There is a theme that keeps coming up in my interviews. A theme that relates closely to our services as an agency and that’s repeatedly entered my thoughts during long walks, showers and coffee breaks (the three sources of all my ideas – good and bad).
That theme is “Making B2B more human”.
Almost without exception, every brand disrupting a stagnant B2B or professional service market is doing so by applying traditional consumer principles to audiences that have long been treated as perfectly rational and void of emotion. The thinking goes – if you want to sell something to a business, drown them in features, benefits and technical detail and eventually they’ll have no choice but to accept your proposition.
It’s nonsense. As the great Dave Dye stated in our interview last year, “[In B2B, you’re still] talking to human beings. They’re a bundle of emotions held together by cello-tape and string. They’re driven by all the same underlying insecurities, pressures and dreams as any consumer audience.”
It’s a subject I wrote about several months ago in which I suggested the solution began with copy writing (as it does with most challenges in marketing). The subject goes a lot further than that, however, so many walks, showers and coffee breaks later, here are seven ways we can go beyond the features and make B2B more human.
1. We need to understand how the product/service really impacts the end user
For example, if the product is an expensive piece of cyber security software, the person isn’t buying cyber security software. They are buying:
- Satisfaction that one of their big jobs for the quarter is signed off
- Peace of mind that if something goes wrong that they will be able to show the board that they did all their due diligence in the purchasing process
- A better night’s sleep
And if the product is small business accountancy software, the person isn’t buying accountancy software. They are buying:
- The ability to pay their mortgage
- Control over their employees’ wages
- Ongoing funding of their Pokémon Go addiction
Whatever the product is, our goal as marketers is to tell the stories of the real people behind the purchase, and to write sales copy that resonates with these underlying drivers.
This is becoming particularly important within a lot of B2B technology sales where the target is no longer a senior exec with a $5m budget, but a mid level manager or specialist looking to purchase a flexible, low cost and subscription based solution. In other words, the people who will actually be using the product. If you don’t know why these end users are making the purchase, your marketing has failed before it’s begun.
2. We need to involve real people in our content strategies
In marketing speak, we call these people “influencers”. It’s a strategy used to exhaustion in consumer marketing, and not without good reason.
Influencers exist in every market, including B2B. Maybe not on instagram and Snapchat, but in industry magazines, on panel debates and headlining exhibitions.
By engaging these people you instantly add a human dimension to the stories you’re telling, whilst also benefiting from their credibility and reach. They can bring products to life in a way that conventional case studies can’t, and engage with the audience, be it online or offline, in a visceral way that directly drives behaviour.
3. We need to bring these people together
Having run a digital agency for a decade, naturally my first instinct is always to find the virtual solution. But having (entirely by accident) become involved in a variety of events, interviews and other traditional initiatives over the last few years, I’ve come to the acceptance that people will always connect best in person.
I know this isn’t a popular view during Covid-19 and I think the Zoom revolution is going to have a permanent and positive impact on the way that we work, but the bottom line is that marketing at its most human involves getting those humans together, pressing the flesh (footshakes will also suffice) and in all likelihood, sharing a gin and tonic.
Small, intimate events work best. Ideally it should repeat multiple times a year (from experience it’s the third encounter in which guards drop completely) and the attendees must share common challenges and opportunities. Every effort should be made to reduce formality.
The extent to which people are willing to share and help one another in this environment can be extraordinary, even direct competitors.
4. We need to create content strategies that can impact the brand’s vision
Most brands now understand the importance of having a lofty and inspiring vision, both to engage customers and attract the best people. However, all too often these are just words on a page. There is little substance.
One way to ensure the vision counts for something is to create a supporting content strategy that propels it forwards. For example, if you say your vision is about using technology to transform a particular sector for the benefit of all within it, your content strategy should be aimed at doing just that. So perhaps you could bring together people from that community and act as a facilitator as they exchange insight and experiences, then share those stories via blogs, email and social media to drive action across the broader market.
5. Consider how such a strategy could benefit a non-profit cause
This is not about conducting some half-hearted charitable work or boosting your CSR credentials. It’s about taking the vision for your content and the brand and asking “Is there a non-profit initiative that shares these aspirations?” If so, why not collaborate? You’re investing the time and resources anyway, so why not allow a good cause to benefit?
Introducing this philanthropic dimension will bring further momentum to your work, and reassure all involved that this is more than a fancy marketing strategy. This is about really making an impact.
6. Communicate in an authentic tone of voice
This point was covered in the previous article but it’s too important to skip over entirely.
This is not about being humorous for the sake of being humorous or inspirational for the sake of being inspirational. This is about being true to the people behind the brand. And if those people are super straight-laced, professional and a bit dull, then that’s okay.
The thing is, in my experience, successful business people are rarely like that. Whether it’s the CEO of a multinational or founder of a start-up, these people tend to be brimming with passion, energy and opinion. They are occasionally assholes, but almost never boring. After all, these leaders have successfully sold their vision to their employees and investors. All we’re trying to do is communicate that personality and passion more widely so it can be experienced by all who come into contact with the brand.
7. Tell the stories of the people behind the brand
It’s one thing to ensure a brand’s communications reflect the people behind it, but it’s quite another to thrust those people into the spotlight.
So often senior leadership try to hide themselves from public attention. Sometimes because they worry it may inhibit the scalability of the brand, sometimes because they think they have more important things to be doing and sometimes because they’re a small business and believe that appearing like a large faceless corporation will give them greater credibility.
Brands are stronger when they are personified by real people. Once you bought into Steve Jobs, you bought into Apple. Once you bought into Richard Branson, you bought into Virgin. And once you bought into Elon Musk, you bought into Tesla.
In fact, even if you don’t like these people as people – and let’s be honest, at least 2 out the 3 are/were appalling narcissists – you can’t help but be captivated and compelled by their energy for what they do.
Of course there are exceptions but 9 times out of 10 companies would benefit from making their leaders not only more visible, but also more real.
The biggest challenge of all for B2B marketers
There is one particular issue that I think warrants special mention. And that’s long form content: lengthy articles, detailed videos, extensive white papers and other heavy content assets that demand significant time from our audience.
The trouble is this – within the B2B world, there is a tendency to view short form and long form content as adhering to two very different sets of principles. We create lots of emotive content for our audience on social media because that’s just what you do, but then when we ask the same people to download a whitepaper, it’s as if we’re representing a different brand. Just pages and pages of words that are all perfectly accurate and professional but make absolutely zero effort to convey even a suggestion of personality.
Long form content is the backbone of most B2B marketing collateral and yet 9/10 such assets are entirely stripped of emotion. It’s nonsense. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about B2B or B2C markets, long form content needs personality. Arguably even more than short form content, as we’re trying to keep the user engaged for a much greater period of time.
I think the simple reason for this problem is that creating boring content is a lot faster than creating good content, and as we tend to create such vast quantities of information in B2B (often with limited budgets), we have little choice but to dumb down the creative process. Then we rationalise it by saying “Well, it’s only for technical people anyway. They love all this detail.”
They almost certainly don’t. And they’d definitely rather it was engaging.
So what’s the answer? Often the media costs involved in B2B are far lower than consumer markets, so ideally we would shift some of that budget over to content production. But if that’s not an option, then we should just create less stuff. Either way, we need to do it properly.
As an aside, if you want to learn how to create long form content in a way that really speaks to the human on the receiving end of it, read the script of a TV infomercial for a domestic cleaning product. You’ll quickly realise there is no such thing as a boring product – only boring marketers.