How Identity Marketing Shapes B2B Content

I was reading a recent report from HubSpot and Buzzsumo that breaks down what types of content perform well for B2B and B2C marketing and one line in particular caught my eye:

“The aim of a B2B company in many ways is to make their buyer look like a hero inside their organization.”

In other words, maybe more so than B2C content (which tends to be more focused on entertainment), B2B content is often directed towards the ego. I don’t mean that in the sense that you’re trying to flatter your prospect. Rather, your prospect will assess the value of your content based on the kind of person that content might enable them to be.

“Nobody wants to be a shill for your brand… but they are happy to share information and content that helps them promote their own identity.”

Concerns like “is it true? Is it interesting? Is it relevant?” are still important, but in terms of value assessment, they’re sublimated to “how smart will I look quoting this in front of my boss?”

Content marketing with these kinds of concerns in mind is what I call “identity marketing.” It’s not a step-by-step process so much as a guiding question. With this content, what identity am I enabling my reader to adopt?

This kind of identity formation is central to just about all interaction and communication, especially on the web, where what you share is a huge part of signifying who you are.

My favorite example of this: BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed’s entire business model is focused on producing endless content that allows people to participate in identities major and minor. We’re talking quizzes like “This Shape Test Will Determine What Type Of Introvert You Are,” lists like “38 Things That Happen On Every Episode Of “Barefoot Contessa,” “29 Things Only Filipino-Australians Will Understand,” etc.

I got “Type A: Protective,” by the way.

It’s a canny business model because it allows people to define who they are by promoting your content.

As former BuzzFeed chief creative officer Jeff Greenspan once stated in an interview, “Nobody wants to be a shill for your brand… but they are happy to share information and content that helps them promote their own identity.”

The college thesis of BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti outlines many of the theoretical underpinnings of what makes BuzzFeed work, as reported by Vox.

With this content, what identity am I enabling my reader to adopt?

The basic point: in postmodern society, people are constantly shedding identities and thus need to be able to express a multitude of different ones easily and instantaneously.

(It’s worth noting that Peretti, when asked if these ideas helped to form the basis of BuzzFeed, responded only “lol.”)

BuzzFeed’s approach is pure identity marketing. By interacting with their content, you’re enabled to be just about anything.

Vox’s analysis applies mostly to B2C consumers who are acting socially, and while the same ideas apply to B2B consumers, the business world is a bit more restrictive. While it might be acceptable to share “26 Struggles Only People With Small Bladders Will Understand” on your personal Facebook, sharing something with a similar level of depth and consequence at a business meeting might just get you fired.

…that work is never done because these days, identities are often ephemeral and fleeting.

So, we come back to the figure of the “hero” that the HubSpot/Buzzsumo report points out as often key to B2B content success. The hero is the maverick, the innovator, the person on the bleeding edge whose insight is radical but unimpeachably well-founded and actionable. Their credibility is beyond question and the monumental effort they put into self-education is obvious. When you need a million-dollar idea, you go to the hero.

I’d add that, if we’re looking at how content performs on social networks (as opposed to how often the information in it is actually applied and applied successfully, which seems impossible to measure at scale), then being the hero and promoting the appearance of yourself as the hero (or potential hero) are basically the same thing.

Basically our point on forming identity through appearance. Hobbes was a ton of fun at parties.

That seems pessimistic, but keep in mind that most people are adequately risk-averse that they won’t behave like total frauds: they’re not going to share content that they can’t at least speak somewhat intelligently about, or that people won’t believe they can speak intelligently about. Worst case, they’ll share content with prescriptions that are beyond their abilities or resources to apply so that they can at least demonstrate that they know what’s going on.

So here’s our working theory: one of the key reasons people consume and share content is to form their identity, for both themselves and others, and that work is never done because these days, identities are often ephemeral and fleeting. Since the business world, as varied as it is, often promotes a consistent set of values (at least for the worker bees), much successful B2B content hinges on forming the identity of the hero.

Let’s test this theory using another article from Buzzsumo outlining the best B2B content of 2015.

Buzzsumo mapped the most shared B2B content on the web to different stages of the sales funnel to determine the 12 distinct types of content that seemed to be the most shareable. Using these types of content, we can identify a few different traits that the hero might be expected to possess:

Depth

Types of content: Reference Content, eBooks

These types of content help the hero to demonstrate the depth of their knowledge of a subject, often by their sheer length and comprehensiveness.

Rigor & Growth

Types of content: Research Content, Case Studies, Product Launch Content

These types of content help the hero to demonstrate a commitment to not only staying on the bleeding edge of their respective field but to coming to conclusions in a careful and rigorous way.

Differentiation & Leadership

Types of content: Newsjacking, Provocative Content

Both newsjacking and “provocative content” (basically, content that aims to trouble an “established orthodoxy”) get their juice from trying to affect the discourse around a particular subject. Newsjacking allows commentators to insert their own opinions into a subject’s information ecosystem while it’s still new and the dust hasn’t quite settled yet.

Provocative content, meanwhile, tries to upset what’s already been settled, or at least add a new dimension to it. By sharing this type of content, the hero potentially establishes themselves as a thought leader, a maverick or a provocateur capable of providing a unique (well, semi-unique: they are sharing someone else’s content) viewpoint.

Charity

Types of content: Curated and List Content, Tools, How-To Content, Infographics

While it’s acceptable to admit that they’ve learned something from a piece of content, the hero is unlikely to share a list or a tool and admit that they’ve been totally blindsided. Rather, the stated aim is often to enrich their peers (and thus position themselves as someone who can enrich others).

Savvy

Types of content: Quizzes

More types of content have elements of savvy – the somewhat cynical, somewhat cool and ironic, “I’m above this” attitude that heroes often have to telegraph – but sharing quizzes tend to showcase quite a bit of it. That’s because a heroic share of a quiz will often come with the disclaimer that quizzes can’t capture the hero or their peers in all of their complexity. They’re just a bit of fun.

The figure of the hero is not a full-blown marketing persona. It’s more of a cluster of needs. Within a specific area of expertise, the hero establishes their status by (among other things, of course) sharing content that telegraphs these qualities. So it’s worth asking yourself, when creating B2B content: how can I enable my reader to adopt the identity of the hero?