The Changing Rules of B2B Marketing


For most companies, these new information-gathering metaphors will ripple across every aspect of an organization’s activities. They will demand that businesses become more open and responsive, engaging with customers at specific steps of the buying process and beyond. This engagement won’t work if it’s limited to traditional marketing and sales; in order to be effective, social media must be adopted broadly across the company. Some executives will find much to fear in these developments. They have been trained to believe that employees are not fit to speak for the company and that disaster ensues when the message is not tightly controlled. For large companies in particular, an image of invincibility is a treasured corporate asset. This unrealistic image makes gaffes by these companies all the more damaging and embarrassing.

Adodbe flash gallery spotlighting porn siteThis isn’t to say that fears of loss of control are invalid. Adobe Systems found out the hard way in early 2010 that even unbridled employee enthusiasm can have undesirable side effects. An Adobe Platform Evangelist named Lee Brimelow posted a series of screenshots on Adobe’s Flash Blog that were intended to show how bleak the online world would look without Adobe’s Flash video display technology. In a subtle attempt at humor, Brimelow included a screenshot of a pornography site in his gallery (see image at right). Adobe was not amused when the gaffe exploded into a firestorm of mockery and anger.

Nevertheless, we are confident Adobe will recover from this incident and may actually benefit from it. Brimelow’s halfhearted apology had a kind of “lighten up” tone to it that reminded his audience that no lives had been lost. And the furor gave him another chance to state his passion for Flash and for Apple, whose omission of Flash from the iPad computer had sparked the blog entry in the first place. The fact that Adobe didn’t fire or publicly rebuke its evangelist actually burnished its image as a tolerant and forgiving employer. That ain’t bad.

On the other hand, the upside of spreading social tools throughout the organization can be enormous, particularly for companies that have enthusiastic customers and passionate employees. Consider the once popular “case study,” an essential B2B marketing document that has become a rat’s nest of approvals and legal concerns. All you have to do is scan the websites of a few B2B technology vendors to realize how sterilized and empty most case studies have become. By the time gatekeepers have had a chance to purge them of any sign of negativity or implied endorsements, the average case study has become little more than an extended sound bite. In fact, many companies now no longer submit to case studies at all out of the fear that endorsing one vendor could ruffle feathers of another. What are these companies afraid of? Aren’t they the ones with the market leverage?

Social media marketing is a way to humanize the business, to turn frailties into endearing qualities that encourage experimentation, loyalty and forgiveness. Today’s most admired social media marketers – Dell, Cisco, Starbucks, Google, Ford, Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart, to name just a few – have adopted a philosophy of open experimentation layered upon a culture of risk tolerance. But one thing they all share in common, is they all had the good fortune of making high-profile, public mistakes, which compelled their upper management to update their communications strategy.

“Apathy is one of the biggest challenges to social media implementation. When things are going well, people are less inclined to allocate budget.  But when the brand gets slapped around publicly, or there’s a recall or a crisis on some kind, that’s an opportunity,” says Pete Blackshaw, executive vice president of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services.  “Negative conversations that go viral are a wakeup call to management.” In many cases, at today’s risk-averse companies, it may take a crisis to bring about cultural change   We hope that’s not the case for you.

3 thoughts on “The Changing Rules of B2B Marketing

  1. Pingback: How search and social media will shorten the B2B sales cycle. | The Top Line

  2. Paul, Eric – your first chapter inspired a lot of thought, and I would appreciate the chance to have a conversation offline.

    My (lengthy) comments are below, and you can reach me at

    It’s a great starting point. This topic is overdue for all the reasons you mention. That $80bn B2B marketing spend brings enormous clarity to the fact that this is hardly a backwater. I agree with most points, have questions on some and think there some other interesting things going on here that you might also consider.

    I like the story of B2B marketing momentum based around products of greater value which in comparison to B2C certainly have more objectivity. I don’t see this as an either/or though. I think it’s both. Most of us are very turned off by unimaginative marketing hyperbole that talks down to us and rigid corporate websites. B2C does navigation and tone very well, and it’s the B2C model to follow as an evolving set of B2B marketers.
    Many haven’t yet figured out that poking around the edges in navigation bars is not where the user’s attention is, it’s just a reflection of Microsoft’s navigation system. Users prefer information and decisions presented to them in the centered simplicity of the iPhone and iPad (which has almost all but replaced my PC) and the friendly, personable tone of Apple.

    Paradoxically, while your points are convincing that B2B and B2C are different, there are similarities on some planes which I think are worth digging into. In the last 10 years, empires like have been built on the principal of selling to individual salespeople as a way to storm the beachhead of a large corporation and gain that traditional enterprise sale. Salesforce has shown you can push back some pretty big players like Oracle, SAP and Microsoft, when you back into a market by delivering value to end-user business person who need to get their job done at a price they can afford. Another interesting convergence is that B2C companies are starting to market heavily to B2B. There are lots of retailers out there from clothing to food who use their internet presence to open up scalable markets to corporate buyers. In this sense the two worlds are becoming more fused.

    The fact that over 80% of B2B businesses have a greater corporate social presence than B2C is astounding. Our own mapping of the social networks of over 14 million business executives show that just under 40% of the workforce are members of one or more of the top 10 social networks. There’s a good summary in the Huffington Post that maps the top 50 corporations in this regard:

    Link to Huffington Post article:

    While B2C buyers might be more subjective as you suggest, with social media, B2B marketers cannot dismiss the “merely subjective” any longer as social is all about the inter-subjective of relationships and culture. The hidden issue here is that relationships impact us in ways we can’t control. That’s huge and it’s the unknown that B2B corporations needs to come to grips with. I think you covered this nicely when you point out on the corporate successes like Dell are based on the fact that people want to speak with people, not brands and the trade off will be to accept that to err is human and we will have to accommodate both. I think you are saying that the virtual world is beginning to look very much like the real world…which makes a lot of sense.

    I think the section “To Err is Human” is very strong and a key piece to the puzzle. As you point out with Dell, social can put personality back into the the business equation in a scalable manner and the acceptance that we people make mistakes and these can be forgiven in this trade off is a powerful argument. Its not trivial as I found at a recent conference of social media which I wrote about for iMedia Connection recently.

    Link to iMedia Connection article:

    One point I’d like to disagree with is that buying made by groups means longer cycles. If you look at the software industry, prices have dropped with affordable end-user subscriptions. I agree that more people confer around a decision that may be linked between departments with the purchase of software, but IT is rarely in the mix, and the risk in the initial expense has effectively been removed with end-user pricing and freemiums. The risk is now about opportunity cost. We know there are solutions out there, as you point out we need to understand the value quickly and obfuscation with glitz isn’t helpful. I think we are seeing slightly shorter cycles because in a world that is increasingly plug and play due to cloud computing and platforms. Also, business can’t slow down our decision making processes…the market simply won’t allow it.

    The section on changing channels is really interesting and the rise of search is interesting. One thought here us that mention of email is warranted. B2B direct mail died over the past 10 years not because of social media, but because of email. Email was our first electronic social media, and I think B2B marketers have learned a lot in the past decade, and while push is not relevant across social networks, we have learned to speak to customers in email, by increasingly dialing back the direct sell and providing learning opportunities about the latest tools so business people better understand their options for tools that improve efficiency.

    In regards to the changing rules section, with the Adobe systems example, consider the backdrop of the platform war between Adobe and Apple. Adobe looks like it overplayed its hand in believing Flash was the ubiquitous internet platform. With Apple doing an end-run around this with the iPad, I think publicity, good or bad is about Adobe’s only recourse. Sorry…Mr Brimlow looks like a plant to me. Though that in itself is lesson enough in this new world. I’m not convinced that the guys at Adobe are on their game by any of this.

    I think your premise that the objective (scientific) B2B marketing contrasts starkly against the subjective (emotionally driven) B2C marketing is interesting and has some truth, but doesn’t social mess with that whole equation? The subjective is defined as what the individual might think of something, and has always been easily dismissed. But we can’t underestimate the inter-subjective that is massive in this new social world. When making a decision, only 20% of that decision is based on the information. 80% is based on where the information comes from. That’s why the inter-subjective flips the equation in B2B social marketing and is why the subjective and the inter-subjective and the emotional response to our companies, employees and brands is now really important in B2B.

    I think relationships are more important in B2B purchase because of the value issue you start with at the beginning of the chapter, and these relationships extend beyond co-worker and vendors, they extend across the network of colleagues, bloggers and influencers across the side range of our experience.
    James Burke’s book “Connections” points out that information and influence travel only 3 degrees but that this is measurable and predictable. Understanding the social map of business users is going to be critical to the next steps we take. As Burke point out, it’s not just the nodes in our relationships that are important but as far as creativity is concerned, it’s the nodes that connect into different networks that are the dark matter in this whole equation.
    Again.. would love to chat offline, and I welcome your thoughts and response.

    Gary Halliwell
    CEO – NetProspex

  3. I think relationships are more important in B2B purchase because of the value issue you start with at the beginning of the chapter, and these relationships extend beyond co-worker and vendors, they extend across the network of colleagues, bloggers and influencers across the side range of our experience.

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