With the rise of social media, and the effect that peer-to-peer communication has had on branding efforts, we’ve seen a rise in the call to “humanize” business brands through customer experiences, user interface design, relationship building, and marketing.
Books such as Extreme Trust but Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith, Return on Relationship by Ted Rubin, and more recently, There is no B2B or B2C: Human to Human #H2H by my friend Bryan Kramer, are spreading the gospel of brand humanization.
The core tenets of this marketing paradigm: People do business with people, not brands; people do business with people or brands they trust; building relationships through honest, open, and heartfelt conversations instead of marketing-speak will result in more sales conversions and referrals.
The concept of trust is – more than ever – a critical component of building a stronger relationship with customers. Especially with all the negativity and mob-mentality that propels social media. However, the search for trust may be leading marketers down a dark alley.
Is H2H a Paradigm Shift?
Torben Rick, invoking the Human-to-Human war chant, reminds us in a recent blog post that the information revolution (Internet, social media) has transferred the power of brand creation, brand perception, and swaying consumer behavior from marketing and advertising to the dialogue that occurs among customers in the digital space.
Armed with this newfound power, customers found themselves with an edge over salespeople. The principle of the marketplace hence transitioned from caveat emptor to caveat venditor – that is, from “Let the buyer beware” to “Let the seller beware”.
Historically, buyers have always been on the losing end due to a lack of information or expertise on products or services. With reviews, ratings and online portals readily available on the Internet today, sellers are now the ones who have to be careful.
You can argue that the premise of consumer control over the perception of a brand and brand-messaging has been validated by the rise and fall of many modern businesses. Businesses that have risen (or failed) because of their understanding (or lack thereof) of the power of digital word of mouth, social media mob-mentality, and consumer referrals are witnesses to this fact.
Just ask Domino’s, American Airlines, Federal Express, Research in Motion (RIM), Apple, Samsung or others like them who have experienced artificial highs and/or lows due to the overriding power of social conversations, and you’ll realize how disruptive the Internet can be on a brand’s efforts to build or maintain consumer trust.
Trust Is Fickle
The concept of trust is fleeting in our digitally-connected world. Trust can be quickly earned through customer referrals, digital relationship building, and social media responsiveness. It can also – and more quickly – be destroyed by third-party referrals, social media-inspired mobs, or political/economic/competitive forces that are amplified through digital technologies. This has been fuel for the concept of – and the importance of – humanizing a brand.
The theory goes that if a business can establish trust among its audience, that mistakes, missteps, and these disruptive forces will be ignored – or at least tolerated – by their loyal following. I’m sure the shareholders of Research in Motion, manufacturer of the once globe-dominating BlackBerry smartphone, would challenge this premise.
There Is No B2B or B2C, There is Only H2H (Human to Human)
While promoting his post on trustworthiness, Rick posted the following image in the Influence Marketing community on Google+ with the statement: “Marketing in the digital age – There is no B2B or B2C. It’s H2H – Human-to-Human.”
The call to action, inspired by the work being done by Bryan Kramer and his eBook, is building momentum. However, marketers must be careful with such statements.
To say that the concepts of B2B and B2C – or their marketing strategies and tactics – will somehow merge into one new paradigm (H2H) is too simplistic – and not realistic.
Within the Influence Marketing community dialogue on this subject, Danny Brown reminded everyone that there are many businesses that still thrive despite the lack of trust their customers have in the brand. Walmart for example thrives despite the amount of negativity the brand faces, including its employment practices. The lack of trust we know the public has for this brand does not affect how successful this business is.
Big brands did not hesitate to spend millions on advertising for the Sochi Olympics, despite the lack of trust governments, brands, and consumers had in Vladimir Putin’s government and policies. They knew that despite the low regard for the Russian government that consumers would not hold advertisers responsible for aligning themselves with the Russian Games.
Two-Thirds of B2B Customers Are Humans
A long time ago, in jest, I said to a client in the B2B space, “You know, two-thirds of your B2B customers are humans.” I was making the point that they needed to stop treating their customers like businesses and more like human beings. People do business with people (and brands they like).
Despite my arguments above, I still believe this to be true. What I don’t believe is that it’s an absolute. Not all purchase decisions are based on human relationships.
Building trust is an important aspect of marketing (social media marketing in particular), but there are plenty of cases where the consumer’s personal feelings about the brand don’t factor into the purchase decision.
Often purchase decisions are made because of referrals, or necessity, or convenience, or other factors that are not influenced in any way by brand trust or the relationship the consumer has with the brand or its representatives.
Simplify Brand-Consumer Communications
This is where the message of Bryan Kramer’s eBook, There is no B2B or B2C: Human to Human, is being misrepresented. Frankly, the title creates a lot of the misrepresentation. It spurred the social media mob to jump on the bandwagon. Sadly, social media marketers tend to gravitate towards tweetable, pithy, one-liners.
And the name of this eBook is certainly one of those one-liners. Marketers are tripping over themselves to proclaim the death of B2B and B2C marketing practices, when in reality, Kramer’s real message is that we must stop communicating with customers based on prescribed nomenclature and buzzwords and just simplify our language.
Understand customers are people and talk to them like they were sitting across from you at a coffee shop, not as audience members at a trade show.
He offers 5 basic rules for “speaking human:”
- Keep it simple, don’t over-complicate messaging.
- Spell it out; avoid acronyms and other buzz words.
- Understand what your customer thinks, wants, and needs. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes when crafting communications.
- Trust your gut. “Market to the heart, and sell to the head.”
- Get to the point. Say what you mean in the fewest words possible.
Kramer reminds us that with so much opportunity for brands in social media, most are failing to connect with customers. Many businesses still avoid social media because of fear, others jump in without a prescribed strategy, and then there are those that embrace social media, but force-feed communications from the top down instead of conversing openly with customers.
His message is simple, yet simple is hard for many in this industry. It’s a quick read and a good concept for businesses struggling to build a real dialogue with their customers. That doesn’t mean that B2B or B2C are dead however.
Now, Can We Get Back to the Customer?
Businesses and marketers must go deeper. A lesson I learned when researching and experimenting with influence marketing strategies for my own book is that marketers must return to the source when strategizing any marketing practice: Customers, and how they make purchase decisions. Humanizing doesn’t hurt, but is it money well spent when your customers don’t include the warm-and-fuzzy factor in their list of purchase decisions?
Will human-to-human replace business-to-business or business-to-consumer or their marketing practices? No. Each faces different situational factors that necessitate different practices. Can the concept of H2H be relevant in each? Yes, in degrees.
The manner in which businesses operate is certainly undergoing a huge shift; however, I urge marketers to avoid being pulled onto the bandwagons that they themselves have created. Building trust with audiences is critical, today more than ever. Connecting to customers in a more human, personalized manner is also more important today thanks to adoption of social media by our consumers. These are factors we must consider when building marketing strategies; they are not the core strategy itself.
Don’t misinterpret the importance of consumer trust and humanizing communications as a singular, absolute business practice.
The concepts of B2B and B2C are not dead; each presents its unique challenges and opportunities. Focus on how your customers – regardless of the type of industry you’re in – make purchase decisions and orient your marketing strategies around those motivations.
Is there no B2B or B2C anymore? Is it really just all H2H? Join the conversation in the comments below.
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego
Image Credit: Paul Nguyen Thanh, via Creative Commons