5 Best Practices for B2B Public Relations
When I worked as an operations manager, I never took sales calls.
When I needed a new vendor, I did my research ahead of time and started negotiating terms during my first real contact with a rep. I always assumed this was a deviant way to manage procurement but I was wrong: nearly 60 percent of businesses choose B2B vendors in the way I described. Although I personally wonder whether this type of buying decision is somewhat
lazy impulsive, it doesn’t really matter.
For B2B PR pros, I am the new normal. This makes your job much more complicated.
If you’re a member of the PRSA (Public Relations Society of America), one of the great benefits is free access to a wealth of professional development webinars, and this post is inspired by a great presentation given by the EVP, BurrellesLuce, Johna Burke (you
can should listen to it here).
The reason I bring up this talk in the preface rather than as point of reference later is that Burke’s articulation of the issues around B2B PR are qualitatively so much better than most other pieces on the topic that it would be hard for me to write a piece like this without referencing her talk multiple times. You will see her name a lot for the next 1,500 words or so, so get acquainted. 🙂
What I want to do in this piece is to identify and describe five important considerations for B2B public relations practitioners. I’ll dig into some of the details explaining how each is crucial to the unique PR relationship between vendors and businesses.
1. Granular segmentation
“The key to successful B2B PR is accurately identifying your audience and their drivers, and then developing tailored content that is specifically designed to engage and resonate. This content needs to be released at the right time, and in the right format, to ensure that the decision-makers you are targeting are reached and understand the message.” – PR expert Ben Veal, discussing B2B public relations
In his book, Managing in the Next Society, Peter Drucker retells the story of German chemist Alfred Einhorn, who created the compound that we now know as Novocain. Einhorn envisioned it as an anesthetic for major surgeries (and it was used for a period to substitute for another more addictive anesthetic: cocaine), but dentists were also bullish to use it. Rather than adapt his concept of the target patient for Novocain, he spent years actively discouraging dentists to use the drug. Ironically, after the introduction of another anethestic into the medical community dentists were the only ones using Novocain.
Kim Harrison describes the perfect B2B segmentation strategy like this:
“The ideal audience size is one person. Tailoring our communication to the needs of each individual is the ideal. However, it is not practicable to do this – too costly and time consuming.”
Johna Burke echoes this sentiment when she describes granular profiling as essential for B2B PR practitioners. She explains that businesses should drill down into customer profiles on many levels:
- Basic demographics (e.g. age, location, education, income)
- Psychographics (interests, values)
- Rational Behavior (what practical aspects impact your customer’s opinion of you)
- Emotional Behavior (what visceral aspects impact your customer’s opinion of you)
She goes on to describe that specifically for B2B this should be vetted for primary, secondary and tertiary markets (partners, customers and suppliers) and to be nimble to react to a morphing customer profile. If you are the PR equivalent of Alfred Einhorn, you need to be more agile.
An important part of the development and re-evaluation of these profiles and segments is thorough research, to include listening to people / platforms to understand how you and your products / services are perceived.
“There really is no excuse for not knowing exactly what your PR program is doing for your business.” – Nate Hubbell, discussing B2B PR analytics
One of the strongest parts of Burke’s audioconference was her discussion of metrics. She started by defining “brothel” metrics: metrics that are fast, cheap, easy….. and of little relevance. She explained that for all of the buzz around “big data” low quality of its interpretation is oftentimes problematic.
Harvard professor Gary King writes about this phenomenon discussing Google’s “Flu Trend” program, whose algorithm predicted twice as many flu cases for a given year than actually occurred. For Google this type of snafu is an embarrassment, but for a PR pro, an error on this level could be catastrophic to a budget or to a campaign.
Burke says that beyond free analytics, B2B PR practitioners need to understand specifically how PR fits into the sales funnel, and then find “correlating points” to interject calls to action. She share that phrases such as “how did you hear about us?” and “was this helpful for you?” can help specifically to tie PR tactics to outcomes.
David Rockland of Ketchum shares a congruent viewpoint when he recommends siloing PR measurement into three aspects:
- Outputs (reach, content)
- Outcomes (knowledge, opinion, attitude)
- Business Results (added value)
Understanding the business results of PR tactics is the missing link to how PR has been traditionally viewed, and is especially true in a specialization like B2B that offers much less publicly-available feedback.
“The role of PR firms within B2B organizations has shifted from simply disseminating news to sharing insight relevant to core constituencies.” – The Council of Public Relations Firms, on B2B public relations
Here’s a quick thought experiment: if 60 percent of B2B executives make a purchase decision before speaking to anyone, then how do they come to a decision?
I used to research everything I could on the Internet, find a list of prospects, lowball my price and shoot off emails with the specs of my proposal to prospective vendors for review. I suspect that this is similar (more or less) to what a lot of executives do (although I was very small time relative to many).
The point I want to make is that content largely informed my decision about the suitability of any particular vendor for my needs. If you weren’t publishing stuff online and hitting my pain points I wouldn’t even contact you. Whether you agree with my characterization of the buying decision process, the role of content to inform B2B publics is pretty uncontroversial. DeSantis Breindel articulates this fact much more stylishly when they say that “content is the new creative.”
Content expert Jay Acunzo recounts that when he was leading content creation at Hubspot, e-book interest waned. Contrarily, he found was that free stock photo offerings generated an increasing amount of interest. The solution? Put resources towards stock photos instead of e-books. In the B2B PR niche, finding these “outside of the box” types of opportunities is key.
Despite the fact that at least 60 percent of B2B customers rely on content to inform their decision, Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute wrote that 56 percent of B2B marketers do not have a content strategy in place. But notice that statistic is only about marketers: good thing we’re discussing PR……
4. Marketing Integration
“Traditional PR alone is no longer the answer to reach customers -it now require a mix of strategies, channels and approaches.” – PR expert Maria Pergolino
When interviewed about PR’s merits as a lead generation activity, Brian Kardon of Lattice Engines (formerly of Eloqua, Forrester) says, “I come from a very metrics-driven culture–at Forrester, Eloqua, and now Lattice Engines We measure PR in lots of ways, but seldom from a lead gen point of view.”
This brief statement brings up some big questions:
- How do you generate leads?
- How do you close sales?
- How do you measure any of this?
The answer seems to lie in integrated marketing, the process of synchronizing strategy, tactics, and metrics across different disciplines. Johna Burke alludes to this when discussing the disambiguation of responsibility around different aspects of the sales funnel.
It’s easy to say that everyone is going to be in alignment, but much more difficult with the advent of digital and social media writes Joan Damico:
“For B2B integrated marcom managers, social media represents a double-edged sword. On one side you have the outbound marketing communications, which you control; and on the other hand there are the channel partners, who are putting up Facebook pages, Tweeting about the brand , creating YouTube videos and conducting other social media activities that are beyond your control.”
Howard Breindel goes one step further to say that “integrated marketing” is merely a buzzword. What we really want is a thorough synchronization of these different disciplines to accomplish common objectives. This synchronization across disciplines is a huge challenge.
5. Beyond Engagement: Partnership
“A true B2B collaboration isn’t about creating a one-time blitz, but instead looking for ways to support each other over the long term.” – Alyssa Gregory, on developing successful B2B / PR partnerships
Maybe is one of the most important B2B PR insights in Burke’s talk, she draws an analog between public “engagement” and betrothal. She says that everyone buzzes about engagement, but for B2B PR the more apt analogy is “marriage.” You don’t just want people to engage you, you want a partnership, you want to perpetually add value to their business. She argues that this relationship should be overarching everything that the B2B PR practitioner does.
What I wanted to do in this post was to articulate some important considerations for B2B PR practitioners. Although there are some differences between general PR and the B2B niche, you can see how a disciplined approach to articulating your intended publics, vetting and measuring the role of PR in the sales process, and treating your relationships with a value-add perspective can help you (and your customers) to be successful within a business-to-business dynamic.
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