3 Reasons B-to-B Marketing Is Damn Hard

Which is more difficult in direct marketing: B-to-B or B-to-C?

I think most marketers would say consumer direct response is more challenging — mainly because you’re after an order instead of a lead. And it’s more difficult to get a credit card number than it is to convince someone to download a free whitepaper.

But in the increasingly complex multichannel marketing environment of the 21st century, I now think B-to-B has the edge when it comes to difficulty of execution for three reasons:

1. Understanding the Products

Many B-to-B products are technical in nature, and often the people tasked with marketing the product don’t have the technical background to understand it easily or completely.

In the 1980s, my colleague Bob Pallace generated $1 million in new billings for his small ad agency by running a full-page ad in Industrial Marketing magazine. The headline of the ad read, “Are you tired of working for your ad agency?” The message was that when you hired ad agencies that didn’t understand technical products, they got the facts wrong, wrote ads that made no sense and the client’s engineers had to rewrite them. When you hired Pallace’s agency, you were getting B-to-B ad pros who understood and could sell complex products.

The response was overwhelming. And over the decades, the most common complaint I’ve seen marketing and product managers make about their ad agencies is that they don’t understand their product or technology.

Joe, a client who owned a small B-to-B agency, was inordinately proud of being a B-to-B marketer and actually disdainful of consumer advertising, which he denigrated as “Simple thoughts for simple folks.”

A third colleague from back in the day, the late Jim Alexander, ran a highly successful B-to-B agency in Michigan, and insisted that all of his account executives and copywriters understand what they were talking and writing about.

One of the rules he gave his staff was, “Do not lift a graph from the client’s source material and use it in the ad or brochure we are creating for them unless you understand what it means and can clearly explain it in a caption.”

Too many copywriters cut and paste graphs from technical documents into their copy because they think the graph looks impressive and important, without really understanding what it’s about.

Recently I had dinner with Terry C. Smith, who, as a marketing communications manager, gave me my first job as a junior marcom representative at Westinghouse. At dinner he said, “I didn’t hire you because you were a better writer than other candidates; I hired you because you had an engineering background and therefore could better understand the company’s complex products.”

2. Audience

Another difficulty B-to-B marketers face is understanding how to sell to an audience of which the marketer is not a member.

I had early success as a copywriter because for the first few years of my freelance career, my clients were primarily chemical companies and manufacturers of industrial equipment — and I have a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. These companies all sold primarily to engineers, an audience of which I was a member. So I understood well how my prospects thought.

More often, B-to-B marketing professionals have to sell technical products to audiences they don’t know much about.

For instance, a publisher hired me to write a direct mail package selling subscriptions to a newsletter for pediatricians. I quickly realized I had no idea what was important to pediatricians or what they worried about. My solution was to interview a few pediatricians, and I learned that, contrary to what I was certain was correct, not all pediatricians love kids as I do.

Joe Sacco, a Madison Avenue veteran, was assigned to write ads selling insulin injection needles to diabetics. Not being a diabetic, Joe talked to diabetics. To his surprise, the most sought-after quality in diabetes needles was sharpness.

You may think this makes no sense, because you probably equate sharpness with pain. But if you have ever injected medicine with a needle yourself, as I have, you know that it is the sharp needles that go in easily and with minimal pain; the dull ones are difficult to insert and hurt.

3. Buying Process

With consumer marketing, selling is fairly straightforward: You advertise to the consumer, and she either buys or doesn’t buy.

But the B-to-B buying process is more complicated. In certain industries, B-to-B prospects buy products from dealers, distributors or manufacturer’s reps, and not direct from the manufacturer. So the question becomes whether to advertise to the end-user directly, to the dealer, or to another distribution channel.

When advertising directly to the end-user, who in the organization should you sell to? The answer is not always clear. For instance, for a short time I sold training programs to manufacturing companies. You would think that targeting the training director would be the way to go, but it wasn’t. Training and HR directors were essentially order-takers: If someone in the company asked for a particular type of training, the directors would go out and find a vendor. But when there was no request in front of them, they had no interest.

Turns out, it’s better to sell training to the line manager in charge of manufacturing, quality control or any other function that could benefit from training. If you want to sell sales training, and can prove that your education has increased sales for others, the training director will likely be indifferent, but the sales manager may very well buy — even though prior to your contact he wasn’t looking.


Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter who has written copy for more than 100 clients including IBM, AT&T, Praxair, Intuit, Forbes, and Ingersoll-Rand. McGraw-Hill calls Bob “America’s top copywriter” and he is the author of 90 books, including “The Copywriter's Handbook.” Find him online at www.bly.com or call (973) 263-0562.


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