Many B2B marketers focus on ‘content’ rather than advertising, but is that the best thing to do in 2022? For the answer, columnist Samuel Scott interviewed the person who created the term ‘mental availability’, professor Jenni Romaniuk of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute.
In 2005, Rand Fishkin – then the chief executive of SEO software platform Moz – published the first edition of their beginner’s guide to search engine optimization. To this day, the material remains one of the best examples of what has become known as ‘content marketing’.
For years (and even still today), I would refer people to the e-book whenever they would ask how to learn about ranking in organic search results. The guide has remained extremely popular over the years – it even ranks higher than Google’s own resources for many related search terms – and has undoubtedly gained many customers for Moz.
In advertising terms, Moz was ‘top of mind’ for me and others whenever people would ask about learning SEO. Moz’s senior executives and the company blog have been known throughout the industry for having some of the best ‘thought leadership’.
But in 2022, producing such content – a popular substitute for doing traditional brand advertising – might not be enough to build real ‘mental availability’ in B2B categories.
Based on the increasing B2B interest in brand that I saw in 2021, I foresee that more teams will ask themselves the following question this year: Is constantly publishing informational material and trying to become a thought leader actually a good way to get remembered in future buying situations?
The theory behind ‘content marketing’
For those who might still be unaware, ‘content marketing’ is when marcom departments operate similarly to media companies and regularly publish informative material (often blog posts, online guides and explainer videos) that would interest their target markets. Then, the goal is to convert readers into email subscribers, blog readers and customer leads.
The mantra that everyone repeats is ‘thought leadership’. The prevailing wisdom is that if a company’s ‘content’ is seen as the best in industry, then its product will be viewed in the same way. So, the idea is to publish, publish and publish – or perish. To the practice’s adherents, brand advertising is indeed ‘dead’.
In the past, I have stated that ‘content’ is the worst word in marketing because, to me, ‘content marketing’ is often a waste of time and money as well as a cliche that has turned everything a person puts online for any reason into just a ‘piece of content’.
But I must admit that it is popular. Just before the holidays late last month, Evan Hughes, the vice-president of demand at Refine Labs, discussed the newest buzzword of all on LinkedIn: “Demand generation focuses on ungated (free) content distribution to build brand/solution awareness with a targeted ICP [ideal customer profile].”
‘Demand generation’ just sounds like a jargon-laden description of ‘advertising’ to me. Regardless, Hughes’s post shows the problem that has always plagued the B2B marketing world. People always discuss using content to build ‘awareness’, but never the ‘mental availability’ that B2C people have cherished for a long time. (There has always been somewhat of a civil war between B2C and B2B within the marketing industry.)
What is mental availability?
According to research published last year by LinkedIn’s B2B Institute and EBI professor John Dawes, roughly 95% of companies in a category are not in the market for a B2B product at any given time. For example, a business might purchase payroll software only once every five to 10 years.
What does that mean for B2B marketers? First, lead generation and sales teams should focus on the 5% that are in the market. Second, most other marcom activity should build and refresh memory links to the brand among the other 95% to be remembered by them when they do want to buy in the future. Basically, it is creating ‘brand-relevant memories’.
That latter activity is building ‘mental availability’ – making a brand become ‘top of mind’ specifically during future buying situations. It is more than just ‘awareness’. A B2C example: when I view a supermarket shelf with 20 hot sauce brands, I am aware that they all exist. But I only consider buying either Frank’s Red Hot or Sriracha. All 20 brands are physically available, but only those two are mentally available to me.
How to build mental availability
So, how do you create mental availability in general? First, remember that product marketing focuses on features (‘we have all the tools and integrations you need’) while brand marketing focuses on people (‘choosy moms choose Jif’). Product marketing is usually dull, but brand marketing can be extremely memorable. Which is the point.
Second, one important part of building mental availability is creating distinctive brand assets (DBAs) and using them in marcom campaigns, as Ehrenberg-Bass Institute (EBI) director Byron Sharp wrote in his classic 2016 book How Brands Grow.
When those items are used consistently, they build memory associations. A few pre-pandemic years ago, I gave a keynote marketing speech in Copenhagen. To this day I remember the random speaker before me simply because he wore a cowboy hat on stage. Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie was also a DBA because he was originally the only high-tech businessman wearing one – and he wore it all the time.
Third, think about category entry points (CEPs), which are what people are thinking, feeling or doing when they start to think about the general product category. A brand’s ads need to speak to CEPs to build mental availability. Take my earlier example of payroll software. Questions might be: ‘When and why would that person start to think about buying payroll software?’ ‘What is often happening at work when he starts to think about buying payroll software?’ And so on.
Say people are running weekly payrolls every Friday afternoon. An ongoing ad campaign might say: ‘It’s late Friday afternoon, and everyone else at work is having drinks. Why are you still trying to run payroll on an old system full of bugs?‘ (I made that up off-the-cuff as a hypothetical.)
I would wager that such a campaign would be more effective than a bunch of informational ‘content’ on payroll department best practices. After all, memories are created through emotions and feelings, not logic and information. Nearly all memories are associated with events during which people felt extremely happy or sad, loved or hated, amused or angered. The same is true when marketers want to build brand-relevant memories.
But as System1 Group chief innovation officer Orlando Wood noted in a celebrated 2019 book, advertising has become more logical and less emotional in recent decades. Marketers now care more about what happens in analytics dashboards rather than inside people’s heads.
Examples of good B2B ads and best practices
Constantly giving people more and more educational material that happens to include your product is not ‘content’, it is doing little more than creating more and more sales collateral.
When I was a child, my mother and I went to a dinner hosted by an investment firm. We had to listen to a sales presentation before the meal on the importance of saving for university. Today, marketers would call it ‘content marketing’. (See all the ‘webinars’ that companies do today.) But it was just sales. There is nothing new under the marketing sun.
What is better? Memorable B2B advertising. Here are two recent examples that I liked.
Salesforce, on the left, created the Astro character and reportedly doubled the company’s brand metrics. HP, on the right, has been doing a cybersecurity advertising series starring US actor Christian Slater as ‘The Wolf’. These are two examples of creating and using DBAs. (Just don’t call it ‘content’.)
As any filmmaker or novelist will tell you, characters are what makes something memorable. What was the first thing I learned in Comms 201 at university back in 1999? The primacy of character-driven stories over plot-driven ones.
Professor Jenni Romaniuk is EBI’s international director and the author of How Brands Grow Part 2 and Building Distinctive Brand Assets. She came up with the idea of ‘mental availability’ in her PhD thesis in 2010. For this column, I interviewed her for her thoughts on content marketing and mental availability. Here are her responses in full:
What is your general opinion of this practice of ‘content marketing’ in the B2B world?
“If you think of the three things that contribute to the success of marketing activity – reach, branding and messaging – content marketing can be very good on messaging, but is the branding strong enough, and can it achieve reach?”
Does such ‘content marketing’ build mental availability and help to keep B2B companies top of mind?
“A key factor in building mental availability is that memories decay over time. Therefore, much of mental availability building is refreshing existing memories, not telling people anything new. It strikes me that content marketing would have difficulties achieving this goal as most people would only be interested in reading or sharing information they felt was new.”
Is constantly publishing informational material a good way to get remembered in future buying situations?
“It puts a lot of reliance on the audience to attend and process the information. This strikes me as a tactic that is best used sporadically for really new insights, as an addition to advertising.”
How important is becoming known as a ‘thought leader’ through ‘content marketing’ in the B2B world?
“The challenge is not so much becoming a thought leader, but sustaining this position over time. Building mental availability is a never ending task.”
What would you say to B2B marketers who focus almost completely on such content marketing and ignore traditional advertising? (The only exception I see is using Google paid search as well – but that is more physical availability online.)
“Experiment and see if the reaction to different pieces of content is consistent – and if it varies, could the money spent on producing the less effective pieces be better used in other marketing activities?”
What would you recommend B2B marketers do to build mental availability?
“Focus less on your products and focus more on what buyers are thinking that shapes the companies they approach as potential suppliers in your categories (category entry points). Remember that for all the differences when buying for a business, B2B buyers are still normal people, with normal brains, prone to distraction, ineffective processing and memory decay. Your marketing needs to take this into account.”
In August 2021, EBI and Romaniuk published an e-book update to How Brands Grow Part 2 that was a new chapter on B2B marketing. The institute shared it with me.
“It is the same B2B customer, with the same brain, who is also buying toothpaste, cars, weekends away, chocolate, whisky, a luxury watch and home insurance,” Romaniuk writes. “This perspective makes similarities between personal and business buying less surprising and the empirical question of whether laws of growth hold in B2B contexts worth addressing. The answer … is ‘yes’.”
“All businesses that sell to other businesses face the familiar mental challenges of transient, partial, divided buyer attention, fading memories and competitive interference. It’s an ongoing struggle to be a contestant in the race to be bought. This is the battle of mental availability. And the battle takes place in B2B just as much as B2C.”
Among marketing academics and pundits, there is always debate on nearly everything – even when the best research has already determined the right answer. (I’m looking at you, people who think that loyalty is more important than acquisition.) But this time, the consensus seems to be that B2B should indeed be very similar to B2C. Les Binet and Peter Field would agree with Jenni Romaniuk and Byron Sharp.
But be careful in the office
Recently, I started to consult for an Israeli B2B software company that has received VC seed funding and is going to rebrand. I need to tread lightly.
When there will be management and board meetings about strategy and sales projections, imagine if I would interrupt with this line: “Let’s create a cartoon character!” There would be more awkward silence than when Boris Johnson tries to explain holding a boozy party at Downing Street during a coronavirus lockdown.
We understand how advertising and memories work, but that does not mean anyone else does. As expert communicators, we need to learn to speak CFO. In many business situations, they are our primary audience.
The best advice I can give? Collect and summarize case studies as cold, hard evidence. Above, you saw HP and Salesforce. But remember Moz as well.
Moz had a history of ups and downs before Fishkin left to start the market research platform SparkToro and iContact Marketing Corp acquired the company. (Disclosure: I once spoke at Moz’s annual conference.) But through it all, I will bet that a lot of Moz’s initial success was due to a distinctive brand asset.
Whatever will happen in 2022, I hope the new year will bring your B2B companies more mental availability rather than countless, forgettable ‘pieces of content’.
The Promotion Fix is an exclusive column for The Drum contributed by global keynote and virtual marketing speaker Samuel Scott, a former journalist, newspaper editor and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. He is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.