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Emotion in B2B content: First, do your research

David McGuire of B2B copywriters Radix Communications says emotional content is powerful – but risky.

“The truth is, a really bad day at work would involve somebody dying – and knowing that it was a mistake you made that cost them their life. Or a mistake made by your staff, which could and should have been picked up, and wasn’t. That death is your responsibility. I’ve been in a couple of situations where you’re doing an investigation and trying to learn lessons, and you realise lives were lost because wrong decisions were made. That horrible, sinking, sick feeling in my stomach is something I’ll never forget.”   Anonymous Director, NHS Trust

“It’s OK… nobody died.” But what if they did?

There’s a useful phrase marketers use when things are going wrong: “nobody died.” It’s a timely reminder that, however important our jobs might feel to us, it’s still only marketing – so we can afford to prioritise our wellbeing, learn our lessons, and cut ourselves some slack.

So when an anonymous NHS Director sent me the above response for our podcast about public sector content, the contrast hit me right in the conscience. And it got me thinking hard about the way we evoke emotion in B2B.

I choose words and shape marketing messages for a living. Sure, that can be pretty important – on a good day, my copy might have an influence in a multi-million-dollar tech deal. But ultimately, if I make the wrong call, what happens? A big enterprise chooses the wrong tech vendor.

My experience of making actual life-or-death decisions is pretty much zero (and given you’re reading a blog on a B2B marketing website, my guess is that probably goes for you too).

So when we start talking about the power of emotion in B2B content, we need to understand quite how much power that is.

It’s easy to forget, but there are real people behind the personas we write for. Often, they’re handling real risks with serious outcomes. If we start to throw those pain points around too lightly, we’ll make the brand look – at best – glib, annoying, and out of touch with the realities of the job.

Emotions of B2B buying: how we get it exactly wrong

While public sector and critical national infrastructure audiences illustrate the point, I’m not just talking about death and destruction. B2B marketers regularly wave all kinds of risks at decision-makers (cyber breaches, redundancies and tribunals, personal legal liability) without ever stopping to feel the real-world weight of what we’re saying.

As a result – like the CGI buildings destroyed in a superhero movie – they don’t seem to weigh anything, so nobody really cares.

Think about that anonymous NHS director, living every day with the reality that people die in hospitals – and that, sometimes, they might have prevented it. That’s a pretty powerful emotion. But if you knew them, would you evoke that to sell them something?

Maybe you could. But you’d have to be damned sensitive. In particular, you’d have to acknowledge two things:

  1. It’s a sickening situation to be in, and it’s amazing that anyone would voluntarily do it
  2. This is not a novelty; it’s the daily reality of their job

And yet, how often does B2B messaging do exactly the opposite? We fly through a list of pains or risks without taking the time to really engage with how they actually feel. And we act as if the risk we’re talking about is a surprise – not something they have to deal with every day.

In short, a lot of B2B content acts like an arsehole.

Before evoking emotion, get under the skin

Without understanding the reality, it’s all too easy to handle emotions in the wrong way – to over or under-play the seriousness of the situation, or misinterpret what the audience’s true feelings are. The power of the emotion can go spinning out of control, and do damage to your credibility.

Empathy goes a long way, of course. But ultimately there’s no substitute for research (especially if you’re dealing with stakeholders that want a list of pain points covered). That’s why it’s a real issue that 78% of B2B marketers have problems getting access to customers.

Here are a few shortcuts that might help:

  1. Create case studies. A great excuse to talk to customers – and in particular to ask about the problems your product or service solved for them. Pay attention to how they talk when they tell about that “before” picture, because it’s how your next customer is feeling now. And as a bonus, you’ll also get one of the most powerful types of B2B content money can buy.
  2. Attend industry events. When exhibitions were a thing, working a stand was a perfect way to eavesdrop on conversations and find out what your audience really gets excited or upset about, and why. Now they’ve gone digital, the place to look is on the fringes of the presentation – the chat windows and networking rooms.
  3. Lurk on forums and social media. Try Googling key topics in your industry, but incorporating emotionally-charged words like “frustrated”, “seriously”, or “amazing”. You might find your way into discussions among professionals in your target market, sharing their real hopes, fears and annoyances. (Just don’t give into the urge to barge in and start selling.)

There are plenty of other alternatives, of course – podcasts, interviews, profiles, industry media. Anywhere your target readers get together and share their real feelings about their job.

It’s a worthwhile use of your time, because people do care deeply about their work, and so emotion in B2B is a powerful thing. That power means it can go very, very wrong or very, very right. Which one is up to you, and the effort you put in.

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