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Give Your Advertising an Edge in Today’s
Noisy Marketplaces

Advertising can give vendors a real headache when people disagree on what makes for a good campaign. The executive suite has its ideas. Marketing and engineering are sure they have the answer. And ad agencies outdo themselves being creative. So what works?

We all know the basic principle of good communication: Show others we listen to them, and they will listen to us in return.

Yet when it comes to business advertising, our enthusiasm for our latest brainchild and wanting to get the word out quickly can blindside us.

Too often we forget to listen before speaking, and the busy decision makers we need to reach and convince end up reading someone else’s advertising.

It’s easy, though, to figure out what makes business-to-business advertising — and indeed all marketing communication — grab and hold customers’ attention once you get inside their minds and understand how they think, feel and act when making buying decisions.

When developing strategies that help large and small companies excel in highly competitive environments, I’ve spent hundreds of hours interviewing these corporate buyers and influencers to understand their thought processes, their priorities and their preferences.

Below I’ve distilled what I’ve learned from these face-to-face conversations into tips on how best to reach and convince these key individuals, who scrutinize your offerings and whose buying decisions can ultimately make or break your company.

What gets decision makers’ attention?

People debate whether it’s features, benefits, testimonials or other ingredients that get the attention of harried corporate buyers.

One article in The Wall Street Journal promised insights into this very question. Entitled “Name Droppers: Tech Ads Tout Users,” it examined the proposition that featuring customer success stories “is a useful marketing technique.”

In specific the article stated: “Without a real-life example, technology ads risk becoming full of talk about ‘increased productivity, maximizing efficiency, reducing operating expenses...’ Those terms don’t always make for sizzling ad copy.”

To you and me as consumers, sizzling ad copy may sound like an appealing ingredient and such business benefits boring. But the target audiences you want to reach tell me time and again it’s these very benefits that get their attention, not sizzle.

In fact business benefits are the key if not the first thing demanding corporate buyers look for when evaluating goods and services. They have to, these hard-nosed types say, because they’re measured on the difference the offerings you want to sell them make to their company.

To assess this difference, they ask vendors tough questions like: “Will your product or service help us bring innovative offerings to market quicker? Will we respond faster to emerging customer needs and changing market dynamics? Will our current business processes run better? Will we develop new processes more efficiently? Will we increase employee productivity? Will we cut costs further?”

During my interviews with them, I also see how risk-averse these decision makers can be; after all, when purchasing new products and services, millions of dollars may be on the line, not to mention their company’s performance and, ultimately, their own jobs.

So they won’t bet mission-critical applications and processes, or new ventures and offerings, on solutions that won’t demonstrably meet the challenges they face and deliver the business benefits they require.

Why doesn't “sizzling ad copy” work for business buyers?

Advertisers also need to know that sizzling ad copy turns off many business buyers because they perceive it as hype. And hype diminishes their trust in vendors.

Just about every purchasing decision maker I interview tells me the most important criterion they value when choosing a vendor is the quality of their relationship with the vendor. That’s typically because they’ve been burned when the vendor’s offering didn’t deliver the advertised benefits, or because the vendor ditched them in a crisis.

And hype, with its implied dissemblance, is antithetical to building a trusting relationship. So if anything, “sizzling ad copy” can only hurt your budding relationship with leery buyers rather than strengthen it.

Why must we advertise differently to corporates than to consumers?

As you probably know, corporate buyers and consumers think and act differently when making purchases for their business and personal use.

In specific, the corporate buying process is often complex and lengthy, and involves many layers of management, people and reporting. When we make purchases for our own use, just one or two people are usually involved, and we answer only to ourselves.

Hence, while fact and logic get the attention of business buyers, as consumers we are less accountable to others and respond more readily to the emotional tugs of sizzling copy.

So though we tend to look at business-to-business advertising through the lens of what appeals to us as consumers, we need to keep these differences in mind when building advertising strategies and campaigns aimed at the very different audience of corporates.

Vendors must thus think like corporates when advertising to corporates. This means avoiding the sizzle and hype that appeal to consumers but turn business buyers off; focusing ads on business benefits, not cool features; and proving to the different participants in the corporate buying process that they’ll get the benefits they want and need, both to make their companies run better and to keep their jobs.

So do customer success stories resonate with buyers?

Many vendors use success stories to build credibility for their offerings. As the Journal article explains, “It isn't always easy for businesses to market their services to other businesses. Sometimes it is simpler just to brag about their customers.”

On the surface, advertising that brags about customers looks like an appealing option. After all, whom do we tend to believe most — advertisers or their customers?

Based on what I’ve learned, though, bragging about customers can not only draw more attention to them than to the advertiser. Worse, customer testimonials can alienate the very decision makers and influencers the advertiser targets.

That’s because many corporate buyers pillory success stories as untrustworthy and, as with sizzle, tend to dismiss this type of communication outright.

Asked whether he thought “success stories are biased when they come from a vendor,” for example, a senior IT manager at a $20 billion pharmaceuticals house told me, “Yes! I get calls from vendors on projects that worked, not ones that didn’t work, asking, ‘Can I write an article on how we did this project with you?’

“When you read them after you gave the information to them,” he observed, “they always seem a lot different than what you did. Most of the time I reject them out of hand.”

A top technology executive at a similar-sized insurance company expressed the same skepticism: “One of the things we’ve learned is that just because it works great down the street, it could fail miserably here... You’re never going to see a ‘failure story.’”

Because success stories can prevent advertisers from gaining the confidence of their target audiences, vendors should thus think twice about showcasing customers to establish the credibility of their offerings.

Getting your story right

Instead, when building a strategy and the campaign that executes it, advertisers should be sure to put first what customers want to hear and how they want to hear it.

That means listening to customer decision makers and influencers to get the story content right so you can establish in their minds the relevance of your offering to their needs. And then conveying the content in a way that appeals to them.

Business people, just like consumers, love a story, because stories draw us in and hold our attention. And for business buyers, there’s no more convincing story than seeing how your product or service performs using the all-powerful problem-solution-benefit method.

So walk them through your story that way. Talk specifics. Instead of telling, show them your offering at work, the problems it solves, how it solves them, and the benefits it delivers.

Do so using business words and images — not tech talk. And make those benefits the star, not your offering’s cool features or your customer’s business.

Because you will have demonstrated you understand their worlds, their needs, what they value and how they think and make decisions, your target audiences will know you’re talking to them.

They’ll thank you. They’ll give you their attention. And you’ll skirt their aversion to success stories.

Position, position, position: how to stand out in the crowd

But wait, you’re not quite done. One vital step remains.

You may have kindled your buyers’ interest and made it onto their short lists. But others, too, are clamoring for their business and beating on their doors. And your prospects want to know why they should buy what they need from you and not from the guys you're up against.

So your last and arguably most important task is to stand out from those rivals by answering better than they do the defining question every business buyer asks but few vendors answer, “Why you?”

Indeed, vendors rarely answer the question because many are uncomfortable acknowledging both the presence of competitors and how customers perceive their offerings versus competitors’ offerings.

They’re also unsure how to stake out a clear position in customers’ minds that differentiates them from their rivals.

In their advertising and marcom, most vendors thus leave buyers stranded at the crucial point in the buying process when they compare offerings from competing suppliers.

Smart vendors, on the other hand, capitalize on this failing to gain an edge over rivals.

To win over business customers, then, advertisers must first let buyers know they have what buyers want and need.

But equally importantly, advertisers need to develop and articulate a credible, demonstrable position and messages that tell prospects in simple, memorable terms what makes your offering different from and better than your competitors’ offerings. And thus answer the pivotal question on buyers’ minds.

What should you take away from all this?

Knowing what to advertise and how to advertise it becomes easier when viewing the transaction between vendor and customer through the lens of what the customer wants to buy, not what the vendor wants to sell.

As we’ve seen, the target audiences you need to reach and convince want to buy concrete, measurable benefits for their businesses. Hype turns them off; they won't buy technology for technology’s sake; and they don’t trust success stories.

So I counsel advertisers: Understand how the buying process works in your customers’ organizations. Identify the categories of people involved in the process and who influences whom.

Then get down in the trenches with them. Learn how they think, feel and act both when considering your products and services for their businesses and when comparing them with competing offerings. Craft your story from what you learn.

And lastly let your target audiences guide your campaigns: They’ll tell you how to advertise to them, and where seemingly boring business benefits, “sizzling copy” and “corporate name dropping” belong in their world and in your ads.

Now when demanding buyers see you’re listening to them, they’ll listen to you. They’ll pay attention to what you want to sell them.

And based on my experience, if you've got the right goods they’ll act on that conversation and hand their orders to you rather than to your rivals.


For over 20 years Michael Saklad, author of this article, has applied the principles and processes outlined here to help senior executives and managers develop business, advertising and communications strategies that enable their businesses to grow profitably in highly competitive environments.

Discussing his work, Andrew Slipper, Worldwide Marketing Brand Manager at HP’s Business Desktop Division, said, “Michael has a knack for getting under the customer’s skin and finding out what makes them tick that I have rarely seen in my 20 years in marketing and advertising. Michael’s work is built on rock.”

To learn how Saklad Consultants can help your business excel in today’s challenging marketplaces, write to us at the e-mail link below.