B-to-B Insights: Figuring It Out
It’s not easy being the marketing communications (marcom) manager of a B-to-B company.
In addition to the usual marketing communications challenges you must deal with, there are several unique issues B-to-B marcom managers face: 1) marketing technical products that they may be unfamiliar with, 2) understanding the B-to-B prospect and 3) the motives behind customers’ buying decisions.
Marketing products that are technical and complex means marketing products that are difficult to understand.
B-to-B agency owner Joe Lane once commented, “Consumer marketing is simple thoughts for simple folks.”
When you’re advertising a bar of soap or a chocolate cake mix, neither you nor your agency has a difficult time grasping the features and advantages of your product. But when the product is a semiconductor or a spectrophotometer, marketing that product involves achieving a degree of understanding that is not always easy to attain.
One shortcut I’ve discovered to understanding technology: Buy and read a children’s book on the subject. If an explanation is intended for a child, a lay adult can certainly understand it. If there is no children’s book available, buy a nontechnical book on the subject intended for a lay audience.
For example, I once had the assignment to write a brochure for a company that bought and sold gold and silver bullion, a topic which, at the time, I knew nothing about. I bought a popular book about gold written for teenagers and quickly got up to speed with a basic education on the subject.
You might also take a course to get up to speed. One ad agency account executive was assigned a welding account, and found that he could not understand the terminology the client used. Nor could he empathize with the needs and concerns of their target market, professional welders. His solution was to take a course in welding 101, which eventually turned into a series of classes that led to his becoming a certified welder.
Two benefits resulted. First, he could speak the client’s language—in fact, speak it better than they could. And second, he understood his target audience better, because he had become one of them.
A science or engineering background is a definite plus when you are assigned the task of marketing technical products. You simply have the knowledge to quickly get up to speed on any new technology you encounter.
Entering the Mind of the Prospect
The second challenge of B-to-B marketing is to understand not only the product, but also the prospects—their needs, concerns, desires and fears.
However, getting inside the mind of a B-to-B prospect is typically more difficult than understanding how a target consumer thinks. After all, when I’m hired to write a direct mail package to sell a stock market newsletter, the target audience is investors. And I, like millions of other Americans, am an investor. So it’s easy for me to think like the prospect; I am one.
Some time ago, I was hired to write a direct mail package to sell a publication aimed at pediatricians.
I’m not a pediatrician. I’m not even a doctor, so I have very little insight into what worries, issues and problems are important to pediatricians.
Clearly, a big challenge when marketing a B-to-B product to an audience of which you are not a member is getting inside the minds of your target prospects.
There are several things you can do to go about it:
- Subscribe to and read the trade publications covering the target prospect’s industry.
- Pay particular attention to the “letters to the editor” column. It is here you can see what’s on your prospects’ minds.
- Find and frequent the major blogs covering your prospect’s industry. Read the blog posts and study the comments. They can reveal hot button issues and where people stand on them.
- It’s not always easy to do, but if you can, interview a few customers. You can learn not only what’s important to them but which features of your product they value.
- If customers are not available for interviews, attend events where your prospects hang out. Eavesdrop on their conversations to get a sense of the language they use. When I first did this at a meeting of IT professionals, I was shocked to discover how much they relied on jargon in their conversations and eschewed plain speaking. This reduced my compulsion to always write copy to them in the simplest language possible, and I began to embrace the special terminology they used, so as to sound more like one of them.
Finding Buying Motives
The final major challenge B-to-B marketers face is figuring out how and why their customers make buying decisions.
According to copywriter Steve Slaunwhite, here are some of the questions to ask the product manager and sales manager about the prospect’s buying habits:
- “How do your customers buy? Is there a typical process?”
- “Why do they buy instead of doing nothing?”
- “What prompts them to make the decision to talk with you in the first place?”
- “What do they need to know to make a buying decision?”
- “Who else is typically involved in making the buying decision?”
- “Why do they choose your product over the competition’s?”
Says Slaunwhite: “Unless you have answers to these questions, your copy is just going to skim the surface or, worse, be completely off target.”
Copywriter Ed Gandia agrees. He says one of the biggest frustrations B-to-B marcom managers have with their agencies and writers is that they don’t have a solid understanding of the clients’ business drivers and industry challenges, or the challenges the client’s prospective customers are facing.
“B-to-B clients aren’t just looking for clear and persuasive copy,” says Gandia. “They need someone who ‘gets it,’ someone who understands the bigger picture and how their clients fit into the competitive landscape.”
The last requirement, how a B-to-B marketer fits into the competitive landscape, is—thanks to the Internet—much easier to ascertain than in the past.
In the good old days, the only way to learn what your competitors were up to, short of industrial espionage, was to steal their brochures at trade shows. Now, a simple Google search of industry keywords (e.g., “widget manufacturers”) will bring you a list of most of your competitors.
Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter who has written copy for more than 100 clients including IBM, AT&T, Praxair, Intuit, Forbes, and Ingersoll-Rand. McGraw-Hill calls Bob “America’s top copywriter” and he is the author of 90 books, including “The Copywriter's Handbook.” Find him online at www.bly.com or call (973) 263-0562.