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Generic B2B Value Propositions are Dead

B2B marketing is a tough world and now, more than ever, generic value propositions are a recipe for failure.
Andy Monahan
Even prior to the global pandemic, using very broad messaging to attract potential B2B customers was becoming less and less effective. It may now be dead for good. In this post, we look under the hood and examine the dynamics driving the “death of generic,” as well as what’s required to win in B2B marketing.
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A lesson from eCommerce: WYSIWYG...mostly

In looking at broad value propositions, a notable illustration of extracting specific action from a broad audience is B2C merchandising. As we saw with the advent of QVC and HSN, people could be talked into buying a physical product that they had previously thought they had no need for. The “perceived need” approach really took off with infomercials, and related ad spots (a televised form of remarketing). Recently, I saw a very well-made product video on Facebook for a picnic table that folds up to a briefcase-like carrying size...I almost thought about buying it. This “modern” example shows that what has persisted in marketing, regardless of medium, is very well presented merchandising, where a great product video showing off the characteristics of a product can create demand.

In the B2B context, though, things get more complicated. There is often friction based on the fact that there are multiple people making a buying decision even for the most mundane of things; and even the best-placed, well positioned eCommerce infomercial cannot reach them all at once. Also, in B2B, broad value propositions aren’t as effective because they aren’t a 1-1 for the buyer group. The “in-situ-ness” of a product or solution is literally in the eye of the beholder and that’s different across a group with varying roles and responsibilities. Also, B2B products and services often face the challenge of being ‘intangible.’ Software or consulting can’t be marketed like a picnic table. So, that which cannot be visually conveyed, like quality, must be conveyed with social proof, like product reviews, demos and testimonials, which don’t come easy.

Maybe this is why we have found “merchandising” video introductions to be much more common for B2B products and services in the last few years. Taking cues from eCommerce, B2B companies have realized that video is a great way to give a quick, high-impact overview, and even a quick visual demonstration. Where most companies fail, though is in keeping their targeted buying group front-of-mind.

What we see most often is B2B companies creating generic, “one-size-fits-all” content without stopping to ask themselves if any of it really speaks to the specific buyers who have a true need for their product.

We often say that there’s a lot that B2B can learn from eCommerce, but the direct-to-consumer merchandising approach doesn’t translate directly to any context where a product is less visible or tangible. Said another way, a self-service approach is the long-term winner for most businesses, but achieving self-service in B2B is significantly more complex.

From total addressable market to targeted buyers

When looking at your total addressable market (TAM), there are several layers. The broader market, where your potential buyers certainly exist. Within that, there are one or more targetable audiences, where you can create and reach out to a much higher concentration of likely buyers. However, within that concentration, only a limited population of individuals are going to react to a specific value proposition at any given time. And, if that value proposition is positioned differently than what solves the specific problem for that audience at any given time, you are not going to get the reaction you desire. Ad a multi-role buyer group to the mix and you’ve got your work cut out as far as targeting and content go.

This is one of the reasons why so many B2B businesses struggle with digital and resort to brute-force sales efforts, which we all know isn’t a long-term, scalable solution.

Let’s look at the methods top B2B companies use to find their targeted buyers.

How to use specific content to find your targeted buyers

First things first: product-market fit and true differentiation

There are two primary methods for targeting (from the top and the bottom), but both methods require your company to have key foundations in place.

With all B2B marketing, these are the necessary factors that need to be in place to have success:

  1. First, you must have achieved product-market fit (if not, marketing efforts are actually attempts to find product-market fit)
  2. You must have a real differentiator; such as being the low cost alternative, or have a (significantly) better ability to solve a need or problem

If you know what problem you solve for your targeted audience, you need to be able to agitate that problem by knowing a lot about the buyer(s), and the specifics of their situation(s). This includes knowing how the problem/need dynamic is perceived by all members of a buying group. Also, keep in mind that as your targeted accounts increase in size, so does the buying group associated with the decision-making process. (You can see how quickly increasing complexity drives many companies to ‘abandon’ digital.)

With that, let’s look at targeting from the top and targeting from the bottom.

Targeting from the top

This dynamic can cut across many variables, with two notable examples being a specific industry vertical, or a functional area within a company. Either way, the approach is the same: start targeting specific audiences (starting industry or functional area), and prospect for the buyer group and individual buyers by testing various value propositions, content, calls to action and offers.

Let’s look at the company-function example. Within a large company, a specific buying group may be associated with a function (department, etc.) within the business. Although your product may be applicable to multiple functional areas within a company, it may be best suited to help a specific function (or, at the least, is most urgently relevant to that specific function from a purchasing standpoint).

So you should try to speak to that specific audience as precisely as possible, and agitate their problem in no uncertain terms. For example, instead of explaining generic features or saying ‘why you are better’, you instead test multiple versions of content that show how specific features of your product or service benefit specific people performing a specific function, all in a specific size of company in a specific industry...and why (the “why” is the future promised land you can deliver). Because your targeting is precise, this is an exercise in determining what will motivate target buyers to take action.

Yes, this means creating a significant amount of specific content, but that’s what it takes to move the needle for today’s digitally literate, self-educated buyers.

Scott Brinker's martech landscape infographic

Another thing to consider is that there is a ton of noise out there, and a mind-boggling number of choices. Speaking from experience in the martech world (see Scott Brinker’s martech infographic), people are so inundated with messaging that anything short of precise is literally noise in the marketplace. Not to mention that B2B product & service buyers are becoming increasingly savvy to the promises that are being offered out in the market.

These buyers have often been burned by what is tantamount to to false advertising - either because a product doesn’t actually do what it was supposed to in the context of an individual’s business problem; but also due to the vast amount of cycles it can take to implement a solution and actually figure out how well it works. The savviest buyers realize that it is wasted effort, and less so the money, of a new implementation, that is their most precious resource. And unless they are already researching solutions, most people don’t really want to kick off an entire RFQ process because an advertisement told them they needed a new product or service...especially as the potential for cost & complexity increase.

The increasing knowledge and preference of the buyer makes it clear that it is increasingly incumbent upon B2B marketers to right-size their product and content to the appropriate industries, functions and specific buyers as early and as upfront as possible.

Targeting from the bottom: words matter

As we discussed earlier, top-down targeting means being precise about an audience, and testing various forms of messaging. In bottom-up targeting, you already have an effective message, but you test into audiences. This is most common for businesses who solve a critical problem across industries and functions and want to accelerate growth by finding and narrowing their focus on specific audiences.

It’s important to note that businesses who significantly benefit by targeting from the bottom have done the hard work of clearly articulating their true differentiators, which, again, is the practical exercise of creating high-quality, precise content.

When you have that ‘library,’ targeting from the bottom involves testing that language against various audiences to extract action. Those audiences should be based on actual customer history or well-informed hypotheses about specific buyers that can benefit from your product or service. The more specific you are, the more you can cut through the clutter and find ‘hand-raisers’ within the audience you’re testing.

Keep in mind the main test here is audiences. It’s common for your target buyers to be few and far between based on the audience you are testing and where your message appears. This could be due to poor targeting, but the good news is that it’s ultimately a numbers game.  If you say the correct thing, but in an environment that is sparsely populated with the audience that the precise message appeals to, it will yield a low number of qualified (potential) customers. As you learn more about which audiences contain a better proportion of your ideal customers, the better your underlying numbers will look.

An example of qualifying language that helps extract high-intent behavior would be disclosing price upfront. If a prospect continues forward in the buying process after knowing what a product is likely to cost, a major potential sticking point is already out of the way. You have already weeded out anyone prospects for whom price may have been an issue for. This principle can be applied to any (qualifying) messaging.

When you get the messaging right, your job then involves getting better at finding venues and ways to target audiences that have higher and higher concentrations of those that you can agitate the problem for, and extract responsiveness by being specific about solving needs.

No more generic B2B content

The pain of being generic will only increase, which is why we believe that all B2B companies should be actively working on building specific, precise, high-quality content and testing from both the top and the bottom.


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