The Changing Rules of B2B Marketing


In her book Open Leadership, Charlene Li tells how Cisco CEO John Chambers challenges prospective employees. “I ask [them] to tell me about [their] failures,” he says. “…it’s surprising how many people say, ‘Well, I can’t think of one.’ That person immediately loses credibility with me.” Businesses are just like people. When they pretend to be infallible, they come off as dishonest because nobody’s perfect.

In this book, we will argue that social marketing isn’t a task to be delegated exclusively to the marketing department, just as replacing traditional media channels with social ones will achieve only marginal benefits, if it achieves anything at all. In order to tap into the true power of these new channels, businesses need to rethink their culture and values systems. They need to reject the concept that all company information is a proprietary asset to be shrouded in secrecy.  They need to reject the veneer of infallibility as an operating principle. Those were appropriate strategies in the information-starved world that existed prior to 2000, but marketing in the age of the Web is about giving and participating and being as omnipresent as you can be. In social media marketing, developing solid interpersonal relationships are, generally speaking, much more important than showmanship.

Fallibility is endearing. When a notable politician or sports figure goes on Saturday Night Live and submits to the cast’s mockery with a good-natured grin, we instinctively like him. In fact, willingness to accept shortcomings actually demonstrates confidence. Dell Computer is the poster child for corporate humility. The company was twice a very public victim of social media savagery: Once at the hands of disgruntled blogger Jeff Jarvis in 2006 and again when it denied overheating problems with its laptop batteries two years later. Instead of walling itself off from its publics, Dell did the opposite. It embraced social channels with a fervor few companies could match. In 2009, Jarvis himself traveled to Round Rock, Texas on assignment for BusinessWeek to document Dell’s remarkable change of heart. “Dell has leapt from worst to first,” he wrote in the lead paragraph of his feature story, which was titled “Dell Learns to Listen.” One of the reasons Dell is considered such a thought leader in social media today is because it stumbled so publicly in the past, learned from its mistakes and championed culture change

We don’t mean to suggest that this transformation is easy. Large corporations in particular have enormous institutional impediments to change. One is middle management. While we’ve seen many examples of middle managers championing change, people in that role can also see open communication as a threat to their hegemony. They rarely derail an initiative entirely, but they can greatly slow its progress.

A more serious impediment, particularly in B2B companies, is long-serving senior managers who simply see no reason to do business any differently. In some cases, they’re right. We’ve worked with B2B companies whose markets were so focused that the sales organization already had personal relationships with every customer in the market. At these companies, social marketing isn’t an imperative, but today’s global business world changes so quickly that it seems shortsighted not to be acquainted with the tools that can open up opportunities in new markets. In chapter 3 we look at how to sell social marketing to tough customers.

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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