B-to-B Insights: Then and Now
B-to-B marketing is fundamentally different today than it was in years past, such as when I entered the field in 1979. Let me contrast then and now to show you the major differences and how it affects your work.
In 20th century B-to-B marketing, prospects would learn about you either through an ad in a trade journal or by finding you in an industrial directory, like Thomas Register. Prospects would respond to the ad, and you would send them a brochure in the mail. Your sales rep then would follow up and the selling cycle—driven by the salesperson—would begin.
But today, B-to-B marketing methodology is very different, and I asked Joan Damico, a successful high-tech copywriter, to explain it. The big deal in B-to-B currently is most buyers do a fair amount of research on their own prior to involving a sales rep. Hence, content marketing—which does a lot of the work that reps used to do—has become popular, says Damico. Some numbers suggest buyers go through nearly 60 percent of the buy cycle before contacting a rep.
"In contrast, back in the day, the brochure usually accompanied or was preceded by a rep visit. The content would whet the appetite and the rep filled in all the details," says Damico.
"Now, B-to-B buyers are getting all the details from the content we've created for each stage of the buy cycle. So while the concept of communicating your product or service unique selling proposition (USP) hasn't changed, it's morphed into numerous fragments of information delivered across numerous channels and in various formats.
"You still have your overarching message, or 'story' as it's now being referred to. The story is packaged into blogs, whitepapers, apps, social posts and videos—shorter, but more frequent sound bites of info that piece together the message."
GlobalSpec reports that buyers' top three sources of product information online are search engines, vendor websites and online catalogs. Shocking to me was in this supposed era of content marketing, whitepapers were only No. 11 on the list.
"Keep in mind that the above scenario is quite common in tech buying and large considered purchases," continues Damico. "However, there are still some B-to-B pockets in various industrial market segments that aren't quite as 'social,' and where the above scenario is not entirely accurate."
I asked Ruth Stevens, a B-to-B marketing consultant, to weigh in on the subject of B-to-B marketing in 2014 vs. B-to-B marketing in 1984. Stevens notes the big trend is communication along a long sales cycle with multiple touches, media and offers.
Says Stevens, "Buyers are now researching online, instead of calling salespeople to discuss their problems and suggest solutions. These days, buyers don't want to see a rep until maybe the last 20 percent of their buying process.
"Salespeople have lost control of the process, in effect. Marketing must step into the breach, by identifying buying signals early, and building a relationship with prospects way before they are ready to see a salesperson. So what really helps in this area is the newly named content marketing; which is, of course, not new, but more important than ever."
According to MarketingProfs, 72 percent of B-to-B buyers begin their searches with a Google search. And a study from American Business Media found that the five fast-growing areas of spending on marketing are search engine advertising, mobile advertising, e-newsletter advertising, whitepapers and face-to-face event attendance.
In the continuing debate over copy length, a recent survey by Pardot of 400 B-to-B buyers found that 70 percent preferred B-to-B content, such as whitepapers and case studies under five pages. To me, this methodology is flawed, because it is based on what people say they like, rather than what they actually do.
Leads: Quality vs. Quantity
Some things remain the same, though. A MarketingSherpa survey asked B-to-B marketers what their priorities were. Not surprising, the top two items on the list were generating high-quality leads and generating a high volume of leads.
These two items are actually at odds with one another, which creates a problem for the marketer, as direct marketing expert Ed Nash points out. He notes that the greater the number of leads your marketing generates, the worse the quality. Conversely, the higher the quality of the lead, the fewer you will get.
For instance, if you offer a valuable free whitepaper, and all you ask the visitor to your landing page to do is enter a name and email address, you may get a lot of downloads, but you know almost nothing about the person; and, therefore, the lead is unqualified.
Some marketers take the opposite approach, and on their landing pages ask all sorts of qualifying questions before granting the visitor the ability to download the whitepaper. These questions range from job title, phone number, and city and state, to number of employees, application, whether they are shopping for the product, and how soon they intend to buy.
Another unfortunate trend is the lack of buying authority possessed by any individual prospect. B-to-B buying decisions are usually made in committees. According to GlobalSpec, 93 percent of industrial purchases are made by a group.
But when I was a junior advertising manager fresh out of college in 1979, I could spend $5,000 without getting the committee's approval. Now I encounter many prospects whose buying authority is less than $1,000, which means it's more important to sell to every decision-maker involved in the purchase. According to Stevens, B-to-B marketing must have messaging relevant to multiple parties.
To provide some guidance on that messaging, my experience shows the following:
- CEOs are most concerned with your company and its reputation, and they want to be assured you will be here five years from now.
- CFOs want to be shown that the product will generate a rapid ROI and save or make money.
- Plant or IT mangers care that the equipment will integrate into their current infrastructure.
- Plant engineers or IT staff focus on how easy the system will be to use and how it will help them do their jobs better and faster.
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.