What B2B can learn from B2C

Advertising pioneer William Bernbach once said, “In advertising, not to be different is virtually suicidal.” While this is a common refrain when it comes to the general consumer, the message seems to have eluded business-to-business advertisers. Instead, what I tend to see in trade publications are forgettable, copy-heavy, design deficient ads with very little imagination or human connection. To be fair, there are plenty of B2C ads that fit this same criteria, the percentage just seems to be far higher in the B2B sector.

Now, the first argument I usually hear against rocking the B2B boat is that “these ads are intended for ‘business types’ who just want something informational.” Fine, I can concede that the type of person reading a trade magazine or industry-specific publication might be more analytical than the average consumer, but these are still people we are talking to, not robots. Many of them are probably husbands, wives or parents who have hobbies and interests beyond work. They share many of the same human experiences we all share, and are therefore not immune to compelling images and copy. “Analytical” does not mean devoid of human emotion.

That said, I’ll focus on a couple of common traps that B2B advertisers fall into (for purposes of this blog I’ll use print ads) and ways to avoid them. The first trap is using too, too, WAY too much copy. Look, this is a print ad we are talking about; it’s not a brochure, it’s not a website, it’s not a company manifesto. We have a brief instant in which to capture the page-flipping reader’s attention. If, in that instant, they see something that looks like it will take 20 minutes to read, their brain is going to tell them they don’t have time to sift through this mess in order to get to the point. The time-starved, stimulus-rich world we live in makes efficient communication an absolute mandatory. A print ad’s job is not to tell them everything; its job is to tell them the most important thing and get them interested to know more.

Another trap B2B advertisers fall into is trying to be too literal. “Our customers work in warehouses, so we need to show warehouses.” No you don’t. This is a trade pub we are talking about. If you’re in a trucking industry magazine, you don’t have to show them a semi-truck. It insults your audience’s intelligence. Unlike a consumer magazine, we’re dealing with a narrow audience here, and it’s safe to assume anything in that magazine will apply somehow or other to the trucking industry. What you do need to show them is something that gets and holds their attention long enough for you to make your point.

Finally, B2B ads often seem to treat design as an afterthought. Good design isn’t just a means for making an ad look pretty; it’s a way to organize the allotted space into an efficient piece of communication. Poor design doesn’t just look bad; it makes your message less clear, and less likely to persuade your target audience. It’s also less likely to get noticed in a sea of similar ads. Keep it clean, keep it simple.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that all B2B ads should look and feel like they are intended for the general consumer. I do, however, think that B2B advertisers can learn a lot from the B2C approach. Think of your ads as targeting an influential person at a given company, rather than the company itself. In other words: business to consumer to business. And once you start treating your audience like people, you’ll be able to start persuading them like people.