Keeping B2B Marketing Content Human

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There would be a lot less bad marketing in the world if executives were forced to read all the ineffective, sometimes downright awful, content their organizations produce.

Marketing is supposed to put human needs first by sounding like it was created for humans by humans. Marketers know this.

So why is there so much bad B2B marketing content out there? It’s not a lack of creative storytelling talent. B2B companies are just as able to develop creative, fun, people-focused content as their consumer-oriented counterparts. Consider Cisco, IBM (yes, that IBM – once known as stiff and stodgy), NetApp, and Hub Spot to name a few examples.

With a little effort and strategy, you can breathe some life into your marketing. Below are five doable ways to humanize content and connect with your audience.


Stories

Humans are wired to think in stories. Twenty thousand years ago, when Grog needed to communicate hunting information, he didn’t issue tribal press releases boasting of “breakthrough arrow technology.” He told a story that was passed down and shaped by others.

All great marketing is storytelling, and it’s important to use stories to connect. We absorb stories, remember them, retell them, and they become part of how we “frame” our new world. Stories allow us to feel and to visualize what could be. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, for example, in which he painted a picture of a better world. If we want customers and prospects to feel something for our products other than boredom and disaffection, we cannot aim our content solely at their “logic” brains. Stories that illustrate how your products and services have made a difference for customers are a huge sales advantage. “Logical facts,” however, are easily forgotten and are far from transformational.

The best storytellers often do not sit in the executive suite. Enable your employees, fans, and partners to share their stories and extend your narrative’s relevance to them. There is no more powerful referral source than peer and user-focused stories, especially if users are telling them!

Conversation
Keeping business content “human” means that it should not only be relevant, it should sound like simple and clear conversation. And “simple,” doesn’t mean “dumb it down.” Complexity is easy; simplicity isn’t. The Roman orator Cicero famously stated, “Forgive me for writing such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one.” Simple just means easy to understand.

Think of all the casual conversations you have. No one recommends a product to a friend because it contains “disruptive, game-changing technology.” If people talked like this to us in personal conversation, as Hugh McLeod of Gaping Void describes, “we’d punch them in the face.” We recommend a product because it solves a very real human problem. People don’t talk like robots in everyday conversation; so why is this buzzword bingo part of our content? Even more surprising, we somehow expect people to read and relate to this stuff.

Color Your Words and Images
Colorful language simplifies concepts and makes them memorable. Paint a memorable visual with your words by using analogies and metaphors. For example, instead of “PR director,” you might describe your work as “story detective.” When I am talking with high-tech engineers, for example, I describe my work as the human-language translator between an internal technology focus and external customer needs. Simplify by using useful, accurate and helpful images that are meaningful to your business and for customers. Avoid overused metaphors (sports and war, for example) that have become clichés in business, however. That’s how buzzwords “happen.” If any wording smells like buzzwords to you, change it.

Outward Focus
One of the reasons companies struggle with making content human is because they are too inward-focused. That is, they are too centered on the question of, “how do we describe what we do?” They are focusing on the “we, me, us, and our.” Instead, companies should be outward-focused. The right question to answer is, “what are the human challenges our customers have?” When you approach content by describing human needs first, it’s much easier to then explain how your organization can help.

Here’s a quick test of your “outward focus” quotient: Does your company use the word “targets” or “prospects” / “customers” more frequently? If a customer comes to your website, can they glean in seconds what your organization does? Here’s another exercise: count how many times your writing mentions your company and its services. Then, count how many times it references customers and their needs. The latter should always be more pervasive, and your customer-to-company “reference ratio” should be high. Clear, relevant, and human-centered writing takes effort. Yet, the benefits are clear.

Jargon is a symptom of an inward-focus projected onto customers, and it is lazy. Readers won’t (and shouldn’t have to) struggle to decipher your narrative. Jargon also shortchanges your organization because it puts an unnecessary barrier between you and your audience. It’s like a bad restaurant experience where no one is served well (note the simile).

Another important element of an outward focus is the “so what?” factor for customers. Great content focuses on helping your audience achieve something better – get better results, save money, make money, make better decisions. It should center on improving customers’ bottom lines, not yours.

Fun and Humor
Fun is a healthy part of “serious” business. It’s a fantastic way to connect and cut through clutter. Even in b2b, relationships happen between people, not faceless entities, and fun and humor are as human as you can get. Funny is great; yet even a little levity works, too, especially for brands in need of a little brand botox! And, fun is less “risky” than you might think. Companies operate as “people,” too, with their own personality attributes.

IBM’s video series, “Art of the Sale,” for example, poked fun at IBM’s reputation in the mainframe business. It was refreshing, unexpected and cut straight to the point: “we know we had a reputation as being out-of-touch; we hear you, and we’ve changed.” Why did this series work so well? Because it was unexpected and it changed how people perceived the company. It was “un-IBM.” It was also an acknowledgment by the company that it was willing to be different moving forward. When expectations are inverted, customers are delighted. The right question for marketers to answer should be, “how do we favorably invert customer expectations?” Humor recognizes our shared humanity, and that is a powerful connector.

Vox Humana
With the exponential explosion in online content, it’s becoming not just a crowded world, but one where fresh voices are increasingly harder to find. Keeping content human increases its relevance and it can help change customer perceptions – and expectations – for the better. That’s a big competitive advantage in an increasingly noisy, sometimes un-human marketplace.

Now, back to the idea of forcing execs to consume their own bad content… I think I am on to something, or at least something fun for me. You say “torture”…I say public service…!

5 COMMENTS

  1. Great post, Kathy! Not only is it important for us to reexamine the way our marketing materials "talk” to our customers…we need to really listen to how we're speaking internally about our business (e.g., referring to "prospects” vs. "customers”). If we become more "human” in our day-to-day business interactions, we'll avoid becoming so insular in our thinking, and we'll be less likely to make faulty assumptions about our customers (and our products). There's an urgent need to strip away buzzword bingo and return to simple stories; as business therapist and thinkologist Arturo Coto once told me, keeping things simple is the secret to branding. http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=2772515&authType=name&authToken=KO-q&trk=tyah

    The simple story (your promise to your customers) is your brand; its longevity and strength is determined by how well you keep that promise. The promise makers and the promise keepers within your organization need to be telling (and realizing) the same story. Note: The views expressed in this posting are my own; they do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of Hoover's.

    Shelly Lucas, Senior Marketing Manager, Hoover's

  2. Thanks, Shelly. Great points. Marketers are people, too, and we just forget sometimes. Simple is always the way to go. You are absolutely spot-on about the fact that if we were more cognizant of how we speak internally about customers, we’d more more conscious about how we speak to the outside world. How we think about customers internally affects everything the outside world sees, hears, and feels. Change starts there. Thank you for the link to Coto’s work. Best!

  3. Shelly: thanks for bringing me into this dialog.

    Kathy: love the topic and what you’re trying to do here. Raising a couple of kids (8 & 10) has forced me to go back to the basic elements of communication. The categories you list remind me of what my 4th grader’s teacher is conveying to them about writing a story. Great stuff!

    I remind myself: it is all about promises we make and keep as a team.

    Advice that helps us all make good promises, and deliver on those promises is good advice.

    Business can be simpler. Cheers!

  4. I have always advocated a conversational theme to our website and other business writing, but sometimes management, who has to sign off on materials, gets hung up because it doesn’t sound the “sale-sy” way they are used to. What is the best way around that? (Besides trying to force them to read it themselves?)

  5. Hi Jody-
    A great question. Management should be listening to its employees that are closest to the customer. Sadly, that doesn’t always happen. They should be listening to the customer!

    What I have tried that works fairly well is run your business writing and positioning by a few of your best customers. Ask the hard questions: is it compelling?, is it too jargon-laden?, is it too much sales spin?, etc. Go beyond that – ask them what they need to see, what matters to them, and if your content is BS. Most of the time, customers will tell you the truth and you want that. You can’t fix what you don’t know is a problem. If a few of your best customers aren’t “buying” it, that’s great hard data to take back to management. Often times, this type of information directly from key customers will influence management to make the right kinds of changes. Not always, sadly, but it should if the company is truly a customer-centered organization.

    Best-
    Kathy

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