The B2B marketing ironies of our time


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I’ve been noticing some ironies in the world of B2B marketing lately; you know what I mean. When the common wisdom is one thing, but the reality is another. I get annoyed, especially when the so-called common wisdom is driven by the profit motive, or by fashion, or political correctness. Let me share a few ironies that I’ve noticed, and I hope readers will add others to the list. Or tell me to shut up and talk about something else. 

Here’s an interesting one. Hubspot preaches inbound marketing as a mantra, right? The theory is that if you post irresistible content to your website, you’ll rise in search rankings and attract interested buyers to find you. The result: you get higher quality prospects, with higher conversion rates and at lower cost than traditional outbound marketing. Which is true, but it’s gotten to the point where some marketers have gotten the impression that outbound marketing is bad, inferior, old-fashioned, or maybe even immoral.

But guess what? Turns out Hubspot’s own growth as a software company has been driven via cold calling through an inside sales team. Yep. Even Hubspot realizes that you can’t get all the B2B business you deserve using inbound marketing alone. An interview with one of Hubspot’s former sales chiefs actually made their call center sound like a pretty well-managed and productive organization. Kudos to them.

Here’s another: Google and Facebook are leading the digital marketing revolution. Budgets continue to shift to digital channels. Marketers are abandoning print and face-to-face channels in droves. But hold on. Did you know that both Google and Facebook use dear old direct mail for cold prospecting in their ad sales businesses? I’ve seen actual samples. Their direct mail is first-rate, including benefit-laden outer envelopes, a compelling offer to motivate response, supplemented by powerful calls to action and easy-to-use response vehicles. Ironic, isn’t it?

Now my last example involves an irony that had an impact on me, personally and professionally. Back in 2010, I was invited to become a contributor to Harvard Business Review’s online publication. What a thrill! I quickly prepared two articles, and when the first was published, was dismayed to see that it caused a firestorm of criticism.

In the article, I made the case that email marketing policies in B2B should be more flexible than those in consumer, when it comes to strict use of opt-in. My rationale is that business buyers need information from suppliers to do their jobs, and they want to be up to speed in their fields. So if a prospect leaves behind a business card at a trade show, for example, the exhibitor should feel comfortable following up with an email.

The response was immediate, and it got nasty, fast. Readers argued that nothing justifies opt-out email behavior — which is ironic because opt-out is in fact the guideline operational under the CAN-SPAM Act.

But here’s the larger irony, which made me both laugh and cry. A few months later, at a conference, I spotted the booth of the very company where one of my most vicious critics was employed. So I stopped by the booth to find out more about their services. And just as I turned to leave I asked what if any way they planned to follow up with me. “We’ll probably send you an email,” they said. I rest my case.

My conclusion? Whatever is in fashion or what people think is working, remember that the basics still drive B2B marketing. It’s the daily blocking and tackling of account targeting, sales lead generation, outbound communications, call centers, and data management and building a trusted reputation that drives business growth.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Ruth Stevens
Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention, teaches marketing at business schools in the U.S. and abroad, and is a guest blogger at Biznology and Target Marketing Magazine. Crain's BtoB magazine named Ruth one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Marketing. Her newest book is B2B Data-Driven Marketing: Sources, Uses, Results. Ruth has held senior marketing positions at Time Warner, Ziff-Davis, and IBM and holds an MBA from Columbia University. Learn more at


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