B-to-B Insights: Rational vs. Emotional
There are two schools of thought concerning marketing to business and technical buyers.The first school says, “Copy should be as short as possible, direct and to the point. Bulleted lists are better than sentences and paragraphs. Don’t do any selling. Just give business buyers the facts, data and specifications they need to make intelligent decisions about buying your product. No need to state the benefits. They already know they need the product and why. You just have to convince them your brand is superior to other products you compete against and your product satisfies their applications’ requirements.”
Advocates of this “rational” school of B-to-B marketing believe that business prospects, at work, are largely rational beings who make logical decisions based on facts. They strive to keep written communications as short as possible, in the belief that all businesspeople are extremely busy.
The other school of B-to-B marketing is the “emotional” school. Its philosophy was articulated to me by Hugh Farrell, who owned a successful industrial ad agency in the 1980s. Farrell said: “The business prospect doesn’t stop being a person when he sets foot in the office. He is a human being first, and an executive or engineer second. Therefore, the same psychological factors motivate him as a human being whether he is at work or at home.”
The emotional school of B-to-B marketing uses copy and design that reads and looks more like consumer advertising than technical writing. The copy style is personal and conversational, tapping into the prospect’s needs, concerns, fears and desires.
“Because business customers are persons, communications to them should try to connect on a personal level,” says B-to-B copywriter Ken Norkin. “That means starting out by conveying an understanding of the customer’s situation and, in particular, the problem that your product is going to solve. You not only need to present the data, but tell your readers what it means to them.”
Most marketers divide the marketing world into two segments: B-to-B marketing and business-to-consumer marketing. The “rational” school of B-to-B marketing says business and consumer are not at all the same. The “emotional” school says that B-to-B and B-to-C marketing are more alike than different.
I think there is a third segment: hybrid marketing. Hybrid markets exhibit characteristics of both business prospects and consumers. Hybrid prospects are consumers who exhibit many of the behaviors shared by business prospects or vice versa.
An example of a hybrid market is SOHOs—small business/home offices. These are, for the most part, self-employed people working at home or in small rented offices. Typically they work alone, while others have small staffs.
Technically, because they are business owners, selling to SOHOs is B-to-B marketing. But SOHOs often behave more like individual consumers than corporate executives, engineers or IT professionals.
For a corporate middle manager, the purchase of an expensive color digital printer may be a largely dispassionate decision: one of the tasks she must contend with that week.
The SOHO is more likely to agonize over this purchase decision. The expense of the equipment is much more of an emotional issue, because it’s coming out of the SOHO’s pocket. In addition, the SOHO may cultivate a personal excitement from this purchase (having coveted but never owned office equipment this high-tech or costly before) that the corporate employee does not feel.
Farmers are another hybrid market. The family farm is a farmer’s legacy and livelihood, and there are few issues more emotionally charged than keeping it and passing it on to the children. Yet, a farm is a business, and therefore, farmers are, strictly speaking, a B-to-B and not a consumer market.
More Than Meets the Eye
I am unaware of any authoritative study on whether B-to-B marketing (and marketing to hybrid markets that exhibit some B-to-B characteristics) works better when it is reduced to the bare essential facts or written on a personal and emotional level. I can only relate what I have found during my three decades as a B-to-B copywriter. Here is what I believe works in B-to-B copy as a rule:
- B-to-B prospects are far less dispassionate about their jobs and industries than often is imagined.
- The business prospect buys not only for his company, but for his own personal benefit, and the two are sometimes at odds. Often a prospect will specify a product if he believes it personally will make his life easier or his employment more secure.
- While B-to-B prospects can be engaged and sold emotionally, once that engagement takes place, they require much more rational evidence to support their buying decisions than consumers.
Melding Rational With Emotional
The answer to our question, “Are B-to-B prospects devoid of emotion?” is decidedly “no.” On the contrary, and despite what they may say, much of B-to-B buying is motivated by emotional reasons rather than logical facts.
However, the emotion in B-to-B marketing typically comes in the front end of the sale, which involves getting attention and engagement. This is the place in the B-to-B sales cycle where emotion-driven consumer advertising techniques maximize marketing effectiveness. An example is the current TV campaign for Macintosh versus Microsoft, where Apple computers are positioned as cooler, friendlier and problem-free.
Once emotion hooks the B-to-B prospect, and he begins a serious evaluation of your product, logic and intellect take over. He gradually shifts from an emotional buyer (though residue of his emotional reaction to your marketing stays with him throughout the sales cycle) and increasingly toward a rational mode of decision making.
At this stage, the prospect is performing due diligence. He has to make sure the product can perform the functions required, fits the application’s requirements, is compatible with his current infrastructure, has the proper specifications and can handle the buyer’s application. Here is where traditional, informational, fact-based, content-rich B-to-B marketing—data sheets, brochures, white papers, podcasts and webinars—are most useful to buyers, because they contain answers to the buyer’s due-diligence research questions.
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.