Why conventional won’t cut it any more

by Zoe Wilkins /

The highlight of B2B Marketing’s Ignite conference, for me, was the end of the day.

Not because I was desperate to get back to the delights of the London Underground and a long train journey. No, it was because I had been so excited about hearing from the fabulous Doug Kessler, whose keynote presentation was the last one on my personal agenda that day. And it was so worth waiting for.

I’ve been learning from Doug’s wise words for some time now – but being in the room to hear his talk in person brought his anecdotes to life and made me determined to ensure BDB continues to advocate bravery in b2b marketing, and always challenges the temptation to walk only on the path well-trodden.

Exposing hidden conventions

A big part of the difficulty of breaking conventions is that we are usually not even aware they are there. Sometimes they’re rules we follow unconsciously, sometimes they’re just habits. Either way, these “invisible conventions” have become so engrained in our thinking, that doing anything different feels, well, a bit weird. Our role as marketers, said Doug, is to “expose those hidden conventions… and play with them a bit,” because that’s how we liven things up and grab attention.

Without getting that attention, we’ll achieve nothing as our audiences are “marketed at” constantly and, over time, have built up barriers. We all know the feeling in our personal and professional lives: sometimes you can see marketing coming at you like a steam train and you roll your eyes, zone out and switch off. Or even worse, fed up with mediocre or irrelevant marketing, you stop it in its tracks for good. Unsubscribe. “Don’t contact me again.” These barriers can only be overcome by an approach that really stands out.

The birth of content marketing (or CM) was a game-changer. It broke many of our industry’s long-standing conventions: it put the audience in control, not the marketer. Instead of one-sided, pushy messages, content marketing makes us more honest, more balanced, and focused on delivering value. CM was like a magic wand for its first adopters, and although it undoubtedly still has a valuable role in b2b, for most of us, conventions have started creeping in again. And so we need to think again about how we can avoid becoming slaves to those conventions.

Doug cited a few great examples of convention-breaking, some of which BDB had already adopted, others we’ve been able to implement in the time since I was at Ignite.

Make your weakness your hero

Since the dawn of time, marketing’s job has been to hide a brand’s weaknesses. Our job was to talk about what we’re good at and make people want to work with us. The not-so-great stuff tended to get hidden away. But Doug argues that your audience is probably already more than aware of your weaknesses. So why not adopt a policy of “insane honesty?”

Admitting to and (if you’re brave enough) showing off your weaknesses surprises your audience, proves your confidence and makes you trustworthy. And importantly for b2b, it will deter the audiences you don’t want, and attract the people you do. The Hans Brinker hostel example Doug shared was just brilliant. I love this counterintuitive approach and have proposed one to a client, with a “handle with care” caveat, of course.

Be prepared to ignore the data

Sometimes great ideas take time to deliver results, especially if you’re breaking with the norm. Audiences on occasion need to adjust, and so even when your metrics tell you to drop an idea, if you really believe in it, keep going. Doug gave an example of an intentionally rough and ready vidcast from SEOmoz, which took three years to gain any traction, but is now a resounding success. I’m not sure many companies would be prepared to wait three whole years to see any ROI, but the principle is right. Don’t give up at the first hurdle if your instinct says you’re on to a good thing.

Get the nerds out of the cupboard

We’ve been advocating this for years. As long as your nerds are adequately prepared, they can market your products and services just as well as their commercial colleagues do. Probably even more so, because there will be nerds within your audience that need to believe in your offering and/or will authorise the purchase. Nerds like and trust other nerds, and will have far few barriers when being spoken to by a like-minded professional. So use them.

You don’t have to be positive

Incessantly “Polyanna positive” marketing is fake and cringeworthy, as the much-derided Kendall Jenner / Pepsi ad made all too obvious recently. Ditch the perma-smiles and fake tan – can you use other human emotions that are just as powerful as happiness? Fear? Sadness? Jealousy? Anger? Norton did a great job highlighting the threat of inadequate antivirus protection by producing a really dark and incredibly powerful video featuring hackers.

Stop talking b2b

Social media has really helped us start speaking like human beings instead of corporate mouthpieces. But quite often it’s still only in the social world that businesses are brave enough to talk like that. A more natural voice makes you more approachable, more personal and more authentic. So why not do it everywhere? “The convention of voice,” according to Doug, “more than any other, is the one that’s holding b2b back,” so let’s talk more naturally, more often. Our client MWheels is a great example of this, adopting a peer advocacy strategy, so there’s no corporate guff or pushiness. From its website to sales collateral, MWheels’ voice is simple, original and helpful.

If you can’t smash the convention…

It takes a great agency and a confident client to take the plunge of breaking b2b marketing conventions. And much as I’d love to “smash things up,” as Doug’s talk was titled, I’m pragmatic enough to know that some industries we work in, and some cultures our clients have, limit what can be done. But that doesn’t mean we won’t try, even if just in a small way, to break with the norm. To do something really different, really surprising, really exciting. That’s how we get over those barriers and into the heads and hearts of our audiences – leaving the conventional, the bland and the uninspiring stuff for dead.

If you would like to work with a consultancy that can help you break free from the conventional, email ideasthatconnect@bdb.co.uk.

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