An easy guide to B2B content marketing formats

This five-minute post covers the basics of B2B content marketing formats, from traditional articles to slide decks to blog posts.

A month ago, we finished a slide-deck presentation for a client. The subject matter was dense, so the client had suggested the slide format as a new way to connect with her prospective clients via online slide hosting site SlideShare. She pushed the idea through despite some internal resistance from colleagues who were concerned the content was too technical to be effectively conveyed in such a simple format. Essentially, her coworkers didn’t want to dumb it down. We helped the client realize her vision to create a compelling presentation with real utility for practitioners.

Lo and behold, the slide deck quickly became the company’s best-performing piece on SlideShare, achieving nearly double the views of any previous piece the company has published on the site. This popularity led the company’s social media team to launch a third promotional campaign last week.

How to increase audience engagement

Keeping an audience engaged is a shifting target that requires both creativity and flexibility. Yes, there is still a (very important) place for traditional formats, such as in-depth articles of 3,000 words or more that delve into a given subject. But given that the average adult’s reading pace is 300 words per minute, there’s also clearly room for snappier, more easily digestible content formats.

Attention span is an issue. The curmudgeonly among us bemoan our target audience’s decreasing attention span due to the hundreds of emails, social media news feeds, and unceasing cacophony of clickbait they face every day. But while studies (including this popular one released in spring) clamor to quantify exactly how much our attention span has shrunk, we can’t help but ask: hasn’t it always been this way? Writers and editors have always fought to win precious minutes of a reader’s attention. It has always been about compelling ideas, beautifully wrought in both form and function. Ask any writer from Harper Lee to Stephen King. Business writing, while more technical, isn’t any different. The writer must win—and hold—his or her audience’s attention.

At the end of the day, substance is more important than format, but the format is what drives readership. The reason our client saw so much interest in her slide deck is because her company has a wealth of knowledge to offer. The right format can elevate those ideas and help ensure your audience sees and digests them.

What business content formats are best?

Companies have a wide variety of options when it comes to formatting content, depending on their target audience and the purpose of the information itself.

Traditional articles: The goal of the “traditional” article is to catch the attention of current and prospective clients by providing valuable knowledge they can’t get anywhere else. The term “thought leadership” gets thrown around a lot and usually finds its home in this format. Such an article may appear in an external publication, like the Harvard Business Review, or be published as a standalone page or PDF on your website. The most successful articles are a few thousand words long, well formatted, and designed to be “evergreen,” meaning they will be relevant well into the future and under different market and news conditions.

Q&As: Business readers like to hear from other successful business people. As such, a Q&A with your CEO about her management style may go further than an article written about the same subject. Additionally, allowing your top brass to speak for themselves can bolster your company’s credibility and thought leadership within your industry. Considered a subset of the “traditional article” pillar, these pieces also tend to be a few thousand words long.

Case studies: The oft-used but seldom-done-well case study is meant to provide readers with a real, on-the-ground example of a specific business problem, the thorny challenges it poses, and a detailed account of how those challenges were overcome. Case studies straddle the line between traditional articles and promotional content depending on the writer’s slant. Beware: readers can smell a sales pitch from a million page views away.

White papers: A well-known publication type in the business world, white papers tend to be longer than a traditional article—usually coming in between 3,000 and 15,000 words (an admittedly large range)—but the length is necessary to take the reader deeper into a given subject. They often present original research, survey results, or other high-value content worthy of an hour or two of your reader’s time. White papers are usually published as a standalone PDF or even as a published book.

Slide decks: As demonstrated by our client’s experience, one way to connect with an audience is via punchy, yet professional writing presented in a focused slide deck. For great tips and the science behind compelling slide decks, especially for a live presentation, check out this blog post by my friend, education guru Mary Jo Madda.

Blog posts: Blog posts are a less formal forum for your ideas and—since they aren’t expected to be evergreen—can be tied directly to current events. Our friends at Chicago Style SEO advocate that blog posts be at least 500 words long so they are more likely to be crawled and indexed by search engines.

Video: Depending on your audience and budget, video can be a hugely successful content marketing tool. My colleagues Scott Leff and Heather Ploog have written extensively on the best tips for creating high-value video content. Consult with a professional video producer (we highly recommend Highway M) to get a sense of how video could fit into your content marketing strategy.

This list is intended as a guide for businesses looking to expand and innovate their content offerings. However, it is by no means exhaustive.

Yes, but what’s THE best format?

Frankly, the “best” format depends on the company, the content, and the audience. Lots of research is available on how readers find content, how much of it they actually read, and how quickly they navigate away. These metrics are important to track, but don’t let the noise distract you: the key is to hook visitors once they’ve arrived, accomplished with compelling messaging and content. You’ll find that the ideas are what keep people coming back, so if you publish a particularly successful piece, think about other avenues for those ideas: a blog post may become a white paper, or a Q&A may become a slide deck.

Key takeaways:

  1. Use a variety of formats on a regular basis. Your regular readers won’t get bored, you may reach new audiences, and as you become more comfortable you’ll easily recognize which ideas fit which formats.
  2. Tap the brain of someone who knows the ins and outs of the various formats, how they interact with an audience, and what kind of subject matter fits each best. Whether that person exists in your company now or must be located as an external contractor, their relationship to your company will serve to ripen and reap the benefits of the knowledge-driven content marketing that the business world feeds upon.
  3. To get the most bang for your buck, discuss what content can be refitted to additional formats.

Brittany Williams

Brittany is the editorial director at Leff. She is passionate about helping clients tell their stories through incisive, fact-based narratives. Every once in awhile, she takes a break to muse on rhetorical devices, grammar, and content strategy on the Leff Communications blog. Follow Brittany on Twitter @britpetersen.

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