The new B2C vs B2B Cold War in marketing

The Promotion Fix is a​n ​exclusive biweekly column for The Drum from Samuel Scott, a global keynote marketing speaker who is a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications in the high-tech industry. Follow him @samueljscott.

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

The factions do not yet need to pick a red or white rose, but the marketing industry has broken down into two completely separate groups of people who have adopted and now evangelise two very different ideologies.

Online B2B marketers want to gain and convert website traffic into leads. Offline B2C marketers want to build brands among mass audiences. The result is a new Cold War in which the two sides have different practices, read different publications, attend different conferences, follow different thought leaders and view the other as outdated or uneducated.

For this column, I am purposely painting with very broad brush. Yes, there are individual examples that contradict my general statements. But I am addressing overall trends – and the exceptions prove the marketing rules. (A further note: when I list people, companies or publications below, I present them in alphabetical order to remain neutral.

We have different news sources

Yes, there are trade publications that – to varying degrees – cover all aspects of marketing. We have AdAge, Adweek, Campaign, Marketing Week and The Drum as well as one of the newer kids on the marketing block, the Wall Street Journal’s CMO Today run by the always-quippy Lara O'Reilly.

In an ideal world, both B2C and B2B marketers would read about the best uses of online and offline channels and then use them based on what their overall strategies dictate. B2B, B2C, online and offline would be represented by this simplistic graphic of integrated marcom:

But look at the B2B and online marketing worlds today. What are some of the biggest publications? The blogs of MarketingProfs, Marketo, HubSpot, Moz, Salesforce, and SEMrush. These companies have built themselves, in part, by being perceived – rightly or not – as authoritative resources for B2B and online marketers. (Of course, the material is produced by B2B online marketers who are selling something to other B2B online marketers.)

The problem is that when B2B marketers read only about online channels in these blogs, they eventually forget that offline channels even exist. (Just try to convince the average digital marketer that television is not dead.) Every marcom activity, they think, must use email, a website, an online ad platform, or a social media network.

“The best publications for marketing tend not to be ‘marketing’ publications, who all seem to be caught up in their own echo chambers,” Jason Ball, managing director of the British B2B marketing agency Considered Content, said in this LinkedIn thread where I queried people for comments on marketing media.

B2B marketers focus primarily on online channels while B2C marketers are increasingly disenchanted with them and returning to traditional ones. (Just try to convince veteran brand CMOs that SEO is no longer an underhanded way to manipulate Google search results.)

In 2017, Procter & Gamble’s chief brand officer, Marc Pritchard, criticised the “crap” in online advertising, and his company has been increasing efficiency by trimming internet-based ad spend ever since. This year, Unilever’s marketing chief, Keith Weed, urged digital media to clean up its act, and an Ebiquity study found that brands can increase profits by cutting digital display spends and increasing television and radio budgets.

The online marketing and B2B worlds have become intertwined separately from the offline marketing and B2C worlds. (I admit that I have contributed to this division by arguing that advertising online is useless because those channels cannot build brands.)

As a result, here is where the industry sits today:

You will never read in a digital marketing publication how Frank's RedHot sauce or Mike's Hard Lemonadebuilt and now manage their brands. You will never read in a general consumer marketing publication how hreflang website tags can help Google to distinguish between various brand websites for people who speak different languages.

We have different conferences

In addition to writing this biweekly column for The Drum, I speak at marketing and intra-company events. I have seen marketing conferences of all types – and, again, the most significant difference is the mentalities in the offline B2C and online B2B worlds.

I have given keynotes at two television conferences where the speakers discussed high-level trends and the newest viewership measurement technologies while being accompanied by panels with high-level executives who discussed long-term strategy. The marketing portions of the events focused entirely on B2C.

Online marketing conferences focus on being "actionable". Speakers show something tactical that attendees can do the next day. Most talks are from B2B consultants or executives at B2B agencies or tech companies. I do not remember the last time I attended an online marketing event where even a quarter of the speakers were from brands.

Now, neither of these approaches is inherently better than the other. With millions of dollars on the literal line, well-run marketing conferences are some of the best examples of being customer-facing and delivering exactly what attendees want. And offline B2C marketers want strategy while online B2B ones want tactics.

The differences are in education as well. Offline B2C marketers have marketing degrees or certifications from the UK’s Chartered Institute of Marketing, the American Marketing Association or the Australian Marketing Institute. Online B2B marketers have questionable certifications from marketing software companies that merely teach how to use the platforms that they sell.

We have different influencers

No, I am not referring to the “Z-list celebrities” who are now under investigation by the British government. I am referring to the marketing academics, consultants, executives and writers who have actually accomplished something and deserve their recognised place within the industry.

Take some of the biggest names in B2C marketing: Tom Goodwin, Mark Ritson, Byron Sharp, Rory Sutherland, Dave Trott and Faris Yakob. These people – and their consultancies or agencies – typically discuss B2C marketing in general and tend to focus on advertising, brand management and creativity over offline media.

The thought leaders in B2B marketing include Jay Baer, Scott Brinker, Jeff Bullas, Rand Fishkin, Ann Handley, Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose. These individuals – and their companies – almost exclusively discuss online marketing in general as well as inbound marketing and content marketing specifically.

Of course, every marketing discipline will have a different set of experts. But the division between offline B2C and online B2B has become so great that those on one side have rarely heard of the smartest people on the other.

Once at a digital conference in London, the MC asked me during a Q&A for an expert in creativity who people should follow. “Dave Trott,” I said. The entire room was silent -- no one seemed to have heard of him. And this was a group of hundreds of British marketers! (To be fair, I doubt many offline B2C marketers in the United States have heard of Ann Handley.)

Where do we go from here?

The Cold War in marketing is the logical result of the longstanding assumptions about B2C and B2B marcom. The main one is that B2C is emotional and has short sales cycles while B2B is logical with long sales cycles. This has led B2C marketers to favour offline advertising and B2B ones to prioritise online informational “content.”

But that divide need not always occur – especially since it can harm overall results.

“B2B marketing has always been assumed to be different to B2C marketing, but marketing is rarely black and white and smart marketers have exploited areas of greyness between the two,” professor Adrian Palmer, head of marketing and reputation at the University of Reading’s Henley Business School in the UK, said.

“The growth of micro-businesses has led to many more small businesses acting like private consumers. Small business buyers may show little evidence of long, complex decision-making processes, utilitarianism and risk adversity commonly associated with business buyers. At the same time, there is some evidence that B2C decisions have become more complex, as buyers encompass a wider range of online friends and social media to help make their decision.”

Tom Head, co-founder and director at the British creative digital agency Lab, criticised B2B’s over-reliance on what has become known as "content marketing".

"I think the assumption that because we’re in B2B, people will read long-winded white papers or insight pieces is wrong,” he said. “I’ve got about 324 downloads and videos saved across channels that I had great intentions of reading or watching at some point but have never got round to. Attention spans are reducing, so the challenge is: how do we create easy-to-digest, shorter insight pieces which lead potential customers into a longer version if they’re interested?”

Colin Gray, strategy director at Havas Helia, referred to a 2013 study by Google and CEB (which has been since acquired by Gartner) showing that B2B customers are significantly more emotionally connected to their vendors and service providers than B2C consumers.

“It’s a myth to suggest emotional messaging is only appropriate for B2C campaigns,” he said. “Both B2C and B2B disciplines involve the important task of influencing behaviour, consideration of one brand over another and a holistic approach to optimising marcomms activity and the customer journey.”

Writing recently in the blog of WalkMe, a marketing platform that helps users navigate the features of other web-based services, Tamara Rosin stated that both B2C and B2B companies must now address the customer experience equally.

“Today’s customers have high expectations, zero obligation to remain loyal, and all of the options in the world,” she wrote. “Whether you’re a B2C or a B2B, your customer experience definition, vision, and strategy will have a significant impact on your competitiveness and brand.”

Jonathan Beamer, chief marketing officer of the jobs portal Monster, highlighted the importance of using both informational and brand campaigns in all types of marketing while noting that his company must market to both consumers and businesses.

“There are differences in B2B and B2C marketing, but also many similarities,” he said. “There's always a human on the other side of a transaction who is making decisions. There is still a fun mixture of rational and irrational decision-making.”

Lastly, Ed Shelley, director of content for the SaaS analytics platform ChartMogul, recently explored on the company’s blog how B2B companies are indeed finally investing in brand.

“It’s time for B2B SaaS to stand on its own as a mature category of software with its own thought leadership, unique user experience and branding,” he wrote.

Containment versus glasnost

For most of the actual Cold War, the United States used a strategy of “containment”. The plan was to let the Soviet Union control its existing client states but prevent the further spread of communism. The country’s goal was to sit and wait for the enemy to collapse internally from political and economic pressure.

(That process did begin 21 years ago this week with an unsuccessful coup against the last Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, that eventually led to the dissolution of the state and the independence of the occupied countries.)

In marketing’s Cold War, containment is a terrible idea. The two factions in the industry should not eye each other suspiciously in Spy vs. Spy style while surrendering various tactics and channels to each other. I would prefer to see glasnost, the Russian word for “openness” that Gorbachev used to refer to his attempts – far too late – to liberalise Soviet political and economic policies.

After all, the two sides today have a lot to learn from being “open” with each other.

B2B online marketers clearly have perfected direct response and website conversion optimisation. B2C marketers could learn from experts such as Talia Wolf, whose work in that area is superb. B2B digital marketers could learn from Doug Kessler and other branding experts. There is often a place for every tactic and channel from advertising to direct response to television to paid search in both B2C and B2B.

Both offline/B2C and online/B2B marketers can learn from each other’s news outlets, conferences, and thought leaders – if only they would choose to do so by openly integrating everything into simply “marcom.” Today, there is no “offline marketing” and “digital marketing”. There is only marketing.

Sure, there will always be subtle differences between B2C and B2B marketing. But in 2018, there is no need for a Cold War in which two marketing factions are at odds. After all, the best practice has always been to be channel-neutral. And the marketing industry will likely soon see a détente between the two sides regardless.

“There does seem to be a widening divide [between both B2B/B2C and online/offline],” James Myers, head of B2B strategy at Ogilvy UK, said. “However, in the coming years as the two worlds converge, it will be up to brands and in turn their agencies to be championing ‘braver’ work. There aren't really rules anymore.”

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by global marketing and technology keynote speaker and marketing workshop facilitator Samuel Scott, a former journalist, consultant and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.

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