Customers don't buy the way they used to. According to DemandGen's 2016 Content Preferences Survey Report, "More than half (51%) of B2B buyers rely on content now to research their buying decisions, and they want shorter, interactive content that educates rather than sells."

Further, the report found that:

Essentially, would-be customers want sales people involved later and later in the game (perhaps because, according to data published by Hubspot, just 3% of buyers find them trustworthy), preferring to focus more on sources of educational content.

It's no surprise, then, that a LinkedIn survey found that "B2B buyers are 5X more likely to engage with a sales professional who provides new insights about their business or industry."

How can your sales team become your industry's trusted source of informative, sales-oriented content, boosting both your brand's reputation and your company's bottom line at the same time? The answer comes down to mapping content generated by your marketing team to each stage of your customer's buying journey.

The Awareness Stage

When you have quotas to fill, it can be tempting to throw every resource you have at anyone who looks even remotely qualified. The problem? Only 19% of shoppers want to talk to salespeople during the awareness stage of their purchase journey.

That doesn't mean your team has to sit on its thumbs, waiting for them to move into the evaluation stage. Instead, you can drip out content designed to appeal to their needs as awareness-stage prospects.

Hubspot illustrates some of the different content types that may be appealing to prospects at this stage.

Content pieces like whitepapers, ebooks, tip sheets, checklists and other early-stage formats could be published to your website (gated or ungated) for prospects to consume at their leisure. They could also be built into marketing automation sequences designed to support engaged leads with pitch-free information as they learn more about your brand and solutions.

One simple trick for creating great awareness stage content: collaborate with your marketing team to build it around the questions your customers ask early on. You'll be able to produce content quickly without extra research required, while simultaneously increasing the perceived value of your company as a source of information.

The Evaluation Stage

In the evaluation stage (sometimes called "the consideration stage"), prospects have begun thinking of your company as a possible solution to the problem they're facing. For this reason, the content you use to turn prospects into leads can move beyond simple information into comparisons between your brand and others, use cases and other more sophisticated content formats designed to deepen engagement.

According to the Moz Beginner's Guide to Content Marketing:

"This is the time when you want to supply them with content that helps them evaluate you and your products. At this stage, we're speaking directly to the people we think our business can help and making sure they know how we can help them."

In addition to the webinars, case studies, samples, FAQs, data sheets and demo videos suggested by Hubspot, you might also find the following content pieces useful:

The Decision

The decision stage of the sales funnel is where the rubber hits the road - where the conversions you need to stay alive happen. Content can help you here again, according to Optimist's Tyler Hake, writing for the blog:

"Once someone has decided to buy, they may need final validation or information to make the purchase decision. The content that will work best for this phase of the cycle is content that helps your prospect understand the value of working with you, specifically, and not just the solution that you're offering."

Hake offers an example from the Wealthfront blog, which makes a clear, compelling case for selecting the company's financial offerings over its competitors':

In addition to this kind of persuasive content, keep Hubspot's suggestions in mind. Free trials, live demos, consultations, estimates and coupon codes are all your friends when it comes to using content to drive decisions.

The Advocacy Stage

Finally, remember that, for most companies, customer engagement shouldn't stop with the sale. Since word of mouth is the primary factor behind 20% to 50% of all purchasing decisions, according to McKinsey, every customer your sales team can turn into a source of referrals positively impacts your sales performance.

Again, content can make it happen. The Ironpaper blog shares that:

"Even after the buyer reaches a purchasing decision, the marketer's journey continues.

You must create content that nurtures brand loyalty and encourages customers to remain with the brand."

Sales can capitalize on this by requesting that marketing create special content for insiders, including customer support documentation, special offers and invitations to share user-generated content. When deployed consistently, these types of content can create committed customers, who buy regularly and/or send new sales your way.

Adding Content in Your Sales Process

If all of the above sounds complex, don't panic. You don't need to roll out a fully-realized content program right away, nor do you need to have content pieces in place for every possible scenario from the start.

Instead, identify 2-3 opportunities to leverage the power of content in your sales process and start there. Monitor how they perform for you and iterate (or add more) as necessary from there.

If you stay motivated and committed over time, you'll build a content empire that improves your company's brand while closing more deals at the same time.

Is your sales team using content when engaging with prospects, leads and customers? If so, share how it's worked for you by leaving me a comment below: