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B2B has an empathy problem. Here’s how to solve it

So much B2B marketing is colourless and soulless. It might be factually correct, but it’s unimaginative and fails to engage. B2B marketers often make the simple mistake of assuming their target audience cease being humans between the hours of 9 and 5. Andy Cowles has eight tips on how to properly engage your B2B audience.

By Andy Cowles

B2B has an empathy problem. Here’s how to solve it

Business media is on a roll. Famous names and hyper-specialists like The Economist, WGSN, The Festival of Marketing, Professional Pensions and more, are all benefiting from reliable, high-value transactional relationships with audiences who really need them.

Unlike the mass market, there’s no blood to be lost on the newsstand, less dependency on ad revenues and more audience data to be monetised.

Business media has often been regarded as less glamorous than consumer publishing, but as big brands become interested in the professional end of their audience, that’s changing fast. Witness Vogue Business, Architectural Digest Pro, Saatchi Pro and any number of other propositions with ‘Pro’ bolted into the name.

And given that LinkedIn has turned us all into micro-businesses, someone somewhere is constantly trying to get into our own phone to tell us how they can help make us more money.

Experienced strategist Kevin Chesters recently claimed that business advertising was “universally ugly, boring and utterly meaningless”.

In America, a recent survey showed that of over a thousand purchasing decision-makers, 82% wished business advertising had the creativity associated with B2C, and 48% said they find it boring.

The survey concluded that, “so much business marketing falls flat because it doesn’t make the audience feel something”.

Conventional wisdom suggests that individuals can be engaged with on an emotional level, whereas for groups making business decisions, facts and data are paramount, as businesses have to account for their actions.

Businesses are tired of being sold to as if they didn’t have a pulse.

Humans, not machines

But this ignores the truth that the people who make these decisions are humans, not machines.

This is the root of the B2B empathy problem. And it starts with the name.

‘Business to Business’ removes emotion from the equation, but then compounds the crime by turning the category into an acronym. B2B might read like something computers can relate to, but it boils any sense of humanity out of the name. Would Apple do this? No.

Businesses are tired of being sold to as if they didn’t have a pulse. In the respected Investment Week, financier Bev Shah explains: “Despite the industry’s fixation on numbers, investment decisions are more likely to be based on emotion.” She goes on to say, “It’s important to remember we are not charts – we are humans.”

Numbers aside, Kevin Chesters highlights appalling copywriting as part of the problem – in particular, the reliance on ‘Solutions’ coupled with whatever combination of ‘Scalable’, ‘Driving’ or ‘Progressive’ you care to assemble.

It’s agreed that creativity in marketing is effective and we all know that emotion in advertising works. So why is B2B treated differently?

It comes down to managing risk.

If an individual is buying for personal use, then the risk level is usually low. But for businesses choosing, say, a software supplier, the risks are considerably greater.

Understandably, businesses are obsessed about getting their marketing story right, as opposed to making it interesting.

Anything that might take the product out of sector, make the brand feel less ‘safe’ or risk the audience not taking the proposition seriously is rejected.

This bias towards being right means no-one will get fired, the boat will not be rocked and everyone can all go home at 5.30pm.

The problem is that the work will have no impact.

Because customers have a bias the other way. Swamped by a virtual tsunami of business marketing, for them, it has to be interesting. Being right is just not good enough – to achieve cut-through, brands need to understand how their audience is feeling.

Business media is actually well placed to do this. Specialised content, insider access and serious expertise flatter the reader, empathise with career choices and create the idea ‘we’re all in this together’.

But content alone does not create trust. If you want loyalty, you have to start talking like you mean it.

1. Tone of voice is critical

Here’s the legendary David Ogilvy’s advice: “Talk to your audience the same way you would talk to a friend. Use their language. Don’t address your readers as though they were gathered together in a stadium. When people read your copy, they are alone.”

Good branding makes it easier for people to choose, and feel positive about what they’re paying for. But there is plenty of evidence that tone of voice is much more important when it comes to conversion. Customers enter your funnel from a hundred different directions; they may not know your brand, but they’ll sure be aware of how you speak to them in an email, tweet or headline.

If you can connect with feelings instead of thoughts, you’ve reached the place where decisions are made.

2. Know what’s most important

David Ogilvy famously described strategy as sacrifice. Today is no different, with digital development predicated on ruthless prioritising. It doesn’t matter how many messages you want to get across, something must come first. Empathising with your audience is a great way of finding what’s really important to them.

Here’s Rory Sutherland from his new book, Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don't Make Sense: “You need to explain what you do, but that should never be the first interaction your audience has with your brand. Instead, they should see something that breaks through the noise to capture their interest and, ideally, make them feel something.”

“When you’re strategising around creative development, pose emotional questions to get inside the hearts of your customers. What are their biggest challenges? What do they think they want? What do they really need? What do they dream about? If you can connect with feelings instead of thoughts, you’ve reached the place where decisions are made.”

3. Do not confuse empathy with emotion

The eight basic emotions are fear, sadness, joy, disgust, surprise, anger, anticipation and trust. Feelings can of course be created by logic and reason, but empathy does it better, particularly when it comes to trust. Emotions create impact, but only trust leads to loyalty.

4. Always tell a story

‘Storytelling’ is not a new thing; humans have always been hard wired to respond to a bit of drama. There’s lots of research on this, from the Hero’s Journey through to the simpler four-step model of character, context, conflict and creation.

A good story hooks people in and lets them feel what it’d be like to use your product or service. But this is where business media can struggle, because storytelling requires risk.

What’s really risky is spaffing a client’s budget on undifferentiated tosh that will not move the needle in any way at all.

5. Managing risk

Businesses bias towards being right, audiences bias toward interesting. The line between these two positions is a continuum, and it’s hard to discover where the sweet spot lies. But there is a two-step method of getting to it fast, best explained by my colleague Andy Pemberton in our Guardian ‘Never Lose Another Pitch’ Masterclasses. “Go as far as you dare toward interesting, then come back a notch. If you try to iterate out from a safe place, you’ll never get anywhere.”

Agencies often refer to certain ideas as being ‘brave’, which I understand to mean risky. I suspect that most of the time ‘brave’ is used to describe work that empathises with what the audience believes as opposed to explaining what the product does.

What’s really risky is spaffing a client’s budget on undifferentiated tosh that will not move the needle in any way at all.

6. Headlines are everything

The first and most important piece of your story. Along with the thumbnail, it’s the thing everyone will share. It’s your tweet, caption, coverline and your future. Tactical headline writing tips abound, but they all boil down to the four Us – unique, ultra-specific, urgent and useful. Strategically, it’s all about having a consistent point of view. For example, The Economist is all about free trade. That belief underpins everything they do.

Design lets you hear what isn’t being said.

7. Good design is good business

Steve Jobs said, “the interface is the product”, meaning customers will start making judgements within seconds. That’s why total clarity in every brand asset and impact across every touchpoint is essential.

Half art, half science, design is the process by which these assets are created and organised. Design is both collaborative and unilateral – that’s why brand documentation is key. If stakeholders can sign up to a cold piece of text, it gives the design process something to be measured against, allows the right questions to be asked and prevents stakeholder bias blowing the ship off course.

IBM coined the famous definition, “Good design is good business”, which still works well. The legendary Saul Bass said, “Design is thinking made visual” – also true. For myself, I would say, design makes your audience feel included.

Design lets you hear what isn’t being said.

8. More empathy leads to more profit

One of the wisest things I ever heard was from business legend Peter Drucker, who noted, “Marketing and innovation are the only things that produce results. Everything else is cost.”

To be effective, Marketing and innovation must respond to the emotions of others – “C-level focus on empathy helps businesses discover unknown customer needs and understand behaviours that affect a product’s appeal”, says respected marketer Michael Brenner.

Internally, taking time to understand different groups results in learning more, selling more and gaining skills faster, according to an article by Tiziana Casciaro, Amy Edmondson and Sujin Jang in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review.

In practice, what this means is horizontal, cross-silo collaboration. When resource is tight, this can be a challenge, but getting the right people in the development mix is always the first step towards new ideas that will make a difference.

Being right is just not good enough – to achieve cut-through, brands need to understand how their audience is feeling.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.