Are You an Alfred?
You remember Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne's unassuming yet brilliant butler. His demure demeanor belies all the ways that he assists and empowers the sometimes-volatile Wayne. Batman gets the kudos, but Alfred makes it possible.
Let’s face it: not many of us aspire to be the butler — but when is it better to be Alfred rather than Batman? When you are fighting to win a B2B buyer.
Much has been written about the importance of allowing the customer to inhabit the “hero” persona in the B2B product marketing story, but it is still rarely done. I expect it’s because it goes against much of our social programming: it requires time, patience, research and, perhaps most difficult of all, humility. However, in typical B2B product marketing, a well-conceived customer centric marketing effort will always outperform a hasty feature-focused benefit push.
The Importance of Speaking to Your Buyer, Not Your Product
For the sake of illustration, consider this case of a CIO in the healthcare industry:
My name is Johnna. I have recently been promoted to CIO for orthopedic surgery group and our EMR (electronic medical record) infrastructure is a mess. My primary mandate over the next 18 months is to bring our whole system into alignment and ensure it is properly integrated, interoperable, and efficient. I have been given resources but not enough and, with all the cost pressures surrounding healthcare, the need to get it solved quickly and efficiently is critical.
There are SO MANY companies out there who attack my inbox every day, vying for my attention, telling me how their niche product is so amazing, touting the latest platform integrations, promising me how much time and money they will save us. But none of them seem to have any idea what I am up against. I am not an expert in the deep weeds of IT and I can’t (and don’t want to) be the one to solve this issue. I lead the big picture and facilitate effective flow of information. I know what the Docs are asking for and it doesn’t seem to exist.
This is a complex problem and I feel totally ill-equipped to solve it. And I am not alone in my plight. I just came from a conference where a number of my peers were wrestling very similar issues. This chapter of my career will be defined by my ability to carry this out effectively. There is no question that I need help but I don’t need solutions shoved down my throat. I need someone who understands my challenges to come alongside me and ask the right questions and help me organize my thinking about how to address this.
Our imaginary CIO certainly is not alone. B2B tech products are almost always being sold into complex ecosystems with a bunch of dependencies and integration needs. It is rarely a simple sale. That is why the “Batman” approach won’t work. It may be instinctive and even easy to swoop in and “save the day” but what your customer most often needs to see first is your empathy and understanding. That wins initial trust. Keep your Batmobile (your product) and all its gizmos in the cave. I know it’s cool, but your customers don’t care — yet.
The “Alfred” approach is likely much more effective in winning over your buyer. As you remember, Alfred knows Bruce Wayne better than anyone else. He has no interest or aspiration to be Batman. His role is to be the knowing assistant. He asks questions, analyzes information, observes, and offers informed, contextual perspective and highly-competent assistance — just in time and right on target.
In our example, the CIO's job and the next phase of her career are resting on her ability to execute, and those stakes are common for B2B decision-makers. The best way to win is to come alongside her, and begin to equip her to the point where she can start seeing herself in the Batman role. Then show her your product and how it can help her become the hero to her organization.
The Challenge of Customer-Focused Marketing Efforts
Truly customer-focused marketing efforts are rare. In fact, Kapost reports only 23% of B2B companies consider their marketing strategies to be truly customer-centric. Most are product- or channel-focused. That is because it is SO much easier. Why? Because you already know what your product does. The hard work of marketing is to understand to the point of being able to clearly articulate the needs of your customer.
What is quickly becoming an infamous example of “Batman" marketing (making your product the hero, rather than the customer) are IBM’s efforts around Watson. No doubt what Watson is capable of is cool, and IBM has spent guazillions of dollars trying to position it as a "hero" in a tragically vast number of verticals.
In May 2017, Chamath Palihapitiya, founder and CEO of Social Capital, courageously declared that the emperor has no clothes when it comes to IBM’s Watson. During an interview on CNBC, Palihapitiya commented: “Watson is a joke, just to be completely honest. I think what IBM is excellent at is using their sales and marketing infrastructure to convince people who have asymmetrically less knowledge to pay for something.”
Ouch. His comments may have been harsh, but the perception is indicative of how IBM’s musclebound, arrogant "hero" approach is costing the company untold millions of dollars in ill-conceived product positioning and marketing spend — and likely more in reputation.
Watson has made progress by helping companies deliver answers faster. (53% of U.S. adults are likely to abandon their online purchase if they cannot find quick answers to their questions.) Nevertheless, the damage may have already been done. If IBM had patiently learned the market first and then applied that learning to some real problems, they would have been able to craft a marketing strategy that empathetically engaged the market in a conversation about how Watson’s technology could help the buyer become the hero. If they had been able to do that, the results would likely be more in line with their board’s desires and shareholder expectations.
So How Can You Take on the Customer Centric Marketing Challenge?
The first step to building a customer-centric marketing strategy is to know your customer. This is Marketing 101, but it is so often neglected in today’s B2B tech marketing that it bears repeating. I expect the reason it is overlooked in the tech realm is because companies are often more focused on impressing investors and potential suitors than they are on winning customers. Last I looked, revenue is typically one of the most important components in valuation — and putting your customers first drives revenue.
Getting to know your buyer can be done by surveys and/or careful listening in the channels where your customers hang out. Take a look at the CIO example above: you need to know what their problem is, their role in solving it, and how this success or failure will impact the entirety of their career. Once you know the stakes, you are in a better position to speak to those concerns, and help give your buyer a plan for solving their problem.
Once you have carefully researched your buyer, create a persona, map a Buyer MatrixSM and make sure your positioning is in line. Educate your team throughout this process to ensure that everyone is operating in lock step for maximum alignment between sales, marketing, and product development. Involve your customers in your ongoing product development and talk about it publicly.
Most importantly, let your customers tell your story wherever possible. The most successful B2B products create forums and support ecosystems where customers can meet, exchange information, and sharpen and enhance their knowledge (and allegiance). In these situations, you don’t need to sell because your customers are doing it for you from an informed and experienced perspective that far surpasses anything you can create on your own.
The First Thing to Do After Reading this Article
What landing page or other conversion point receives the highest traffic? Gather a couple marketing team members together to examine that landing page. What could you do to make it as customer-centric as possible? Create an A/B test with your existing landing page to see how your current version fares against the edited one.