‘B2B – Consumer polarisation’ appears to be an inevitable side effect of big agency group think. Consumers are best left to be creative, track trends and drive cross-platform integration, leaving the financial crises and thought leadership to the corporate guys. I can cite two of the largest PR firms which have distinct teams – and even different P&Ls – for the two disciplines, even if they are being applied to the same client. I can see the agency logic of such an approach; if both teams are considered (internally, at least) as sales channels, to identify and exploit client budgets, it makes sense to try and unlock them from multiple angles, simultaneously. Even the most intractable client contact is likely to cede and sign-off some increment if faced with sufficiently relentless, multi-pronged pitching.
But I struggle to locate the client logic in such an approach. Why would distinct teams be better placed to serve a large client covering a range of audiences, from end users and product-based, to corporate and financial affairs?
While it makes sense to divide implementation teams into specialisms – consumer, partnerships, PA etc. – imposing (even internally) distinct strategic or P&L teams makes no sense either to the client or the agency in the long run. The reality is that any organisation wishing to communicate externally is, in effect, a consumer client. The evidence is compelling. Let me explain.
First, I’d like to start – in all transparency – with the most compelling piece of research I’ve encountered this year. It is from one of our peers – Text 1001– but so compelling and relevant that it’s worth citing here: On average the number of decision-makers involved in B2B purchases is six people, increasing as the size of the company does. Of those decision-makers, 50% have no technical expertise. According to the research, purchasing executives are increasingly conducting initial research themselves on various reference sources, including supplier’s website (43%), search engine (34%) and online endorsements, reviews or recommendations (27%) before deciding which technology solutions to buy. In fact, 1 in 4 chief information officers claim to do initial fact-finding themselves.
According to the Aquity Group2, 94% of business buyers do some form of online research; 77% use Google search; 84.3% check business websites; 34% third-party websites; and 41% read user reviews. In short, B2B purchasers are starting to resemble their consumer counterparts; it’s hardly surprising given that even the most fanatical procurement officer is also a consumer at some point during the day!
Secondly, even the most esoteric, proprietary product has an end user impact at the very end of the purchase cycle; I’m not referring to the purchasers or decision-maker, but the consumer who ultimately benefits from the B2B product. I’ve worked for a number of carrier-to-carrier fixed and mobile phone operators; these departments function as far away from the end consumer as it is possibly to imagine, negotiating ‘call resolution rates’, service level agreements and ‘intra-carrier fees’. But the benefit of affordable, reliable and scaleable bandwidth was appreciated more by the final users than the procurement departments who negotiated the same. So, in each case, we extended our B2B (procurement-based) communications to include end users, explaining the benefits in terms of remote working, security and additional services such as marketing campaigns, big data etc., all of which could be assured and enhanced through the right carrier-to-carrier partner. Such ‘secondary decision-makers’ are increasingly relevant for B2B purchases, particularly given the ease and speed with which service complaints (even from staff) can be propagated through social media.
Thirdly, over-reliance on a small group of ‘expert influencers’ represents a risk to the brand; particularly within the confines of a specialist B2B segment. Regardless of the absolute merit of one offering compared to another, certain influencers may prove intractable. As the ongoing Apple v Microsoft debates continue to demonstrate, there is never such a thing as absolute objectivity in journalism (or amongst analysts). Some influencers may be fundamentally disposed to one approach over another; no amount of product reviews, one-to-one briefings, or customer testimonials are likely to change them. The Apple v Microsoft example reflects a philosophical debate about ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ architecture, or, even the character traits of the companies’ respective founders; nothing remotely objective in reality. A consumer approach can help extend the discussion and relevance of a product beyond the idiosyncratic confines of specialist influencers, thus helping to mitigate the impact of those whose negative disposition is absolute. In communications terms, this form of consumerisation is a classic and effective risk mitigation strategy.
Finally, as the history of technology (and the automobile and financial sectors before that) has demonstrated, today’s specialist B2B sell is tomorrow’s consumer purchase. Commoditisation (or Moore’s Law ) has its equivalents across the B2B field, as techniques and materials become cheaper, products become more accessible to non-specialist purchasers. Thirty years ago, it would have been unthinkable to purchase a home computer without the assistance of at least two PhDs; today, I can purchase one direct at Croma . Twenty years ago, I could not have imagined planning a trip to China without the aid of a specialist travel agency and intervention from my local consulate; today, I can do everything online.
Every B2B product or service will become a consumer one; it’s just a matter of time. Agencies which insist on separating the two may be serving themselves, but it’s not clear whether or how they are best serving their clients.