A 10 minute read, but worth it ;-)

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CONTENT MARKETING GOES TO PRISON SHOCKER!?!

The liveliest debate we’ve ever held brought some perspectives that I expect many fellow B2B marketers will be interested in…

For one night only, 20 diverse B2B marketers – including seasoned CMOs and the brightest of up & coming market talent – put marketing bullsh*t in the dock. The marketers present assumed the role of judge, jury and executioner as six popular modern marketing mantras were debated and voted on – the goal being to separate helpful marketing theories from hype.

There was disaccord, disagreement and disorder in court as multiple popular marketing theories were sent to prison. Here I summarise the jury’s verdicts – and also end with a number of encouraging recurring themes that arose during the feisty exchanges.

A PUNCHY OPENING POLL

We knew we were in for a punchy evening when an anonymous opening poll revealed no fewer than 15 different topics that marketers around the table thought were B2Bullshit. A snapshot of the answers are shown on the graphic below, but there were several surprised looks when content marketing was the most commonly named topic. What??? Well hold onto your britches, more on that to come.

Untitled1. ‘ADVERTISING IS DEAD’

First in the dock, we debated the assertion, oft-repeated by many modern marketing ‘experts’, that ‘advertising is dead’. Arguments for the defence (i.e. that advertising is, in fact, dead) were that advertising is intrusive, wasteful and very difficult to prove an ROI. It has been overtaken by inbound marketing and has become irrelevant in B2B.

In retaliation, the prosecution (i.e. advertising is not dead) asked “what are Google PPC, promoted tweets, sponsored LinkedIn posts and the like if they’re not advertising? You’re paying for people to see your brand and messages? And advertising surely has a place in building brand awareness, particularly when launching in new markets where people have never heard of you?”

Verdict: By a majority, the notion that ‘advertising is dead’ was denounced as bullsh*t. Most B2B marketers present used PPC or LinkedIn sponsored posts, for example, on a regular basis. And while several pointed out that advertising wasn’t anywhere near the top of their priority list as a tactic (particularly given modest budgets and small, niche B2B audiences), the rhetoric that advertising is dead was viewed as an excessive overstatement.

VERDIT: GUILTY – SENTENCED TO 5 YEARS B2B IMPRISONMENT.

2. PROGRAMMATIC ADVERTISING

Arguments in defence of programmatic were that it promises to put targeted content in front of targeted people in the places where those people consume messages – so is much less wasteful than traditional advertising. What could possibly be wrong with that? Several B2B marketers are seeing an ROI from it, right now.

The prosecution (ie arguing against programmatic) considered the worrying evidence facing the online ad industry: The high percentage of internet traffic that is non-human (>50%?); the sizeable percentage of advertising pounds allegedly creamed by ad middlemen; and concerns that view ability doesn’t mean ads have been seen. Ad fraud is a huge industry concern and many major advertisers are reconsidering their positions.

The verdict: By a large majority, B2B marketers voted against programmatic. It’s important to note that our B2B jurors liked the idea of programmatic in principle and were open to case studies on the ROI their peers were seeing, but were suspicious of the state of practice. And in the meantime, there is still, of course, the option of working directly with niche trade publications and influencers in your niche B2B sector.

VERDICT: GUILTY – 5 YEARS IMPRISONMENT, BUT GRANTED A SUSPENDED SENTENCE TO GIVE THE ONLINE AD INDUSTRY A CHANCE TO CLEAN UP ITS ACT.

3. BRAND PURPOSE

Third in the dock, our jurors debated assertions that clients buy from brands because of their purpose. In defence of those assertions, Simon Sinek’s seminal speech that argues people ‘start with why’ was cited, as was Jim Stengel’s best-selling book that demonstrated brands with ideals outperform the market. And from an internal perspective, having a purpose is transformative to staff engagement. ‘Purpose’ presents a significant opportunity to differentiate our respective B2B brands.

Arguments for the prosecution included the fact that Jim Stengel’s findings have been heavily questioned (see a debunking article here: Brand Purpose 

More importantly, a lot of B2B products are entirely transactional – such as provision of shipping pallets, office space, stationary supplies etc. Buyers don’t care why you sell those thing’s, they just want to buy a decent product at a decent price. Even a client coming to a B2B professional services brand to help make a big corporate investment is probably more concerned with trust, price and end-results than why you’re helping them to make that investment. Lastly, on the point of differentiation, a concern was stated that – within any particular B2B category – almost everyone had the same values and the same brand purpose. Differentiation based on purpose alone is rare indeed.

The verdict: There was a hung Jury. No clear verdict was reached and so, working on the tried and tested formula of being innocent until proven guilty, ‘brand purpose’ was released as innocent. But, the judge provided some words of caution upon release of the defendant. It was confusion over the wording and meaning of the charges that split the jury. While the jury said it was, of course, better to have a strong purpose, most people on the jury didn’t believe that customers buy from B2B brands because of ‘why’ we do what we do – rather because of ‘why we do it better than others’.

VERDICT: INNOCENT – RELEASED.

 4. BRAND LOVE AND ‘ENGAGEMENT’

Fourth in the dock, we debated the word ‘engagement’ and the notion that customers ‘engage’ with our brands. A stout defence cited that customers can have strong attachment to B2B suppliers (eg they have their favoured accountant, or their favoured SEO agency). There are also B2B brands with marketing that we admire and like, which creates an attachment to those brands.

The Prosecution’s argument (ie that ‘engagement’ is a bullsh*t notion and word) focused on a number of provocative questions… For example – are customers merely reading your blog post or are they engaging with the brand? Do people want a relationship with B2B products, or do they just want the product to work? When your clients go out for dinner with their husband, do they talk fondly about your brand over their dim sum? Do they repeatedly express love for your brand on social media?

Verdict: by a majority (50% of the vote, but noting 40% abstentions), the word engagement was found guilty of being bullsh*t. Of course B2B buyers can have strong bonds with their account managers, web supplier, lawyers, accountants etc. – but to claim they’re engaging with our brands was viewed as an overstatement (and one that normal people in the street might laugh at us marketers for asserting). It was the overstatement and hype that got the word some time at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

VERDICT: GUILTY – 3 YEARS IMPRISONMENT.

 5. CONTENT MARKETING

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated debate of the night saw content marketing debated. Surely this one couldn’t get imprisoned? The Defence simply stated the positive B2B results that many of us have experienced. And inbound marketing – connecting with potential customers when they are seeking answers – has to be the most efficient marketing answer, surely?

In response, the Prosecution cited research findings from Beckon and Trackmaven that content output has increased substantially, but that ‘engagement’ levels have dropped – to the point that the majority of content gets little or no response or conversion.

Verdict: Jurors were given a range of possible ways to vote. 95% voted that content marketing is a sound approach, BUT we must do it far better. (Doing it better in terms of differentiation, calls to action and linkage to sales). As a stern warning, however, there was a clear sense across the jury that historic expert advice on content marketing has been excessive and misleading. Any advice that content marketing is the ONLY way was also laughed at by all but one jury member. In summary, the jury found that content marketing is a sound tactic in B2B, but we need to do better with it, and has been heavily over-hyped. (Several expert proponents were called-out by name. )

VERDICT NUMBER 1: CONTENT MARKETING ITSELF WAS CLEARED AND RELEASED.

VERDICT ON A SECOND, RELATED CHARGE: CONTENT MARKETING IS GUILTY OF BEING OVER-HYPED. CONTENT-MARKETING HYPE, AND SUGGESTIONS THAT CONTENT MARKETING IS THE ONLY ANSWER TO MARKETING PROBLEMS, WERE EACH IMPRISONED TO 5 YEARS. NO CHANCE OF PAROLE.

6. SOCIAL MEDIA MARKETING

Last in the dock, another surprise choice – social media marketing – was debated. And the heat cranked up. The Defence (i.e. in favour of social media marketing) argued that it is inconceivable that we wouldn’t connect with clients via social media – particularly LinkedIn. B2B is a relationship-based game after all – and almost all B2B jurors had experienced repeated, positive results on social media.

The Prosecution didn’t debate the fact that B2B results had been delivered on social media, but did question whether B2B brands were seeing a return commensurate with the huge amount of effort being invested in it. It also argued that likes, follows and other metrics didn’t translate into purchases at scale. An AdAge report indicated that over 80% of CMOs hadn’t been able to prove a quantitative impact of social media marketing (although noted that survey was B2C biased).

Verdict: No-one voted against social media, but when pushed on the level of returns people were seeing, the debate got ‘fresh’. A slight majority indicated that they were seeing targeted returns on social media – a slight minority indicated they were seeing substantive financial returns. The winner, throughout, was LinkedIn – which is clearly now a tool of choice for most B2B teams and is proving to contribute.

VERDICT: INNOCENT – RELEASED TO GO BACK ABOUT ITS BUSINESS.

SUMMARY AND CONTEXT

Some of the results may dismay or delight, dependent upon your confirmation bias. What we hope you will focus on is that the perspectives were shared by fellow B2B marketers, from a host of B2B sectors – people just like you.

Moving on from the verdicts, what were perhaps more interesting findings were the common themes that arose in every single debate:

  1. Context is everything. A small, market-leading B2B supplier, with a target market of just 20 buyers, faces different challenges than a B2B challenger brand that is launching in new countries and has a target market of 10,000 potential buyers. Some B2B brands have 50 competitors – some 3. Consequently and necessarily, the tactics embraced by marketers vary substantially from one B2B context to another. Set against that truism, ‘absolutist’ claims about how you must do marketing are ill-founded poppycock. Context really is everything.
  1. Integrated is best. With particular reference to the hype that ‘content marketing’ is the only way, there was majority agreement that you need to use the right tool for the right marketing job. Often, in B2B, content marketing is a core part of that approach – but it is part of the tactical approach, not the sole tactic. There was near uniform agreement that an integrated approach to marketing is the best solution, and – again – absolutist advice that one way is the only way should be taken with a heavy pinch of salt (or possibly just ignored).
  1. Differentiation. Differentiation is important, but it is a tough battlefield, and – being brutally honest – B2B brands aren’t doing the best job of it. Differentiation of products / experience / positioning / promotional activities / and other things has to be an area of increased focus for us all.
  1. A common purpose. Back on the topic of ‘purpose’ – it was strongly voiced by B2B marketers that our sole reason for existing as B2B brands is to solve problems for our customers. That, ultimately, is what we all stand for. How we solve problems more effectively than our rivals is what sets us apart.
  1. Conversion. Again, on content marketing, as for all other promotional activity, we must always have a plan for how we’re going to move clients, slowly but surely, along the metaphorical funnel.
  1. Booze and juries. Lastly, we’re not sure if wine and chips make good bedfellows for jury service, but it definitely made for a really fun, interactive debate. We hope you can join us for a future one 🙂

Brian Macreadie

On behalf of the BMC

 

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