Home > Marketing > It’s the Subscribed Audience! B2B Marketers are Missing the Point of Content Marketing

It’s the Subscribed Audience! B2B Marketers are Missing the Point of Content Marketing

3 statistics from the newest B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends report shows the “subscribed audience” is missing from most content marketing efforts

I had a chance to be a judge for the annual content marketing awards hosted by the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) this year. I drew the “distribution” category.

Judging was quite a bit of work, but I relished it.

I don’t remember how many applications I looked at, but I’d venture to say it was easily a dozen. It could have been double that.

I read each application carefully. I followed the links and looked at every single example or asset that was submitted with the application.

I lingered around the sites and looked for all the hallmarks CMI says makes a great content marketing program.

Most applicants cited SEO as their only distribution channel. Many of the goals centered around ranking on Google for certain keywords. And the measures of success cited were typically backlinks and organic search traffic.

These are all good goals and solid results. But it is NOT content marketing.

At least not in my understanding of content marketing.

To be sure, I’ve been doing my homework for years. I’ve been following Junta Joe Pulizzi from the very beginning – before he opened up CMI. Even way back then. I’ve read all his books. Even had a chance to review a book he co-wrote at the request of his co-author (who I admire and think is a genuine content marketing genius). I’ve had a lot of success with content marketing – both personally and professionally over the years.

Yet the experience of judging those awards left me stunned. Very few of those award applications even mentioned a subscribed audience – and the entire content marketing idea hinges on that one principle. A subscribed audience is what makes content marketing so different from every other content-related thing a marketing department does.

It got me to feeling like many B2B marketers confuse “content” for “marketing purposes” with “content marketing.” These are not the same thing. Not even a little bit.

The definition of content marketing 

For context, in this latest report, CMI defines content marketing as follows:

“A strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience – and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

I’ve added emphasis on the words, “attract and retain a clearly defined audience.”

This week, I finally got around to reviewing the 13th annual B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends report for 2023. This is a joint effort between CMI, and Marketing Profs – I’ve watched these reports closely – and often. have. blogged. about. it. over. the. years.

But when I read this year’s report, I started to get that same feeling again: B2B marketing is confusing “content” that they produce for marketing purposes with “content marketing.”

Below are three statistics from this year’s survey that are adding weight to my assessment.

B2B marketing is confusing “content” for marketing purposes with “content marketing” and it's NOT the same thing. Not even close.Click To Tweet

1. Just 40% have a content marketing strategy.

A paltry 40% of respondents have a documented content marketing strategy.

Surely it would move, right? Between the books, the training, the blogs, the surveys, the webinars, the podcasts, and the content marketing conferences this number is bound to get better with time, yes?


This hasn’t changed much over the many years CMI has been asking that question. The report characterized the trend this year as “stuck.”

Why is this number so low?

I believe it’s because most B2B marketers don’t see “content marketing” as its own thing. Instead, they mistakenly see “content” and a means to execute a plain old marketing strategy, which is more likely to be documented.

The thought process is: “Oh, we write ebooks and blog posts, so we do content marketing.” Indeed, that’s content, but it’s not necessarily content marketing. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been in over the last 10 years where this came up and that’s where things went sideways.

It really slows things down when you constantly have to stop and tutor another stakeholder on the fundamentals, just so you can have a basic conversation.

So, when we see statistics that say “90% of marketers are doing content marketing” I just don’t believe it anymore.

We don’t have a world where 90% are doing content marketing but less than half of that have a documented strategy. Instead, we live in a world where probably ~44% of B2B marketers truly do content marketing – and 40% have a documented strategy.

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2. Just 44% use content to build a subscribed audience.

If you look at the chart below for this section, you’ll see a list of 10 goals survey takers said they achieved in the last years. These are all good things to achieve – but notice that “Build/grow a subscribed audience” is the last thing on the list.

Just 44% of respondents have built or grown a subscribed audience with content marketing.

So what?

As I’ve said, building a subscribed audience is the whole point! It’s the one thing you can achieve that no other variety of marketing can do on its own.

You can build awareness with traditional advertising, PR and even search ads, but you cannot build a subscribed audience with those things alone.

In fact, if you advertise to build awareness, you are essentially renting an audience someone else has built. If you do PR, you are earning your way into an audience someone else has built. Content marketing is the idea that you can build a subscribed audience of your own.

It’s worth pointing out, elsewhere in the report, CMI breaks out answers from the most and least successful respondents:

Those respondents that were most successful at content marketing were 15% more likely (59%) to use content marketing to grow a subscribed audience.

By contrast, those that were least successful were 18% less likely (26%) to content marketing to grow a subscribed audience.

In other words, the most successful content marketers are more likely to focus on building a subscribed audience, because…psst…that’s the secret sauce!

The most successful content marketers are more likely to focus on building a subscribed audience, because...psst...that's the secret sauce!Click To Tweet

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3. A minuscule 22% use the number of email subscribers to evaluate content performance.

The survey also asked respondents about the metrics they rely on to evaluate content performance. Email subscribers are at the bottom.

Dead last.

Just 22% of respondents use the number of email subscribers to evaluate content performance.

By contrast, most respondents use conversions (70%) and quality of leads (60%) to evaluate the performance of content.

Here again, these are all good and important goals. But the way this chart reads suggests that marketers are doing marketing content, not content marketing.

In other words, they are running content campaigns. For example, publishing a gated ebook and when someone downloads it, they call that action a “conversion” and that person a “lead.”

And that’s the purpose of their content – to produce conversions and leads.

If that’s what you are doing and working for your business, then congratulations! Good job!  Keep doing you!

Please do the rest of us in the trenches a favor and call it email marketing. Or ebook marketing. Or conversion marketing. Make up your own little buzzword if you’d like.

But don’t call it content marketing because that’s not what that is.

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Real content marketing yields real business results

One of the most successful content marketing programs I worked on was an independent blog that supported several software products under the portfolio of a single company.

By its third year, it had thousands of subscribers and tens of thousands of monthly visitors. It was a powerful independent channel in its own right.

But it also helped build relationships with new influencers and repair fractured relationships with old ones.

It earned media coverage and backlinks and drew unsolicited third-party accolades – a point the business leaders made a point to compliment. The business was proud of it!

Some of its content was automatically syndicated, at no cost to us, to a wider audience within the same niche.

At an industry conference once, I was having a conversation with the editor-in-chief (EiC) of our industry’s most prestigious trade publication in the hallway. A CEO from another company walked over – and she sort of shooed him off with a wave of her hand.

He waited patiently a few feet away.

We finished our conversation and she waved the CEO over and promptly introduced me to him, not as a PR person, but as one of our company’s bloggers. The guy couldn’t have cared less who I was or what I had done. But I was ecstatic that an EiC recognized me for my editorial efforts and not for merely pitching story ideas to her.  New level unlocked.

There were tangible business results too: The marketing manager for our flagship product and I compared notes: One-third of the deals that closed that year – for a product with an average selling price of $1.3 million – were also subscribers to the blog.

Why? Because we had a relationship with our subscribers. They trusted us. While everyone else was peddling corporate gobbledygook, we aimed to give them our candid take.

And we got to test ideas that way too – we could see what was landing and what wasn’t in the analytics. This is first-party data (cookie, anyone?). We owned it.

That’s the true value of a subscribed audience. That’s what I think of when CMI defines content marketing as a “strategic marketing approach.”

It’s a stark difference from engineering psychological tricks to get people to open, read and click through emails or PPC ads. A subscribed audience is a very different thing than a collection of emails in a marketing automation system, that got there because they were duped into registering for a “thought leadership” webinar, which turned out to be a sales pitch and now their inbox is going to get pounded with “nurturing” emails.

Maybe you don’t need content marketing or a subscribed audience

It’s entirely possible to be successful in B2B marketing without content marketing. You might be crushing it and hitting all your goals. And that’s awesome.

If that’s you, I’d recommend keeping on doing whatever it is that you are doing.

However, if you worry that…

  • your message sounds like every other company in your category;
  • you are facing declining email open rates;
  • are chasing keywords without luck;
  • clinging to whatever the mighty Google algorithm supposedly wants (today…tomorrow it will be something else);
  • fearful of losing followers on a social channel;
  • disappointed that the only “like” your social ad received was from a nondescript handle with a cat picture as its profile photo;
  • struggle with the high cost of PPC; and

…then maybe it’s worth truly giving content marketing a shot.

I’m not in any way suggesting that content marketing is the only thing marketing should do, or that it’s the only thing marketing can do that works. Content marketing isn’t a panacea. It takes time, effort and skill. Building an audience is not easy. But the distinction is important and the results are real.

* * *

The Content Marketing Institute (CMI) and MarketingProfs teamed up for the 13th time to poll 925 respondents that work in marketing for companies in the B2B sector or serve a combination of both B2B and B2C. Together they published the B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends: Insights for 2023 research report sponsored by ON24.

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