woman laughing
B2B marketing often dismisses out of hand tactics that work for B2C companies. That's a mistake PHOTO: Eye for Ebony

Sometimes, the most unexpected pairings wind up being classics. An easy one is the classic mashup of chocolate and peanut butter. (Although apparently some people are more fond of peanut butter and pickles.) 

But these pairings don't always work. Opposites might attract, but some will coexist about as peacefully as matter and antimatter.

B2B vs. B2C Marketing Is a False Divide

When it comes to software marketing, business to consumer (B2C) and business to business (B2B) often are segregated into seemingly incompatible camps. Even the way we talk about who we’re trying to reach reflects a different argot: B2C growth hackers drill down on “user engagement,” B2B marketers focus on the sales funnel.

There are myriad enshrined differences between B2C and B2B marketing, repeated ad infinitum as though they’re etched in stone. To start with, the buyers’ journey is:

Their purchase drivers are:

  • In B2B: Logic and need, utility and ROI.
  • In B2C: Emotion, materialism, occasionally colored with logic.

Their research and vetting process is:

  • In B2B: Lengthy, as buyers seek out as much relevant content, peer input and testing as available.
  • In B2C: Short, usually focused on features or benefits. Or how it will look with these shoes I just got.

But from the earliest days of the internet, the way we use technology has blurred this seemingly fixed divide. Today’s dominant SaaS model has all but obliterated it. That’s been borne out by copious research showing how many of the hot buttons we ascribe strictly to B2C audiences are, in fact, very much at work in the B2B world.

The most successful  B2B product teams already have left outdated notions about customer relationship and sales cycle behind. The way they develop and market their products to engage, convert and retain their users is more similar to their B2C counterparts than you might think.

Empathy for our users and customers is a constant thread in good growth marketing. That’s why understanding the power of emotion is something B2B marketers still have a lot to learn from B2C strategies and tactics.

Play to the Head and Heart

First, let’s look at how emotion can be leveraged in B2B software campaigns. B2C software marketers have always traded on emotion, from all points on the emotional spectrum, from games like "Call of Duty" and "Rock Band" to the gamification features designed into that fitness app on your smartphone.

An emotional appeal is omnipresent in good marketing. Here’s an ad that pulls on multiple heartstrings all at once even though it looks deceptively simple:

Airbnb home page

Home is one of the most emotionally compelling words imaginable, of course. So Airbnb is implying warmth, security, welcome. But it’s also tugging at aspiration and wanderlust with the call-to-action, Where do you want to go? One cue sinks the hook, the other reels the user in.

It’s also playing on our human desire to find a product, service or vendor deserving of our trust, who can protect us against fear and doubt.

That’s emotional territory where the distinctions between B2B and B2C marketing are increasingly unimportant — or perhaps it’s more accurate to say they were never as profound as they were made out to be in the first place.

Even B2B Needs Emotional Trust

How important is that element of human trust, and the emotions clustered around it, to selling B2B software? If I was to shrug it off as secondary, even tertiary, I’d be setting myself up for a fall, according to a study by Google, CEB Marketing and research firm Motista.

Over the years, Motista had studied hundreds of B2C brands, and found they had formed emotional connections with 10 to 40 percent of consumers. Yet of the nine B2B brands Motista had studied, seven of them had actually surpassed the 50 percent level, indicating B2B customers are significantly more emotionally connected to their vendors and service providers than consumers.”

Why? It’s basic common sense: If I buy a new shirt or an iOS game, it’s a pretty low-stakes investment. If I push for my company to buy an enterprise SaaS platform, I’m putting my job on the line. So I’m nearly deprived of any choice in the matter: I’m automatically going to be making an emotional investment in the vendor I pick, and developing trust is going to be a huge part of that courtship process. Without it, anxiety and uncertainty are going to rule (or ruin) my day.

The emotional complexities don’t end there, though. Since I’m also managing purchasing committees, my procurement department and other stakeholders, there’s plenty of interpersonal sentiment, passion and pride to go around.

No wonder the Google-CEB-Motista study found that, "71 percent of B2B buyers who have an emotional connection to a B2B product or service end up buying that product or service."

Appeal to the Human, Not Just Their Job

Another strategy B2C has always held dear? To appeal to the individual’s self-interest, to flatter their sense of individuality, or help them address their pain points. That message is alway delivered simply and directly, making the value proposition clear.

Simple is an example of this. The pain points it was exploiting with its consumer banking app? The scarcity of user-friendly mobile banking tools with any appeal for younger consumers, who were put off by the complexity of traditional banking sites and apps. Those consumers didn’t yet care about cross-shopping IRAs or which of 10 different credit cards they could sign on for. Simple promised ... well, simplicity.

Simple banking home page

This is a case of looking beneath the skin of your target audience. Neglecting this is the cardinal mistake some B2B software marketers make.

They rely on buyer personas and marketing messages based on job titles and the role a titleholder should, they imagine, occupy in the purchasing process. They don’t give enough weight to the human concerns of the person filling that slot.

Again, B2C marketing is absolutely focused on engaging the user emotionally, going back to the thrills we were promised as kids maneuvering Mario past hordes of Koopa Troopas.

Here’s an example of speaking to both the pragmatic and the emotional in B2B from ThinkSmart, a workflow automation SaaS provider:

ThinkSmart SaaS home page

The emotional promise? Eliminate the aggravation you’re suffering from old-fashioned workplace processes. ThinkSmart knew from experience that managers and key influencers were frustrated with the problems these caused in terms of costs, client service and employee retention. But they wanted a simple way out, not another source of annoyance.

Appealing to a “Network Architect” or “Management Information Systems Director” strictly on the basis of the rational value your product will give their business won’t take you nearly as far as you might think, in fact. According to Motista, B2B decision makers see very little difference in “business value” between top brands in a given industry. If there was any significant difference, only 14 percent of them were willing to pay more for it. So what do most B2B buyers really care about?

B2B purchasers are almost 50 percent more likely to buy a product or service when they see personal value — such as opportunity for career advancement or confidence and pride in their choice — in their business purchase decision. They are 8x more likely to pay a premium for comparable products and services when personal value is present.

So B2B SaaS marketers can’t merely focus on pushing the rational merits of their applications in the hope buyers will be using just rational filters to make their decisions. Career advancement, confidence, pride — appealing to their personal self-interest has got to be fundamental.

Experiment Without Prejudice

There are plenty of tactical weapons in the B2C software marketer’s arsenal, and they’re highly effective. B2B software companies will steer clear of some of them like they’re poison, though. Yet those who set their biases aside and commit to testing B2C tactics have found a lot of success.

Case in point? Emaze, a startup that produced online presentation software. Early on, it adopted a commonplace B2B SaaS strategy: Users were offered a long trial, but would then be asked to sign up for a paid account.

According to its CMO, though, the company wasn't sure who to target within prospect companies. A CEO was often the “customer,” yet it was a personal assistant using the product, making it hard to identify the true prospects inside organizations. Not to mention the fact that Emaze had limited resources to use on any campaign.

Genius struck when Emaze realized that, while B2B providers usually wanted to avoid free accounts and drive prospects into a traditional sales path, Emaze’s product was SaaS and always running, an advantage it could leverage. Its solution came straight out of the B2C bag of tricks, and would make most B2B software sales managers shudder: It made its base product an unlimited freemium offering, bypassing the traditional B2B software sales team model.

How was it structured?

  • By creating a freemium user base, Emaze would create brand advocates who’d spread the word.
  • It segmented those freemium users into business and education users by letting them identify themselves at signup.
Emaze simplified menu

  • Targeted emails went out tailored to each group, offering how-tos and details about features they could obtain by upgrading to paid versions, with a primary focus on the business users, seen as more likely to convert.
  • Freemium business users who were interested in an upgrade were offered a 30-day free trial of the premium product.

How did it perform?

  • Emaze found 70 percent of its freemium signups were organic, driven by positive word of mouth and presentation sharing (since an Emaze logo was present on all freemium decks).
  • 10.8 percent of its freemium business users upgraded to a paid plan.
  • At the time the program was profiled by Marketing Sherpa, Emaze had a freemium user base of just over 2 million, and had added over 470,000 users in the most recent month included in the study.

Examples like this prove that B2C software marketing can give B2B software teams a wealth of inspirations for their own campaigns. Once you explore the real dynamics of B2B buyers and the companies they’re part of, you’ll find they’re just as predisposed to B2C approaches as consumers.