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The dynamics of winning attention in the B2B marketplace - a primer

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed April 9, 2018
You can't build subscribers if you don't earn attention. But now more than ever, the desire for attention poses a fundamental problem. Here's how to pull it off in B2B markets.

I've written in depth about the informed B2B buyer and how to earn their trust. The core of my argument is that reaching B2B buyers is not about laser targeting individuals. You 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.

Therefore, marketers must become educators and publishers, and salespeople must become advisors and "challengers" - challenging their prospects in useful ways by sharing data on how their company stacks up, creating an urgency to take action by freely sharing information.

Attention and the enterprise - beyond content shock

But the vendor behavior I see on social channels points to a more fundamental problem: the struggle for attention.

Attention on social channels is earned in three main ways:

  • Virality - as in, expensive stunts that (hopefully) generate a frenzy of clicks and shares.
  • Cult of personality/celebrity - I call this the "cat pee carpet test." If everything you do in your life is fascinating to your followers, including your cat peeing on your carpet, then you've earned attention via celebrity.
  • Topic authority and expertise. As blogger and author Cal Newport put it, "be so good they can't ignore you."

This has a big impact on how you're going to behave on social media. As I just wrote about in influencer marketing mistakes, we can be tempted to cater to celebrity and try to become one.

There is a big debate going on about attention and how to earn it. Some argue that everything must be short and sweet because human beings now have the attention span of a gnat. I don't agree, and addressed that point in Is the enterprise still in content shock?

But there's no question that winning attention is getting harder. Once we've earned attention, we can think about:

  • branding goals/product campaigns
  • opt-in/subscriptions
  • community/engagement
  • lead generation
  • embedded e-commerce/purchase tactics

But earning attention is hard. And once you've earned it, you could just lose it again.

The lines between personal and professional time are blurring. That means we are competing for attention not only with our competitors, but with Game of Thrones and Black Panther.

Fortunately, for B2B purposes, entertainment value is not the only way to gain attention. We can also earn eyeballs with relevance and helpfulness, which stems from our freely-shared expertise. It's more about sincerity than poetry. In turn, our company's expertise can be packaged into content projects.

Sustained attention is getting tougher in B2B markets

So why is sustained attention so difficult in B2B? Start with the obvious problem of interruption culture via streams of notifications and text messages. When people are posting baby pictures, they aren't downloading your slide deck. But there is more:

  1. Communities are fragmented across social channels. The days of folks eagerly gathering on your corporate web site and posting thoughtful blogs there are largely gone.
  2. Conversations that spark up around our brand our content aren't always visible (e.g. tracking relevant topics behind the walled gardens of LinkedIn and Facebook can be a beast).
  3. Fewer people bookmark and visit your home page on their own accord; their consumption habits are dictated mostly by social shares and subscription "pings."
  4. Organic search on B2B content is extremely competitive.
  5. Winning permanent search authority of evergreen topics is very difficult.Without a terrific/fast mobile UX, folks won't come back or want to browse.
  6. Folks want to consume your content on a variety of devices, from YouTube to Kindle to Alexa. If you can't provide those choices, and make them easy to consume, it's harder to sustain attention.

Fortunately, attention is a continuum. You only need some attention some of the time:

1. Earn attention via topic authority, content curation and providing visibility to industry events on your platform.

2. Sustain that attention by building opt-in audiences that include your target buyers AND their networks of peers and influencers.

The "opt-in" part is huge, because it implies that you have an audience that values your expertise enough to share their data. No, you might not have the brand passion of a Harley Davidson or a Foo Fighters, but you have brand affinity and respect. So it's really an audience of subscribers, willingly sharing data in exchange for info, services, and convenience (without shady list swapping).

Email subscribers are obviously the heart of it. Nothing puts butts in seats like email. But it's more than email. Subscribers take many forms, from YouTube to iTunes. Event attendees also qualify.

My take - two types of content set the B2B tone

As I said at my Podcamp presentation on buying behavior Saturday, we build our audience by making our content:

  • searchable (SEO still counts, and voice search is coming)
  • followable (via social channels)
  • subscribable
  • accessible/relatable (by being responsive to feedback, especially on social)
  • measurable (statistical)

Obviously I favor the pursuit of topic authority over celebrity and virality. If we are recognized for our specialty, fine. If something goes viral without distracting from our core message, that's a bonus.

For those who target B2B companies, e.g. those with complex/collaborative/high ticket sales processes, the attention game is different:

  • it's a narrower, more targeted audience that isn't nearly as vulnerable to viral marketing towards impulse purchases.
  • it's an audience where authority, trust, and being respected/known within the buyer's network is way more important than fame.

B2B companies have learned the hard way that attention is fickle. It’s sustained attention from the right audience that matters, not viral tricks or splashy ads without context.

The B2B content that earns attention has two foundations: customer case studies, and so-called "thought leader" content that speaks to industry issues and trends. At some point, you roll out a structured advocate marketing program and give your (hopefully happy) customers a platform for singing your praises.

And yeah, an awesome product that wins loads of word-of-mouth referrals never hurts either.

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