sense.
But this is perhaps the biggest mindset change (beyond bringing manufacturing and operational rigor to marketing and sales as I advocate using my Overall Revenue Effectiveness™ Framework) that manufacturers need to make. Investing in marketing is often difficult. Investing in building a publishing operation seems simply absurd.
Yet the key to consistent, great content is a steady flow of idea exchange, research, creation, and production with your subject matter experts.
So, frame your thinking around the business challenge. Don't focus on the transactional detail - how can we write, edit, and publish five articles and three videos/week. Instead focus on the structural challenge - how can we build a publishing and video production function in our company? And then empower and enable those teams to create the content?
Although it will feel foreign, this shouldn't be hard. You probably only need three people initially and a few thousand dollars of investment.
Hire the following roles:
- editor (who will also have significant creative and writing responsibilities)
Create a style guide and editorial calendar (well-planned with optimization details) and set up a small in-house video studio.
Your leadership role will be twofold.
- Create a culture to shift the mindset - you'll be customer-focused (their problems, their world, not your products and services), and the company will become a consistent and high-quality publisher. You must be ready to discuss it regularly but not tolerate passive-aggressive (or even overt) resistance.
- Be patient with the strategy and support the effort
Resources Beyond an Inbound Marketing Agency
The core of inbound marketing is the creation of content. Ten years ago, you could create inconsistent and mediocre content and drive some results. Today, your content must be frequent, superb, insightful, and focused on customers.
As an industrial manufacturer, you must stop wishing and accept that you must take control of that content production. A content marketing agency, regardless of their professed familiarity with manufacturing, selling to engineers, or complex industrial sales, can't create the quality that you'll be proud of and that will elevate your company's position in the industry.
The right agency can help. They can assist with planning and implementation. They'll bring skills and insights to focus and optimize your efforts. Like hiring specialized attorneys with particular expertise to assist your inhouse counsel or corporate attorney, an agency can bring current expertise that your team can't maintain internally.
The challenge is for you and your team to evaluate the expertise of agencies and consultants. By definition, they'll know more than you (otherwise, you wouldn't be considering paying them.) So how can you be confident that they know all they must, are creative and flexible in applying that knowledge, consistently stretch to identify and experiment with new trends, etc.?
That's the biggest challenge most industrial manufacturers face. They hire agencies and consultants that bring a stale set of outdated skills and methods that may sound effective but fail to deliver. Then efforts flounder and they grow discouraged.
All images created using DALL-E (OpenAI. (2024). ChatGPT [Large language model]. /g/g-2fkFE8rbu-dall-e.)