SMBs Rely On Word-of-Mouth: What Should B2B Marketers Do?

Last week, I met with the (small) business solutions division of a large consumer technology/services provider to talk about gearing up their B2B marketing. We talked about whether the same tactics that work for their consumer audiences might also work with small business prospects (typically less than 100 employees.) TV and radio came up in the discussion because they were getting ready to launch local market tests.

So here’s the thing:

  • Few (about 20%) of the over 500 B2B marketers who we surveyed recently say they use TV and radio, compared with about 90% who use tradeshows and PR – real die-hard B2B tactics. However, those who can afford TV say it’s off the charts for building brand awareness.

In contrast…

  • 60% of US small businesses we surveyed told us last summer that they rely on word of mouth (talking to peers, colleagues, or folks in the industry) to make up their minds about IT purchase decisions.
  • A similar percentage of North American and European SMBs told us in our December survey that they felt the same about word of mouth.

So it seems obvious that I should tell these folks to back off on the TV and radio and go for the word of mouth stuff, right? But what exactly does word-of-mouth marketing look like in business marketing? Does it work for buyers considering new accounting software as well as buying more copier paper?

Peter Kim tells us that WOM marketing interest is heating up, but marketers struggle with ethics, measurement, and where to get started. The most popular buzz-creating tactic is clever television advertising like the FedEx cavemen, CapitalOne’s miniature business man, or Staples’ Easy button. Figuring out how to measure buzz impact on the small business community is the next challenge.

Tomorrow’s buzz will come from customer testimonial – and the more unsolicited it is, the better. Testimonial marketing is intriguing because customers speaking highly of your products or services are the brass rings all B2B marketers want to grasp. But they fall flat when buyers detect the whiff of compensation or stilted, happy stories. Let’s face it, customer case studies are a mainstay in the B2B marketing bag of tricks, but how do marketers transform them, online or off, to also provide grist for the water cooler?

B2B marketers have some work to do to figure word of mouth. We think one gutsy tactic is to ask buyers for feedback on product features, quality, or service levels and then publish the results on the Web site to get the conversation started. What interesting ways have you seen business try to get the buzz going?  And do you think testimonial will spur growth in WOM advertising, especially among the smaller, tighter business buyer communities?


re: SMBs Rely On Word-of-Mouth: What Should B2B Marketers Do?

This is off topic of the post, but relevant to the blog. Where is your RSS subscription feed? I cannot find it on your blog.Actually, I did find it, but it's not on the rendered blog page. View source produces this: it turns out you use FeedBurner for this feed:feed:// probably would like to subscribe ... you may want to publish the feed on the blog.-- brian

re: SMBs Rely On Word-of-Mouth: What Should B2B Marketers Do?

"WOM marketing interest is heating up, but marketers struggle with ethics, measurement, and where to get started."I'm so glad marketers are struggling with WOM ethics. I am an old time, big believer in natural WOM, Laura, but institutionalized WOM has to be responsible and accountable with clear consumer awareness through complete disclosure. Otherwise the B2B buyer or B2C consumer may feel there is trickery going on.I am a marketer and a consumer advocate, and I think you should read this "counterpoint" to institutionalized WOM (if you haven't already): solution to the ethics involved in one form of buzz marketing is stated in my blog post with comments here:

re: SMBs Rely On Word-of-Mouth: What Should B2B Marketers Do?

Bill, thank you for the comment and the pointers on disclosing affliations in the downstream WOM buzz. Both the technological and sociological implications of disclosing "compensated" positive comments in the downstream conversation is an interesting problem. Another one to add to the pile that B2B marketers need to tackle as WOMMA evolves.The discussion that prompted this blog entry struggled with the trade offs between designing buzz-generating advertising (especially on TV) versus other ways to stimulate natural WOM originating from superior customer service, a competitive advantage this company felt they enjoyed. Of interest are examples of ways to spark WOM that would be attractive to -- or cherished by -- busy, lazer-focused business buyers.We agree that B2B marketers need to tackle the ethics issues head-on, but we were hoping to hear more about successful -- or not -- WOMMA attempts to understand how top buzzers differ from institutional customer testimonials. I think your point about committing reviews to writing -- on blogs, discussion threads, whatever -- as opposed to keeping them strictly word-of-mouth is one of the key issues marketers need to test to learn how buyers perceive testimonial credibility.Again, thanks for the provocative post.

re: SMBs Rely On Word-of-Mouth: What Should B2B Marketers Do?

RE: feed difficulties. Brian - thanks for the heads up. For some reason, our typelist item with the two subscription links (RSS and email) has disappeared twice in the past week. I've reposted and hopefully it'll stay there this time...

re: SMBs Rely On Word-of-Mouth: What Should B2B Marketers Do?

And see, that's where I think a strong public relations program comes into play. PR offers the benefit and buzz of word-of-mouth and/or client endorsements without coming across as stilted or worse, "pay-for-play".And when I say "PR program", I'm not talking about those plans that call for issuing a certain number of press releases a year and that's it. I'm talking about carefully-constructed, thoughtful programs focused on the customer (e.g., a reference program designed to cultivate relationships and encourage customers to want to say good things about a company's product or service)

re: SMBs Rely On Word-of-Mouth: What Should B2B Marketers Do?

Michelle, thanks for the comment connecting PR to customer reference programs! I think B2B marketers focus too narrowly on hiring the right PR agency and lose sight of what PUBLIC (not press) relations can do for them. I think they are fearful that -- when given the microphone -- customers will complain more than praise, with the resulting WOM traveling like wild fire to new prospects ears. Customers who are happy need a little encouragement to stand up and say good things -- they are too busy to think to do it on their own. And if a firm is truly proud of their products and services, won't that show through in what their customers have to say? Customer references don't need to be obvious, but companies need to work on them consistently and stick with them over the long run.