Business-to-business (B2B) marketing is a passion to those of us who’ve devoted our lives and careers to it. But it’s also widely misunderstood. Common myths and misunderstandings can leave you standing alone in the corner at parties when you try to describe what you do.
Here’s how to combat those myths and explain B2B marketing in a way that’s actually interesting to those outside the profession, and get the respect you deserve across the business.
In addition, below are six ways B2B and B2C marketing are different (and note it’s not that “B2B marketers sell to businesses, B2C marketers sell to people”), plus one very important way they are alike
Four Common Myths
So, you do advertising, right?
The vast majority of humanity (that is, people who do anything for a living other than marketing) experiences marketing through what’s aimed at them: primarily ads on TV, radio, and online.
The truth is that advertising is a classic “tip of the iceberg” in marketing. It’s highly visible, but the majority of the work marketers do lies beneath that surface.
B2B marketers typically devote anywhere from a quarter to half of their total budget on live events, which are often their single biggest line item. The next largest expense is usually content production: website copy, blog posts, marketing collateral, white papers, ebooks, video, infographics, social media posts, etc..
They do email marketing, organic social media marketing, influencer marketing, and public relations (PR). Oh, and yes, some advertising, too.
You don’t do any real work.
As noted in Forbes, “Long ago Peter Drucker, the father of business consulting, made a very profound observation that has been lost in the sands of time: ‘Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two–and only two–basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs.'”
This isn’t to disparage any other business function. Companies could not operate without accounting, human resources (HR), and supply chain management teams, for instance. But nobody buys an iPhone or iPad because Apple’s accountants are so skilled. They buy because of the company’s innovation and, yes, marketing.
Okay, but consumer marketing is a lot bigger.
It’s often (wrongly) assumed that B2C marketing is much bigger than B2B because 1) it’s much more visible to most people, and 2) there are a lot more consumers than businesses in the market buying stuff.
Actually, the B2B market is about twice as large, according to Forrester. This makes sense when you consider the number of layers in the production-to-purchase process. B2C marketing most typically has only one layer: the consumer buys from a retailer (or in a much smaller number of cases, directly from a producer).
But in B2B marketing there are transactions at multiple levels: raw materials (e.g., iron ore) to refined materials (steel) to parts (gears) to sub-assemblies (automotive transmissions) to final assemblies (cars and trucks) to (in some cases, wholesalers), to retailers (car dealerships), before reaching the consumer.
B2B marketers work at all these levels. Oh, and the purchases tend to be a lot larger.
Any product can be considered “boring” if looked at in isolation. An iPhone is just a plastic case with some electronic components inside. What’s exciting about that? Nothing. It’s what you can do with the product that is exciting.
Actually, in the B2B world, as explained in Geoffrey Moore’s classic book Crossing the Chasm, a small segment of the market is made up of technologists—people on the leading edge of new technology adoption who really are interested in the product itself, the application code or the electronic components. B2B marketers need to be prepared to address the information needs of these buyers.
But most business decision makers are interested in solving a problem. The underlying code of an IT help desk software application isn’t interesting—but keeping their business technology-using employees happy and productive definitely is. B2B marketers need the ability to understand these problems and articulate solutions.
It’s true that forcing a prospect to sit through an exhaustive verbal dump of every feature and function of your product is boring. But a conversation about how your offering can solve a buyer’s issues and make their lives better is anything but dull.
Six Key Differences
While there are certainly complex consumer purchases (houses, cars) and simple B2B purchases (a new stapler, some whiteboard markers), in general business products and services have a greater degree of complexity.
When purchasing new software or production machinery, for example, purchases will have extensive and detailed information needs: how (exactly) will this improve our operations? How will it integrate with the systems we currently have in place? How long will it take, and what internal and external resources will be required, to implement it?
B2B marketers must be able to anticipate and answer these questions in the simplest and most compelling manner possible.
Most consumers will never make a $1 million+ purchase, or buy anything other than their home which costs more than $100,000.
But in the B2B world, purchases in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars are not uncommon, and complex systems at the enterprise level can easily run into the millions, especially for contracts involving multiple product and service vendors working in tandem.
Multiple Users / Stakeholders
In our consumer lives, most of our purchases are for our own personal, individual use: our phones, shoes, shampoo, and myriad other items are things we buy for ourselves.
But in the business world, products and services often impact multiple users across different functions. Your IT management software is managed by your technology team but used across the organization whenever an individual has a question or runs into a technology issue. Your travel management application is used by people in multiple departments.
Software systems impact even employees who don’t use them directly. Your VP of manufacturing may not use your supply chain management software directly but certainly cares about having parts when needed. Your CEO may not use most of the functionality in your ERP system but certainly cares about keeping operations on track.
OPM (Other People’s Money)
Most consumer purchases involve you spending your own money. Can you afford that? Which brand offers the best value? Do you like the green or the blue better? It’s your money, so these are your decisions to make.
In B2B purchases, you are spending the owner’s or shareholders’ money. That means the business buyer needs to justify the need (why is this better than the way we do things now?) as well as why the vendor chosen offers the best solution. B2B marketers need to produce content to help the buyer answer questions and obtain approval.
Because of the factors above (cost, complexity, OPM, impact on others), all but the simplest, most inexpensive B2B purchase decisions are made by groups. The more people and departments that will be impacted, the larger the buying team. Even for department-specific software applications, finance and IT will likely be involved.
B2B marketers need to be prepared to address not only functional requirements but also financial impacts, technological concerns, and other issues and questions that may arise. This makes their messaging more complex and challenging than for B2C marketers.
Long Decision Cycles
Product complexity and group dynamics mean longer buying timeframes. Consumers rarely spend more than a couple of months considering even their largest purchases. But in B2B marketing, decision cycles of six months or longer are not uncommon.
B2B marketers therefore need to create content for multiple stakeholders at every stage of the buying process: turning contacts into leads, leads into sales prospects, prospects into customers, and—ultimately—customers into brand advocates.
One Key Similarity
Regardless of whether one is marketing toothpaste or enterprise software, all marketing is ultimately P2P (person to person). It’s why concepts like authenticity, collaborative storytelling, and brand purpose have such currency in B2B marketing; B2B buyers (like consumers) are looking for a compelling WIIFM (what’s in it for me) reason to buy.
This goes beyond features, functions, and price. Pretty much every business software application “streamlines operations” and “increases efficiency” in some shape or form; those aren’t differentiators, they are a basic requirement for market consideration.
In most cases, implementing a new business solution requires change on the part on the part of employees, and unless the current pain is very great, people generally resist change (consider the reaction of users to the #NewTwitter interface, for example). Successful B2B marketing is about explaining how the new solution will make life better, not only for the product champion, but all the other users and stakeholders as well.
So, back to how to avoid standing alone in the corner at parties: skip the explanations of marketing automation processes, the intricacies of content marketing strategy and craft, and data-driven marketing. Instead, tell a good story.