Cynicism and serendipity: the two forces for good in B2B marketing

There’s an unwritten entry criterion for the University of Oxford.

On top of being a straight A student, regional chess champion, editor of the local gossip column and volunteer dish washer at your gran’s elderly home — they expect you to have an unrealistically rich vocabulary.
Of course, some people do possess it.

What happens to the rest of us is quite remarkable: we become outstanding actors. And I mean really outstanding — to be able to carry an hour-long conversation with a global expert in an academic subject, without fundamentally understanding what you’re talking about, is a feat.

This is how my relationship with ‘serendipity’ started.

Only 9% of B2B buyers say they prefer digital experiences that use data to predict what they want*

Serendipity is one of those words I pretended to understand. I’m sure I’ve written many an essay on serendipity in French literature.

I only really looked for a definition when Adobe and Goldsmiths published their 2016 report, “The Future of Experience.” Amongst their five rules of engagement for digital experiences was ‘serendipity’.

It was a turning point for me.

For a while I’d had this nagging feeling about the buzzword bingo around marketing automation and customer experience. I’d designed Eloqua workflows that were elegant, but in hindsight seemed a little bereft of authenticity — a bit like those essays.

B2B buyers don’t want us to take them on a carefully orchestrated, rat run of a path to purchase. They want choice, they want a natural experience, they want randomness — they want serendipity.

What this means for B2B marketers is a refreshing view of our work. Take the pressure off our teams and agencies to create complex workflows designed to trap buyers in a web form ‘gotcha’. Put the pressure on our content and copy to work harder. And let the buyer do some of the work — they want to.

“It’s all believable but nothing grabs me. It’s just marketing blurb.” — IT buyer, media company.

My second mot de jour is cynicism.

For this, I take Larry David as my inspiration. You can pick your own role model cynic.

I have a theory that if you review B2B marketing copy with the cynical eye of a B2B buyer feeling the weight of responsibility that comes with a multimillion-dollar budget, and it still sounds engaging and authentic, then you’re onto a winner.

One client recently referred to the concept of ‘cloud wash’, which is a great example of this. So many providers, consultants and analysts are writing reams of marketing copy about the cloud that it’s all become just that: cloud wash.

For cynical buyers, we’re making it nearly impossible to make an informed decision. Which is why one of two things happens — they either go with the safest option (the most established or reputable brand) or they decide not to make a decision at all. Neither of which is the outcome we want when producing all of this content.

Most of my clients are either established players in markets being disrupted by new entrants, or they are the disruptors themselves.

Life’s easier for the disruptors — if you have a challenger proposition, producing interesting angles and authentic ways of talking about that proposition is more straight-forward. Getting people to listen is the hard bit. Genpact recently won a B2 award for doing just that — it’s worth checking out their campaign here.

For the established players, it’s harder. The worst you can do is try to be disruptive when that’s not the role you’re genuinely playing in the market. The best you can do is work through these options:

- Remember content isn’t the only way to disrupt. Think about the experience you create for customers, the importance of serendipity, the fact that when users have an expectation of what it’s like to deal with you, it’s easier to get their attention by going against that.
- Find the people that are disruptive within the organization. It might be an easier way to stretch the boundaries of the business’s viewpoint and to say more interesting things that you couldn’t say as a corporate. 
- Lean on others to tell your story for you. Regardless of how unique or disruptive your proposition is, it might be enabling customers to do things that make them unique. Bring those stories to the fore, get your customers to reflect the values you want your brand to be associated with.

Unthinking

In a recent innovation session we were running for a client that fits the mould of ‘established player’, we started with a simple premise: no constraints, no boundaries, no limits. Not even budget.

It took a while for people to stop thinking practically and traditionally. But when they did, there were some pretty awesome results — a whole set of ideas and suggestions that elevated their thinking from whitepapers and product content to impactful, experiential stuff that felt right for their audience and their brand.

The process was serendipitous. The outcome stood up to a fair degree of cynicism, for the most part. It was all just a bit more real.

*Adobe and Goldsmiths University, ‘The Future of Experience’, 2016