Illustration showing customer online behavior

I had the opportunity in late May to attend the ANA Masters of B2B Marketing Conference in Chicago. Agencies and B2B brands met to share ideas and insights related to the conference theme of “driving growth and building marketing value.”

It’s hard to drive business growth without selling something. And you need prospects/customers to sell to, so understanding what is important to them should be what is important to you as a business.

One of the speakers began the conference with a quote from Charles Trevail, global chief executive officer of Interbrand: “A decade after the global financial crisis, the brands that are growing fastest are those that intuitively understand their customers and make brave iconic moves that delight and deliver in new ways.”

With that in mind, it was easy to pull some threads throughout the conference presentations from major brands across the B2B spectrum that illustrated the importance of understanding your audience and how that has really shifted in the past several years.

Be relevant or be ignored

If you aren’t creating relevant content or providing relevant information to your customers and prospects, you’ll be tuned out. And the best way to provide relevant info is to understand them and what they need. Chances are, some things have changed in the past year or two: what they care about, where they go for information, who they include in a competitive set, what their expectations for service and responsiveness are, and more. When was the last time you did a formal segmentation, persona project, or true awareness and usage study?

It has become more difficult to conduct survey research (particularly with B2B audiences), but when properly done it can provide insights to help your business. And following their data trail and learning their online behaviors is a critically important part of understanding your audience today. Knowing what they care about and what they do online helps you become more relevant to them. What is the digital data and the stated/human data telling you?

Gary Vaynerchuk, who spoke at the conference, exclaimed that “relevance inspires people to action.” Connecting with your audience where they are and with what is meaningful to them is relevant. He said, “you actually have to make a podcast, not an infomercial.” Too often B2B marketers communicate just the facts and figures (which are still important) and leave out the relevance to the audience.

Advertising is a default for many B2B brands, and traditional advertising methods like print and banner ads are still frequently used. But mostly they aren’t relevant to the audience, who finds them interruptive to the relevant information they desire. So they are ignored or never seen in the first place. Deliver relevant content and information and your chances of connecting with your audience increases.

Embrace emotion

Speakers from companies as diverse as SAP, Caterpillar, Boeing, and Ally all addressed in different ways the role that emotion plays in their communications. So often an emotional appeal in B2B marketing is dismissed, but according to the speaker from Caterpillar, the massive risk of a B2B purchase spikes emotion.

Boeing uses emotion in its advertising to help with retention and recruiting. If you’re purchasing a jet, you have a choice between two players: Boeing and Airbus. Advertising and marketing aren’t necessarily going to find new customers for you, but they can help you find a workforce who wants to work for a company that is “connecting, protecting, exploring and inspiring the world through aerospace products.” By tapping into emotion, Boeing has helped themselves to grow and recover from recent tragedies.

SAP started out by saying “change a feeling, change a business,” recognizing that you have to connect with and move people to get them to take action. They do that by creating a customer experience that helps retain customers.

Ally Bank, “a disruptive brand that can’t have vanilla marketing,” took emotion to a whole new level with a “Banksgiving” promotion and other customer appreciation activities. Buying loads of Girl Scout cookies from a disadvantaged troop, sending 1,000 customer thank-you notes each month, or rewarding customers with special gifts on Banksgiving were all ways they tapped into emotion in what is a fairly facts-and-figures kind of business.

People are people

As I’ve written in the past, people are people. Although nowadays, the customer landscape has changed significantly. 40% of the workforce is now millennial and younger. Boomers are retiring rapidly. Digital expectations are high. And the separation between your work and your life (or your “Worklife” as the speaker from Google merged it) is virtually gone. He noted that 4 in 5 use personal devices for work purposes, and 7 in 10 use work devices for personal tasks. There’s no line anymore.

We are people, regardless of what we are doing at the moment, whether buying an articulated hauler, a software system, or a pizza. There’s emotion in all of our purchases, large and small. We’re paying more attention to companies as a whole and their policies and behaviors (hello, Papa John). And we don’t want our time wasted. It’s pretty simple.

Understanding how your customers and prospects have changed is key to succeeding in marketing and business today. Customers have lots of choices, and they aren’t afraid to switch brands if they aren’t getting what they want or if your brand isn’t delivering the right experience (whether related to their product or service or within the community at large).

Understanding the audience may be the easy part, though so many struggle with it. The second half of that idea from the beginning, “making brave, iconic moves” is impossible (or at least foolhardy) if you don’t know your audience.

Talk to them. Listen to them. Track their behavior. Anticipate their needs. Be relevant. And then inspire them. And you’ll drive growth.