Ask any up-and-comer why they want to pursue a marketing or public relations career, I’ll venture to guess the answer will not include “B2B communications is the bomb.” But, it really is.
While B2C – business to consumer – can sound sexier, B2B – business to business – is where magic can happen. In this era of constant connectiveness, B2B brands need as much strategy, creative thinking and flair as a direct-to-consumer product. While I enjoy designing integrated campaigns for all audience segments, B2B is a specific art, and one that Stratacomm has spent the last decade perfecting.
Today’s B2B companies face tough challenges, including commoditization. What does this mean for communicators and leadership? Beyond technical acumen, you need to focus on establishing an emotional connection with a promise of a partnership beyond the initial purchase. This means connecting with customers beyond transactions to gain insight that will define an identity not only for the brand but also for the product offerings.
In a world where you can order nearly anything online, it is critical to understand what drives purchasing decisions to be able to tap into the buyers’ needs. Is the lever to success a sleek, easy-to-use e-commerce website in three languages? Are your customers more influenced by service offerings than price? [If they’re Millennials, the answer may be yes, according to recent data.] This deep knowledge of current and potential customers is vital to offering value and ensuring your products don’t fall into the commodity trap.
Knowing your audience and what motivates them provide the backbone to humanizing the brand. Visibility and thought leadership help connect you with target audiences, curating a “brand personality.” For key leadership, this can take off on social media by becoming an ongoing part of trending conversations, establishing an online network and showing value without a hard sell. But in the traditional visibility sense, showing up to important conferences, deepening relationships with reporters who cover your industry and seeking out speaking opportunities remain important. Ultimately, find which approach is best suited to spokespersons and don’t force-fit.
B2B brands also need to align with their buyer’s personal values to connect beyond a transactional relationship. This is especially relevant to the Millennial decision-makers. They want to know that a brand is trusted by peers and is on the right side of history. It takes multi-channel marketing and stepping outside of what may have worked in the past. They want to see their friends celebrated on your social media, and you should feature employees without fear of poaching (an oft-heard concern). Support of social causes from a place of authenticity is no longer optional (pulse check: did you miss Pride Month?). Tap employees for their insights. Run ideas by closely-held customers to gauge reaction. Lean on consultants for unmatched experience. And ultimately, start slow. This is a slow build and a philosophical change in approach but the return on investment is high.
If you’re noticing this trending toward basic marketing approaches, it’s because many B2B companies come from an era of “keeping our head down.” I remember feeling sorry for Daffy Duck every time he poked his head up from hiding just to have Elmer Fudd shoot his beak off. Many B2B companies are afraid of getting their beaks shot off if they become more visible. It’s no longer enough to keep your head down.
Sounds a lot like B2C, doesn’t it? It is, and it isn’t. While the same core principles apply, there is special skillset that requires a B2B marketer and communicator to dig deep, get dirt under the fingernails to understand a specific technology, and then understand how to package it in a way that satisfies different audiences—from the very informed to the ones that are just learning the company exists. It’s challenging and if done well, stretches your creative muscle.
Sharon Hegarty is a senior partner in Stratacomm’s Detroit office. As an art history major, she would never have believed the magic brewing in B2B marketing until she began diving in.