Authentic, helpful, humble and human* – the keys to great B2B messaging in the era of coronavirus
In the current climate, it's critical to find the right tone for messaging
Tone and nuance have always been critical for great B2B marketing, but CV19 has turned everything that we thought we knew on its head. So what does excellent copywriting and messaging look like in 2020? And perhaps more importantly, what does terrible look like? These are just some of the questions we posed at our recent B2B Marketing Leaders virtual roundtable.
How do you communicate with your customers when no-one is interested in buying? That, essentially, is the question which many B2B marketers have been wrestling with since lockdown arrived around the world. It was also one of the central questions that I addressed, debated and discussed with a cluster of B2B Marketing Leaders on the latest of our virtual roundtables. I wanted to understand how leaders and their teams had been adjusting their messaging, tone of voice and content in response to the crisis – and perhaps more importantly, how their marketing was continuing to evolve as the situation normalises and (hopefully) the economy starts to return to something that resembles normal.
It was, as ever, a fascinating, varied and insightful discussion, with marketers from a diverse range of industries candidly sharing experiences, perspectives and (sometimes) solutions. Some of those attending had dealt with unprecedented demands for their services, whilst others have seen their products and services effectively unsaleable… at least for now. We were also joined by David McGuire, our resident B2B Marketing copywriting Expert and regular trainer on the top, and he made a fascinating contribution based on his own experiences and insights.
Everyone agreed on one thing: that a new kind of communication and messaging, with a new tone and nuance, has been required since coronavirus hit, which will be required as long as it dominates the agenda, and probably for the foreseeable future thereafter.
Here are some of the standout points that emerged – from my perspective at least.
1. It’s all about the brand
B2B marketers have often struggled with the remit, budget and skills to focus on brand. Consequently, it has effectively been unfashionable in B2B, with sales, lead or engagement related activity coming to the fore. Not anymore: in the wake of coronavirus, with demand gone AWOL, the importance of the brand and the power of the brand has become pre-eminent. But strong brands require authenticity, so that places a real focus on brand purpose, and ensuring this is understood at the very top of the organisation. This should be a time for a long-awaited resurgence of brand in many B2B companies – but those that don’t focus on this now and get it right may not be around to see the upswing.
2. Being helpful isn’t as easy as it sounds
It was Jay Bauer (who is speaking at Ignite 2020) who coined the wonderful expression ‘stop selling, start helping’. Today, every brand claims to want to help and be ‘there for you’, but much of this is clearly ‘helpwash’. In other words, writing earnestly about your wish to be helpful, isn’t the same as actually helping. It’s likely that the help most customers want is pretty specific and time sensitive. In other words, if you can’t do something which genuinely addresses a need, without trying to sell, don’t do it at all. It will undermine your authenticity – as one attendee put it bluntly, people can smell bullshit.
3. Corporate marketing and messaging: RIP
Old-school corporate style messaging, the kind that dominated B2B for decades, with its de-humanised focus on corporate size, corporate ego and assumption of logical decision making has been a dying breed in B2B for many years, but coronavirus surely is the last nail in the coffin. To connect with customers in this climate requires marketing with a human touch.
4. It’s not just the customers who need the right message
Most B2B marketers today are onboard with the needs and subtleties of employee branding, and there will surely never be a more important time to ensure the right message is going out employees up and down the business, wherever they are. But channel marketing is, as ever, less obvious, more challenging and (for those brands that rely on partners) just as important. One household name tech brand who attended this session described the impact of CV19 as a ‘wakeup call’ for their seller community, and claimed it has completely transformed the way they empower and inform them, and get them onboard with the nuances of messaging.
5. Now more than ever, kill the clichés
As one attendee put it, “Every time I open my in box and see an email with a title reading ‘In these unprecedented times…’ it’s like the screech that you get when someone runs their nails down a blackboard.” Great B2B marketing needs to stand out, and you won’t do that by regurgitating the obvious. So, kill the cliché – not just now, but always.
6. Don’t be afraid to speak about CV19 if it’s appropriate
All attendees accepted that selling and ‘ambulance chasing’ were strictly out-of-bounds and out-of-order, although one attendee was clear to delineate between ‘serving a market need’ and ‘exploiting an opportunity’. But that doesn’t mean your messaging must avoid all references to coronavirus at all costs . Sometimes it’s necessary and appropriate. The challenge is to understand where that fine line lies, and stick to it.
7. Use appropriate language – cut the bravado
Some words or phrases are simply inappropriate in today’s context. For example, we’re unlikely to see ‘turbocharge’ again for a while, and the opinion of some attendees, that’s probably a good thing.
8. Take pride where its due, but don’t take it too far
The coronavirus crisis has been the making of some companies – there are lots of obvious examples, as well as some less obvious ones. Others will join them by rapidly pivoting. If you’re one of those lucky companies, it’s okay to take pride in what you do, and your relevance right now… but not to sensationalise. As ever, judgement of tone is critical.
9. Be ready for rebound
A top priority for marketers must be to be prepared a return to ‘normality’ (or something that resembles that) and have a plan for what to do and how to engage with customers when it happens.
10. The future starts here
The style, nature, tone and nuance of how you communicate now will determine the future of your brand and your customer relationships, and consequently of your company and your career. No pressure.
*I have shamelessly stolen this headline from Stefan Doering of PwC, who was one of the attendees at the roundtable, and along with David McGuire and Jay Bauer will be speaking at B2B Marketing Ignite London 2020 in June.
About the B2B Marketing Leaders programme
B2B Marketing is running regular roundtables to help CMOs, marketing directors, VPs and other B2B Marketing Leaders to navigate the coronavirus crisis and prepare for what comes next. For more information on the programme go to our website.
If you’d like to join one of these sessions, email firstname.lastname@example.org