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Tomorrow’s buyers: the biggest growth opportunity in B2B

Hyper-targeting has become the norm in B2B marketing. However, this approach can be detrimental to business objectives, say Jon Lombardo and Peter Weinberg, Global Leads at LinkedIn’s B2B Institute. Here, they outline how expanding audiences to include future buyers and other members of the decision-making unit can lead to far better results.

What is the worst idea in B2B marketing?

That’s a matter of opinion, of course, but we’ll give you ours: hyper‐targeting.

Hyper‐targeting is the single most destructive idea in our industry. On the surface, it may sound like a seductive strategy, and many B2B marketers have been lured in with promises of precision, efficiency, and performance.

However, targeting only a small, niche audience can kill a brand — it’s a short‐term strategy that ignores future buyers, the source of long‐term growth.

Recent research from LinkedIn’s B2B Institute, done in partnership with ‘godfathers of marketing effectiveness’ Les Binet and Peter Field, suggests that B2B marketers should be moving away from this kind of narrow targeting and moving towards a broader targeting approach. Why? Well, let us explain by walking you through an imaginary case study.

Imagine you are a B2B marketer at FlyCorp, an airplane‐manufacturing company. The CEO gives you a herculean task: grow the business by selling more airplanes. Like any good marketer, you begin by identifying your customer. You stroll over to the desk of a smooth‐talking airplane seller. “Who should I target with my marketing campaigns?” you ask. And the seller gives you a predictable reply, “Procurement people at these five airline companies.”.

The sweet siren sounds of hyper‐targeting fill your ears. What a deliciously small segment, you think to yourself. I can use digital channels to reach that microscopic audience with laser precision. The costs will be low, and the financial payback will be enormous. $25 million per plane, $25 per click — the sales teams will sing my praises to senior management!

You return to your swivel chair with a bounce in your step and set up a 3‐month campaign. Your creative agency cooks up a compelling ad: “Buy Airplanes Now!”. Your media agency recommends 20 different channels, all of which promise to reach procurement professionals at your five specific accounts. You set the campaign live, and wait for the money to come in.

But the money doesn’t come in.

Nobody buys any airplanes.

Sales begin to plummet, slowly but surely.

So, what went wrong? Why didn’t hyper‐targeting grow the FlyCorp business?

Well, for three different reasons.

Reason 1: the hidden decision‐making unit

Even if you do manage to reach airplane buyers with laser precision, your campaign still won’t drive any sales. Why? Because In B2B, buying decisions are made not by individuals, but by networks (or “committees”). And the bigger the decision, the bigger the network. The procurement manager can’t sign off on a $25 million airplane contract without consulting finance, legal, product, engineering, sales, and even the CEO.

But your hyper‐targeted ads never reached those stakeholders. The lawyers and product managers have never heard of FlyCorp, and no one wants to spend $25 million with a no‐name company. So, those decision‐makers say: what about Airbus? Ah Airbus, there’s a name we know, and we like what we know. Let’s give the contract to Airbus, that seems like a safe choice that won’t get us fired.

Reason 2: most B2B buyers are not in‐market

But don’t beat yourself up about that, FlyCorp marketer. Even if you had reached the entire buying network at those five airline accounts, you still wouldn’t have driven any sales. Why? Because no one was in‐market to buy an airplane during the three‐month period of your campaign.

Like most B2B purchases, airplanes are bought very infrequently, and a sales cycle can last 10+ years. The likelihood of your reaching an active airplane buyer during a small window of time is extremely low. And the likelihood of closing a deal in that time period is near‐zero. To sell an airplane, you’d need to run a campaign for several years.

And who has time for that? Well, every successful brand.

Brands are built over decades, not months. In a three‐month period, there may be only one buyer in‐market for an airplane. And by all means, use hyper‐targeting to reach that buyer. But in a three‐year period, there could be a hundred buyers in‐market. The revenue potential of current, in‐market buyers is limited by its small size. The revenue potential of future, out‐of‐market buyers is massive.

Reason 3: B2B buyers change jobs over time

Which brings us to the final, fatal flaw in hyper‐targeting. It ignores future buyers, the people who write future checks. Hyper‐targeting can influence a deal this quarter. But what about deals three years in the future?

People change jobs. It’s an obvious insight, but one with profound implications for B2B marketers. The procurement manager who will sign off on future deals might work somewhere else today. Right now, they may work for a different airline, or in an entirely different industry. They may not join your target account for three months, or three years.

We see this clearly in our data. At LinkedIn, we probably have the best career path data on the planet. And our data tells us that every four years, around 40% of LinkedIn members change their industry, seniority, function, and company size.

The best way to catch a moving target is to cast a wider net across different seniorities, functions, and industries. However, you can’t cast that net too wide — not in B2B at least.

The pitfalls of making targeting too broad

None of this means you should abandon targeting altogether and try to reach anyone and everyone. The vast majority of professionals will never buy airplanes or IT services — it would be pointless to target doctors, artists or professors who will never be in procurement roles. But it would also be extremely ineffective to target only today’s procurement professionals, given the length of B2B sales cycles, and the fluidity of the job market.

We are advocating for broad targeting that reaches all potential buyers. Don’t hyper‐target airline procurement managers. Identify and reach all professionals who have a decent probability of becoming an airline procurement manager in the future as well as others in the organisation who are likely to have a say in the decision‐making process.

But this broad targeting approach raises some questions. What kind of creative works on future buyers? How many future buyers do you need to reach?

Creative that resonates with a broad audience

To influence a broad audience of current and future buyers, you need broad creative. “Buy Airplanes Now” is not relevant to future, out‐of‐market buyers. Thought leadership that you create for your core buyers won’t work either — an IT Trends Report will be ignored by a CFO, for example, who won’t be interested in the trends in IT but rather how much they will cost their business.

What you do need is good old‐fashioned brand advertising.

You need ads that create memorable links between your brand and the category. Memories that are likely to be recalled when the out‐of‐market buyer becomes an in‐market buyer.

What does brand advertising look like? Well, in B2C, it looks like sarcastic geckos and snobby meerkats. In B2B, it looks like HPE’s menacing IT Monster. According to our research with Les Binet and Peter Field, famous brand advertising drives more growth than any other type of advertising. That’s true in both B2B and in B2C.

How many future buyers do you need to reach? The short answer: as many as you can. Despite all the buzz around hyper‐targeting and personalization, it’s worth remembering that reach is, and always has been, the single greatest predictor of advertising success.

The tight causal relationship between a brand’s “share of voice” and its “share of market” has been known for 40 years. And we have replicated those findings for B2B, showing that a 10% eSOV (the difference between your market share and share of voice) gets you 1% back in market share growth.

You cannot influence the buyer if you don’t reach the buyer, and you cannot grow if you don’t reach more customers than you already have. Reach matters, in both B2B and B2C.

Key Takeaways

  • To achieve business objectives in the long‐term, B2B marketers need to leave hyper‐targeting in the past and target a broader audience.
  • Marketers shouldn’t abandon targeting altogether. The audience still has to be relevant to your business — whether that is because they are a member of the wider decision‐making unit or because they will be the decision‐maker in a few years.
  • The best way to appeal to a broader audience is through great, creative brand advertising. The more memorable your advertising is, the more likely your brand will be thought of by both current and future buyers when they need the products or services you offer.

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