Feels before facts: time for B2B marketers to shift focus

Dan Young says B2B marketers must shift from fact-based comms to audience-led comms. Here’s why.

It’s time to stop talking about B2B marketing and recognise that people, not businesses, make purchasing decisions. B2B isn’t the only misleading acronym thrown around by the marketing industry. But it’s one of the most unhelpful. It implies marketers have two distinct audiences – consumers and businesses.

The problem is a business is not really an audience. B2B brands don’t market to businesses. They market to the people within them who have the authority to make or influence purchase decisions on behalf of the organisation. They’re human beings who manage RFPs and shop in department stores too.

This simple insight is often overlooked and can help to reframe the way B2B marketers approach their craft. It shifts the focus from the vendor to the audience, their needs and behaviours, their emotions, as well as the challenges they may face within their own organisation along the buyer decision journey. It’s not B2B but B2P.

Facts only go so far

Traditionally, B2B marketing has relied heavily on fact-based communication that emphasises industry leadership, reach, capability and products or services. It’s a rational and logical approach that reflects the left side of the brain. The B2B content marketing industry follows a similar path: brands that are useful and informative will be favoured by buyers.

These beliefs shape messaging, but also tactics and measurement. We see a heavy focus on activation-style tactics, particularly in digital with direct response media focusing on product and incentives to trial. The B2B marketing industry has traditionally over-emphasised consideration and conversion stages of the funnel, missing the opportunity to influence attitudes and behaviours at the top of the funnel.

Performance is measured on a monthly or quarterly basis, the most important timeline to the vendor rather than the buyer. Campaign timescales are misaligned with sales cycles, which are tending to get longer. The big problem is that this ‘buttoned-up’, corporate style of marketing overlooks the role that emotions play in the way people make decisions.

Brand forms relationships

The majority of B2C decisions are inconsequential. Most consumers are not looking for brand purpose and affinity when they’re shopping for groceries. B2B purchase decision, on the other hand, can be career defining moments that shape relationships with colleagues and personal reputations with a firm.

A study by Google backs this up. Google found that B2B customers are ‘significantly more emotionally connected to their vendors and service providers than consumers’. The search giant claims that 50% of B2B purchasers are more likely to buy a product or service when they see personal value such as pride in their choice. Purchasers are eight times more likely to pay a premium for comparable products and services when personal value is present.

People (yes, including those who work in businesses) are ‘feeling creatures’ too. They have a right side to the brain that also responds to emotions and creativity. Brands that can trigger emotional engagement via system one or system two thinking will be at an advantage.

Brand and the emotion that brand storytelling can evoke is therefore a vital aspect of B2B marketing. First, to trigger emotional involvement that can influence behaviour. Second, as a response to generational change amongst purchase decision makers.

Next-gen buyers

This generational change comes in the shape of Millennials – a demographic with a preference for brands that exhibit and reflect their personal values, brands that stand for something. Thirty-four percent of young Millennials (19-25) and 41% of older millennials (26-35) have decision-making responsibilities, according to LinkedIn. These mobile-first natives bring new expectations. They want information that is personalised to them. They engage in different ways across different channels. Your 40-page technical white paper probably isn’t going to cut it anymore.

From rational to relatable

All of this points to the need for B2B marketers to rethink their approach to brand marketing and activation-focused campaigns.

It means taking a different view and balancing investment across longer-term brand building and more short-term activation style tactics. They need to adopt approaches and ideas that are more creative and more aligned. This transition to audience-led communication and messaging will challenge the vested interests and the accepted ways of doing things. Activation-style tactics can deliver a quick fix. Brand building takes time and requires cross-functional integration within marketing and sales teams. Marketing leaders need to get teams aligned around a central brand narrative that can flex to inform all customer touchpoints, earned and paid media.

Audience first

B2B marketers need to move beyond rational tactics and messages that are informed by what the vendor believes is important and instead invest in brand-led communications based on an understanding of buyers as individuals and real people.

Over the last 12 months, we’ve helped a leading technology company change the way that they share their brand story. Our approach put end users at the heart of the story and positioned the vendor as an enabler that has created personal value at a grassroots level within the customer’s business. By shifting their focus and narrative to marketplace needs and communicating brand values, customer impact and purpose, B2B brands can increase the size of their addressable market and improve the effectiveness of their sales and marketing investments.

Competition is not your barrier to growth, it’s conformity.

Dan Young is digital strategy director at OPR Agency.

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Photo by Joseph Gruenthal on Unsplash.