6 Rules of Thumb for B2B Marketers

When we talk of offending marketers barraging the audiences they intend to woo with marketing messages with little or no regard for the desires of that audience, we usually are making reference to offending consumer brands.

From web promotion email lists we didn't sign up for to the most offending spam offers out there, B2C brands have all-too-often been guilty of finding low-cost ways to spit marketing out to as wide an audience as possible while only looking at "ROI" through the lens of sales made rather than giving any thought to the impact on the reputation/goodwill of the brand.

But such conversations all too often overlook what may be the most offensive species in the marketer kingdom: the B2B marketer.

That B2B marketers might actually be worse than their "consumer"-facing counterparts is frankly dumbfounding. Whereas B2C brands have to use their marketing to create the illusion of a relationship with their audiences in many cases, most B2B customer relationships are built on the strengths of actual interpersonal relationships between customer and provider. That means the respect and reputation of individuals at a B2B brand is even more crucial for professional services than they are for a B2C company.

Yet the sales forces and marketing teams of many B2B brands seem to throw caution to the wind all too often for both themselves and the brand they represent. In a down economy, many of us have probably found ourselves resisting the impulse of trying to sell ourselves or our company a little too aggressively. Sometimes, perhaps we've even succumbed. But we need to be very careful, I believe, to consider how such behavior reflects on us--no matter what "return-on-investment" we might convince ourselves it yields.

About this time last year, I spoke at a marketing industry conference. I was particularly excited to see a long line of people eager to ask questions…until, one by one, they each made a passing reference to my talk and then launched into a sales pitch about why my agency needed their services. I was finally relieved when the last guy in line didn't have a product to sell me…until I realized he was looking for a job. The poor woman next to me--a representative from a major food manufacturer--was even more under siege. While we exchanged business cards with our assailants and acted quite polite, the two of us commiserated on our way out. Perhaps needless to say, I've made little effort to "stay in touch" with my fellow professionals I met that day.

With that experience still haunting me, I wanted to share a checklist for B2B marketers to perhaps post on their cubicle partition (or, for the lucky few, their office wall):

1.) Be Conversational. Don't Be Desperate. It's great--vital, even--to share what you do with people when it's relevant. But attacking them will generate much more annoyance than it will new clients.

2.) Think Beyond Your Product. Perhaps the greatest error the marketers made in the story above was how little interest they showed in the discussion we were having that day. They seemed to have attended the event only with "acquisition" in mind. In the process, not only are they cutting off their opportunities to grow as professionals, but they are not building any sort of thought leadership reputation for themselves or their company beyond the wares they're hawking.

3.) Build Relationships if You Think They Are Worthwhile. If you find someone who you think might benefit from what you offer, get to know them. Share resources with them. Be transparent about what you do, but don't push yourself on them. Let them get to know you. And let them want services from you, rather than trying to force them to concede. Any relationship started by force is on shaky ground from the beginning.

4.) Do Some Research.We (hopefully) understand that listening is important as human beings. As marketers, we can't forget that message. If you want people to eventually want to buy something from you, that requires your understanding what their needs truly are and how you might truly help ease their pain…not create more of it. We have a person at Peppercom who handles all our potential vendor request. And she has a massive file filled with the mass-produced, desperate sales pitches of would-be "partners." (The file's circular, by the way.)

5.) Respect Your Audience. When I spoke at South by Southwest last year, my fellow panelists pledged that we would not go on and on about the companies we work for if they wouldn't pose their questions as an excuse to brag about their work. Both sides conceded to leave the heavy-handed promotion out of it, and I think the discussion benefitted deeply from it. It's a shame such sessions are a rarity. It's an even greater shame that I can probably count on one hand the number of times a vendor or potential partner reached out to me via email or phone in a way that actually made me eventually want to work with them.

6.) Take a Hint. I try to be polite. I try to return emails. But my resolve has softened over the years due to the number of people who seem to think they can bully me into working with them. (Maybe they know I'm a pushover; I got duped into buying shoe cleaner for flip-flops that fell apart before I even had a chance to wear them this summer.) Long story short: even if they occasionally meet a softy in a decision-making capacity who concedes, what damage does turning off 95 percent of your audience do for your brand?

A few weeks back, I wrote a piece on how marketers need to empathize with the audience they are marketing to. I wrote:

I think that, if marketers were to think more often about how they feel as the "marketed to," some of the most blatantly disrespectful marketing practices would not make it any further than the brainstorming chart (and, ideally, not even that far). But, meanwhile, marketers continue all-too-often blasting audiences with the same types of messages they lament as audience members. And too many, for some reason, seem unable to connect the dots between the telemarketer harassing us and the role we play with the audiences we bombard from our cubicle or office. We can only hope that our less empathetic brethren will somehow see the light and eventually cease fire, lest they slowly bring our brands and our profession down with them.

Sadly, that advice is even worse heeded in B2B marketing. Perhaps it is because marketers of all types are just cannibalistic creatures. But I tend to think better of us than that. I prefer to think it's because we often put all our emphasis on tactics instead of strategy. We sometimes let measurement overcome logic. And maybe we occasionally just feel downright desperate. But, whatever the reason, these are impulses we need to curb…for our professional reputations as marketers, and for our sanity at work as the marketed-to.

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom, a PR agency, and a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium. Ford was previously the Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work with The Greenville Leader-News and publishing a weekly column entitled "From Beaver Dam to Brooklyn" in The Ohio County Times-News. He also blogs for Peppercom's PepperDigital. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

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