At a time when people are more cynical about content than ever, what is the future for B2B marketing? In a post-truth world, where trust is hard to gain and established loyalties hold strong, we believe the ambition for marketers should be to build more integrity and authenticity in what we do. Here we look at some recent trends that are causing this great audience switch-off, and make a call for the industry to refocus on quality.
Perception is hard to break
More so than ever, people’s biases and preferences influence the type of content they actively engage with. We naturally gravitate to the platforms and voices that reflect our established viewpoints and interests. Those same biases affect the type of content we receive passively too, as algorithms curate news feeds based on previous clicks and comments.
There’s a compound effect going on that makes it difficult for new voices to be heard.
During 2016, this echo-chamber phenomenon led to the growth of political and ideological tribalism that famously played itself out in surprising election results, which are likely to continue across Europe in 2017.
Add to this the rise of post-truth, alternative facts and fake news, and the landscape for communicators has become even more challenging. People have increasing distrust of big organisations and establishment figures, making it harder than ever to earn their trust and attention.
All of this is making it extra-difficult for marketing content to penetrate now. People’s perceptions are stronger than ever and harder to break.
Audiences are easily lost
There’s a technology challenge too. People are becoming smarter about filtering out content they don’t want, using adblockers, unsubscribe tools and the like. According to Adobe, 68% find advertising annoying and 53% equate marketing with bullshit.
Short-termist marketing strategies are turning people off. The inbound mantra has too often just led to clickbait and banal editorial content that says little new or different. Audiences see straight through it and switch off.
Furthermore, 86% of people see no real difference between what big companies offer. Many say they don’t really know what brands stand for. For most people, the content and marketing they receive feels generic.
We do produce a lot of crap
Recycling the same old business clichés isn’t working. Coupled with distrust, cynicism and a content-filtering mindset, buyers are more discerning. They see through marketing spin for what it is, and they are searching out viewpoints from sources they trust instead.
Trust is the keyword here. There are a number of polls showing how people view different professions for honesty and ethics. Advertising is right down there with politicians and car salespeople — and that poor level of trust has been consistently low since the 1970s. It’s not like this is a new problem — it’s just now easier for people to act on their distrust by tuning us out.
All of these elements are converging into one great audience switch-off.
It’s having a commercial impact
This at a time when successful communications are arguably more critical than ever. The old barriers to entry that used to protect the big players, i.e., their scale, are no longer as effective — market leaders are massively under threat from start-ups and disruptors.
Furthermore, the valuations placed on social networks like LinkedIn and Snapchat show the value and importance of audience data, which is increasingly seen as key for more effective marketing, advertising and selling.
People are hard to please, hard to reach and hard to keep — and it’s creating a big commercial risk for organisations. Which is leading to a host of different responses, that are having varying degrees of success…
The rise of purpose
The ‘purpose economy’ is gaining a lot of traction right now. As companies recognise the growing distrust among their audiences, they are wanting to affirm a positive raison d’être that counters it — something that elevates them in a homogenous market.
They are looking at what Simon Sinek calls the “why statement”, which goes beyond just looking at ‘what’ you do and ‘how’ you do it, and seeks to identify the ‘impact’ of what you do and the very reason you exist.
Twelve months ago, you would’ve been unlikely to see a content hub on the EY website dedicated to the notion of ‘purpose’ — notably taking its place alongside the well-established business zeitgeists of ‘digital’, ‘disruption’ and ‘growth’.
Consultants seemingly now recognise the importance of being able to articulate a company’s unique contribution and impact, and they are encouraging their clients to think about how they can be a force for good in society. They know that this is an increasingly important decision-making factor for both prospective employees and customers.
The ‘authenticity’ drive
Some brands have tried to splice this worthy contemplation of purpose directly into their marketing. They’ve tried to find a shortcut by focusing on authenticity.
Trouble is, you can’t make something authentic. It either is or it isn’t. And there’s been a backlash against the term authenticity as a result — including claims that it actually has the reverse effect.
While the intent behind being authentic is perfectly valid (synonyms include ‘genuine’, ‘legitimate’, ‘real’, ‘accurate’), there is a fine line between intent and execution.
This recent campaign from Santander, made solely from user-generated content, is a good example of communicating purpose without straying into polished, generic marketing content. Whereas this one from NatWest comes from a similar ambition but goes too far in its appropriation of climate change and war.
So where next for B2B marketing?
Quite honestly, it will be difficult for marketing programmes to survive in their current guise. So many are driven by content — a one-way flow of information — which is essentially just telling people things. It’s difficult to communicate your true purpose, and do so in an authentic way, using the techniques of a typical B2B campaign.
Distrust, cynicism and filter bubbles are all a threat to our ability as marketers to have an impact. Not helped by an over-active production of content, and too much focus on short-term engagement metrics, which is diluting quality.
Our view is that audiences are still receptive to marketing. They just want it to have more integrity. They don’t want to be over-sold to, or given a label within a buyer journey, or toyed with by data-capture mechanisms. They just want simple, considered, quality marketing that helps them make sense of often-complex offerings.
If B2B marketing is to be successful in responding to the volatility of the current environment, we have to address quality standards across the board.