While B2C and B2B marketing practices are distinct in many ways, they both ultimately involve making your message resonate with people—meaning emotions a significant role. The notion that business buyers are dispassionate and coldly rational is overstated.
Certainly, practicality plays a large role in B2B procurement. Attributes like product functionality, ROI, total cost of ownership (TCO), fitness for purpose, and integration capabilities are undeniably important.
But more personal, individual benefits also matter to business buyers, particularly as more consumer and consumer-like technologies make their way into the workplace. It’s nice that a piece of software “streamlines processes,” but 1) everyone says that (an exact phrase search on Google for that brings up more than 40,000 results); 2) no one would buy something that complicates processes(!); and 3) how exactly does that help the individual business buyer in his or her job?
Thing is, the core message of most B2B products and services revolves around how a vendor’s offering helps its customers (companies and government agencies) do things better-faster-cheaper. Those are vital benefits to be sure. They need to be part of the marketing message and backed up by case studies and other proof (not just claims).
The problem is those messages themselves often aren’t differentiating, and even when they do, product and service features are generally easy for competitors to copy. And, again, those messages are about organizational benefit (rationally appealing), but don’t address the personal, individual needs and wants of business buyers (emotionally appealing).
So how can a B2B vendor stand out, and potentially create more sustainable competitive advantage? Here are seven ideas.
Talk about personal benefits.
Go beyond better-faster-cheaper to address the personal needs of those on the buying team. What do they value? Getting home earlier in the evening? Increased status at work–maybe a raise or promotion? Reduced frustration?
The importance of emphasizing personal benefits in B2B marketing was noted in recent research from CEB, which found that when vendor messages are focused only on business benefits, “86% of B2B customers do not see enough difference between suppliers to pay more for it. However, our research also shows that ‘personal value’ is twice as powerful as business value in achieving a broad range of commercial objectives (including awareness, consideration, purchase intent, willingness to pay a premium, loyalty, willingness to recommend).”
This is because ‘B2B buyers must see sufficient personal value to overcome the risks they take on when advocating for a particular supplier’s solution.”
Rental car companies and airlines do an excellent job with this, promoting cost-saving travel program messages at the business level while also promoting their simplicity and convenience to business travelers. One enterprise software vendor talks about making its IT customers into business heroes. Payroll and HR outsourcers emphasize how they take mundane, tedious tasks (like regulatory compliance) off the plates of small business owners and corporate HR staff alike.
Though it’s vital to communicate product features and benefits (on both a business level and, as noted above, a personal level), stories are also very powerful. Stories help connect emotionally with buyers, and are also more memorable: research has found that after a presentation, 63% of attendees remember stories, while just 5% remember statistics.
Stories are used commonly in consumer marketing, but are also increasingly part of B2B marketing campaigns as well, with notable examples including GE, HubSpot, and Intel.
Use data to personalize messages intelligently.
Use whatever information you have at your disposal to make your emails and other communications as individualized as possible.
In a small company with a limited product line and contact database (as well as, generally, limited resources) this may be as simple as segmenting your list based on common characteristics like title and company size.
Marketers in mid-sized companies usually have marketing automation software installed (e.g., HubSpot, Marketo, Eloqua, Pardot, Genoo, etc.). All of these are helpful in customizing messages for different market segments, if not quite down to the individual level.
Large enterprises can utilize sophisticated data mining to target messages to customers. However, the human element remains vital, to avoid over-reliance on data mining that can backfire and damage the brand’s image.
Optimize the customer experience.
The single most powerful and cost-effective form of marketing in existence is customer word-of-mouth (or word of mouse) advocacy.
Turning customers into stark, raving fans of your brand or product is something that can’t be purchased. It has to be earned. But it can be, by focusing not just marketing but company-wide efforts on creating a great customer experience, from the initial communications prospects receive through the buying process to ongoing customer service.
This is much more than a marketing campaign—it goes to the heart of the business and internal culture. A remarkable customer experience starts with creating an great employee experience.
Be a great place to work.
Employees are natural advocates for the business, and can be very influential. But their hearts will really only be in advocacy if you provide a great work environment.
Research has shown that happy employees make for happy customers—and both combined make for higher profitability.
Like happy customers, happy employees can’t be bought (at least not entirely). Compensation plays a role to be sure, but having managers who inspire and collaborate (rather than dictate and micromanage) is among the most important considerations, along with work environment and scheduling flexibility.
Trust goes a long way toward removing friction in marketing and sales. Like customer loyalty, it can’t be bought—it has to be earned. And it has to be consistent. Trust is challenging (but worthwhile) to earn, easy to lose, and almost impossible to regain once lost.
Which means integrity in all customer interactions, up and down the organization, has to be built into the culture. This may sound basic, even simplistic, but it’s more difficult than one may think. It’s easy to cut corners “just this once,” or tell prospective buyers “little white lies,” in order to make the quarterly numbers.
But short-term thinking can lead to long-term loss of respect—internally and externally. Integrity must be consistent to have value in humanizing a brand.
Be involved in the community.
Employees and customers alike want to work with organizations that act as part of a larger purpose. “Community” in this case can mean not just the local community, but also the industry community or even global “community.”
In the B2C world, Target’s corporate giving and TOMS Shoes One for One program are well known examples of community involvement. But community involvement can take many different forms, from a credit card company creating a forum to help small businesses to providing a platform for community-based technology organizations to companies that encourage employees to volunteer their time to worthy causes.
Sometimes (rarely) B2B marketing is simple: it’s about having the clearly best product, lowest price, or widest distribution network. Most often though, it’s not. It’s about differentiating your product or service in a crowded, competitive market. That’s when humanizing your marketing—and entire approach to doing business—can make all the difference.