Bad Math & B2B Research

The person who first convinced me that I wanted to be a copywriter was the owner and principal writer for a highly successful industrial ad agency.

My initial visit to his cluttered corner office came after-hours where I found Mr. Alexander pounding at a forty-year-old manual Underwood typewriter. He offered me a seat on the literal lawn chair that dominated his office. Although the industrial stuff sounded pretty dry, I knew then that writing and marketing was the career for me.

On the way out of his office I noticed a small plaque on the wall with Alex’s name, “Inducted into the Industrial Copywriter’s Hall of Fame.”

As Alex’s agency grew and succeeded where many failed, I decided to look up some of his award-winning ads. What I found set me back a bit. The ads were copy-heavy tomes wedged around a seductive glob of lubricating oil dancing on a shiny black background. The headline was something like: “The 10 Most Important Reasons Why Cretol 390 Is Your Best High Viscosity Lubricating Solution.”

And there it was: a list of 10 benefit-laden reasons and a dizzying recital of specifications and statistics.

These ads were known around his agency as “Alex’s lists”. While his clever consumer and B2B agency peers turned up their noses, they repeatedly failed when foraying into the industrial realm. Alex just plunked at his trusty Underwood, laughing all the way to the bank.

It took me some time to appreciate the supposed genius in this “know what they want and give ‘em what they crave” approach.

The online marketing business is perpetually starving for original research, especially about the B2B market. The smallest new study is pounced upon by writers looking to spin the new numbers in some self-serving fashion. This occurred a few months ago when Marketing Sherpa released a study on “Business Technology Marketers“.

Immediately, writers began lumping the buying habits of business technology purchasers – individuals who require all the specialized and technical data they can lay their hands on – with those of business purchasing managers who negotiate the price of everything from file folders to accounting services (cost, delivery, and convenience are the traditional motivators here). The two audiences couldn’t be more different.

Unfortunately, as soon as the Marketing Sherpa research hit, the B2B online buying behavior articles started flying, as if there were no difference between the two business buyers.

“Technology Purchasers” were mentioned in the first one or two paragraphs, then forgotten as the authors charged ahead, applying the data to every B2B purchasing manager and decision maker.

Even the usually careful Marketing Sherpa began blurring the line in a Powerpoint on their latest study. They started by talking about “Business Technology Purchasers” but by mid report they began labeling their results with titles such as: “How Effective Are New Marketing Channels for B-to-B Marketing?” Good question. Too bad they didn’t have any research to support it.

It sounds like knit-picking; the title of the study was quite specific. Unfortunately, the people lifting the research for purposes of editorial couldn’t or wouldn’t make the distinction between two very different data sources. They assumed all B2B purchasing behavior is essentially the same. And the results – or at least the headlines – were terribly misleading.

My friend Alex would have enjoyed the confusion. He would have courted the technology buyer much as he would his beloved industrial engineers. More is better. Longer and detailed, better still. And at the end of the day when my highly clever, short and hard-hitting headlines fell on deaf ears, he would have sprawled out on his lawn lounger and basked in another successful campaign.