January 22, 2024 Content Chat Recap: Story Mapping for the B2B Buyer’s Journey

A Content Chat header image featuring an array of flowers behind a text overlay that says today’s topic is story mapping for the B2B buyer's journey, with guest Carmen Hill.

“We’ve talked about this problem of random acts of content. When you’ve mapped out what your story is in advance, you’re not doing random acts of content. You have a very intentional progression that builds on one to the next and pays it off.” – Carmen Hill

The B2B buyer’s journey is notoriously complex and spans a growing number of channels, touchpoints, and decision-makers. To engage buyers and prove that a solution is right for them, content marketers need to create a cohesive narrative across this journey and focus on the buyer’s unique needs — not shamelessly promote product features and capabilities.

In this #ContentChat recap, Erika Heald is joined by Carmen Hill, an independent content strategy consultant and owner of Chill Content, to discuss story mapping for the B2B buyer’s journey and how it can improve your content strategy.

Watch the entire conversation on YouTube or read through the highlights below.

For more story mapping resources, check out Carmen’s blog post about how to choose the best content for your B2B customer’s journey and access her story mapping template from her 2023 CMworld session in this Google Drive folder.

Q1: What do content marketers need to know about today’s business-to-business (B2B) buyer journeys?

B2B buying journeys can take a long time (months!) and involve many stakeholders. There is no “standard” B2B buyer journey.

“When I first started doing this, there was the funnel and very regimented steps. Here’s what happens at each step, and here’s what people need at each step—and there wasn’t any variation. It was like ‘every B2B sale is like this.’ And what I’ve come to realize is that is not really the case. Every situation is a little different. And you have to look at it in a much more nuanced way.” – Carmen Hill

B2B buyers are empowered to research solutions and seek advice without needing to meet with a brand sales team. This makes content marketing and customer advocacy initiatives increasingly important.

“We’ve seen a lot of this has really been amplified over the last three or four years. Before then, companies had better control over all that information about their products, about what it was like to work with them, [and] all those kinds of things. But we’ve had sites like G4 really democratize the sharing [of] customer experience. And, of course, as more people ended up being stuck at home [during the pandemic] where they had all their consumer technology, then they started realizing how easy it was for them to do a lot of the research and get a lot of the information they needed when they were making these buying decisions. And that they were able to do all of that without having a sales call.” – Erika Heald

“Anywhere between 60% and 90% of the journey supposedly is completed before you ever talk to someone. And now that’s even more the case. You’ve got all of these other places to get information.” – Carmen Hill

Companies that sell B2B services face unique hurdles.

“And then if you’re actually not selling products but services or if you’re talking to existing customers or clients, that’s a whole different dynamic, because the kind of reassurance that you’re looking for, the kind of information you’re looking for, is different.” – Carmen Hill

B2B buyers seek solutions to very specific problems — you don’t have to convince them something is an issue.

“A lot of times people already know they have a problem. They know what the problem is, they just need to figure out who’s going to be the best to help solve it. And so you’re not starting at the same point as something that is unknown or that you didn’t know you need to change the status quo.” – Carmen Hill

Customer engagement and retention are just as important as (if not more important than) customer acquisition. And this requires an entirely different type of content strategy.

“Frequently companies don’t seem to have that ongoing re-engagement strategy for existing customers, other than having a salesperson call them quarterly — which isn’t the best strategy, because not everybody likes a phone call from somebody they’ve never met, or getting on a webinar to see all the latest things. You’ve got to think about a real strategy around how you’re going to keep those folks excited about your product or services and keep them informed of what you’re doing. So that way, they continue to be happy customers and you can develop them into being raving fans.” – Erika Heald

Customers should trust that you have their best interest in mind and understand their actual needs. They shouldn’t feel like you’re constantly trying to sell them something.

“It’s a lot more, day in and day out, having those channels where you’re communicating and sharing, and not in a selling way. [Customers] should trust that [you] have [their] best interests at heart, not just trying to sell more than [they] actually need.” – Carmen Hill

Q2: Why is story mapping valuable for content marketing teams?

Story mapping is the idea that your customer is the hero in a story. Your brand is there to guide the hero to overcome obstacles. Everything you create should build on the same story and focus on helping your customers.

“Story mapping is a term that gets used in a little different contexts. In terms of mapping our content for the B2B buyer journey, the story is that overarching idea, that narrative, that really is the foundation of our content. You can think of it as brand and it’s definitely connected to brand. But what is your big idea? What is your promise? What’s your vision for the future? What’s at the end of that journey? And then having a unique perspective and way of expressing that. Think of that as the story, and the customer as the hero. Thinking about the old hero’s journey and you, as a brand or a content creator, are able to be that guide that is helping the hero to overcome obstacles to find a way to that vision.” – Carmen Hill

“It’s connecting the dots for what are you saying as a brand, what is your value proposition, and how are you answering the questions through the story, along each step of the way.” – Carmen Hill

Story mapping keeps the focus on the customer, not on your brand and blatantly selling your products or services.

“We sometimes get so focused on the tactics and what are the things that we’re going to share, that we don’t stop to think about ‘what is the story we’re trying to tell?’ Which really is about getting it back to be focused on the customer and the challenges the customer is facing and what success looks like for them. Sometimes you can see some of the content strategies in place that are the brand talking about themselves and their products 24/7, and that’s really hard to think that is working.” – Erika Heald

Content should align with your story to address specific customer needs, like providing use cases and examples that demonstrate how your product or solution can help them.

“People are frequently looking for a use case that is just like the problem that they have in their specific company. So [buyers are using Google] to really drill down and understand who really serves them as a particular customer.” – Erika Heald

“What makes some website redesign projects fun is when you actually talk to the client about what are the pain points, what are the different industries, what’s different. And when you really delve down into it and start mapping the stories that are going to matter to those prospective clients who really love them, it’s usually incredibly specific. It’s not broad and bland. That’s kind of surprising for some marketers who are used to doing more general content, but niching down and being really specific — that’s the stuff that people share and get really excited about.” – Erika Heald

Q3: What resources do content marketers need before they can begin story mapping?

Customer personas are essential for story mapping. Each persona represents a hero with specific needs and interests.

“You have to know who is going on this journey. Who is your hero, who is your customer? If you don’t already have really good personas, then that’s the perfect place to start. Really understand those insights, understand those pains, because if you’re developing content… you need to understand when, where, and how [their journey intersects with your content].” – Carmen Hill

“So personas, if you don’t have them, start doing a ton of research and really dig in. What is their journey? Where does it start? It may not start at the top of a funnel and move through, so understand the unique needs and paths that your customer or buyer or audience is taking.” – Carmen Hill

“It always surprises me how frequently companies don’t have defined personas or avatars, or whatever they call them within the organization. Frequently, it’ll just be job title or ‘this kind of company.’ How on Earth are you creating content if you have such a general look at who you’re trying to help? Because then you’re going to be creating really boring content that any AI could create.” – Erika Heald

Your business objectives should inform your story mapping.

“And then understanding your business objectives. What are you trying to accomplish? Having that shared point of view and that shared vision for the value that you’re bringing and how you’re helping your customers. Have a sense of what your company’s big picture goals are and where you’re trying to move someone on the journey.” – Carmen Hill

Speak with all customer-facing teams and align their messages to create a cohesive story.

“Often there’s a disconnect. It’s like you’ve got PR doing one thing and then you’ve got brand marketing, demand gen, and sales. If those stories don’t connect and feel like different chapters in the same book, you aren’t really telling a story, you’re not really bringing somebody along on a journey, it’s just disconnected. Talk with your partners so that way they’re engaging with prospects and customers as a continuation that is building on the same narrative threads that you’ve started in the beginning of that process.” – Carmen Hill

Q4: How should marketers begin story mapping?

Build your story map in a way that your business partners will understand. A spreadsheet is a free option and enables collaboration, or you can use a visual design tool.

“You don’t need special software. I usually start with a spreadsheet. You always have to think about who you’re working with and what their work styles are and what they’re comfortable with. Some people glaze over a spreadsheet, but that’s a super flexible way to collaborate.” – Carmen Hill

Carmen outlines the buyer stages at the top of the map, and then details the different elements the story should account for.

“I usually outline it with the stages of the journey across the top and then the different elements that you need to account for down the vertical and thinking about what’s the big idea that’s overarching all of this.” – Carmen Hill

“Each journey is different, but you should have a pretty good idea of what your customer’s journey is, and then map it. Think about ‘once upon a time…’, which starts at the top corner. And then think about how your story evolves across the journey. What are the key messages under that? How am I paying that off each step of the way? And what is the content that’s going to support that part of the story? You may have multiple rows for different personas or different programs. But that way, you’re pulling that through in a way that builds from the big-picture story and narrows down to the more tactical elements — what are your content assets, what channels are you going to be in, etc.” – Carmen Hill

“Maybe you’ve got a newsletter, maybe podcasts, maybe a landing page where you’ve got a content hub around that particular topic. Where did those come into play? When you get to that part of the journey, how are they continuing that story? It’s very similar to a message architecture combined with a content matrix.” – Carmen Hill

Q5: What types of content are most effective for addressing different buyer needs?

What information do your buyers need? What is the best way to share that information during their journey? How do they prefer to consume information?

“If you’re focused on formats, you’re starting with the wrong question. You don’t need a video. You don’t need a webinar or an article. It doesn’t really matter. The format needs to follow the function. What is the information that you need to communicate with someone, and then ask what is the best way to do that. And it may have to do with the stage of the journey they’re in. But it’s more likely to be about the nature of the information. Is it simple or is it complex? If it’s simple, then something that’s creative and lightweight might be appropriate. But if it’s something that’s complex, you really need to think about how you bring that to life in a way that is accessible and that someone will be able to understand.” – Carmen Hill

“There’s different kinds of content that lend themselves to something that’s more emotional and more of the rational part.” – Carmen Hill

Make it easy for customers to make the case for your solution.

“I am surprised how frequently there isn’t that one-pager, making the business case to your boss kind of item that you can just copy and paste into an email to your boss or the head of finance to give the ‘here’s why we need this and there’s the outcomes that we can reasonably expect.’ So often, people have to do all that heavy lifting themselves, and there isn’t that high-level ‘why us and not them’ kind of visual content that’s easily skimmable.” – Erika Heald

Q6: How can content teams align their story maps to also work across campaigns and other marketing and sales programs?

Express your story map in ways that make sense for individual teams.

“If you’re talking to sales, they’re not going to care about the hero’s journey. They just care about ‘where’s my email copy, my LinkedIn posts, my PDF one-pager’ or whatever. They’re not going to be in that spreadsheet. You’re going to need to share a similar story with them. But because you’ve done the strategic thinking and ideally you have collaborated with your partners in sales, you’re going to have their input and have this shared vision. And you can share parts [of your hero’s journey/narrative] in a simpler way.” – Carmen Hill

Instill the importance of telling a cohesive story.

“Make sure that the materials you’re putting out there are telling a connected story for the customer, so that whether they’re seeing an advertisement or attending a webinar or downloading a report, they do take that next step. It doesn’t feel like they’re talking to someone else. It feels like it’s the next chapter, not like you’re starting a new book.” – Carmen Hill

AI tools can be helpful for enforcing your narrative and accelerating your story mapping.

“As people are increasingly using AI tools in order to help them create some of these materials when they’re doing campaigns, story maps have the opportunity to [provide] governance and [serve as] touchstones that you can use to train the AI to give you something that is consistent so that AI can become that enforcer, if you will, of your story and of your voice.” – Erika Heald

“AI can be fun. Like we were thinking, what’s the story map or what’s the narrative arc for this scenario. You can ask it to compare the scenario to the hero’s journey or whatever narrative structure that’s relevant to your campaign or product or whatever it might be. And it can give you a head start on what that storyline might look like.” – Carmen Hill

“Or tell you when you’ve got gaps. I love when you can have it tell you what you are missing. What did I forget here? Because frequently it’ll be something like ‘oh my gosh, I can’t believe I left that out!’ Or you’ll never have thought of that. It’s the same as having that person in the cube next to you that you go to pick their brain and get feedback.” – Erika Heald

Q7: What challenges do marketers often face when story mapping, and how can they overcome these?

Communicate your story map in ways that will resonate with your leaders. Calling it a “brand narrative” or “content pillars” instead of a story map may increase their buy-in.

“You have to think about your audience. Your boss may not think it’s valuable to slow down and think about how you’re going to align your content and campaigns to a narrative journey. They just want to know ‘what’s our plan, when’s it going to be done, what are our KPIs.’ It can be hard to slow down and do that kind of thinking.” – Carmen Hill

“Depending on your organization, people may not recognize the value of it. But you don’t talk about it as a story map; put it in terms that are relevant to the people that you work with or who are looking for the answer. How is sales going to use this? The other teams? That actually adds a lot of value.” – Carmen Hill

“I have a client who uses story mapping, but they have a narrative slide for one of their three content pillars. So each one of those pillars has its own ‘whatever that pillar is’ narrative. It’s a story map, but the way it’s presented in a PowerPoint deck with lots of columns and colors, it feels very much like all of the business reporting and all of the workflows that people are used to. It makes it a lot easier for people to get on board with it and say ‘yeah, this makes sense.’ Versus if you gave them a link to something called a story map and it wasn’t a document and was beautifully designed.” – Erika Heald

“It can be your Trojan Horse. Call it whatever you want. But this is just a way of thinking about it that delivers value to your customers. It’s human nature; we love stories. Connect the dots in a way and have continuity and relevance over time that we wouldn’t necessarily otherwise have.” – Carmen Hill

Story mapping is a long-term game. Resist the urge to continually shift the narrative.

“The most valuable cases for a story map are it’s a long-term game. It’s not something for a six-week campaign and then we’re going to come up with a different story for next quarter. It’s shiny object syndrome. So if you are able to develop a really compelling perspective that has the strength to carry a whole story, keep it going. Don’t drop that and start a whole new thing. Those franchises like Star Wars or the Avengers don’t have all new characters and plot lines. You’re building on something and you’re taking advantage of that engagement you’ve already created. And you’ve already identified that you have a resonant story in that case, so why drop that and take a chance on something totally different?” – Carmen Hill

Q8: How often should content teams revisit or refine their story map?

Check in on your story maps each quarter, but don’t reinvent the story each time. Adapt the story as needed to address new personas or use cases.

“Your strategy shouldn’t change quarter to quarter, probably, unless something dramatic has changed in your business or the market. Assuming that nothing dramatic like that has changed, have a regular cadence, like any sort of governance. Check in quarter to quarter and validate that it still holds up. It may be that situations change, and rather than throwing the whole thing out, adapt it. Take that story along a different path or maybe new personas that you’re talking to. But it’s a strategic planning tool just like anything else.” – Carmen Hill

“Your personas are something that you don’t just do once and then never do them again; you revisit them on a regular basis depending on how fast things are changing or whether you have new products or services or use cases. Or maybe you do a big campaign or have some new program that you need to account for. [The same goes for your story maps.]” – Carmen Hill

Q9: What are some tools you can use for story mapping?

Miro can be helpful for mind mapping and story map development.

“I love Miro for mind mapping because it allows you to think about all those different story angles and map it out. And you don’t have to be able to draw. It does a lot of auto magic stuff — like if you are mapping something out, it has AI built-in so it may suggest aspects of a particular topic you hadn’t even thought of. And for sharing that information with others, you may have all kinds of ideas all over your board, but you can also just create a snapshot of one piece of it and export that.” – Carmen Hill

“I do like that you can share things, either in a way that people can comment or people can edit or just let them view. I like having that level of control, because that way you can easily allow collaboration if you are truly looking to do brainstorming ideation and you can let everyone in.” – Erika Heald

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