B2B marketing is largely crap. Here are four keys to improve it.

The CMO council recently said that most B2B marketing efforts are, by and large, terrible.

Not literally. Close, though. Buyers and influencers find marketing to be largely “self-serving, irrelevant, hyperbolic, and hyper technical.” It “lacks depth, objectivity and strategic context that buyers are seeking.”

I’ve committed all these sins. To improve, I needed to better understand how people use information to made decisions.

In 1974, a Purdue professor named Jacob Jacoby studied how consumers process information on product labels and what impact that information had on decision making.

They asked consumers what qualities they preferred in a particular product. Then they watched as people selected that product in a store. They found that with more information on packaging, people were less likely to choose the product that best matched their initial preferences.

To Jacoby and team, the implication was clear. Withhold information, for the good of the consumer public.

…marketers, consumer advocates, legislators, and other policy makers would do well to redirect attention from trying to provide the consumer with even more information.

Jacoby’s recommendation was driven by his mental model about how people make decisions. Jacoby thought that people have strong preferences. And these preferences provide a rational basis for day to day decisions.

This is rational choice theory. It has its roots in economics and provides a foundation for much that is taught around consumer behavior and decision making.

I bought into rational choice theory. And my marketing was crap. I created massive amounts of product information. As the customer moved closer to a decision, I became more and more academic.

I made even worse mistakes. Many of my products were deeply customizable. When the customer asked what the product did for them, I said “What do you want the product to do? It can do anything!” I shifted the burden of defining a value proposition to the customer!

In 2003 CEB/Motista looked at how people evaluated differences between vendors. They asked people across multiple industries whether top vendors in their industry could help achieve business goals.

The answer? Yes. For everyone. Every vendor was rated nearly identical in their ability to deliver.

Buyers were then asked whether they see a difference between vendors. 86% of the respondents indicated “no.” The study concluded:

…business value is just table stakes. It gets suppliers into the buyer’s consideration set but doesn’t make them stand out within that set of competitors.

People don’t walk around with a comprehensive set of criteria in their head, nor do they make decisions by impartially weighing various options.

Moreover, people have limited understanding of differences between products, limited understanding about which of those differences matter, and little willingness to work hard to build this understanding.

In reality, research shows that the decision making audience evaluating your product is strongly influenced by group opinion and risk aversion. People don’t want to rock the boat, and don’t want to look stupid by recommended the wrong vendor.

Everyone feels this way. It took me a long time to understand this.

You can avoid the making the dumb mistakes I made. To build a great marketing program, you need to discard rational choice theory and focus on how people actually make decisions. Here are some ideas that worked for me.

Specialize: Arguably the most important thing for B2B companies to do, and perhaps the most difficult. Most small or mid-sized company’s best strategy is first to focus on a target market, then grow into carefully selected adjacent markets. The alternative is to dilute your message across multiple markets. The result is inferior overall quality and increased uncertainty around corporate vision and priorities.

Foster emotional safety: The best way to do this is by cultivating a referral network. Build your community and maintain relations with analysts, media, and respected thought leaders in your industry. Referrals are important because they help consumers accomplish many of their goals simultaneously:

  • Provide reassurance that table stakes functionality and quality is there
  • Reinforce the trustworthiness of your brand
  • Provide emotional reassurance — social proof — justifying selection of your product

Foster trust and shared understanding: Take time and learn about your customer’s day to day activities and their primary goals. Create material that talks to these specific goals, and connect your product to them. The more insightful and unusual the connection, the better. People have only so much attention. Unexpected insights are a powerful way to stand out from a crowd of options that, to your customer, all look identical.

Reduce cognitive load: Companies often shift the burden of value discovery to their customer. The more flexible the product, the more likely this is to happen. The customer says “What can they do for me?” The company answers “What do you want it to do? They can do anything!” They hope that customers will intuit how product features and functions might solve their particular problem. Don’t do this. Instead, create specific crafted value propositions.

Like what you read? Give Christopher Hoover a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.