How I Cleared a Room Full of Marketing Techies

Was it me?

Was it something I said?

I don’t think so. I think it was just that I was talking about B2B.

Let me explain.

Last week, I was in San Francisco talking at a marketing technology conference. My session, in which I was a co presenter, was going to be about psychographic profiling and A.I. – in B2B marketing. It was supposed to start immediately after another session on “cognitive marketing”. During this prior session, I decided to stand at the back at the room so I didn’t take up a seat.

That proved to be a mistake. During the session, which was in one of three tracks running at the time, the medium sized room filled to standing room only capacity. The presenter talked about how machine learning – delivered via IBM’s Watson, Google’s DeepMind or Amazon’s Cloud AI solution – is going to change marketing and, along with it, the job of a human marketer.

I found it interesting. The audience seemed to think so as well. The presenter wrapped up – the moderator got up to thank him and introduce me as the next presenter – and about 60% of the room stood as one and headed for the exit door, creating a solid human wall between myself and the stage. It took me – the fish – about 5 minutes of proverbially and physically swimming upstream before I could get to the stage. It wasn’t the smoothest of transitions.

I tend to take these things personally. But I honestly don’t think it was me. I think it was the fact that “B2B” was in the title of my presentation. I have found that as soon as you slap that label on anything, marketers tend to swarm in the opposite direction. If there is a B2B track at a general marketing show, you can bet your authentic Adam West Batman action figure (not that I would have any such thing) that it’s tucked away in some far-off corner of the conference center, down three flights of escalators, where you turn right and head towards the parking garage. My experience at this past show was analogous to the lot of B2B marketing in general. Whenever we start talking about it, people start heading for the door.

I don’t get it.

It’s not a question of budget. Even in terms of marketing dollars, a lot of budget gets allocated for B2B. An Outsell report for 2016 pegged the total US B2B marketing spend at about $151 billion. That compares respectfully with the total consumer Ad Spend of $192 billion, according to eMarketer.

And it’s definitely not a question of market size. It’s very difficult to size the entire B2B market, but there’s no doubt that it’s huge. A Forrester report estimates that $8 trillion was sold in the US B2B retail space in 2014. That’s almost half of the US gross domestic product that year. And a huge swath of the business is happening online. The worldwide B2B eCommerce market is projected to be $6.7 trillion by 2020. That’s twice as big as the projected online B2C market ($3.2 trillion).

So what gives? B2B is showing us the money. Why are we not showing it any love? Just digging up the background research for this column proved to be painful. Consumer spend and marketing dollar numbers come gushing off the page of even a half-assed Google search. But B2B stats? Cue the crickets.

I have come to the conclusion that it’s just lack of attention, which probably comes from a lack of sex appeal. B2B is like the debate club in high school. While everyone goes gaga during school assemblies over the cheerleading squad and the football team, the people who will one day rule the world quietly gather after class with Mr. Tilman in the biology lab to plot their debate strategy for next week’s match up against J.R. Matheson Senior High. It goes without saying that parents will be the only ones who actually show up. And even some of them will probably have to stay home to cut the grass.

Those debaters will probably all grow up to be B2B marketers.

It may also be that B2B marketing is hard. Like – juggling Rubik’s Cubes while simultaneously solving them – hard. At least, it’s hard if you dare to go past the “get a lead and hound them mercilessly until they either move to another country or give in and buy something to get you off their back” school of marketing. If you try to do something as silly as try to predict purchase behaviors you have the problem of compound complexity. We have been trying for some time, with limited success, to predict a single consumer’s behavior. In B2B, you have to predict what might happen when you assemble a team of potential buyers – each with their own agenda, emotions and varying degrees of input – and ask them to come to a consensus on an organizational buying decision.

That can make your brain hurt. It’s a wicked problem to the power of 5.4 (the average number of buyers involved in a B2B buying decision- according to CEB’s research). It’s the Inconvenient Truth of Marketing.

That, I keep telling myself, is why everyone was rushing for the door the minute I started walking to the stage. I shouldn’t take it personally.

The Status Quo Bias – Why Every B2B Vendor has to Understand It

It’s probably the biggest hurdle any B2B vendor has to get over. It’s called the Status Quo bias and it’s deadly in any high-risk purchase scenario. According to Wikipedia, the bias occurs when the current baseline (or status quo) is taken as a reference point, and any change from that baseline is perceived as a loss. In other words, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. We believe that simply because something exists, it must have merit. The burden of proof then falls on the vendor to overcome this level of complacency

The Status Quo Bias is actually a bundle of other common biases, including the Endowment Effect, the Loss Aversion Bias, The Existence Bias, Mere Exposure effect and other psychological factors that tend to continually jam the cogs of B2B commerce. Why B2B? The Status Quo Bias is common in any scenario where risk is high and reward is low, but B2B in particular is subject to it because these are group-buying decisions. And, as I’ll soon explain, groups tend to default to Status Quo bias with irritating regularity. The new book from CEB (recently acquired by Gartner) – The Challenger Customer – is all about the status quo bias.

So why is the bias particularly common with groups? Think of the dynamics at play here. Generally speaking, most people have some level of the Status Quo Bias. Some will have it more than others, depending on their level of risk tolerance. But let’s look at what happens when we lump all those people together in a group and force them to come to a consensus. Generally, you’re going to have a one or two people in the group that are driving for change. Typically, these will be the ones that have the most to gain and have a risk tolerance threshold that allows the deal to go forward. On the other end of the spectrum you have some people who have low risk tolerance levels and nothing to gain. They may even stand to lose if the deal goes forward (think IT people who have to implement a new technology). In between you have the moderates. The gain factor and their risk tolerance levels net out to close to zero. Given that those that have something to gain will say yes and those who have nothing to gain will say no, it’s this middle group that will decide whether the deal will live or die.

Without the Status Quo bias, the deal might have a 50/50 chance. But the status quo bias stacks the deck towards negative outcomes for the vendor. Even if it tips the balance just a little bit towards “no” – that’s all that’s required to stop a deal dead in its tracks. The more disruptive the deal, the greater the Status Quo Bias. Let’s remember – this is B2B. There are no emotional rewards that can introduce a counter acting bias. It’s been shown in at least one study (Baker, Laury, Williams – 2008) that groups tend to be more risk averse than the individuals that make up that group. When the groups start discussing and – inevitably – disagreeing, it’s typically easier to do nothing.

So, how do we stick handle past this bias? The common approach is to divide and conquer – identifying the players and tailoring messages to speak directly to them. The counter intuitive finding of the CEB Challenger Customer research was that dividing and conquering is absolutely the wrong thing to do. It actually lessens the possibility of making a sale. While this sounds like it’s just plain wrong, it makes sense if we shift our perspective from the selling side to the buying side.

With our vendor goggles on, we believe that if we tailor messaging to appeal to every individual’s own value proposition, that would be a way to build consensus and drive the deal forward. And that would be true, if every member of our buying committee was acting rationally. But as we soon see when we put on the buying googles, they’re not. Their irrational biases are firmly stacked up on the “do nothing” side of the ledger. And by tailoring messaging in different directions, we’re actually just giving them more things to disagree about. We’re creating dysfunction rather than eliminating it. Disagreements almost always default back to the status quo, because it’s the least risky option. The group may not agree about much, but they can agree that the incumbent solution creates the least disruption.

So what do you do? Well, I won’t steal the CEB’s thunder here, because the Challenger Customer is absolutely worth a read if you’re a B2B vendor. The authors, Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon, Pat Spenner and Nick Toman, lay out step by step strategy to get around the Status Quo bias. The trick is to create a common psychological frame where everyone can agree that doing nothing is the riskiest alternative. But biases are notoriously sticky things. Setting up a commonly understood frame requires a deep understanding of the group dynamics at play. The one thing I really appreciate about CEB’s approach is that it’s “psychologically sound.” They make no assumptions about buyer rationality. They know that emotions ultimately drive all human behavior and B2B purchases are no exception.

Why Agencies and Clients are Calling It Quits

“Love on the Rocks – ain’t no surprise.”

Neil Diamond

In yesterday’s Online Spin, Maarten Albarda signaled the imminent break up of agencies and clients. Communication is close to zero. Fingers are being pointed. The whisper campaign has turned into outright hostility.

When relationships end, it can be because one of the parties is just not trying. But that isn’t the case here. I believe agencies are truly trying to patch things up. They are trying to understand their one-time life partner. They are desperately gobbling up niche shops and investing in technology in order to respark the flame. And the same is true, I believe, on the client side. They want to feel loved again by their agency of record.

I think what’s happening here is more akin to a break up that happens because circumstances have changed and the respective parties haven’t been able to keep up. This is more like high school sweethearts looking at each other 20 years hence and realizing that what once bonded them is long gone. And, if that’s true, it might be helpful to look back and see what happened.

The problem here is that the agency is a child of a marketplace that is rapidly disappearing. It is the result of the creation of the “Visible Hand” market. In his book of the same name, Alfred Chandler went to great lengths (over 600 pages) to chronicle the rise of the modern organization. The modern concept of an advertising agency was a by-product of that. Vertically integrated organizations came about to overcome some inherent inefficiencies in the market – notably the problem of geography and the lack of a functional marketplace network that came with rapid expansions in production and transportation capabilities. Essentially, markets grew too rapidly for Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” to be able to effectively balance through market dynamics. Organizations grew to mammoth size in order to provide internal efficiencies that allowed for greater profitability. You had to be big to be competitive. Agents of all types filled the gaps that were inevitable in a rapidly expanding market place. Essentially an agent bridged the gap between two or more separate nodes in a market network. They were the business equivalent of Mark Granovetter’s “weak tie.”

Through the 20th century advertising agents evolved into creative houses – which is where they hit their golden period. But why was this creativity needed? Essentially, agencies evolved when advances in production and distribution technologies weren’t enough to expand markets anymore. Suddenly, companies needed agencies to create demand in existing and identified markets through the sparking desire. This was the final hurray of the “visible hand” marketplace.

But the explosion of networking technologies and the reduction of transactional friction is turning the “visible hand” market back into the “invisible hand” market of Adam Smith – driven by the natural laws of marketplaces. The networks of the marketplace are becoming more connected than ever.

This is a highly dynamic, cyclical market. Straight line strategic planning doesn’t work here. And straight line strategic planning is a fundamental requirement of an agency relationship. That level of stasis is needed to overcome the inherent gaps in a third party relationship. Even under the best of circumstances, an arm’s length relationship can’t effectively “make sense” of the market environment and react quickly enough to maneuver in this marketplace. And, as Albarda points out, the client-agency relationship is far from healthy.

The ironic part is all of this is that what was once an agency’s strength – its position as a bridge between existing networks, has turned into its greatest vulnerability. Technology has essential removed the gaps in the market itself, allowing clients to become more effectively linked to natural networks of customers through emerging channels that are also increasingly mediated by technology. Middlemen are no longer needed. Those gaps have disappeared. But the gap that has always been there, between the agent and the client, not only still exists, but is widening with the breakdown of the relationship. Agencies are like bridges without a river to span.

If you read the common complaints from both sides in the presentations Albarda references , they all come from the ever-widening schism that has come from a drastic change in the market itself. Simply put, the market has evolved to the point where agency relationships are no longer tenable. We on the agency side keep saying we need to reinvent ourselves, but that’s like saying that a dog has to reinvent itself to become a fish – it’s just not in our DNA.

Looking for the B2B Needle in the B2C Haystack

First published April 12, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

It’s not easy being a B2B marketer of the digital variety. Trust me. The problem is that 99% of the online world seems to be built specifically for the consumer market, and us B2B types have to try to divvy up the 1% that’s left. And that’s where it gets challenging.

The Tip of a hidden B2B Iceberg

One of the challenges is the lack of definition of the B2B market. It’s massive. But no one really seems to know just how big it is. When I was writing my book on B2B digital marketing, I tried in vain to try to find some reliable quantification of the immensity of the market, but I never did find a number that seemed fit for quoting. I had consumer market stats coming out of the ying-yang, but no one wanted to go on record to try to nail down the size of the business-to-business marketplace.

Consider this, though. For every consumer product that ends up in your hand, there is a long string of B2B transactions that precedes it. Some are materials and components directly incorporated into the end product, but many are indirect: equipment, services and supplies required to keep the long supply chain running.

Massive Fragmentation

If the B2B market is one massive iceberg that remains hidden, the challenges that face the B2B marketer start compounding when you consider that the market isn’t a monolithic one. Unlike the big consumer markets like automotive or consumer electronics, B2B markets are incredibly fragmented. The market lives in tiny little slivers spread across the online landscape. Suddenly our iceberg shatters into billions and billions of slippery little ice cubes.

This becomes apparent when you try to use a service like comScore or Hitwise to get market intelligence. Unless you’re GE, Siemens or Oracle, the vast majority of B2B websites have barely enough traffic to register in the datasets of these tools. Consumer markets tend to aggregate around a few landmark sites. But B2B traffic is scattered to the four winds. Even big B2B suppliers like 3M face the same problem in trying to obtain meaningful competitive data, once you go past the home page.

Consider that the main site, 3M.com, gets roughly the same traffic as just one site for a single PG consumer brand, Pampers.com. But within the 3m.site, no less than 70 different product divisions and hundreds of thousands of product lines are represented, from electronic components to liquid absorption materials that are used in, yes, those very same Pampers. If you try to slice and dice the traffic to get any meaningful intelligence, you soon find it would be easier to split an atom.

B2B Buyers look very much like B2C Buyers in the Data

Finally, you have the problem that when we have our B2B buying hat on, we still act much the same as when we wear our everyday consumer hat. We don’t suddenly change our search or online habits. For example, if you’re researching a possible solution for improving the water quality of a chain of coffee franchises, you’re likely to use pretty much the same keywords on Google that you might if you were looking for a home unit to fit under your kitchen sink.

When we search, we tend to start broad and only narrow down our searches when we have to. So when you look at search data available through Google or another tool, it becomes virtually impossible to segment B2B traffic from B2C. In the data, it often looks the same. So as you try to quantify opportunity, you start playing the B2B guessing game, where you arbitrarily discount the opportunity based on a WAG on what percentage could possibly be non-consumer in nature.

If you’re looking in a highly specialized product category, you might eventually use a B2B search tool like ThomasNet, GlobalSpec or KnowledgeStorm, but in all our research we have found that vast majority of B2B search activity happens in the same place as our consumer queries: namely Google, and to a lesser extent, Bing and the other alternatives.

Slim Pickens…

If you’re a consumer marketer, there is an increasingly rich set of digital marketing tools and data and targeting services to choose from. Everybody and their cousin are falling over themselves to cater to this market. But if you’ve decided to stake your flag on the B2B side of the divide, good luck! Only the foolhardy and brave seem to want to set foot here.

The Psychology of Couponing: Where Agillitee Went Wrong

First published September 22, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Is a Groupon model the next big thing for B2B? Apparently not. Or, at least, not now, based on an early trial by a Chicago-based consulting firm, Ajillitee. The company used Groupon to offer $25,000 worth of consulting services at half price.

It was the biggest deal Groupon had ever offered. Hey, keeping $12,500 in your pocket is nothing to sneeze at. And, since buying consulting services is not exactly the same as snagging a half-off lunch coupon, the offer stayed open for three weeks, giving all potential takers plenty of time to act.

But, at the end of the three weeks, the offer disappeared. The result? Nary a sale — not even one. Ajillitee extended the offer on its own website, with the same result.

“We were really trying to test the market,” said Ajillitee CMO Diann Bilderback. “What we learned was that we were early to the game. Groupon’s platform is the platform for this (online coupons), but it’s very consumer-oriented. The rules didn’t align with our kind of sale. Groupon works on snap decisions, but business decisions typically take longer.”

Well, that’s true. But there’s another element at play here. It’s the psychology of the deal itself. Do you really want to buy thousands of dollars of consulting services with a coupon? Even one saving you 50%? Thought not. Pizza? Sure! A pedicure? Maybe.  Half-price yoga? Sign me up. But critical information systems for your company? No thank you!

Coupons work well in certain markets, and not so well in others. For example, would you use a coupon for a doctor or a lawyer?  Probably not, but why? Why a pizza, and not a heart surgeon?

The answer can be summed up in one word: risk. Coupons work extremely well in some well-understood circumstances — to save money on something you were going to buy anyway, or when you want to treat yourself. In a previous series of columns, I talked about how all buying decisions are predicated on a balance of risk and reward.  Reward is the gas pedal, and risk is the brake pedal. If risk is very low, coupons can serve to push you past the tipping point and get you to act immediately rather than “someday.”  They accelerate latent consumer demand.

Coupons can also sway a purchaser from one brand to another, but this typically only happens when risk is minimal. Coupons work in the world of the “pretty good problem,” where all the options are within a range acceptable to the buyer. Think of laundry detergent, cheese slices or hand soap.

Finally, coupons can reduce the barriers keeping you from an indulgent impulse purchase. Coupons play on short-term gratification, introducing the promise of reward, compounded by the dopamine rush that comes from snagging a great deal. It amps up the “reward” portion of buying motivation so that the “risk” limiter doesn’t stand a chance. Groupon, in particular, pulls out all the psychological stops by throwing in equally addictive elements of geographically targeted rewards, limited availability and elemental crowd psychology. If this is the mental landscape you’re playing in, online couponing can definitely stack the odds in your favor.

But alas, B2B purchasing, especially big-ticket items like consulting, meets none of the above criteria. B2B is all about risk avoidance, and there is little reward driving these types of purchases. This came through loud and clear when I was researching my book, “The BuyerSphere Project.” Not only will a coupon offer fail to eliminate risk in these circumstances, it will actually increase risk by raising questions about the credibility of the consulting firm offering the coupon. If the consulting is any good, why are you offering it at half price? Are you that desperate for business?

Apparently, companies like Ajillitee haven’t given up on the concept.  A new rash of B2B oriented online couponing companies like BizyDeal and RapidBuyr are jostling each other in a rush to jump on the Groupon bandwagon.  If the types of deals offered are targeted to low-risk scenarios (copy paper and toner cartridges), they’ll probably work. But don’t expect to get a rush on coupons for consulting services, enterprise-level solutions or other big-ticket, complex purchases. When the buyer (or buyers) is looking at all risk and no personal reward, using couponing is like bringing a knife (or, more appropriately, a spatula) to a gunfight. It’s absolutely the wrong tool for the job.

More Ways B2B Search Marketing Differs from B2C

First published July 1, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, I looked at ways that B2B search marketing is different from search campaigns aimed at consumers. I looked at how risk avoidance was an overriding concern. Also, a B2B purchase is almost always an item on someone’s to-do list, so they have little patience for being “immersed” in experiences or heading down navigational dead ends on a Web site. Today, I’ll look at two other ways that B2B buying behaviors differ from those in the consumer marketplace:

Unfamiliar Territory

In the consumer world, billions of branding dollars are spent to create a sense of familiarity not just with a product but also with a brand. Even if we’ve never bought a product before, there’s a good chance that we have some idea of the competitive landscape within the product category.  If we were looking to make a purchase for ourselves, I would venture to say there are very few things we would consider buying where we wouldn’t even know the name of the product. Yet, this is an everyday occurrence in the B2B world. Often, we’re asked to make informed purchase decisions about products and services that we hadn’t heard of yesterday.

When we strike into unfamiliar territory, we create a challenge for the B2B marketer. If we don’t even know the name of the product we’re looking to buy, how do we start looking for it? Where do we begin? It’s pretty hard to Google something when you don’t know what to call it. This makes keyword discovery one of the most challenging and important parts of any B2B search campaign.

Often B2B purchases are not only a buying decision, but also come with a steep learning curve. Buyers have to identify a potential solution, learn about the product category, identify the potential vendors, and determine decision criteria — all tasks that must be accomplished before buyers even start evaluating their alternatives.  Imagine trying to buy a car or a flat-screen TV if you had no idea what those products were — or even if they existed at all.

Decision by Committee

Sometime ago in my life, as I hung out my advertising consultant shingle, I was introduced to the joys and tribulations of committee-driven decision-making. I uncovered the sad truth behind the joke, “How do you determine the average IQ of committee? You take the lowest IQ in the group and divide it by the number of people in the committee.”

B2B purchases are often driven by committee. And, as we found in the BuyerSphere research, different members of the committee have different agendas. In high-risk, long-cycle purchases, the internal politics involved in a purchase can rival anything you’ll find on Wisteria Lane. These differing agendas mean that signals from committee members can seem to be at cross-purposes, making life exceeding difficult for the vendor.

Here’s the big challenge from a search marketing perspective: If different committee members are looking for different information (as determined by their own objectives) they will also expect distinctly different experiences. Your Web site and search campaign somehow has to be able to offer clear and compelling paths through this tangled knot of prospect behaviors. Clear segmentation options, relevant messaging, and highly intuitive navigation are three ways to guide different buyers with different objectives to the right destination.

B2B is different from B2C. It’s more complex, more challenging — and, in my opinion, much more interesting.

How B2B Search Marketing Differs from B2C

First published June 24, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

As I write this, I’m at the B2B Search Strategy Summit in San Francisco. Mary O’Brien, the summit organizer, told me that many potential attendees — and yes, even some panelists — questioned where B2B search marketing was really all that different from B2C. Shouldn’t the same basic practices apply?

I answer that question the same way I answer all questions about marketing: Let’s look at it through the eyes of the buyer. And when we do that, we find some significant differences as we step from the consumer side to the business side.

It’s All About Risk

When we make decisions in any part of our lives, we have a “brake” and a “gas pedal” that governs the decision-making process. Call it risk and reward, prevention and promotion, loss and gain. Whatever you call it, in most decisions, there are opposing forces, and the ultimate decision depends on the balance between the two. If reward overcomes risk, we buy. If risk rules, we don’t.

On the consumer side of our lives, there’s often a strong emotional investment in the reward part of the equation. For example, I really want a new road bike. I can’t rationalize the purchase, seeing as I have a perfectly good used road bike, but that doesn’t quell the pangs of jealousy I feel when I see someone wheeling down the road on a new Cervelo or Trek Madone. Someday, I know, reward (the joy of saying “look, me too!”) will overcome the risk (parting with a significant chunk of cash) for me.

But think about most B2B purchases. If we’re looking at buying a new rack of servers, or supply chain management software, where’s the fun in that? The only real emotion at play here is the risk of screwing up and being fired. Emotions in B2B purchases are heavily biased towards risk mitigation. And that directly impacts your search strategy. Messaging has to minimize risk in the eyes of the buyer, rather than try to build on the emotional reward side of things. I can’t say the same would be true if you were bidding on terms like “convertible roadster,” “touring motorcycle” or even “iPad.”

It’s Their Job

The second difference is directly related to the first. B2B purchases are part of someone’s job. They’re not doing it because they simply love buying enterprise software or industrial supplies. No one makes a hobby out of buying O-rings or heavy-duty water pumps.

How does this affect a search strategy? It heightens the need for efficient retrieval of information. While a consumer looking at a sports car or booking a cruise might want to get “immersed” in an “experience,” typical B2B purchasing agents want to get in and out, allowing them to put one more check mark beside their ever-growing to-do list. They will not be in a forgiving mood if you send them down dead ends or tie them up in confusing navigation. This is all about making their job easier. And that becomes crucial when you think about landing page strategies and the path that leads from them.

Next week, I’ll cover the other two ways that B2B differs from B2C: the fact that often buyers are in unfamiliar territory, and that B2B purchases are typically group decisions.