By Alexis Blais
To communicate a company’s story effectively to the right audiences, most industry professionals would say aligning sales, marketing and PR should be a top priority. It’s widely understood that a consistent marketing message is key to success.
B2B tech marketing is no exception to this best practice. But when consistency meets complacency, PR has a problem.
B2B tech marketing, with its emphasis on lead gen from a niche market, has for years let lackluster creative and uninspiring sales messaging chock-full of industry jargon take the lead. With intentions to speak only to a select few, many marketing departments have become all too comfortable with campaigns that rarely spark emotion and end up falling flat.
As a result, B2B tech PR strategies have often followed suit. While this alignment has created consistency, it has ultimately confined PR strategies to outdated ideas and parameters that are no longer necessary. Creativity falls to the wayside and teams end up speaking mostly to their own industry with stories that don’t resonate, messaging that reads like a textbook and talking points that feel robotic. No matter a buyer’s deep tech knowledge, no one wants marketing to feel like a lecture.
The majority of B2B marketing has lagged in creativity for far too long. Despite a laser focus on motivating the buyer, evidence shows much of B2B marketing is failing. A 2018 survey by marketing agency WMH found that 82 percent of business buyers wished B2B advertising had the creativity they expect from B2C advertising. Additionally, 48 percent of respondents shared that they feel B2B advertising is boring. Only 22 percent said the marketing they see actually leads them to making a purchase, and a whopping 81 percent believed they would make better purchasing decisions if B2B marketing engaged them more. Those are stats we can’t ignore.
Recent trends support the idea that B2B marketing should broaden its horizons. Today especially, with digital adoption accelerating the way it has this year alone, consumers are savvier than ever when it comes to the technology inside their growing set of devices and the corporations behind the software they’ve become reliant on.
In addition, employees — who, you must remember, are also consumers — are gaining purchasing power. The growth of workplace software, for example, has resulted in preference building among the rank and file. Just think about how many times you’ve argued among friends the pros and cons of Microsoft Teams vs. Slack.
It’s become clear B2B marketing and its PR counterpart needs to reconsider who they reach and with what message.
There’s precedent that demonstrates the power of reaching the end user. For example, consider Stripe, the payments company that allows businesses to accept money online. Knowing the pain of clunky payments infrastructure fell to developers, Stripe went against traditional B2B marketing wisdom and took a developer-first approach, which supported their developer-first product. Rather than zero in on the Chief Financial Officers or purchasing managers of various online businesses, the way most B2B marketing strategies do, they spoke directly to the developer. Developers, in turn, became vocal evangelists. Messaging like “doesn’t suck” resonated strongly because it was simple, digestible and refreshing. Rather than putting the onus on the C-suite to decide what technology employees should use, Stripe marketing compelled developers to advocate for the product to whomever needed to hear it. With a private valuation surpassing $35 billion as they set their sights on the public markets, there’s no question that Stripe nailed it.
The alternative approach taken by Stripe — often referred to as B2B2C — isn’t new. But with an increasingly savvy consumer having more and more say in the technology they use, its adoption is growing. The smartest companies have sharpened up, with case studies like Stripe helping to usher in change.
However, B2B tech PR hasn’t properly caught up. We tend to pride ourselves on being able to understand dense, highly technical language, in order to communicate to our various audiences in ways we hope resonate. With that expertise, we can do more than be conduits of information to select audiences of what were traditionally seen as the all-important purchase manager.
B2B tech PR programs must look past the tried-and-true playbook to go beyond the buyer and reach purchase influencers. This requires looking at your assets through a new lens.
I was fortunate to begin my PR career focused on entirely different sectors: fashion, beauty and entertainment. I’ve often had colleagues question the relation or find the career transition surprising, but it was actually quite smooth. When I started the shift into technology, I was asked in interviews how my experience could apply to this sector. With tech founders and executives at the time just beginning to become more widely known household names, I saw plenty of similarities to the flashy names I was used to promoting. In addition to the buzz-building and reputation-managing celebrity factor, those industries instilled a proactive, lofty-goal setting mentality. Thinking outside the box wasn’t a once-in-a-while brainstorm session; it was a daily hustle. It seemed to me that B2B tech PR could use more hustle.
While B2B tech companies rarely have the sort of built-in buzz a celebrity does, carrying the consumer-facing approach in an effort to challenge the status quo can be a game changer.
All too often, quick and decisive assumptions are made about what’s newsworthy. What’s more, we’ve been trained to lean on standard practice — i.e., “we’ve always done it this way” — for reaching audiences through the media.
Take a common request from a tech executive to get a story placed in the Wall Street Journal, one of the country’s most credible, prestigious and wide-reaching publications. Every tech startup wants a feature or mention, and for good reason: the credibility of such association is invaluable. However, with an understanding of the challenging landscape, PR pros often point out the unrealistic likelihood of such a placement, suggesting resources be diverted elsewhere, like reaching the customer through trade publications or paid media.
In many ways, that counsel is appropriate, but it’s not completely accurate. Unrealistic? Maybe, especially if frequency is expected. But never? Only if you’re playing it safe. Connecting with your customer through the industry only, and reverting to paid? Of course, channeling resources appropriately and targeting the right audience makes sense, and there are certainly times for paid media. But not challenging oneself to find relevancy in mainstream earned media would be underestimating its massive brand- and credibility-building value.
B2B tech PR pros are used to keeping communications programs humming steadily, but the best practitioners are keeping an opportunistic eye on what else is out there for their product, service or business.
Rather than rest on our laurels for communicating complex messages to the niche audiences who comprehend them, we should push ourselves to translate dense topics into stories that resonate more broadly.
PR pros are capable of wearing many different hats. This skillset should be extended to storytelling efforts, exploring how to find relevancy for a product or service based on what’s in the zeitgeist, what’s dominating the headlines or what’s percolating on reporters’ radars. Or rather than run from controversy, we should explore how to strategically embrace tension to get noticed beyond expected confines.
Instead of limiting our expertise, why not think bigger? When you challenge yourself to think how a certain product, service and business can make it onto the “Today Show,” you’d be amazed what ideas you can come up with.
Of course, this requires time and energy the typical tech PR pro doesn’t have. But with most B2B marketing putting tech buyers to sleep, incorporating a consumer PR approach into to the B2B mix can be what truly moves the needle.
For more insight into how to create an effective modern PR program, download our eBook, “PR 101: A Guide for Today’s Public Relations.”