The case for cojones in B2B marketing

Cojones in b2b marketing

I’m increasingly convinced that the most sharable B2B marketing is also the most audacious.

It’s marketing that says something everyone else is too nervous to say – like how much crap content there is.

It’s marketing that does something no one else thought could be done – like making a movie star do the splits between two trucks.

But it’s almost always the content that’s bold enough to go somewhere new and confident enough to own it.

Even the most helpful content involves smart people audaciously asserting they know how to do something better than you do – and then giving you great advice that proves it.

Cojones count for a lot in B2B marketing.

So here’s an uncomfortable question: how come it’s in such short supply?

Put a little more bluntly, why’s it so hard for us marketers to do risky things?

B2B marketing is inherently conservative

On paper, marketing is all about standing out. Zigging when they zag. Jumping out of the pack. Shouting louder. Picking a better niche.

But in practice, there are some important reasons we tend towards the conservative.

We’re usually aiming for consensus: B2B marketing is intensely collaborative. We’ve usually got multiple lines of business, multiple stakeholders and even multiple segments to worry about. Hell, we even sell to buying teams.

But while our pursuit of consensus is admirable given the silos we’re often trying to bring together, it is by no means a recipe for audacity.

In fact, it’s a recipe for the opposite.

Consensus is about figuring out what everyone wants to do. Audacity is about figuring out what no one wants to do.

Consensus is about balancing competing agendas. Audacity is about breaking conventions.

The more you try to please everyone, the less likely you are to come up with stuff that’s surprising and different.

We’re usually aiming for what worked before: Marketing’s a subjective gig that’s judged objectively. Our job is to come up with stuff that hasn’t existed before. But we get to keep it only if that stuff has a predictable effect.

These are contradictory impulses. And the tension between them often makes us seek the safest bets.

It’s why we’re so eager to evangelize the same trends everyone else is.

Its why we keep comparing our next piece of content to our last.

It’s why we use other brands’ campaigns as the inspiration for our own.

After all, what could be safer than a campaign that’s already succeeded?

There’s an inherent risk involved in B2B marketing. Communication’s about committing to a position and going out on a limb. Unless we embrace this risk, we’re just going to be limiting our own options.

The B2B boldness-goodness spectrum

If we do something bold and it fails, we’ll look like idiots and we won’t hit our targets. If we do something safe and it fails, we’ll look less foolish. But we still won’t have hit our targets.

We’re inadvertent slaves to our conventions: Marketing comprises a collection of written and unwritten rules and conventions. Rules like ‘all marketing messages need to be positive’ and ‘brands don’t swear’ and ‘marketers can’t admit their products aren’t right for everyone’.

Most marketers try really hard to reproduce all these conventions. We make our whitepapers sound like all the whitepapers we’ve previously seen. We make our websites do what our competitors’ websites do. We make our videos do what old-school TV ads used to do.

Here’s the thing – our job is not to produce marketing that sounds like marketing. It’s to attract the attention of people who should buy our stuff.

To do that, we need to actively seek out all the conventions of marketing and find ways to break them. We need marketing that feels less like marketing.

Two cojones-killers in B2B marketing

So it takes cojones to make great marketing but most marketers are motivated to do the safe thing. How the hell does it happen?

To my mind, there are two big cojones-killers – one happens on the client’s side and one happens on the agency’s side.

“It’ll never work”: This is when someone kills an idea because they don’t think it has much chances of working. It’s the kind of argument you can’t win because there’s no data to suggest what will work.

So more often than not, the only evidence available to make this kind of judgment is someone’s experience. But if you’re trying to do something that’s bold and different and unlike the stuff you usually do, the fact that it doesn’t look like everything else is precisely why you should do it.  

Dealing with this kind of judgment is hard. So if you’re ever in a position to say something like this, make sure you’re clear about why you’re saying it. You obviously don’t want to say yes to every wack-a-doodle idea that comes your way. But if you are saying no, make sure you aren’t doing it because the idea seems risky.

If big and bold and audacious and provocative is what your company needs, you better get comfortable with ‘risky’.

“They’ll never go for it”: This is when an agency kills an idea before it even reaches the client because someone imagines the client may not like it.

As Doug likes to put it: “Agencies kill more good ideas than clients do.”

It’s really the stupidest reason to kill an idea. But one every agency is guilty of.

If you’re in an agency and you’re pre-emptively shooting down something big and bold and risky, you better be damn sure your client doesn’t need something audacious.

Because having a good idea killed for a bad reason sucks. But if you never even gave the good idea a chance, you’ve got no one but yourself to blame.

Finding ways to grow a pair

Every business doesn’t always need big, different, provocative and audacious marketing. But the moments that you do need it are often the moments when you’re most nervous and willing to play it safe.

It’s counter-intuitive but true – the stuff that makes you most uncomfortable is likely the most interesting work you’ll ever do. It’s uncomfortable because it’s unfamiliar and different. It’s scary because it’s risky. And it’s risky because it bucks the trend. If everyone was doing it, it wouldn’t be worth doing.

The only way we’ll ever produce more audacious B2B marketing is if we explicitly set out to do it. Risk and all.

Image credit: Euro-matic

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