Is B2B marketing boring?

We ask CMOs and marketing leaders in the B2B space whether social media, digital and technology innovation are helping them to achieve the same 'wow factor' as consumer brands

Consumer brands have traditionally been the custodians of customer experience and marketing innovation, but does it always have to be that way?

In the age of ubiquitous social media and digital access, rich media and real-time communication, can B2B brands be as edgy, sexy and compelling as their consumer counterparts, even if they’re selling enterprise security solutions, or industrial safety equipment? Or are they doomed to be boring forever?

In a recent blog post, Xchanging director of marketing, Gareth Case, suggested marketing is only as boring as the team executing it. As an example of just how far a B2B brand can go, he highlighted his company’s successful guerrilla marketing tactics in the streets of London to raise awareness of its Xuber insurance software products, ranging from free coffee tasting and branded buses to singing mobs.

Following Case’s lead, we asked the CMOs and marketing chiefs of several B2B brands to share their views on B2B’s sex appeal,and how they’re endeavouring to inject both insight and innovation into marketing even the most serious of products and services.

Compelling through knowledge

CMO of security software vendor Sophos, Matt Fairbanks, agreed far too much B2B marketing activity is boring, but that it doesn’t need to be.

“There are so many lessons B2B marketers could learn from effective B2C marketing,” he said. “I’m not sure if ‘sexy’ is the right word, but it [B2B marketing] can be every bit as effective, compelling and sticky as consumer marketing. It’s all about understanding your audience and giving them enough respect to educate them clearly and efficiently.”

As an example of how Sophos is endeavouring to liven up its focus, Fairbanks pointed to its newly launched website, which includes more video and multimedia content to quickly communicate what the company does and how it does it to a time-poor audience. Examples include its short videos featuring animations and personalities on unified threat management devices and mobile control.

“Even B2B buyers and our partners who sell our solutions have a lot on their plates every day,” Fairbanks pointed out. “They don’t think as much about our products as we to. We need to be quick and efficient [and ideally, sticky] with how we communicate with them. We’ve received some positive feedback for some of the videos we’ve done in this vein.”

Senior vice-president of strategy and marketing at SaaS collaboration provider PGi, Melissa Wong, is passionate about B2B and claimed marketers in the business technology sector particularly are at the forefront of driving innovation across their clients’ organisations.

“As marketers, that is what we do – we work in cooperation with other areas of our own businesses to influence our customers’ buying behaviour and drive their retention, advocacy and revenue,” she said. “That makes a powerful story and for me that’s sexy.

“We also get to talk to such a variety of customers… increasingly it’s not just IT buying technology, but also lines of business. It’s about being smart in your approach to that complexity of buyer behaviour, understanding what makes them tick, and how you are going to help that business.”

The other core differentiator in B2B marketing is that it’s a “whole brain activity”, Wong claimed, where customers can be logical, analytical, visionary, strategic or emotional. An emphasis also needs to be placed on product design and the user interface, which PGi works hard on to ensure products are easy to use, she said.

Fairbanks claimed excellent marketing is the ultimate magnifier but agreed there is an expectation today that products and services are of a high-quality standard. “If the product or service isn’t superior or even competitive, then the marketing ‘magnification’ may not have the desired effect; this may not have always been the case,” he said.

“Today though, with immediate access to unprecedented amounts of information, real-time community feedback, and the always connected state of B2B buyers, it’s fruitless to attempt to mislead buyers. So yes, great marketing requires a great product set that can stand up to the scrutiny.”

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Having some fun

Neil Jorgensen is the marketing manager of Australian packaging, cleaning and safety supplies firm, Signet, and sits on the ADMA B2B Expert Group. He admitted consumer brands have traditionally had the upper hand because they’ve been able to interact with consumers on an emotional level.

“B2B buyers are driven more by their heads – they’re making decisions that will impact lots of other people and the company’s bottom line, and that are often worth a lot more than the average consumer purchase,” he said.

Signet nevertheless endeavours to inject a level of fun in all communications, whether it’s coloured packaging around its posted printed catalogue or big ticket, third-party product giveaways. The company also sponsors football clubs and events to drive awareness and community.

“Our product set is necessary, but extremely boring and includes things like toilet paper, packaging tape and safety goggles. People buying these products find them boring too,” Jorgensen said. “So we aim to surprise and delight people doing their jobs where they are surrounded by boring things.”

B2B brands must also ensure every interaction and reordering experience is highly relevant and tailored to the needs of the customer’s business. At Signet, this has manifested through welcome packs for new customers, value-added services, and utilising data sets to present the right information and products.

“The conversation is changing, and the business decision maker is as expert as anyone in your organisation about what they want to purchase because they have the tools to investigate these, and with one click they could purchase your competitor’s offerings,” Jorgensen added. “You have to base your sales and marketing strategy on this point.”

The broader toolkit

IBM vice-president of marketing and communications, Glen Thomas, saw the B2B versus B2C debate as one of those questions the industry loves to debate and “may never resolve to everyone’s satisfaction”.

What he did claim, however, was that B2B marketers have more in their toolkit today than ever before. “We have the ability to know our customers as individuals, understand their preferences, the ecosystem that surrounds them and influences their decision making, and the predictive capability to anticipate their behaviour,” he said. “There is no good excuse why B2B marketing should be seen as boring.”

For Thomas, the importance of delivering innovative, new content that is relevant to the local market can’t be underestimated. As an example of how IBM is taking this approach, he pointed to the technology vendor’s Smarter Planet initiative and recent thought leadership research from the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research on Reinventing Australian enterprises for the digital economy.

The research, released in August, looked at what this digital transformation means across seven key Australian enterprise sectors: Financial services, retail, telecommunications, mining, public administration, health and higher education.

“We have received extremely positive feedback on the relevance and timeliness of the report from our clients, analysts and industry influencers,” Thomas said. “We have seen excellent debate on the topic reported in the media and outstanding digital results including the number of downloads of the report and website engagement.

“We also extended the reach of the era of ‘smart' message through consolidated advertising, media partnerships and internal employee and seller enablement activities.”

CMO of revenue management platform vendor Marin Software, Matt Ackley, is also is excited by data and technology platforms improvements. “On the ad and targeting front, you have dedicated B2B networks and data providers like Bizo in the US that are solving the problem similar to how the problem was solved on the consumer side and gaining traction,” he claimed.

“Additionally, these targeting technologies are combined with tools such as Salesforce and Marketo to create funnel management solutions that deliver targeted and differentiated messages to the buyer based on the purchase cycle stage the buyer is in.

“This is important given the typically longer sales cycles found in B2B.”

Marin, like many other companies, is also increasingly using analytics to create complex scoring algorithms that identify prospects and their lifecycle stage. One initiative Ackley is working on is applying the same algorithmic techniques to his latest B2B efforts as he did when he ran eBay’s consumer-focused business.

The availability of the right data, along with the will and expertise to invest in experimenting and optimising, have already been recognised in the consumer space, but are also the two ingredients needed to lift the B2B marketer’s game, Ackley continued.

“The opportunity B2B CMOs and marketers have today is huge; it lies in being able to market to customers as individuals, creating systems of engagement to maximise value at every touch and to intersect the brand and culture of an organisation as one,” IBM’s Thomas added.

According to IBM’s recent CMO research , many plan to increase technology use across areas that can help develop closer connections to customers such as customer analytics (81 per cent), CRM systems (81 per cent), social media (82 per cent) and mobile applications (80 per cent).

“But it’s not just about having that access to customer information. It’s taking a holistic approach to B2B marketing that encompasses business vision, insights [analysing data from a range of sources] and having the right tools for engagement,” Thomas said.

Content marketing: Help or hindrance?

Content marketing is the cornerstone of a B2B brand strategy today. But given the exponential rise in information hitting both consumer and business buyers today, B2B marketers must also be careful that they keep innovating and injecting new life into their content offerings.

Fairbanks said solid content is a given today, and highlighted design, creativity and other non-content elements as increasingly important factors for B2B marketers.

“Often B2B products and services are not as immediately understandable as items in the consumer realm, and often require a higher degree of explanation and education. The magic happens when content, design, and creativity can all work together,” he claimed.

Ackley saw content as the “product" at the early stages of the sales cycle. “Therefore, it plays an important role [for marketers],” he said.

Thomas pointed B2B brands rarely, if ever, attempt to motivate customers to make impulse purchases. “They build a case based on insightful research, engaging case studies, clear value propositions and access to expertise,” he said.

“At IBM, we believe in the value of argumentation. We believe people have the capacity and desire to engage with insightful content delivered by those they consider to be subject matter experts. The challenge is to make it consumable and compelling. B2B companies are seen as boring when they fail to achieve this. Consistently creating content that engages audiences is deceptively difficult.”

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