BtoB Magazine, the flagship publication for business-to-business marketers, became part of Ad Age on Jan. 1. As reported in Ad Age, "The move reflects the growing overlap between b-to-b and consumer strategies as both grow more focused on targeting and engaging specific customer groups." While convergence rules the day, there was once a notable divide between b-to-b and consumer advertising. Agencies tended to play on one side of the fence or the other.
In a stunning case of naivete, when I launched PJA Advertising in the 1990s to serve technology brands, I didn't even know that "business-to-business" was a category within advertising. For some mysterious reason, I liked working on the challenges faced by companies whose complex products usually went hand in hand with a complicated selling process. Technology led to health care, and then financial services, and eventually a mix of related consumer accounts.
Once I learned that what we were doing had a name, BtoB Magazine served as a virtual community connecting us with people facing the same challenges, limitations and opportunities.
We needed some camaraderie because b-to-b often got kicked around as the poor stepchild of consumer advertising. While exceptions abound, the stereotype was always that b-to-b marketing was boring. B-to-b companies did little TV advertising and spent most of their media dollars on trade publications. You had industrial companies selling boring products to other boring companies. All that anyone cared about was price and product features.
Times change. The b-to-b sector accounts for over 50% of the U.S. gross domestic product. As a category, b-to-b makes a huge contribution to the economy, job creation and innovation. Now marketers are just as likely to engage with business customers on personal channels like Facebook and blogs as we are to engage with them in trade publications.
Today, no one would call b-to-b anybody's stepchild. With the explosion of social and content platforms, most consumer and b-to-b companies have access to the same communications channels and can compete on an equal footing. You no longer need a multi-million-dollar budget to deploy broadcast quality video. A video for Corning Glass produced by Doremus, a leading b-to-b agency, has received over 20 million views. You can see further proof of this democratization of advertising in innovative mobile and social programs from companies like GE and IBM.
While the convergence of consumer and b-to-b creates exciting opportunities for both clients and agencies who want to break out of old marketing habits, I've still got a soft spot for some of the values and best practices I acquired working in the b-to-b world.
B-to-b understood the dynamics of a complex sales process, where a sale often required multiple decision makers and contained a high degree of risk. A decision could commit a company to a specific technology platform for years.
This environment led to a highly educative approach where marketers had to demonstrate not only product superiority but thought leadership. B-to-b companies had to practice content marketing long before it became a discipline of its own. In this way, b-to-b was ahead of its time.
At its best, b-to-b marketing encouraged a respect for the audience both in tone and the quality of the message. People making complex decisions want good information. They don't want marketing that is dumbed down, or advertising that is clever without substance. With the transparency created by the Internet, and the culture of social media, those values have become more universal, and they are deeply ingrained in most b-to-b marketers.
As the lines blur between b-to-b and consumer audiences, new strategies emerge to segment different kinds of buyers. These days I find it more useful to distinguish between a considered purchase, where the consumer needs information and a solid decision path before deciding to buy, and an impulse purchase that may be made solely based on an emotional response. There's no clear dividing line between the two. They both require an artful blend of the rational and the emotional. They exist on a continuum, and the best marketers learn how to move up and down that continuum to connect with consumers of all types in a meaningful way.