If social awkwardness could take physical form, it would probably look like a white paper on digital transformation. Buzzing with desperation for you not to look at it. To look somewhere, anywhere else. 

B2B marketing is drowning people in content, but the quality has never been lower. In the latest Edelman and LinkedIn Thought Leadership Impact Study, 71% of decision makers stated less than half of the thought leadership they consume provides any valuable insights.

Thought leadership, the notion of leading your industry with the quality, scope, and foresight of your thinking… has gone the way of the Swedish Fish Oreo. A simulacrum that no longer bears any relation to the reality it was intended to reflect. Buzzword stuffed verbiage soups that are barely warmed up before trying to ram a product or service down your throat.  

But, strangely, I’m optimistic about the future. Events, formerly the largest B2B marketing investment, appear slow to regain their previous traction, creating an opening for different tactics. With more voices noting the importance of B2B brand and a newly established B2B Cannes Lion category, I’m hopeful that a rebalancing of the marketing mix is incoming. Provided we can iron out a few issues.

Terminal Short Termism 

Peter Weinberg and Jon Lombardo of the B2B Institute coined 'The Product Delusion' to describe the fervent belief so many B2B marketers cling to - that they are competing on the quality of their product. The better the product, the more clearly its benefits are described, the stronger the sales. Damn the brand!

The Product Delusion is rife in B2B business, but I'd like to add another, co-morbid, condition to the mix:  

Obsessive Conversion Disorder. 

Which could perhaps be described as the relentless over-focusing of a programme on the bottom of the funnel whilst resolutely ignoring the top.   

In another study for the B2B Institute (can you tell I’m a fan!), Professor John Dawes - from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute - showed companies change their providers of services such as banking, legal advice, software, or telecoms around every five years. This means that only 20% are in the market for those services in any given year and just 5% a quarter.

The other 95% are not in the market at all.

By resolutely overserving the minute proportion of buyers who are 'in market', B2B marketers are missing out on the rich rewards of building long-term brand recognition. This kind of awareness and trust from those who aren’t in market yet is vital… because they may well be by the time you’ve closed that other deal. 

The Path of Least Resistance

As important businesspeople doing important businesspeople things there’s a tendency for us to sneer at the pursuit of fame. But fame has many practical benefits. It lowers the cost of customer acquisition, increases employee engagement, increases customer loyalty, and most satisfyingly of all, scares the hell out of the competition.

Yet our routes to fame, the great unifiers of culture, creativity, and emotion, continue to be seen as mere frivolities. Not taking the subject matter seriously enough. Not being ‘professional’.

But if we’ve proven that your buyer is indeed only a buyer 5% of the time – what are they the rest of the time?  

The answer, rather reductively is a human being.

A human with a wide range of interests – many of which correlate with others in the field. A human that does not, dear reader, wake every morning and think “hmm, can’t wait to sup upon some delicious, branded content today”.  

Work is only a portion of their lives and even then, it is tied up with emotions about legacy, reputation, achievement, and every day petty frustrations. After all, many B2B markets - from technology to manufacturing - are ones of low differentiation. Similar product features have bled into similar messaging. Add that to incredibly long sales, implementation, and contract periods - and any purchase eventually becomes an exercise in recognition, likeability, and trust.  

Do I know you? Do I like you? Do I trust you? These are questions of brand, of personality. 

Creative brand building, due to its rarity, is disproportionately rewarded in B2B. Whether it’s Jean Claude Van Damme in Volvo’s Epic Split, or Sinch’s Text for Humanity or General Electric’s Unimpossible Missions. Each had outsize business impact and helped brand recognition grow far beyond immediate customers and in-market prospects. Yet the most interesting thing about those campaigns is how they hit both brand and product. In being brave with how they demonstrated their product, they showcased huge brand personality. 

And so, from one B2B marketer to another, here are the three most important lessons I’ve learned about how to be brave: 

1) Think outside the box product market fit 

As Jon Bean, CMO of Sinch and award-winning B2B marketer, commented in our fireside discussion on Creative Bravery “everyone’s doing white papers, webinars… we should all be doing that stuff and improving but creative is how you differentiate your brand”. In fields where “everyone is broadly flogging the same stuff… creative allows you to explore the context your company and product operates in”.

For Sinch, a cloud-based messaging service provider, that context was the mobile phone, and the negativity that permeated our online experience. And so Text for Humanity was born. Exploring the context your company sits in, and the human experiences that typify that context, can provide a launch pad into meaningful, fame building creative.

2) Find a trojan horse 

As my colleague Phillip Trippenbach reminds us, content is only as good as its distribution. And whilst you can pay for distribution, you can’t buy attention. You have to earn it.

Time poor B2B audiences curate their attention carefully, whether through executive assistants filtering their inbox, ad blockers in their browsers, or carefully selecting commute worthy podcasts. But in the content and topics they wilfully consume, you can find a trojan horse. A cultural topic that can act as a vehicle for your message. From the software developers who gobble up space news, the c-suite executives who dream of cycling the Tour de France, to the 83% of millennial IT decision makers who own pets – human interest is the path of least resistance. 

3) Tap true uncertainty 

No matter the field you work in, it is among the true areas of uncertainty where you’ll find people searching for answers. But too often this search is met with a host of bloated materials – be it white papers or articles – that share largely the same comfortable views.

Finding the crossover of areas that are high stress, but currently underserved is gold dust for content marketers. As it stands though, 47% of buyers say that most thought leadership does not seem to be created with their specific needs in mind. It’s time to wake up to the fact that most buyers (81%) want insights that challenge their assumptions, rather than validate their current thinking.

To put it another way, they want you to be braver.  

Becky Ball is Director of Creative Strategy & Innovation at Edelman