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By Erik Hofstetter
CEO Creative Visions

Business-to-business marketing offers its own unique set of challenges. Unlike traditional consumer marketing, where vast numbers of the general public are often approached to sell a product, B2B marketing is typically more focused because of its narrower targeted audience. Additionally, very few businesses have the advertising budgets of mass-marketed products like Coca-Cola or E-Trade. If you are reading this, then you probably have a desire to sell a business product or service to other businesses, or increase your company sales somehow. But how does one go about this when budgets are limited and the targeted demographic is narrow?

Let’s start by reviewing some basic marketing knowledge. “Marketing” is defined as “the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.”  It comes from the Latin words “mercatus” or “mercari”, which means simply “to trade”. Defining marketing is very simple and we can all agree what it means. However, confusion often enters in when attempting to determine what the purpose of marketing is. Advertising agencies and marketing professionals are notorious for this. They’ll often speak of “brand equity” and “emotional selling propositions” blended with complex charts and reports, with their work often conceived out of being “really creative” or with the goal of winning the agency some type of award. All of this activity misses the point.

The purpose of marketing is to sell something, right? Good. Now you’ll only sell something if someone has a need. So an even more fundamental purpose of marketing could be said to create “need”. Crank the volume up on this and one could say, very successful marketing would create “want”. So ultimately, the purpose of marketing is to create need and want and to sell something. So how does one go about doing it?

As alluded to above, there are advertising and marketing agencies and consultants who think they know the right message to put out there for your product or service, because they are “experienced” and “know better”. You yourself may think you know what the right marketing message is for your product or service. But do you really, or are you just guessing? It is important to understand that it doesn’t matter a lick what your consultants think or you think your marketing message should be. What matters most is what your target audience thinks. What do they need and want? Your targeted audience is the best resource to tell you what your marketing message should be because they are the ones who know best what they need and want from your company.

It has to do with affinity and communication. When something appeals to you, you’re more apt to learn about it, purchase it, come closer to it - that’s affinity. Let’s take a cup of coffee for example. “Starbucks” may evoke certain mental image pictures for you and words that you associate with their product. Is their coffee too bitter or does it taste just right to you? Are they too expensive or do you not mind the cost? Is their atmosphere worth your time or do you just run-in or drive-through to get your coffee? It may surprise you, but the nation’s leading selling brand of coffee happens to be Folgers. I submit that the loyal purchaser of Folgers is quite different from the loyal purchaser of Starbucks. Can you see how one type of person would have affinity for Starbucks, while someone else would have affinity for Folgers? What different needs and wants separate these two different types of coffee buyers? If the coffee company successfully communicates that their coffee fulfills a need or want someone has, then that person is apt to purchase from them, in many cases regardless of price (hence Starbucks’ success).

So how do you find the right marketing message for your product or service? By asking the type of companies (and the decision-makers within them) what they need and want regarding your product or service. This is accomplished by conducting surveys.

Propositioning surveys opens the door to the subject of research. Like advertising itself, there are plenty of theories on how to conduct proper market research. For example, there are professional market research companies that will ask people on-line or on survey cards; “On a scale from 1-10, how do you rate blah-blah-blah…?” Well, isn’t someone’s “10” different than someone else’s “8”? You’ll find that some people admit that they “never give anything more than a 9.” So, what does a ranking of 1-10 tell you? Not much really.

Focus groups are another example of how not to conduct market research. First off, participants are usually paid so they feel compelled to exchange more positive opinions which immediately skews responses. There is typically a dominant person within a focus group who tends to lead everybody else’s answers, letting the clash of personalities get in the way. Usually, the number of people participating are too small a percentage of the targeted audience to truly reflect a cross-section of what the entire target audience needs or wants. Lastly, too much time is taken in focus groups to measure responses. Face it, how often do you sit around to analyze what you like or don’t like about an advertising message or image, discuss these with your friends and then determine whether to buy the product or not? The real world works much differently than that.

In the real world, we’re busy. Everybody is busy. In today’s world, an advertising message or image has a fraction of a section to capture somebody’s attention. If what they see or read doesn’t appeal to them instantly, they’ll ignore the marketing message and move on. So effective market research would find out what people need or want most regarding a product or service and deliver it back to them within fractions of a second, with impact! And remember, it’s what the targeted audience needs or wants, not you or your advertising agency.

Every purchasing/selling cycle includes the BE, DO and HAVE scale. Looking at our coffee analogy again, when you purchase coffee you expect it to be, do and have something for you. If you don’t believe it will because of the marketing and advertising messages and images associated with the product, you won’t buy it. You’ll also need to find out the most important “buttons” your target audience wants associated with your product. For coffee these might include; “hot”, “dark”, “rich”, “cheap” or others. Obtaining how someone feels emotionally toward a given product or service is also important. If Dunkin Donuts marketing message to sell their coffee was to show Jennifer Aniston sip from a cup and say, “This is the best coffee in the world!”, nobody would buy it because emotionally it hits too high. But Dunkin Donuts selling their coffee in a blandly emotional way might hit exactly the emotional tone of their target audience. So finding out what your target audience wants your product to be, do and have, knowing the buttons they want associated with it, and determining where their emotional tone level is regarding your product or service, are key components of conducting excellent market research.

So, let’s do it.

Let’s say you were trying to sell business application money management software. First, you need to know your product very well, it’s strengths and weaknesses, and how it stacks up to the competition. Jot these down. Next, determine who your target audience is. This doesn’t mean just the type of company you think you should call on, rather it means the type of company, the people in it and most importantly, who the key decision makers regarding the purchase of your product and service will be. Really think about who is going to be deciding on purchasing your software and determine what the following demographics will be; size of company probably determined by annual revenue, titles of the people who will buy, their age, sex and probable interests. If you really consider these demos, you’ll be surprised how narrow you can make them. The narrower the better because with a limited marketing budget you want to focus your advertising expenditure on those most likely to be converted into customers. Jot them down.

For our fictionalized scenario, let’s say we’ve determined that our software has more reporting capabilities and is easier to use than our competition but comes from a smaller, less well-known company and is a bit more expensive. Our targeted demos are Fortune 1000 companies in the Southwest Region of the country of which we’ll need to impress their CFO’s  who are typically male ages 40-55 that like to golf.        

All right, now that we know what we are selling, how we stack up to the competition and who our targeted audience is, we need to survey them. Before doing that, you need to write the questions. The key here is to create surveys that won’t take someone longer than 3 - 5 minutes to answer, so they don’t loose interest and besides, we want their top-of-mind, quick responses, not long drawn out discussions. Usually a good survey is about 8 -12 questions in length. We need to find out what they want the product to be, do and have - not give rankings from 1-10 or similar. And we want all questions to be open-ended, not steer them in one direction or another based on what we think they think. This also allows the respondent to give us words we need which might turn in to sacred “buttons” we can use in our advertising.

A few survey questions for our money management software might include;

1. If there is one thing you would want improved regarding your current money management software, what would it be?

2. What one function do you perform most on your current money management software?

3. How do you feel when your current money management software is doing what you want?

Note how the be, do and have scale is included. See how the questions are open-ended to obtain buttons. We’re also going to obtain emotional response. Now you have to survey the target audience.

Don’t ask your friends and neighbors. Don’t ask yourself. These responses don’t matter. What matters is what a male Fortune 1000 CFO age 40-55 who lives in the Southwest and likes golf thinks, and that’s it. So you go out and find them. This can be done through purchases of contact lists, clubs, business meetings, airports, people like this you do know, etc. The key is not to ask anyone outside of your demos and as you ask the survey questions you’ll start to notice definite trends in responses. Experience shows that trends typically occur at around 40 responses with this type of survey no matter the size of the targeted audience. The surveys must be done on the phone or in person, never on-line because you want to get immediate responses, not let them think about it. Remember, top-of-mind awareness is what we are after so the first answer is always the most important.           

Let’s say after surveying 35 of our target audience, we received the following key responses;

1. 46% said “Faster”

2. 56% said “Invoice Reconciliation”

3. 38% said “Good” or similar, 24% “Excellent” or similar, 42% expressed a form of “Relief”       

Wow! Do you see how if your headline said “Providing the Fastest Invoice Reconciliation in Business” showing a golfer who just made a difficult shot on a desert course with relief on his face, would interest your target audience? A sub-head and copy might start by reading, “No matter how difficult the shot, if you have the right tools you’ll get the relief you need. ABC software…”           

Notice that there aren’t pictures of the reports the software generates. Note that there is no mention of higher cost and trying to combat it. We don’t really mention how easy it is to use. These are marketing messages that would be obvious, but they are boring and wrong. Instead, we gave the target audience what they needed and wanted.  And because of we conducted effective market research, they will reach for this money management software like moths to a flame.           

Try it for yourself, you’ll see.         

A few case studies follow, the names of which are not included to protect client confidentiality:

A.            When trying to sell medical services, this company was trying to figure out how to sell to women. Survey question to targeted audience: What one person do you trust most to make your medical care decisions? 42% - Husband 26% - Self 16% - General medical doctor

Result - Entire marketing plan changed to focus on pleasing husbands.

B.            In an effort to increase sales, this client wanted to offer discounts and free offers. This was tested against promoting their actual costs of about $1 an hour. Survey question to targeted audience: Which one of the following three offers appeals to you most for trying a new office service?

47% - Live receptionists that cost about $1 an hour

31% - Try our live receptionist and use our office space for the first month free

19% - Get two hours of free conference space

3%   - Respondents whose answers weren’t relevant\

Result - Discounting eliminated completely from advertising saving client millions while at the same time increasing appeal.

C.            Existing dental practice that changed ownership needed to develop new core marketing message. Survey buttons indicated target audience didn’t want “excellent” or similar words describing their dental care because this indicated “high cost”. Instead, they wanted “good” dentistry and this was voiced as a button overwhelmingly in survey results. “Can’t Afford Good Dental Care? Now You Can!” became main headline in all advertising materials.

Result - 6X revenue growth over 2 year period.



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