5 Ways B2B Marketers Can Channel the B2C Force


B2B and B2C marketers are often considered completely separate forces—where switching from one to the other would be like going over to the dark side. But, as Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker know, two seemingly opposing forces sometimes share more similarities than differences.

“The tactics are actually converging,” says Sheryl Pattek, a VP, principal analyst, at Forrester Research Inc. “It’s not necessarily the tactics that are different. It’s how they’re employed.”

Indeed, the need to address customers as humans—as opposed to consumers or buyers—is the unifying force. And when it comes to humanizing marketing, there’s much that B2B and B2C marketers can learn from each other. In fact, because today’s B2B purchasers are increasingly exhibiting consumer-like expectations, here, we focus on five B2C tactics that B2B marketers should adopt, as well as three they should avoid, to help them humanize their approach.

As Yoda once said, “Pass on what you have learned.”

B2B companies are known for their robust sales organizations. Although the sales force is certainly one of B2B’s best assets, it also can be its Achilles’ heel. Salespeople develop personal, complex relationships with clients by communicating with them over the phone, via email, and in person. The danger, however, is that salespeople can over-rely on these channels.

Consider the following from Acquity Group’s “2014 State of B2B Procurement Study”: Only 12.4% of the 500 business procurement professionals surveyed prefer to speak with sales representatives in person when making purchase decisions; 31.6% would rather research and purchase on their own online and only call sales if they experience any issues.

“B2B has been generally laggard because they haven’t quite grasped the idea that it doesn’t have to be a face-to-face or phone call all of the time,” says Bob Barr, managing director of digital marketing solutions provider Accenture Interactive. “There are opportunities to do that…. [But] you don’t lose that opportunity to have a relationship with someone simply because you’ve enabled them to order [online].”

Because B2B customers are also consumers, they have consumer expectations, Barr notes, such as the desire for personalization, convenience, and seamless shopping experiences. In fact, 61% of B2B buyers would up their online spend if it were easier and more convenient for them to browse and purchase items from vendors’ websites, according to the Acquity Group study.

B2B marketers who fail to meet their buyers’ consumer-like expectations risk losing business to B2C competitors making inroads into the B2B landscape—and some of them already have. According to the study, 38% of B2B buyers surveyed purchase via AmazonSupply, now Amazon Business, at least once a quarter.

“Quite a few [B2B marketers] are beginning to quickly appreciate that if their experiences don’t rival what customers are expecting, those customers are going to gravitate to competitors [that have adopted a consumer-like experience sooner], or new competitors are going to come into the market and disrupt it,” Barr says.

To make their shopping experiences more consumer-centric, B2B marketers may want to steal the following pages from B2C’s script. 

Online personalization is especially important in B2B because the shopper and the buyer are not always the same person; therefore, marketers need to target each of their needs differently. Of course, marketers can do more than simply greet each one by name after they log in. Barr recommends offering shoppers content (such as ratings and reviews, and YouTube how-to videos) to help with the research phase, and suggests offering buyers more fact-based information, such as pricing, specs, and warranty information.

He also advises B2B marketers to follow B2C’s lead in terms of personalizing the experience based on real-time and behavioral data, not just past-purchase and company information. For instance, if a B2B shopper is looking at a printer online, a marketer could show him which printers he purchased in the past, as well as which ones other industry professionals are buying, Barr says. Likewise, the marketer could present him with related content, he notes, or offer him a deal on that printer.

“B2B sites haven’t quite got there yet,” he admits.

Making the experience as convenient as possible is also vital. For instance, Barr suggests including a search box in the upper right-hand corner of a website; offering chat solutions; and making it easy for customers to check out.

However, he warns B2B marketers not to go so far down the digital rabbit hole that they lose the relationship element they’re known for. To avoid doing this, he recommends making “lifelines” easily available—such as putting the customer service number on the homepage.

“While you should make it easy enough for them to transact, you shouldn’t make it impossible for them to find somebody,” he says.

To truly replicate the B2C shopping experience, B2B marketers need to have an omnichannel presence throughout the buyer’s journey. Is a buyer’s warranty about to expire? Send that customer a notification via email, Barr says. Did a buyer just purchase a new solution? Direct him to YouTube where he can watch tutorials on how to use the product most effectively, he adds. And, of course, make all experiences mobile-friendly.

Certainly, B2B customers aren’t always in shopping mode—but that doesn’t mean that their future purchase decisions can’t be swayed.

According to a report by CEB and Google, the average B2B buyer completes 57% of the purchase process before engaging sales. So, if organizations want to take part in conversations others are having about them, then they need to engage wherever their customers are—even in channels their industries haven’t historically played in.

“[Whether in] B2B or B2C, someone is telling your story,” says Katrina Craigwell, director of global content and programming for GE. “You want to make sure that it’s you.”

Take GE, for instance. The innovation and technology company has a history in B2C selling light bulbs and appliances, as well as in B2B working in the energy, healthcare, and transportation areas. Although the company is shifting more toward its B2B businesses, it still plays in traditional B2C channels to engage both audiences. So, whether someone is purchasing a jet engine or flying on an airplane, both audiences are familiar with the brand and its story.

One way GE communicates to both B2B and B2C audiences about what it does is through visual storytelling. For instance, the company joined Instagram about four years ago and now has 191,000 followers. GE uses the platform to share behind-the-scenes looks at its manufacturing facilities, provide up-close views of its gas turbines, and educate followers about its “brilliant machines.” The company is also on Tumblr and Snapchat and has been experimenting with virtual reality (VR) to transport users into GE’s world; in one VR scenario users can take a computer-generated trip through the imagination and neural network of a DJ, which conveys the power of GE’s MRI machines.

Not only do these experiences help GE open up its world to B2B and B2C customers alike, but it also educates them in an inspiring, delightful way. “If I give you a whitepaper on the GEnx jet engine your eyes are going to glaze over,” Craigwell says. “But if I show you that engine hooked up on a plane or in a test cell flying beautifully, I’ll get your attention.”

GE doesn’t tell these emotionally engaging stories alone. To better humanize its messaging, it relies on, well, humans—mainly content creators like Instagram photographer Dan Cole and YouTube sensation Kid President.

These content creators have an in-depth understanding of their platforms, Craigwell says, which helps GE’s marketers stay up-to-date on the latest trends around social networks and understand how they and their users are evolving. The creators also help GE discover new platforms, she adds, and view stories from different angles. Plus, it helps that these creators already have established, loyal followings.

“We know our story, but they know the audience,” Craigwell says, “and putting those together helps us resonate [and] helps us create more of those emotional moments with the audience that’s out there around the story. It’s kind of like putting two halves together to make that connection.”

Feelings of inspiration and enlightenment aren’t the only emotions B2B marketers can leverage that B2C marketers are known to play on. In fact, Kim Ann King, CMO of digital optimization solution provider SiteSpect Inc., argues that there are two emotions B2B marketers don’t tap into nearly as much as their B2C peers: the senses of urgency and scarcity. “Avoiding loss is a primal human driver,” says King, author of The Complete Guide to B2B Marketing. “Act now or forever hold your peace is just as persuasive in B2B as it is in B2C. I just don’t see it as much, that’s all.”

Indeed, King believes that B2B marketers can borrow many of the call-before-midnight, discounted-for-a-limited-time tactics that retailers rely on. For instance, she suggests inviting customers to call by Friday at noon to receive a free one-hour consultation, or provide their contact information to receive a limited-time product trial. “If you want to give away 10 free professional hours and they’re $250 an hour, it’s a $2,500 campaign,” she says. “For most companies, that’s very little money.”

But, she warns, these tactics are more likely to generate micro-conversions (e.g. registrations, trade show booth visits, software downloads) than immediate sales. Because, let’s face it: No B2B marketer wants to feel rushed into signing a multimillion-dollar contract.

It’s great if marketers can stir these feelings of excitement and urgency within their customers, but it’s even better—and more effective—when customers can ignite positive sentiments within each other through peer influencers.

Consider the following data from Demand Gen Report’s “2014 B2B Buyer Behavior Survey”: 53% of the 150 B2B buyers surveyed said they rely on peer recommendations when making a purchasing decision, versus 19% who said the same in 2012. In addition, 57% of respondents said they browse existing social media discussions during the research process to learn more about a particular topic.

And although social networks are usually associated with B2C, Brennen Roberts, managing director of creative agency iris Chicago, says B2B organizations can leverage the power of peer influence by forming their own online communities.

Take the Enterprise Software IT Experts Community from technology provider HP, for example. Here, IT professionals can read articles and blog posts, access content downloads, watch educational videos, receive the community newsletter, and participate in forum discussions. Another prime example is American Express’s Open Forum—the financial company’s online resource and networking site where entrepreneurs can read articles about various small business topics, watch videos, learn about industry-related events, follow experts and peers, and more. The company even has an Open Forum app.

“As a potential buyer, I want to talk to somebody or I want to know that you’ve helped somebody who’s in the exact same situation as me, in the same industry, with the same challenges that I have where you helped them be successful,” Roberts says. “If I don’t have to be the trailblazer for that [and] you can show me that somebody else has done that and ideally let me talk to them, then it will sell itself.”

Indeed, Forrester Research’s Pattek says that B2B marketers are much more likely to trust their peers than they are to trust another company. So, she encourages marketers to make it easier for buyers to seek advice from their personal network by encouraging ratings and reviews. However, Pattek says, B2B marketers aren’t using this tactic as much as they could. The reason: They tend to focus too heavily on the front end of the customer lifecycle—the acquisition phase—instead of on the backend stages, including onboarding, ongoing communications, cross-selling and upselling, and advocacy.

“Think of it this way,” she says. “If you’re not creating advocates, then those B2B customers are looking into their personal networks for advice about what their relationship has been with your brand. If they don’t get good recommendations, you’re actually hurting your ability to drive new acquisition.”


Of course, B2B marketers can’t rely on their advocates to do all the work. Thoughtful targeting also has to be part of their strategies—and there are B2C approaches that can be quite effective for B2B marketers. For example, B2B marketers could learn a thing or two from B2C about programmatic buying, according to Bryan Jones, VP of marketing for North America and Global 500 Businesses for technology solutions provider Dell.

Programmatic buying came out of B2C, he says, and brand marketers can get pretty granular with their targeting. For instance, they can opt to have their media placements reach 18- to 24-year-old females who are affluent and well-educated.

But replicating the same experience in B2B isn’t easy. “If I want storage administrator versus storage decision-maker versus storage influencer, that’s when it starts to break down,” Jones explains.

Achieving this level of granularity requires partnering with the right trading desks and urging agencies to improve their programmatic capabilities, Jones says. But then again, maybe B2B marketers don’t want to replicate the exact programmatic buying experience their B2C counterparts leverage. Although programmatic buying helps B2C marketers produce voluminous leads, Jones notes, they’re not always of the highest quality.

Take Dell’s case, for example. In the past Dell’s marketers would take the leads they acquired through content syndication and programmatic buying, score them, and then pass them to sales to follow up. However, Jones says, the conversion rates these leads produced were less than ideal. “The conversion rate was much, much lower—like 40 to 50 percent lower,” he says.

Not only was this process wasting the sales force’s time—an expensive company asset—but it was also breaking the trust between sales and marketing, Jones says.

As a result, Jones decided to reassess the way marketing and sales handled leads and opted to keep them with marketing longer for further qualification and nurturing. So, although marketing was passing on fewer leads to sales, they were now sending over “really gold standard” ones, Jones says.

As well as some B2C marketing strategies can work for B2B marketers, not all are a fit. In fact, there are several B2C tactics B2B marketers may want to avoid. Here are three:

1. The gold rush. In the early days of e-commerce, many brands felt pressured to start selling online—thinking that if they just got in the game, they would learn as they went along, says Derrick Johnson, VP of segment marketing for package delivery and logistics company UPS. But not every company has to be in every space. Indeed, Johnson says it’s better to take the time needed to understand new technologies and how they’ll affect a company’s target markets, internal organization, and strategies.

“You want to make certain that you have time to learn from your B2C counterparts,” he says.

2. Viewing the customer as a transaction. While B2C marketing and sales actions tend to be more transactionally based, according to Forrester’s Pattek, B2B organizations are often more relationship-oriented. She discourages B2B marketers from adopting this sales-centric approach.

“B2B organizations should avoid shifting to that transaction view,” she notes, “because, in the long run, it’s not going to meet their need to build up the brand and drive revenue.”

3. Maintaining the same definition of “share.” In the B2C world, sharing is about having consumers post content to their social networks, says iris Chicago’s Roberts. But in the B2B space, sharing takes on a whole new meaning.

According to Roberts, B2B marketers need to think about the complete buyer’s journey. Odds are, marketers will engage more with B2B shoppers (i.e., influencers) than with the final purchaser, he says. So, marketers should produce content that these shoppers will want to pass on to buyers internally—the “how-to-convince-your-boss-type arguments,” Roberts calls it.

“You have to focus in on not only the conversation that you have with them,” he says, “but you also [have to] enable them to have conversations internally to help them market and sell what you’ve convinced them of to the key people within their organization.”

With these B2C marketing tactics in hand, B2B marketers can now go forth and become the ultimate business-to-human marketing Jedi. May the force be with you.

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