One of the most important questions in business-to-business—or B2B—marketing concerns tone. Should your marketing communications be purely fact-based and devoid of the emotional appeals typically found in consumer advertising? Or, should they recognize that people are people, even in a business setting, and acknowledge their personal concerns? This conflict underscores one of the many ways that selling to companies differs from selling to consumers. The answer, experts say, is to address both their personal and business concerns about buying your product or service. The first step is knowing as much as you can about your prospect.
While a fair amount of business-to-consumer advertising involves brand building, B2B marketing is more concerned with generating leads, nurturing relationships, and educating the buyer until the sale is made. Building rapport begins with understanding how your target audience communicates with itself.
"You need to speak their language, to make sure you come across as someone who understands their industry," says Bob McCarthy, president of McCarthy & King Marketing, a Milford, Massachusetts-based marketing services firm. "But don't go overboard and make [your communications] incomprehensible."
B2B marketing communications that make some kind of an offer—such as a white paper or webinar invitation—and then measure response are crucial for both online and direct mail efforts. The trick, McCarthy notes, is to come up with an incentive that moves them along the sales process. "It's always a tradeoff: I will give you my white paper if you give me your email address. Then I'll give you something else if you give me the best time I can call you," he says.
For example, McCarthy recalls a B2B lead generation campaign that he put together for an engineering manufacturer. He created a short survey that was mailed to approximately 20,000 prospects in order to identify the key decision makers, their upcoming needs for the manufacturer's products, and the best time to follow up. McCarthy tested two different premiums that were offered as incentives for completing the survey, and tracked the results. The campaign generated a 4.1 percent response—higher than the average rate for a typical direct mail campaign. The client was also able to use the survey results to customize future contacts with the prospects who responded.
Heavy-handed sales pitches, particularly in direct response B2B marketing, have fallen out of favor recently and been replaced with efforts that build relationships over time. "The more you know about your prospect and how to reach them, the more successful your marketing will be," says Steve Slaunwhite, an Ontario, Canada-based marketing coach and author.
As an example, Slaunwhite reports that professional speakers are information junkies who love to read and attend presentations. A special report—either about something they regularly speak on in their niche or an evergreen topic, such as time management—would be an appropriate way to grab their interest and demonstrate the value of your business's product or service. Speaking at events that they attend is another way to raise your visibility. You also have to inhabit those same spaces where your prospects and customers now live.
"These days, more and more business people in the corporate sector are relying on their mobile devices than ever before," Slaunwhite explains. In his own case, almost one-third of the people who visit his website are now accessing it through some kind of mobile device—a big change in just the last couple of years.
If you're selling an expensive product or service, providing good content is also a smart way to keep prospects engaged until they decide to buy. Slaunwhite reports that case studies—essentially, success stories of your product or service—give you an advantage over your competition.
"Prospects love case studies because they tell how your product or service worked at another customer's location. It's an extended testimonial," he says. "They take a little more effort to create because it involves interviewing your customer and getting the story, but they're very, very powerful."
Face-to-face marketing still works
The strength of content marketing—such as white papers, webinars and case studies—as well as reaching prospects remotely by mail or online channels is undeniable. Some B2B-centric businesses, however, have also built relationships and coaxed sales through direct, person-to-person contact.
That's the case with Smockers, a San Antonio, Texas-based manufacturer and marketer of uniforms primarily for the beauty industry. Founded in 1994, Smockers has fewer than ten employees, but grossed around $1 million in sales in 2011.
Smockers uses a variety of marketing channels to drive sales. For example, they run ads in the trade publications read by their prospects, and they also have links to their homepage on the websites of related companies who sell non-competitive products. But their primary B2B marketing strategy is to make contact with potential buyers at trade shows.
"We attend trade shows and get information from the employees of the various corporations [who are also attending]," says Brian A. Rice, CEO of Smockers. "Then we follow up with telephone marketing and stay in contact both before and after the product is shipped."
In many cases, Smockers is able to get orders almost immediately by following up with a phone call after a trade show. Selling a uniform might not require much selling on first glance because of its relative simplicity, but the sputtering economy has complicated Rice's job.
"It's a discretionary, not an essential, item," he explains. "We have to educate the customer that our uniforms protect clothing and [prove] the value of our product for the length of time it lasts."
Rice attributes some of the company's success to minding the small details: following up, taking nothing for granted, tenacity, staying on top of who's buying what, and noting any personnel changes at his clients. "We're just a small company," he admits, "but we've made money every year, so we're doing something reasonably right."
B2B marketing communications that reflect a deep understanding of their target prospects increase the likelihood that they will be read and acted upon positively.