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Ruth P. Stevens

Customer Care

The World’s Greatest B2B Offer

Information is key for people trying to get the job done

Published: Tuesday, May 1, 2018 - 12:03

In business-to-business (B2B) direct marketing, I’m often asked about what kind of response rates to expect about the most productive media channels, the best lists, the best time to conduct a campaign, the most effective qualification questions. I always answer the same way, much to the frustration of my listener: “It depends.”

 But when the subject of the best offer comes up, I don’t have to hedge: “It’s information.”

Hands down, in most B2B situations, an offer of some kind of information about how to do your job better, how to solve a business problem, how to save time and money—this is the offer that will drive the best results for direct marketers.

A cautionary note about white papers

If you’re wondering about this slightly odd term, here’s a bit of background. Originally, “white paper” referred to an internal government document arguing the case for a particular policy decision. For business use, it evolved into a technical document based on primary research, often conducted by a respected third party.

Analysts, consultants, and researchers have long published white papers on the latest developments in a certain specific field and made them available (at relatively high prices) to manufactures and buyers in the industry. From a marketer’s point of view, if the researcher’s conclusions contain a message that would support the sale, then the marketer might purchase the publication in bulk and offer it to customers and prospects as an enticement to begin, or to deepen, a relationship.

In B2B marketing white papers have always had a somewhat sketchy past. Traditionally, industry analysts would research and recommend products and solutions, but at the same time turn around and sell their research services to the highest bidder. So an industry manufacturer could commission the production of a favorable white paper for a fee. Somehow, analysts have managed to maintain their reputation for objectivity despite this obvious conflict of interest.

But things have grown worse in recent years, as companies began producing white papers internally. Simply put, some documents are labeled a white paper but are in fact little more than a sales brochure. Business buyers become disillusioned, and the golden goose of white papers as a powerful marketing tool is threatened with extinction.

Checklist of information offers that work in B2B
• Article reprint
• Book
• Case studies
• Newsletter
• Product demo
• Research report
• Seminar or webinar
• “Ten tips” brochure
• Video or CD
• White papers

Why? For the same reason that “free trial” is probably the best all-around offer in consumer direct marketing. It combines the three magic ingredients:
• A strong appeal that has high perceived value
• An innate ability to qualify the prospect
• A relatively low cost and risk

It attracts, qualifies, and it doesn’t break the bank. Bingo. The perfect offer.

But why does information pull so well in B2B? Because of the essential character of the business buyer. This person is trying to get a job done. When making purchase decisions, the buyer is thinking about the company and the job as well as her own personal benefit.

Information fits the bill perfectly. Think of the myriad benefits information can fulfill for a business buyer:
• Ideas for cutting costs or improving productivity
• Proof points like testimonials, research reports, and case studies
• Insight into what’s working for the competition
• Data that will help sell the idea internally
• Fresh content that makes the prospect look good, smart, and like a valued contributor to the firm

The most attractive information is very specific, gives immediate assistance on the job, and is deeply relevant to the business buyer. Thus, in turn, only business people who actually have that need are likely to request a response. This means an innately qualified prospect. Compare the attractiveness of an offer for “Ten tips for making your business more profitable” to an offer like “Free T-shirt.” I rest my case.

And the best thing about information offers in an electronic age is the cost: next to nothing. Sure, you can spend money. You do have to write the piece, or otherwise acquire the intellectual property. But when converted to a PDF download from your website, the incremental cost per piece is zero. Even when packaged as a book, CD, or video, information is cheap on a cost/benefit basis. The variable production cost may be similar to that T-shirt, but the perceived value on the part of the prospect is far higher.

Of course, “information” is not just an offer. It’s a category. Information offers come in all kinds of forms, each with its strengths and weaknesses. Let’s consider how to get the most out of the leading formats.

White paper
White papers have been somewhat abused of late, but they are still at the top of the list among powerful information offers. The secret to an effective white paper today is value. Make it very specific, both in title and content. Give readers an objective, nonsales piece of research that analyzes a business problem and its potential solutions. If you do include information about your product or service, put it in a discreet sidebar.

‘Ten tips’ brochure
Well, it doesn’t have to be exactly 10 tips. But the content must be short, snappy, and easy to skim. Choose a theme that addresses an important pain point and provides real business value. Here are some examples:
• Ten tips for making your business more profitable
• Seven ways to reduce your accounting expenses
• Top five strategies for cutting cycle time

Case study
Business buyers crave case studies because they make the solution real. A case not only conveys credibility (the product works!) but also offers an appealingly voyeuristic view of how it works.

Newsletters can be delivered in hard copy or electronically. In either case, they make a powerful offer if they are strongly positioned as material that will help readers do their jobs better. Self-serving copy is the kiss of death here. The key benefit of newsletters to marketers is their use as an ongoing communication device. If the content is useful, the newsletter is a low-cost way to nurture the customer relationship over time.

How to select among information offers

The best way to choose among these information offer types is to map the information to the prospect’s stage in the buying process. For example, early in the process the buyer is analyzing the business problem and researching solutions. At this stage white papers and research reports are ideal for establishing your credibility as a supplier.

Later in the process, the buyer might be interested in case studies that provide real-life examples of your product at work. Similarly, a product demo may be the perfect offer to move the prospect along the buying process.

Choosing the best delivery medium

These days, the PDF download is the most efficient vehicle for delivering your information content to respondents. But there are still plenty of customers who prefer something tangible. As your competition migrates to downloads, you may find that a video or CD format has a new-found appeal.

Why do they work? Reports from the field

Information offers work in B2B because they help us build trust with our customers and prospects.

“In B2B we’re usually not asking for the order on the spot,” observes Richard Rosen, principal of AlloyRed in Portland, Oregon. “We’re allowing customers to develop a comfort level with us. They will come to their own decisions about when and how to buy.”

So these offers are great for relationship building, but what about response? Information offers pull well, over and over. Consider this case from Karen Breen Vogel, president and CEO of ClearGauge, a Chicago-based interactive marketing firm. “We have a program running right now for a client that makes two offers: how-to information and an iPod sweepstakes. Both are pulling well, but it’s the how-to offer that generates the higher level of opt-in permissions for ongoing marketing communications—and this is the holy grail in B2B interactive marketing.”

Howard J. Sewell, president of ConnectDirect, an agency in Silicon Valley that specializes in lead generation for tech companies, echoes the point about response. “We have tested information-based offers against invitations to events like seminars or webinars, and the information offers typically enjoy double the response compared to events.”

Where information offers don’t work

Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule. As powerful as information offers are, they don’t work particularly well in the executive suite. The senior-most managers, known as the “C-level”—the CEOs, CIOs, CFOs—are less responsive to information offers than their underlings, who, presumably, are the ones gathering the information to make the business case for the purchase decision. What works best for the C-level, according to Cyndi Greenglass, president of Diamond Marketing Solutions in Chicago, are premiums. Not the T-shirts, but gadgets and toys, like a set of golf balls or a remote-control robot.

But that’s the exception. The rule is still the rule. Go for the information-based offer for best results in B2B.

First published on Ruth P. Stevens’ website.


About The Author

Ruth P. Stevens’s picture

Ruth P. Stevens

Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention, and teaches marketing at business schools in the United States and abroad. She is a guest blogger at Biznology, AdAge, HBR.org, and Target Marketing Magazine. Crain’s BtoB magazine named Stevens one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Marketing. Stevens is the author of B2B Data-Driven Marketing: Sources, Uses, Results (Racom Communications, 2015) and Maximizing Lead Generation: The Complete Guide for B2B Marketers (Que Publishing, 2011). Stevens has held senior marketing positions at Time Warner, Ziff-Davis, and IBM, and holds an MBA from Columbia University.