January 28th, 2019

The Limitations of Best Practices

By Glen Drummond

How far have we really come since the Cluetrain Manifesto?  It’s sad to admit, but arguably true, that much B2B marketing still flirts with mediocrity.  Why? Part of what contributes to the mediocrity is the tendency of B2B marketers to race towards “best practices,” seeking, paradoxically, to achieve brand differentiation by imitating the past practices of competitors and predecessors.  

In marketing strategy, the perceived safety of doing what others have done is an illusion. “Best practices” are properly reserved for simple situations that can be dealt with according to simple categorical logic. Branding problems can rarely be reduced to such simplicity without overlooking dimensions of the situation.  Sometimes those dimensions are critical factors in success or failure.

Once we acknowledge that “strategy by imitation of practices” has a poor prognosis, it’s a short step from there to go looking for a theoretical foundation for action.    

Our theoretical foundation takes the form of  a “dissenting opinion” towards a handful of (largely unexamined) theories that are implicit in practices and advice widely found in the B2B marketing space.  At Carbon, we exploit this contrast as an engine of strategic differentiation for our clients. Here are 5 components of that engine:

1) People have a deep and profound need as social animals to belong to groups, to achieve and maintain status within groups, and to construct and signal identity in the context of these groups.   

Few people would disagree, but just the same, this point of view on motivation is still mostly ignored in B2B marketing and sales strategies that emphasize rational business benefits. As deals get bigger, and buying committees get larger, the error of underestimating this factor in motivation becomes more regrettable.       

2) Most of the time the human mind is operating in a state characterized by a fast, non-deductive, association-driven path.  

This view, deried from behavioral economics, stands directly opposed to the classical economic imagination of people as “rational actors.” Something at stake in this dispute is our understanding of how we best achieve desired meanings in the mind of our customer.  Should we focus on telling people what we’d like them to believe, or should we design a coherent fabric of associations and invite people to participate in constructing meaning from it? Most zig, we zag.

3) B2B buying is a group decision, and group decisions are chaotic and non-linear.  On good days they resemble the pursuit of design problems. On bad days they resemble a garbage can.   

This take on decision theory (and thus buying) stands in contrast to the (usually unexamined) assumption that business decisions are pursued in a logical process that begins with a stable set of identities, goals preferences,  and advances in a straight line towards the optimization of outcomes. This assumption is perfectly aligned with the metaphors of “funnel” and “buying journey.” Just not with reality.

4) Experiences are meaning-making opportunities.  Stimulus and response are separated by a meaning-making operation.

This stance is opposed to the mechanistic behaviorism that lurks beneath notions like “monetizing eyeballs,”  “unique selling propositions” and “the b2b content factory.” Notions like these come and go, but the underlying assumption, for all its flaws, seems hard to kill.  

5) Firmographics and role titles are more useful for counting potential customers than they are for building strategies that move those customers to action.

This stance contrasts the segmentation assumptions of most B2B marketing and sales organizations. We see that as limiting in two ways – first, it’s non-differentiating since firmographics and role titles are no mystery to competitors. And second this knowledge is not as helpful as people generally imagine in persuading prospective customers to adopt a belief or a behavior.   

We don’t dispute that strategies resting on contrary philosophies have worked in the past. But looking forward, we see value migrating from tangibles to experiences. B2B buying groups will grow larger in the face of more difficult decisions. The pace of change and disruption will pick up. B2B commercial opportunities will increasingly be initiated by customers and mediated through inbound channels as the first point of contact.  As a result, this is an environment that favors our “dissenting view.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *