A "Radical" Approach to Business-to-Business Marketing
by Dean Rieck
When business-to-business marketers call my office, they always ask the same thing: "Do you have business-to-business experience?" They ask it like they're looking for a white-haired wizard with a pointy black hat and a big gnarly cane, some spell-weaving Merlin who understands the strange and ancient ways of the "business buyer."
I reply in two parts. First, I assure them. "Yes, I've worked successfully with a tremendous number of business marketers." Second, I shock them. "But you know, there really isn't that much difference between business-to-business and consumer, at least from the standpoint of creating offers, writing copy, and designing ads and direct mail."
"No difference?" they sputter, "But ... but ... but ..."
Having had my fun, I then smooth their ruffled feathers and explain what seems to be shameless heresy. You see, I admit that there are certainly some vital differences between b-t-b and consumer marketing, but in my experience, the differences too often overshadow the similarities. And this can lead to some truly bad advertising.
If you begin with the assumption that business people are all emotionless, money-making robots as many b-t-b marketers do you end up with flaccid offers, ponderous copy, and do-nothing design. Just look at the mail you get in your office.
But business buyers are just people, with the same problems, fears, feelings, and dreams as everyone else. They simply experience their problems, fears, feelings, and dreams in their office instead of their living room. They're far from emotionless. In fact, because of the stress of the workplace, their emotional responses are often far more intense than consumers. And if you think money is the only issue business people respond to, you're simply not in touch with the average person.
For the most part, business buyers respond to the same motivators and techniques as consumers. I never, therefore, divide the known world into consumer and business. Rather, I begin with the idea that I'm going to sell to real people and then adjust my approach based on who and where those people are.
But let's take a closer look anyway. What are the differences? I would like to suggest ...
5 Ways Business Buyers Differ From Consumers
- Business buyers usually aren't spending their own money. Even if you're speaking to the owner, there's a different mind set about personal expenses and business expenses. Therefore, most purchases need to be justified in quantifiable terms.
- The buying process for major purchases is often complicated, following a formal, rigid pattern of bids, budgets, bargaining, and analysis. Business buyers need plenty of information to make a decision, often over a long period of time.
- You must sometimes talk to many layers of a company decision makers, buyers, influencer, and users and you may or may not be sure who is who. Then there's the mailroom and secretary barrier, people you have to go through first to get your message to your target.
- While most people have some level of brand loyalty, business buyers are particularly wary of taking chances on unknown products and services. The cost for mistakes in time, money, and personal reputation is too great. While some like to be on the cutting edge, most prefer to play it safe. They are especially influenced by the actions and opinions of colleagues and competitors. And they have elephantine memories when it comes to bad experiences.
- Business buyers are time-conscious during business hours. They don't welcome cold calls from businesses they don't know. They are barraged with mail and sort through it quickly. However, if something interests them, they will read it, though they want to get to the point quickly.
Whew! If you're used to the straightforward sell of consumer marketing, this may send shivers up your spine. But wait. Stop cowering in the corner and look at those differences again. We're talking about some pretty basic things here: purchase justification, full information, targeted messages, brand confidence, and clear communication.
Does that really sound so different? Don't you consider the very same issues in consumer campaigns? I wish to stress that business marketing is very different in terms of pricing, planning, buying cycles, and so on, but creating selling messages for the business market shouldn't be all that different from creating selling messages for the consumer market. From a creative standpoint, they are more alike than different.
But, once again, let's take a closer look. Let's see how these differences may play out in your approach. I now give you ...
14 Hints for Selling to the Business Market
- Turn your features into bottom-line benefits. Show how your gizmo will turn a good business into a better business with money or time saved, greater profits, more competitiveness, higher efficiency, etc. And whenever possible, be specific. Instead of saying, "The Gizmo Widget can save you money," say, "In the first year, the Gizmo Widget can cut printing costs for the average business by $23,687." Dig for specifics in every benefit you offer.
- Target benefits for different levels. The motivations of users, influencers, buyers, and decision-makers are all different. Let's say you're selling a seminar on how to increase the efficiency of the office. The president of the company may want to increase overall productivity. A department head may want ideas for dealing with difficult employees. A secretary may want to learn how to stand out and get promoted. Know who you're talking to and speak to that person's needs. If you can't do it in one message, do it in several different ones.
- List all the features. Include product specifications, prices, add-ons, options, future compatibility, and all the details. Often the final decision comes down to tiny differences between you and your competitor. And you can give yourself an edge by listing features your competitor simply doesn't talk about.
- Send a "keeper." Depending on the buying cycle of your typical customer, it could be months or years before a promotion pays off. So if your brochure, fact kit, sample, or other information is easy to file away for future reference, it will continue to sell until your prospect is ready to act. An important caveat: Don't use long buying cycles as an excuse to avoid making a strong, urgent offer with a clear call to action.
- Make your mail look important and personal. This can help you get past secretaries and the mailroom. Often, plain outer envelopes are best. For fulfillment, put "Here is the information you requested" or something similar on the outside. Invitation formats also work. Product samples, a message to the secretary with benefits for her or him, and dimensional packages have proved successful for many businesses.
- Mail to different job titles. You can use versioned copy, each version addressing the concerns of a different level within a company. You can encourage pass-alongs of one complete piece, such as a brochure or fact kit. Or you can address your piece to two or three people to guarantee that at least one person will read it.
- Lead with your offer. You can get away with a certain degree of creative indulgence in consumer marketing, but with few exceptions, business selling should be the model of directness. Create a strong offer and build your message around it. Make it clear, simple, and to-the-point.
- Use testimonials and success stories. They can have a profound effect on the risk-averse business buyer. Testimonials show that others trust and use your products and services, so they are therefore less risky. Success stories can accomplish the same thing, but with the added benefit of dramatizing and proving your promises.
- Feature your guarantee. A solid guarantee reduces the perceived feelings of risk and makes it easier for you to capture that first sale. It helps you build long-term trust and almost always increases response.
- Generate leads first to qualify prospects. This is especially true when you have a product or service that requires a significant investment of time and resources, or which is complex or expensive. A good lead program will help your sales team identify the best prospects faster and cut their per customer costs. If you don't have a sales force, you can still use the same technique in the form of a two-step (or more) direct sell the first ad or mail piece gets an inquiry and the follow-up asks for the order.
- Use more letters. They are your sales people in the mail, your personal contact. Often you don't even need brochures. One simple and nearly foolproof technique I often use for my clients is to create a one or two-page letter mailed in a business envelope with a reply card or fax-back sheet and maybe a toll-free number. With a simple package like this, you can generate inquiries for free information, sales calls, demonstrations, seminars, anything. Letters are personal, cheap, fast, flexible, and easy to produce. And they work.
- Try self-mailers. They encourage pass-alongs to decision makers. They're easier and more self-contained than multi-piece mailers, although not as personal. Self-mailers are a way to dramatically cut costs if you're used to mailing larger packages or more elaborate brochures. Sometimes, their economy can outperform everything else, including personal letters.
- Nix the jargon. There is language in every field you should tune into, including buzzwords, business concepts, and hot industry topics. However, there's a difference between speaking someone's language and hiding behind it. Clear communication works best in every situation. Say what you have to say in simple, straightforward prose.
- Make responding easy. Provide a toll-free number or business reply card. Explain your billing and shipping policies. Allow fax-back or Internet orders. Do anything that makes it easy for someone to say, "yes" to your offer. Inertia is one of your worst enemies, and you have to combat it actively.
The More Things Change ...
Now take a second look at those 14 hints. Anything sound familiar? Let's see ...
- Turn features into benefits. Standard stuff.
- Target your message. Of course.
- List your features. Heck, you do that in product packaging.
- Send a keeper. Borderline difference, but many consumer brochures are keepers.
- Make your mail look important and personal. Another borderline, but much consumer mail does the same thing. A direct mail package with a plain envelope, for example.
- Mail to different job titles. Hey, that's just targeting.
- Lead with your offer. Always good advice.
- Use testimonials and success stories. Works everywhere, really.
- Feature your guarantee. Nearly always boosts response wherever you use it.
- Qualify prospects. This is used more in b-t-b, but it's no different from a two-step consumer sale. Get an inquiry from a print ad, for example, then follow up with mail.
- Use letters. Hey, everyone reads letters.
- Try self-mailers. Just a test of economy.
- Nix jargon. You should be clear in all circumstances.
- Make response easy. That's a given.
You see. When you take a hard look at the details, all those dreaded differences just evaporate. From the standpoint of creating sales messages, business-to-business just isn't that much different from consumer marketing.
It's a mistake to think that you can take a purely consumer approach to the business market. But it's a greater mistake to think that the business market is a world unto itself and that the people in it stop being human when they clock in.
Never forget that business is business, but people are people.
Copyright © 2000 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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