What happens in an agency when a B2B brief hits the desk? Do all the creatives suddenly scuttle off in pursuit of work on sexier consumer-facing accounts? Do the planners pop out for well-timed lunch, or trip to the dentist for root canal work? Or does the entire team switch to autopilot because, to them, business marketing is synonymous with dullness?
The dearth of creativity and strategic thinking in B2B marketing would suggest the answer to these questions is resoundingly in the positive. This apparently dismissive response to B2B briefs is bizarre, given that, in these credit-crunched times, the sector is showing promising growth.
According to new business consultancy Pearlfinders, there has been a steady increase in B2B marketing activity in the first quarter of this year, and its research shows that B2B marketers are more positive than their consumer counterparts about the outlook for the rest of the year.
However, Pearlfinders managing director Anthony Cooper says these marketers are not entirely happy; his consultancy carries out interviews with more than 5000 marketing decision-makers each year to canvass opinion and identify trends.
One high-street bank's top marketer recently told Cooper that he was so tired of the lack of imagination shown by his incumbent B2B agencies that he was holding a review in an attempt to add some excitement to his campaign. The marketer also indicated that he felt that gaining a thorough understanding of his target audience required little effort and he was considering moving his account from a B2B to a B2C specialist, in the hope that it would bring its consumer insight skills to bear on the brief.
Cooper suggests that such comments are becoming frequently heard in relation to B2B marketing. 'There are two obvious conclusions: B2B specialists need to get creative oomph fast, and other agencies should reappraise the boring old world of B2B,' he says.
While poor creative and irrelevant messages are two key reasons for the failure of B2B marketing to connect with decisionmakers, there are other factors.
For example, targeting and segmentation are significantly less sophisticated than in the consumer world. Often companies lump huge swathes of business personnel into the same category and send them a blanket message, seemingly forgetting that these individuals are consumers, too - and sophisticated, cynical and busy ones, at that. They are used to filtering out commercial messages, often tech-savvy and, in the main, used to imaginative, engaging advertising from consumer brands.
As Ian Henderson, founder of B2B consultancy Totem explains, consumer marketing agencies are well-served by TGI and other data services, but it is much tougher targeting business audiences. 'They are much more fragmented, by sector and size, and usually smaller. So getting data at the right granular level is tricky,' he says.
Another data challenge is integrating online and offline prospect information. Yet, Henderson points out that new sources are beginning to emerge, citing as an example data company Culturemap, which aims to deliver more detailed B2B information. 'It's already proving very useful in creating influencer maps for SMEs,' he adds.
B2B marketing is often over-reliant on email. Its ubiquity as a means of communication in the business world has made it the preferred method of contacting business prospects, but its ease of use can also be a weakness.
'The problem is that emails are so cheap to use that companies have blindly rushed in to using them for most of their written communications and, in many cases, thrown all the good targeting and insight principles out of the window,' says Simon Lawrence, chief executive of B2B data and insight company Information Arts. 'As a result, B2B email is often poorly targeted, irrelevant and too frequent.'
Importance of relationships
Email marketing agencies wax lyrical about the impressive ROI their campaigns can achieve, as well as their ability to measure it. However, the returns may be high simply because the message has been sent out to so many targets at little cost; the real question that marketers should be asking is, in sending out this message, how many prospects is the brand potentially alienating through an irrelevant, unwelcome, shoddy communication?
Rather than this scatter-gun approach, B2B marketing should focus on fostering closer relationships with key decision-makers. While detailed B2B information may be scarce in traditional data houses, there is an unprecedented amount of information freely available online on individual businesspeople. Networking and social media sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter are repeatedly flagged up by specialists as potentially revolutionary weapons in the B2B marketer's armoury. 'Social media has the potential to open up another route to engaging business customers and, unlike other channels, it can't be filtered out by a PA,' says Gareth Horton, insight director at B2B data specialists Market Location. 'It can be a tool to build a brand and a means of facilitating direct one-to-one conversation, but it's still in its infancy. I'd suggest B2B brands take a tempered approach.'
Social media is also showing itself to be an effective way to handle customer service but this, too, is under-used in B2B. Again, there are data challenges, posed, in this case, by linking up a business' transactional history with the decision-maker's social media profile.
Researching prospects via social media is time-consuming, but it may be worth investing the effort required to gather this information. 'Building personal relationships is arguably more important in the B2B world than the consumer world, because the expenditure per head is likely to be much greater,' says Horton. 'Knowing the contact, their level of interest, buying power, and so on, means you can deliver a service more in tune with their needs and secure their custom in the long term.'
However, many B2B marketers seem to neglect the softer elements of the marketing process and, instead, go straight for the hard sell on email. Nonetheless, there are signs that change is afoot. For example, The Marketing Society has just set up a B2B working group in recognition of the discipline's growing importance.
In addition, a rising number of B2B brands are realising they have to be more imaginative to engage their audiences. As the APA attests, there has been an increase in organisations using customer magazines to reach business individuals. It argues that this medium holds readers' attention for 25 minutes on average and has the ability to convey complex messages, making it ideal for business content. The fact that Seven Squared set up a dedicated B2B unit last month is testament to this growth.
Clearly, it is unfair to tar all agencies with the same boring-B2B brush. They may be few and far between, but there are some innovative B2B campaigns. For example, airline-affiliation scheme Star Alliance's push to target high-value international business travellers.
Media agency MEC conducted extensive research to understand the behaviour of these senior businesspeople, discovering that they were in a state of 'continuous partial attention', but were always receptive to relevant, valuable information. It also advised Star Alliance, that to forge a deeper connection with this ad-sceptical audience, it should employ non-traditional media.
The brand responded by commissioning independent company Bertie Films to make series of short films, in association with business publisher Forbes. 'Undiscovered Business Entrepreneurs' told the behind-the-scenes stories of unusual businesses in diverse markets. They were shown on Forbes.com and Star Alliance members' in-flight videos, tapping into the business travellers' desire to be kept well-informed.
As well as growing awareness and understanding of the alliance, the content won a gold award at the New York Festivals International Television and Film Awards - evidence that creativity in B2B is possible.
A second example comes from an agency's own new business efforts and shows that, in an email-fixated market, traditional methods such as direct mail can achieve better creativity and stand-out when targeting business people.
Iris packaged 500 plastic dinosaurs and sent them out to key clients and prospects. 'Every day, clients are bombarded by marketing agencies trying to communicate their unique benefits. We created the dinosaur mailer to highlight, in a fun way, that our competitors are out-of-date and behind the times,' says Ian Milner, founder and chief executive of Iris Worldwide. 'The copy communicated that, in today's tough climate, you need to be fast, flexible and adaptable to such a volatile and changing market; otherwise you're heading for extinction.'
If the marketing directors' comments reported by Pearlfinders are an accurate guide to the mood in the industry, Iris could be right: unless agencies add some 'oomph' to their B2B strategies, they could go the way of the brontosaurus.
WHERE THE WORK IS - PEARLFINDERS INDEX
The Pearlfinders Index collects and analyses data from conversations with moe than 5000 marketing decision-makers in order to monitor key aspects of the marketing services industry. These are the results from the first quarter of 2010.
The sectors most likely to hire marketing services support are, in descending order: FMCG, leisure, charity/associations, financial services and retail. The most popular disciplines were digital expertise and consumer PR experience, with 13.3% of marketing directors considering taking this on. These were followed by design/branding (9.4%), corporate PR (9.1%) and advertising (6.6%).
Regarding the 'triggers' that spark new business opportunities, Pearlfinders found that this was mostly likely to be the result of changes in marketing decision-maker personnel (26.6%), followed by reviews (18.5%), restructuring/growth (16.9%) and NPD/innovation (14%).
For brand marketers looking to reach specific B2C audiences, there were three dominant demographic categories: ABC1 (28.8%), male (24.3%) and youth (22.5%). For B2B, the main industries marketers wanted to reach were: industry/manufacturing, professional/business services and charity/associations.
Marketers feeling most positive about the outlook for 2010 were, in descending order: FMCG, retail, financial services, travel/transport and leisure.
TOP TIPS TO GET CUT-THROUGH ... WITH A BUSINESS AUDIENCE
Add a bit of creativity to your message. Remember businesspeople are human beings, too. They want to be entertained and engaged, not bored to death by dull messages with meandering copy and an unattractive look.
Segment your business audience. Knowing a bit more about your target decision-maker and approaching them with a more relevant message about their budget or seniority, will lead to a much greater level of response.
Ensure you have a strong web presence. Businesspeople will undoubtedly check you out online before they spend any company money with you. Make sure your search engine marketing and pay-per-click strategies are up to scratch.
Get experimenting with social networking. It's difficult to reach businesspeople today, as more of them are constantly on the move. However, they are also increasingly using social networks such as LinkedIn and Twitter. Approach with caution, but start to play with how you can make precious connections with your targets.
Don't bombard them with emails. Businesspeople are overloaded with work emails, as well as spam messages. Don't contact them unless you have something interesting and relevant to say. Don't be tempted, either, to think that because email is cheap, you can take a scatter-gun approach and contact prospects repeatedly with the same message.