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The consumerisation of B2B

In recent times, the landscape of B2B marketing has seen a move towards using more consumer-style techniques in order to achieve resonance with B2B audiences. The rise of social media has partly been responsible for this by giving B2B marketeers a new range of tools through which to create awareness, engage audiences and start conversations. In addition, the rise of smartphones and tablets means that business people now have unlimited access to information at work, on the move and at home, which means they can potentially be marketed to 24/7, just like consumers.

In light of these developments a certain type of thinking has arisen – epitomised by the following statements:

  1. Marketing is just marketing no matter whom you're marketing to
  2. Business people are still consumers

But do these two statements really stand up to scrutiny? Sure enough, at a fundamental level marketing is still marketing no matter whom you're marketing to and in a certain context only business people could be described as consumers (of a sort), but… and it's a big but, the needs of a business audience compared to a consumer audience when making a purchasing decision are vastly different.

Understanding the audience and its needs is paramount in defining the tactics that will really work to drive a prospect to becoming a customer. A consumer-led approach may achieve an initial degree of standout, but if the core ingredients of right message, to the right audience, at the right time and right place aren't there, the campaign is doomed to failure.

Consumers only have to think about themselves, and their own needs, whereas an organisation’s purchasing decision can involve several stakeholders, which brings a whole new set of dynamics into the equation. Business people have the added pressure of making the 'right decision' for their organisation, and have to justify a spend of possibly thousands of pounds, whilst demonstrating some kind of return on investment. All this makes the business buyer’s purchasing decision a far more complex affair.

Is it any wonder then, that the buying and sales cycles in B2B are much longer than in the B2C world, and that thought-leadership, content marketing and lead-nurturing are becoming ever more important. Consumers have the luxury of making impulse purchases without reference to anyone else, but this isn’t the case in the business world. So where does all this leave marketeers and their agencies when trying to develop campaigns that really work?

I believe that taking a consumer approach to B2B is valid only up to a point. If we're talking about creating campaigns that appeal to 'people' whether they're wearing their business hats or not, then I'm all for it. All people, business or otherwise, respond to campaigns that are clever, insightful, humorous or shocking – in short, campaigns that elicit an emotional response. In this sense the first statement at the head of this article is true, and marketing is just marketing no matter whom you're marketing to.

However, if we're talking about treating or talking to business people as if they were consumers, then I don't think this is the way to go, primarily for the reasons I've already talked about in relation to audience needs and expectations. In my view, business people are not consumers – they are purchasers. Being a consumer means you buy something for your own personal use or consumption. Business people make purchasing decisions on behalf of an organisation, and therein lies the difference that needs to be borne in mind when creating B2B campaigns with a consumer edge.

There’s no doubt that the behaviour of business people has been consumerised. The internet and proliferation of mobile devices mean that information has never been so available, and it’s easy for business people to research, compare and contrast products. In this context only ‘Business people are still consumers’ – true, they behave in a similar way when trying to select the right product, but… and it’s my final and biggest BUT of this article – I do not believe they should be marketed to as if they were consumers. The fundamental criteria for their purchasing decision are based on their organisation’s needs rather than their own. So, although the B2B and B2C worlds can meet up and mingle, the two worlds will always be distinct – and markedly so.