Humanising B2B and Leading with Empathy

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B2B audiences are people, not robots. Do not treat them like machines.

By Ben Bush, Partner and Head of Strategy at The Frameworks

A LinkedIn post that caught my eye the other week – and generated a modest wave of approval when I shared it with my own network – was this repurposed tweet from Boston-based B2B marketer Dave Gerhardt calling out the real difference between B2C and B2B. Spoiler alert… there isn’t one. They’re both about selling to people; it’s just that some of those people work at a company.

I shared it because it’s simultaneously both so blatantly obvious and so easy to forget, especially if you look at the way B2B marketers have historically approached their brief.

My first proper job, back in the early 1990s, was in B2B journalism, writing about a niche and very technical subject matter for a small UK publishing house. I recall my boss dressing me down one day when, under pressure from an advertiser, we had accepted a feature article and run it more or less verbatim, without even tagging it as advertorial. It was, he said, devoid of any kind of spark that would capture and hold our readers’ attention, in stark contrast to another piece from the same edition over which some time had clearly been taken. (Fortunately, as the author of that other piece, I got to keep my job).


Though that article may have ticked all the right boxes as far as the subject features and benefits were concerned, it did so without any appreciation or respect for its audience as human beings. It was essentially a puff piece crammed with keywords – rather lost on a readership who didn’t yet use search engines every day.

This dry, straight-down-the-line approach was pretty common in those days. Whether in press releases, advertising or even live events, messaging and content invariably assumed that the B2B audience was some kind of machine, and it was just a case of finding the right buttons to press to make it spit out an enquiry or a fully-fledged sales deal.

Today, those keywords have become all-powerful, campaigns are driven by AI and B2B audience behaviour is tracked and analysed in real-time, rather than by counting how many torn-out bits of cardboard got sent back to the magazine in the post (yes, really). Despite – or perhaps because of – these advances, though. human interest still seems elusive.

If anything, B2B marketers – in thrall to KPIs – are guiltier than ever of a by-numbers approach to campaigns and tactics. “What’s the ROI?” they ask, forgetting that the action they’re trying to trigger is based on a decision made by someone who’s probably having a difficult Thursday and can’t remember if they turned the oven off.

The B2B landscape will always be filled with gloriously niche propositions targeted at audiences with specific challenges or opportunities, and the businesses making those propositions will always need to demonstrate their relevance. But they cannot afford to forget that those audiences are real people with busy lives and are not just sitting there waiting to be sold to.

Here are some ways to maintain that human connection.

Know your audience

To engage your audience, try putting yourself in their shoes. Don’t just think about the specifics of the product or idea you’re trying to sell them. Think instead about what’s keeping them up at night, where and how you might have permission to interrupt their day and – above all – why they should care. A little respect here goes a very long way.

For a recent project, we were asked to revamp the way a software vendor was trying to push a particularly niche capability. The main “explainer” asset was a particularly gnarly white paper that even the most technically minded prospect would have to be in the right mood to want to read in full. We dug a little deeper into the paper’s themes and spoke to people who had had a chance to interact with the intended audience, some of whom, it turned out, were not technically minded at all. Based on these insights, we created an experience that echoed the paper’s contents in a far more graphical and engaging way, couching the key points in terms of relatable practical challenges rather than abstract software features. Crucially, we also provided different layers of detail and complexity to suit different levels of expertise or available time.

So don’t just make assumptions, rely on instinct or take anonymous audience data as gospel. Speak to sellers. Use social profiling. Look at how the competition is trying to engage the same audience. Think about how you could do it better when it comes to tone, narrative and overall content experience.

Know your subject

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that being accessible and engaging in the way you speak to a particular type of audience means you should be dumbing things down. If anything, knowing how to pitch things right requires knowing more about the subject than the lazier alternatives.

Take this example, from a Wired series where experts break down a subject according to different levels of audience age and experience. It’s not specifically a B2B play – although it certainly deals with the kind of niche topic B2B marketers have to grasp. But it shows perfectly how someone sufficiently versed in a subject can find new ways to help different people get to grips with it. That’s exactly the challenge a B2B communicator often faces.

A good mantra – even if you didn’t start your career on the kind of trade magazine that crops up as a guest publication on Have I Got News for You? – is to try to think like a journalist. Find an expert and ask them the kind of questions someone coming to the subject for the first time would find interesting. Focus, above all, on why your “reader” should want to learn more.

So do some homework, write yourself a list of those key questions and try to stay on script. But don’t be afraid to break off and dig a little deeper, especially if you find you’ve touched on a nuance that your expert gets particularly enthusiastic about. Get to the heart of that passion and you’re a long way towards making your audience care too.

Get creative

Finally, be bold in your creative decisions. Think about what’s inspired you recently, whether it was something you heard on a podcast, saw in a movie or dreamt up over dinner with friends. Just because this inspiration didn’t come from a B2B channel, there’s no reason the thinking behind it won’t inspire a B2B audience.

Here are a couple of takes on different aspects of cybersecurity. First IBM, playing out a high-production, only slightly tongue-in-cheek dramatic scenario that might have come from Spooks or 24 (safe cultural references, I think: I’ve already shown my age). And here’s Kaspersky, exploring the value of protecting our data through a thought experiment experience that should appeal to businesses and consumers alike. Both deliver a serious message in the kind of creative, show-not-tell style we see so often in the B2C world.

So, think about what would inspire you, not just what may have worked in the past. The sweet spot for deep engagement probably lies somewhere between education (knowing you stuff), and inspiration (thinking beyond it). If you are confident in your underlying message, be confident in the result. Don’t be afraid to take a chance or to have a bit of fun.

You’re only human, after all.