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Agencies B2B Marketing Humans

For B2B marketers, being human means doing better business

By Chris Moody | Head of Strategy



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October 3, 2023 | 8 min read

Too much B2B advertising remains creatively uninspiring and ineffective, says Agency UK’s Chris Moody. The only route out of this quagmire? Humanized B2B work.

Some hands on a table

Does improving B2B marketing mean making it more human? / Clay Banks via Unsplash

I sometimes feel it’s a well-kept secret, so I’m almost reluctant to talk about it, but The B2B Institute (in association with LinkedIn) has been doing excellent work since it was formed in 2019, providing research, evidence, and expertise to transform B2B marketing and communications.

And according to its research, it really does need transforming; 77% of B2B ads score just 1/5 on a scale of creative effectiveness.

Returning to the long-term

The picture painted by the Institute is stark: too many companies only focus on short-term activation without considering longer-term brand-building. They fixate on detailed product features to the exclusion of almost anything else, assuming (incorrectly) that B2B decision-makers are as interested in those details as their engineers and developers.

As Doug Cookson, chief marketing officer (CMO) of Cerba Research explains: “Our customers undertake complex global clinical studies around cancer, infectious diseases, and cutting-edge gene therapy. Their requirements are highly specific, and they purchase using, often large, groups of stakeholders. This means we need to appeal to them first on a broader level, then appeal to both their personal and professional ambitions, before delivering more specific functional messages.”

Because, as the ad guru Howard Gossage said a lifetime ago, people don’t watch or read ads. They watch or read what interests them, which sometimes might be an ad. Too many communications nowadays just aren’t interesting enough to attract, let alone retain, the attention of their target audience.

For example, Tim Edwards, CMO of Study In: UK (SI-UK) has two discrete target audiences: university administrators and prospective students. Some of these two audiences’ motivations overlap. “Education is both a rational and vocational choice,” says Edwards. “It’s vital that messaging to both audiences leans heavily into emotional drivers, as well as reassuring with rational logic. We think about B2B and B2C communications in the same way.”

They’re not machines; they’re human, and they’re afraid

This is especially true in B2B marketing because, as Rory Sutherland explains, business decisions are fraught with more risk and higher stakes than most day-to-day consumer product choices. The old axiom ‘No one got fired for buying IBM’ reflects the fears that plague B2B decision-makers – not just making a bad choice, but being blamed for that choice, on both a personal and corporate level. Faced with such stakes, they often fall back into defensive decision-making, unwilling to risk making a change.

All of which means that businesses need their communications to be even more distinctive to command attention. Being dull is not an option, and it’s expensive. Instead, if they want to stand a chance of getting consumers’ attention (let alone changing their behavior), they should think more about the human beings they are talking to.

3 steps to greater empathy

Thinking about humans requires empathy to better connect and engage their attention.

1. Build a customer-centric experience map

Many tools and templates exist to help marketers focus on individuals at every stage of their path to purchase and beyond. Where do they get their information? Who or what influences their thinking? What do they feel at different times, and why? Identify ways you can meet their emotional needs.

2. Create a fully rounded picture of your audience

Understand the context of their professional lives. What is holding them back? How can you make them feel better at their job?

It’s often useful to create personas, but seek out insights from both your current customers and your sales teams; first-hand testimony can be worth its weight in gold.

3. Capture, infer, or synthesize data about your target customers

The B2B purchase cycle is often long, meaning only a tiny proportion of potential buyers are actively considering products at any given time; hence the weakness of ‘product delusion’.

Not all prospective buyers are equal; profile your existing customers to identify those who are most successful with your products or services, and tailor or prioritize communications to appeal to similar prospects.

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It's about people (stupid)

Just as Bill Clinton’s Presidential Campaign HQ featured huge slogans to remind staff what voters really care about (the economy), so B2B marketers should remind themselves they are communicating with people (and, more importantly, why they’re doing so).

Most B2B decisions don’t happen as the result of one communication. The barriers to behavior change are significant, and product or service requirements are often both complex and specific. Before drilling into such details, marketers must explore why their customers would care about what they’re saying, by thinking of them not as their functional role in a business, but as individuals with stresses and ambitions. Before they can care about the detail, you must earn their attention.

Agencies B2B Marketing Humans

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