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How to get famous and get lucky in B2B

The efficiency doctrine would lead you to believe that wider fame is of no use to a B2B company, says Rory Sutherland. In fact, wider fame may be just as valuable to a B2B brand as to a consumer brand

I imagine anyone working in B2B marketing must get rather sick of ad agency presentations which contain the rather bold claim that B2B advertising is “just the same as consumer advertising”. I’ll confess right now: I have probably said something similar myself. I duly apologise.

There are of course significant differences. 

As I said at this year’s Ignite London conference, people making purchases for themselves are mostly trying to minimise the risk of regret; those making purchases in a business or institutional setting are more interested in reducing the risk of blame. 

And there is also another fairly obvious difference. With B2B marketing your target audience is assumed to be smaller, more narrowly defined but individually much more valuable.

Both these things naturally drive B2B marketers to assume that the answer is to be much more targeted, more rational and factual in your use of content, and to spend far more in very narrowly defined channels – ideally those allowing for a very high level of accountability.

I think this recommendation is always going to sound logical in a board meeting. But it may not always be right. As I keep saying, efficiency is not always the same as effectiveness.

The great thing about being famous

Taken to its extreme, the efficiency doctrine would lead you to believe that wider fame is of no use to a B2B company. And that, provided your existence is promoted to the 7,900 people worldwide who are authorised to buy whatever it is you sell, any other form of promotion is unnecesary.

In fact wider fame may be just as valuable to a B2B brand as to a consumer brand - for different reasons. Because while you may know exactly who your potential customers are, you certainly don’t know where other opportunities may lie.

I once met someone who had worked for a security supplies company, mostly selling equipment to police forces around the world. To their great surprise they discovered that the principal market for handcuffs, um, was, er, shall we say, nothing to do with law-enforcement at all.

Just as bees don’t always follow the waggle dance – around 20% of them travel off at random looking for new, hitherto unknown sources of nectar and pollen – there is also a value in using advertising to explore a wider prospect pool than seems sensible at first.

All of life depends on a trade-off between efficiently exploiting what you know and discovering what you may be wrong about. This is all the more true at times of rapid change.

Too narrow a focus on your defined target audience may mean that you never discover opportunities which lie elsewhere. 

The great thing about being a bit more famous than necessary is that more opportunities come your way. Being famous has no value in and of itself: its value arises obliquely because noticeable businesses and brands are vastly more likely to 'get lucky' in unexpected ways. If you are famous, your press releases will be taken more seriously, your chief executive's phone calls are more likely to be returned, you attract better job applicants (and probably at a lower cost). What’s more people come to you first with good ideas. People trust you more. People are more ready to recommend you to others.

Opportunity knocks, but only if it knows your address

This trade-off between advertising which makes sense in advance and advertising which works in reality is one I have been giving more and more thought to. 
How much of life is the product of simple luck rather than forward planning? That chance meeting; a misdialled telephone number; an encounter at a party you never planned to attend? 

Answer honestly, and you’ll be surprised how much in life is down to random chance. You can’t really plan for luck. The best you can do is plan to be around when lucky happens.

This half-way house between planning and randomness can best be called opportunism.

“You have to go hunting every night. Maybe one night in fourteen you’ll get lucky.... And you don’t know what you’re looking for, but you know it when you see it.”

Okay, that’s a quotation from the serial killer Son of Sam, and so perhaps not the most attractive source material. But Mindhunter came on the TV at the very moment I began typing, and it seemed too perfect a description of opportunism to waste.

People instinctively understand opportunism. I’m not sure businesses do.

So young people are often ridiculed for experiencing extreme FOMO – the fear of missing out. And, if you are a parent of teenage children, this can be a very annoying phobia indeed. You must stay sober on Friday and Saturday nights so that you can drive the spoiled buggers to every party or gathering to which they are tangentially invited.

But FOMO is - especially when you are young – a very rational response to a very real truth about the world. If you were to ask your teenage offspring why they wanted to go out for yet another Saturday night rather than taking the middle-aged option of staying at home with a takeaway, they would probably say: “Well, I might get lucky.” The form this luck may take – new friends, new romantic interests, new gossip, new invitations to yet more bloody parties – is not defined. All that’s certain is that none of these positive outcomes emerge if you stay at home. Over time, the process is highly non-linear: one opportunity breeds another. The fewer parties you attend, the fewer invitations you receive.

If you were a statistician, you might say that going out enjoys positive asymmetries. You don’t know in advance that a party is worthwhile: but you do know that nothing great is ever going to happen if you repeatedly stay indoors. Provided opportunity is net positive, maximising opportunity makes sense.

Lots of things in life are like this. We do many things not because we have a specific objective in mind but simply because they increase the chance of experiencing good fortune in some as yet unspecified way.

That, when you think about it, is why you go to trade-fairs and exhibitions. It’s not because you know what will happen in advance – but because you know that nothing will happen if you don’t go. The same mindset should apply to advertising.

Make plans for opportunity

In an uncertain world, you can’t always plan for success, but you can plan for opportunity. The process may be neither exact nor definable nor quantifiable. In B2B it is even less quantifiable than in B2C, because the numbers are smaller. But it is still valuable.

What percentage of marketing works this way? I would contend rather a lot. In the case of B2B marketing, where one happy accident can be worth millions, rather a lot. In large part marketing will always work in unforeseen ways, simply by increasing the likelihood of unanticipated positive events.

Yet what percentage of advertising and marketing is planned with an opportunistic intention in mind. I would say precisely none. All business expenditure must be justified and evaluated instrumentally not probabilistically. “The purpose of X is to achieve Y.” Campaign X will be created, targeted and measured solely for its success at achieving predefined end Y. Anything it achieves other than Y does not count.

This means that advertising as a whole may be evaluated in completely the wrong way. The question to ask – the one teenagers understand unconsciously – is a FOMO question. Not “what is the value of doing advertising?” but “what is the cost of not doing it?”

The whole focus on efficiency which characterizes digital advertising may hence be misplaced. As your teenage kids (and Son of Sam) understand instinctively, you can only be efficient at achieving something if you can define precisely in advance what it is you intend to do. In the real world, this only applies some of the time. 

Half the money you spend on advertising may be wasted, just as, in retrospect, half the parties my kids go are waste of time. But if you never go a party that’s a waste of time, you aren’t going to enough parties.

Be more famous and see what happens doesn’t seem like much of a strategy. But it is.

See Rory's barnstorming opening keynote at B2B Marketing Ignite USA 2020

See more of what Rory will be sharing this May in his rip-roaring opening keynote at B2B Maketing Ignite USA in Chicago this May.

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