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B-to-B Insights : Decades of Progress

The 6 stages in the evolution of B-to-B marketing

April 2012 By Bob Bly
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In features and benefits selling, which was the standard approach for decades, sales and marketing staff compiled a list of product features and then uncovered the benefits offered by each. These features and benefits were used in print ads as well as sales presentations.

They could be presented in a table or integrated into the copy with a features/benefit statement. Such a statement gave the benefit and attributed its existence to a feature. For instance, "Self-lubricating gears virtually eliminate maintenance."

Features and benefits selling still is practiced today and many marketing and sales professionals have not gone beyond it. The risk: By reciting a long list of features and benefits without knowing what's important to the prospect, you risk boring your potential buyers and turning them off.

Stage 3: Solution Selling
This was all the rage starting, as I recall, in the 1980s. Suddenly marketers didn't say we were selling products; we told prospects we were offering them solutions.

Solution selling meant more than just substituting the word "solution" for "product." The marketer's job focused more intently on understanding exactly what problems were most important for the customer to solve. Then the marketing and sales efforts would focus on positioning the product as the solution to those problems.

Another trend that took place around this time was "systems selling," which was a subset of "solutions selling." Suddenly, no one sold a product or a service anymore; everyone was selling "systems." It worked because "system" was a value- added word; you could charge more for a system than a product. An example from consumer marketing: The Hair Club for Men didn't sell weaves or toupees; it sold "hair replacement systems."

Stage 4: Consultative Selling
In this evolution of solution selling, salespeople positioned themselves (and marketing people positioned the company) not as salespeople but as consultants. The idea was that the salesperson would work with you to solve your problem. Except, unlike a conventional consultant, there would be no charge for this advice. The salesperson gave the consulting away in the hopes of selling the solution that the consultation recommended.

An example of consultative selling was Ascom/Timeplex's "network topology map." The salesperson would visit with a laptop and piece of software that configured networks for optimal routing, input the client's network configuration, and with a few keystrokes the software would reconfigure the network with fewer costly T1 lines and less equipment, saving the customer money. Of course, to implement the reconfigured network, the customer needed Timeplex hubs and multiplexers.

Stage 5: Content Selling
"Content selling" means persuading your customer to buy from you, not by making sales pitches, but by providing useful information for problem-solving and decision-making. The shift from traditional marketing to content marketing is epitomized by the decline of sales brochures, clearly a selling tool, and the rise of whitepapers—sales brochures rewritten and redesigned to look like and contain useful information.

Content marketing assumes prospects have become more sophisticated today and reject outdated approaches of selling with traditional sales talk and promotional copy. The prospect is seen as an information seeker (specifically seeking information with which to solve a problem) and the marketer's role is to win the prospect's confidence and business by providing that information. Of course, the content provided by Company X makes clear that the best way to implement the ideas and solutions is with Company X's equipment.

Stage 6: Social Networking
In this current stage of the B-to-B marketing evolution, marketing is seen not as selling; instead, the marketer and the prospect are "having a conversation" with each other. The platforms for these conversations include LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

I'll go out on a limb and say that social networking has proven itself anecdotally but not universally. Some companies have examples of campaigns generating solid, measurable results. Others say it is a lot of hot air and find that it cannot be monetized.

Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of more than 75 books, including "The White Paper Marketing Handbook" (Racom). Reach him at (201) 505-9451, or online at


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Good, reliable market information, based on good, reliable marketing research, is more important than ever to businesses of every size and description. But nowhere is it more critical than in the business-to-business marketplace. Business to Business Marketing Research

Good, reliable market information, based on good, reliable marketing research, is more important than ever to businesses of every size and description. But nowhere is it more critical than in the business-to-business marketplace....




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