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B2B marketers: we’re all behavioural scientists now

The Marketing Practice


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December 1, 2020 | 7 min read

Behavioural science has been a growing interest area for B2B marketers – and indeed B2C marketers – for some time

I wanted to get more of an understanding of how it’s being used in practice, so I caught up with TMP’s Head of Effectiveness and behavioural science geek, Alastair Hussain, to get his take.

How long have B2B marketers been taking behavioural science seriously?

Alastair Hussain (AH): B2B marketers and salespeople have been using behavioural science since long before it gained that label. Wearing a suit to a meeting? Sending an expensive piece of direct mail? Shooting a Hollywood-production-level video? That’s ‘costly signalling’. Case studies? They’re a vehicle of ‘social proof’. Three-tiered pricing? ‘Choice architecture’ (and ‘extremeness aversion’). The list goes on. As an agency, I’d say we’ve been exploring it more methodically for the last three or four years. I say ‘exploring’ because behavioural science doesn’t give you rules to follow. It gives you hypotheses to test and patterns to match.

In practice, we’ve found that you need a tight feedback loop, to help you see how your comms and your hypotheses are working out – not just in terms of quantitative measurement, but also in qualitative conversations with your audience. If you can integrate research, strategy, creative, digital, data, inside sales, and clients’ sales teams so they’re all talking to each other and sharing information, you can set up well-integrated feedback loops.

Where have you seen it being used successfully?

AH: Pretty much every B2B campaign involves social proof in one form or another. Where large, complex deals are in play, very few decision-making units would be willing to try something that’s entirely unproven.

Our approach to demand generation benefits from our understanding of choice architecture, too. For example, when you’d like to arrange a meeting with someone, should you:

a) offer them a single timeslot;

b) offer them a choice of two or more times;

c) not offer them a choice at all?

The answer to this might surprise you.

Framing is a significant factor when clients are looking to change their perception in the market. For example, working with a client who was a famous hardware manufacturer but has recently developed an outstanding software and consultancy capability, we found that the mere mention of our client’s brand name early on in the journey would lead to our team having the wrong conversations with the wrong people. When we shifted the brand name into the second paragraph of our emails and later in our phone conversations, we saw a substantial improvement in results. In other words, we needed our message to frame the brand, rather than using the brand to frame the message.

Loss aversion (combined with status quo bias) is another important consideration – especially for firms who are selling technology platforms. As much as people complain about legacy systems, people still fear the pain of losing them. That’s exacerbated by the ‘fear of blame’ that Rory Sutherland talked about in The Objectivity Trap: ‘You were the guy who screwed up the £500m systems overhaul.’ That’s why, if you’re selling substantial platforms, a ‘land and expand’ approach is often easier to sell – and easier to buy.

How should behavioural science be built into marketing activities?

AH: A lot of people think the most interesting part of ‘behavioural science’ is the ‘behavioural’ bit. I disagree. I think it’s the ‘science’ bit. Testing and learning. That’s much more widely applicable. Our clients aren’t asking us to become the world’s foremost experts in behaviour. They come to us because we’re a great B2B marketing agency and we’re constantly trying to improve in everything we do. There’s a big overlap between marketing and behavioural science, but they aren’t identical. Creating and running successful campaigns takes more than a nudge here and a bias there.

What kind of practical techniques can be used for discovering behaviours in B2B?

AH: One of the discipline’s current flaws is the proliferation of biases. There’s a diagram online that tries to list all the currently ‘known’ biases, and there are hundreds. That’s not particularly useful unless you have a couple of decades to create a campaign, because there’s no way to prioritise those, or decide which are relevant to a given situation. So, at TMP we created the CHANGE model. It shows the behavioural levers that we’ve found to be most relevant to B2B campaigns, grouped into six categories: Crowd, Habit, Association, Noteworthiness, Gain, and Empathy. The more we use this model, the more we’re beginning to understand which levers are most appropriate in a given situation.

Do you have any examples that show how behaviour can be changed for good?

AH: Over the past couple of years, we’ve been working with Microsoft to help their partners change the way they sell what Microsoft can offer. This has involved a substantial training programme with several elements drawn from Behavioural Economics. For example, we’ve gamified the programme, and we’ve designed the choice architecture and incentives to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to help Partners complete the training. So far, it’s been a huge success and many more Partners are sticking with it than ever before.

What new client needs that came out of the recent crises can Behavioural Science help with?

AH: Accelerating their pipeline. When spending gets squeezed, deals get stalled. Behavioural Science can help find a way to nudge conversations forward, potentially by reframing them – especially when used alongside better targeting.

One other trend we’ve noticed is that costly signalling is playing a slightly different role now. Marketers still want to create video content, but as well as the current technical challenges of creating videos, there has been a perception shift – costly signalling feels different against a background of budget cuts and furloughs, when even the UK prime minister has used selfies and video calls to make national announcements.

For example, we worked on a series of videos for the education sector. Rather than anything too flashy, we asked teachers to film their own video diaries, chronicling the challenges they were facing each day, trying to teach remotely. This solved the issue of trying to film safely, and it was also part of this shift from visibly costly content towards something more stripped back.

What’s your recommendation to B2B marketers who are interested in Behavioural Science to get started?

AH: It’s a nascent field, so don’t be scared. Jump in. Keep your critical faculties intact. Ask lots of ‘stupid’ questions, because some of them probably haven’t been answered yet. Read as much as you can. Two recent books that would be good to start with are The Choice Factory by Richard Shotton – it’s a brilliant, digestible, practical intro to the field – and Alchemy by Rory Sutherland – if you haven’t read it already, you can thank me later. There are also some fantastic blogs to continually prod your thinking – Koen Smets is one of the most insightful writers on the topic. The LinkedIn B2B Institute produces some very credible content on B2B marketing.

Also, don’t limit yourself to things that are obviously ‘Behavioural Science’. Instead, look at the other fields that feed into it. For example, I’d recommend looking into the area of embodied cognition, with books like How Emotions Are Made (Lisa Feldman Barrett), or The Biological Mind (Alan Jasanoff). It reminds you how important context is in every decision, every action.

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