Want to be a big hit on LinkedIn? That's easy. Blow a gasket. Tell all your connections that "B2B and B2C is the same! Quit using those terms!"
Most will like and share your post - with rampant enthusiasm. But I am not one of them:
New rule: those who say B2B and B2C are exactly the same now are required to:
- spend ten hours a week on Instagram, including two hours liking and watching posts from top brand "influencers"
- two hours a week on Pinterest
- two hours a week on TikTok
— Jon Reed (@jonerp) May 25, 2021
The same goes for B2B versus B2C content strategy. The two are different because purchasing is different. B2C marketers have leeway to pursue "impulse buying" strategies. That includes everything from beer to phones to flat screens.
B2B marketing is still about attention - but it must be the right kind of attention, from the right audience. Once we've earned attention, we can think about:
- brand messaging
- lead generation
- embedded e-commerce/purchase
B2B content strategy - viral marketing doesn't win the attention game
Alas, the lessons from B2C marketers on how to get attention are deeply problematic in B2B.
Influence matters across the board, no matter what you're buying. In B2B, those influencers come in a variety of stripes, from CIOs to engineers to analysts. Many are not Koolaid drinkers for your brand. They might not be in your contact database. They might never be in your sales funnel - but they are trusted by those who buy. Therefore, content to (and from) those influencers matters.
That's because "buying attention" via advertising (and ad blockers) is a tough game - especially without content to bridge the "why should we care" gap.
Winning attention through content (and social interaction) is what counts. To an extent, we're all competing for the same attention. Any given weekend, a decision-maker might choose between time on Facebook, Netflix, or on our video channel. Unfortunately, that leaves B2B content marketers stumbling into the mistaken belief they must compete on entertainment value alone. That's where the "B2B storytelling" pitches come in.
Fortunately, attention is a continuum. You only need some attention, some of the time:
- Earn attention via topic authority, content curation and providing visibility to industry events on your platform.
- Sustain that attention by building opt-in audiences that include your target buyers AND their networks of peers and influencers.
But judging from the so-called content marketing I smack into online, B2B vendors are struggling with the attention dilemma. Attention on social channels is earned in three main ways:
- Virality - often-expensive stunts that (hopefully) generate a frenzy of clicks and shares.
- Cult of personality/celebrity - if every random thought you share is fascinating to your followers, then you've earned attention via celebrity. Outside of CEOs and a couple of over-marketed pundits, this is rare in B2B.
- Topic authority and expertise - as blogger and author Cal Newport put it, "be so good they can't ignore you."
As I wrote about in influencer marketing mistakes, we can be tempted to cater to celebrity, and hope our brand's leadership can achieve this status. Some argue that everything must be short and sweet, because human beings now have the attention span of gnats. I don't agree. (I once addressed that point in Is the enterprise still in content shock?).
The B2B attention game - sustained attention from the right audiences
Fortunately, B2B content marketers don't have to reduce themselves to soundbites about "low-code revolutions" - though some do. For those who target B2B companies - e.g. companies with complex/consensus/high ticket sales processes, the attention game is different:
- It's a narrower, more targeted audience compared to mass markets. B2B buyers aren't swayed by viral marketing into impulse purchases.
- It's an audience where topic authority, trust, and being respected/known within the buyer's network matters.
But earning attention is just the beginning. B2B marketers have learned the hard way: attention is fickle. It's sustained attention from the right audience that matters, not splashy ads without context. So how do you get there? That's the crux of the B2B marketing problem. The right content helps, but it needs a strategy.
Right now, I see two competing approaches. The first is widely accepted:
- Map out your "buyer's journey" and your "primary personas." Via so-called "customer journey orchestration," make sure that your prospects/customers are getting the right piece of content at the right time. Analyze the heck out of this. Fine tune to ensure your content is performing the way you want it to.
There is merit to this approach. However, I believe it falls short. Problem one: it doesn't effectively address the range of individuals that impact buying decisions, inside and outside the organization.
The second problem: key players aren't necessarily in buying mode, and won't be reached by this content. LinkedIn research recently found that only one in five B2B buyers mode are in buying mode at any one time. Yet the buyers' journey model assumes otherwise.
Can you throw AI at the B2B attention problem?
There is a third challenge: how the heck do you serve up the right content at the right time, personalized for each individual? Of course, this is where marketing vendors step right with their "shiny new toy" AI pitch. Supposedly, provide the exact right content, personalized to each buyer, in a real-time context. In Mathew Sweezey's binge-worthy Electronics Propoganda Society podcast mini-series, he says:
What the consumer wants is context. In the infinite era, there is no way to break through without first being contextual, to the moment. Understanding that our world is curated by artificial intelligence. And that context is the key to breaking through.
AI cannot, at this time, effectively serve up personalized content at scale in real-time. To be fair, Sweezey's views are nuanced and compelling. He makes a far better argument for AI context than anyone else. My video debate with Sweezey is one of my favorite discussions I've ever had (Debating fresh data on hyper-personalization, CX, and content strategy - with Mathew Sweezey). I've written on Sweezey's must-hear podcast in What the heck are content experiences, and why are we overhyping them? A skeptical riff.
Anyhow, AI is not irrelevant here. It can certainly help - but it is not a magical solution to the problem of real-time context. Especially when you take collateral brand damage into account. I think we need to be aware that in B2B, alienating prospects by sending them tone deaf content is a real thing.
Predicting at real-time context is an AI overreach
I'll grant you, AI serving up personalized content in real-time sounds sexy as hell.
Let's suspend disbelief then, and assume I am your desirable B2B prospect. I don't believe my "context" is something you can serve up to me. Why? Just like everyone else, my context is constantly shifting. Priorities change hour by hour, even minute to minute. They change via mobile alerts and notifications, texts, and whatever I see on my social media feed. Remote work or not, we live in a "workplace ping culture" now.
My context also includes: worries about my friend's dog I'm looking after, an ailing classmate, returning my decaf coffee I mistakenly bought instead of the real thing I desperately need, why my Internet just went out, and so on. Even during working hours, my B2B concerns fade in and out of my "context," often the strongest signal, but sometimes not.
The notion that a brand can anticipate my context is problematic. It's pump-primer for a "personalization with AI" sales pitch. I don't believe today's AI technology is anywhere near ready to serve up a personalized context to me, while serving up an equally different, personalized context to each colleague.
Please provide a contextual alternative, Jon!
Okay, fair question - so what's the alternative, Jon? Build opt-in communities around your content instead. I'll grant you, it's not as sexy. But it addresses the attention problem more effectively as well. How? By turning audiences into subscribers, and then into community members. When you have a subscribed audience, you don't have to constantly guess context. Why? Because they find you relevant. They will keep coming back. And if they don't, they have asked you to ping them. They have given you permission to keep them informed - hopefully at the frequency they desire. When their context gets around to the problems you solve, they know exactly where to turn.
I've written in-depth about the informed B2B buyer and how to earn their trust. The core of my argument: reaching B2B buyers is not about laser targeting individuals. You also want to reach their networks.
Enterprise buying is a collaborative decision that implicates experts and influencers inside and outside company walls.
Therefore, we want to build audiences of opt-in subscribers around the communities our buyers are active in. But it's not about marketing to those networks. It's about earning our way into those networks as active and respected parts of those communities.
Now, you're not trying to guess the context of a too-narrowly-defined buyer. Once those who impact buying decisions are subscribers, they'll be back. They'll get your info, at the rhythm they want, and they'll be back. They might drop out of your webinar to address a heated round of Slack messages, but they're subscribers. You don't have to worry about AI trying to take a shot at their intent.
This isn't some radical idea without enterprise ROI. In his terrific book The Context Marketing Revolution: How to Motivate Buyers in the Age of Infinite Media, Salesforce's Matthew Sweezey drops some eye-watering stats about Salesforce's Trailhead community:
Customers who complete the onboarding program and join the Trailblazer community (including Trailhead), buy, on average, twice as many Salesforce products and remain customers four times as long, producing significant overall increases for Salesforce in user adoption and LCV.
Nothing builds communities better than authentic content - and the interactions that follow. Those communities will give your content - and any AI investments you make on top of it - much more traction. Now, you'll have the data, via audience interactions. Data you earned by gaining buyer trust, before they were in buying mode. Solve problems with content -> earn trust. That's the real origins of the buyer short list.
My take - interruption marketing and buying complexity pose obstacles
I'm just about done with those who insist that B2B and B2C content are the same. But I'm worried about something. I don't want to imply any of this is easy - because it's really not. What are the main obstacles?
First, B2B buying isn't just complex - it is political, sometimes dysfunctional. It can also be plagued with inertia, and knee-jerk "approved vendor" conservatism. Yes, today's B2B buyers are more informed, via online forays and peer review sites. They tend to have good BS detectors against tech overhype. That doesn't mean the B2B buying process is efficient. Gartner's Hank Barnes blogs about this frequently - and effectively. I've charted my dialogue with Barnes on diginomica over the years. See: It's time to reduce enterprise buying complexity - a dialogue with Gartner's Hank Barnes. And: our recent video show, Crossing the enterprise buyer chasm - A live chat with Gartner's Hank Barnes.
Second, even if an individual likes our content, it's not easy to get them to sign up. We have an "interruption marketing" problem. Do you plaster web visitors with pop-ups? Intrusive "what are you here for?" chatbots? Many B2B sites do.
The dilemmas don't end at subscription. Just because they follow you, or subscribe to your content - that doesn't mean they will necessarily see it on their feeds, or in their inbox. So how much do you interrupt and ping people, once you know they are interested?
There's no easy answer, but I'd argue that kickass content really helps. Example: you seek out the best podcasts - and do the subscribing on your own. Despite the volumes of content out there, kickass B2B content is still a rare animal to find in the wild. Most brands are cranking out too much substandard content.
The good news: not all B2B content needs to be exceptional. Nor does it need to be wildly entertaining. An obsession with overly-entertaining B2B content can be an expensive mistake. Most effective B2B content just needs to be some combination of relevant, helpful, and interactive (interactive meaning the ability to easily converse with the creators).
Yes, you'll need content throughout the buyer's journey you map out - and for the existing customer lifecycle. Whoops - I fell out of buzzword compliance. It's all about "customer success" programs now. Either way, it all needs content. As long as it's relevant/helpful/interactive, and authored by people who know their stuff, it doesn't need to be exceptional.
There is, however, one type of content that does need to be kickass. That's the content we started out with - the kind that reaches key players outside of your sales funnel. And: it's the toughest content for brands to produce. I've written about how to produce this type of content before - check Why the informed buyer is ruining the content party. Yes, sometimes it's called "thought leadership" content, but it's so much more than that. Thought leadership is a limiting and self-congratulatory phrase; I think we all dread using it.
Consider a different buyer's journey than we are ever shown, one with a new/essential early dimension:
1. Contextual/trust networks - that arm executives with the know-how and peer insights they need
2. Awareness of relevant brands and products (increasingly driven by the buyers' online research)
Content for #1 is what we're talking about here. That type of content isn't brand-saturated. I've called it:
Thought-provoking stuff that stakes your industry vision and customer know-how, making those who aren't even your customers want to follow you.
It can be opinionated as well. Believe it or not, raw, authentic talk from experts qualifies as entertainment in B2B. As I wrote:
In other words, all B2B content should either entertain or inform. Informing is easier. In many cases, it's all you need. As for the entertainment factor, that could be more about a strong opinion than a polished video. Companies that take the social medial muzzle off their employees and let them issue strong takes - albeit within guidelines - have a big social/content advantage.
Change your content strategy - get a more compelling result. Content that energizes comes from an energized culture, and a creative discipline. Its effect on communities is palpable - including those who haven't yet opted in, whether prospects or influencers.
As for my dismissive shots at B2C, let's be fair: B2C has a profound impact on how B2B customers expect to interact and consume. And yes, the real distinction isn't really B2B, but the complexity of purchase. Some small business software decisions are as easy as a credit card. But convoluted consumer purchases like real estate are still different than the politically-complicated, multiple-stakeholder buying affairs we see in B2B.
Yes, the lines between B2B and B2C are blurring. But for content strategy, I see distinctions that matter. I'm going to hold to that view - even if it stops me from trending on LinkedIn.
End note: this piece was plenty long, but I still had to breeze through a lot. For more context, check my full diginomica series on the informed b2b buyer. A longer d•book on this topic, authored by yours truly, will be out this year as well.