Long before content started helping b-to-c marketers sell cars, computers and packaged goods, b-to-b marketers were already using content to inform customers with the most effective content geared to meet their emotional needs. But many of today's b-to-b marketers are now leaving out the emotional rationale -- a key ingredient that often determines whether a decision-maker will even pick up the phone.
Some marketers may have fallen into the trap of thinking b-to-b purchasing decisions are made purely on rational evidence -- something people outside the industry often think, because business is not supposed to be "personal." But emotions play an enormous role in business purchases; in fact, they can often be the driving factor.
When consumers make a bad purchase, the stakes are usually fairly low. Even a high-ticket item can often be reversed through return or resale. But for b-to-b customers, the stakes related to making a mistake are weighty.
Remember the expression, "No one gets fired for hiring IBM?" It comes from a marketing effort by IBM in the 1960s to plant doubt in the minds of buyers who were considering going with a startup competitor rather than with the giant. It underscores the truism that the easiest way to minimize risk is to avoid the new and stick with the known.
Fifty years later, fear, uncertainty and doubt are still potent levers in the b-to-b space. According to a 2012 study by CEB, about half of b-to-b decision-makers have wanted to buy a new solution but did not speak up for fear of taking the risk. People have not fundamentally changed, nor has the emotional component of the purchase.
If anything, this phenomenon is heightened in today's post-recession business climate. Potential consequences of a bad decision -- job loss and stakeholder wrath -- have left leaders even more risk averse.
It is for these reasons that content supporting emotional needs at each stage of the journey -- from the introductory phase to post-sale -- is critical.
We live in a Match.com world; many buyers and sellers "meet" for the first time online. In fact, the entire purchase process may start and end without a single face-to-face interaction.
This means content must not only inform, but also build emotional equity and trust in a company's solution. What will engage buyers to take the next step and reach out to a brand?
As a customer's purchase journey is mapped, marketers should consider how content can provide the emotional reassurance that their buyers crave. In other words, remember that customers are real people. Good content can appear in many channels or formats, but here is how some specific content types may resonate with buyers:
Building awareness phase: Trade articles showcase that an organization can tackle a common problem in a creative way. The emotional payoff is secured due to the credibility that comes with third-party publishing. White papers and ebooks can educate readers on important topics or technology. The emotional payoff is earned via the goodwill generated by sharing expertise and showing empathy for a situation or challenge.
Research and opinion phase: SEO, paid search and social media all play a role. For some of the biggest purchase decisions, research starts with Google. Buyers then often utilize social media platforms and digital forums/communities for advice and recommendations from colleagues. Imagine the emotional stress of not finding a brand you're considering on Google. If a company doesn't show up in search results, it automatically seems less legitimate and will not be taken into consideration. Meanwhile, ratings and reviews offer social proof and validate a brand's value proposition.
Consideration phase: Email and podcasts can be used to great advantage. Mobile has breathed new life into email -- the b-to-b content channel we still spend hours with each day. If done right (i.e., mobile optimized, personalized, relevant and concise), email is an opportunity for brands to demonstrate they know what customers need. Podcasts maximize customers' commuting time to tell them the brand's story, literally. On an emotional level, the human voice makes it feel like a personal, one-on-one conversation with subject matter experts.
Decision phase: Specs become important as a comparative tool. Technical product guides can help buyers winnow their consideration set and, at the same time, boost appreciation for the brand.
Post-sale phase: Product updates and thought leadership articles related to the buyers' challenges and the product can reinforce that the buyer made the right choice.
B-to-b marketers should audit their content to determine whether it is as effective as it can be. They should have a healthy balance of information and solutions targeting emotional needs, as well as rational ones. While they may not always know what resonates with each decision-maker, now, more than ever, marketers need to work to earn a customer's hard-won trust.