Beware the curse of B2B marketing

In a few minutes I’ll share a nasty little curse that can harm us B2B marketers if we’re not careful. I’ll show you some of the tell-tale signs that you’ve been afflicted by it, offer some ideas on how you can rid yourself of it and provide a suggestion of where I think the curse may come from. Warning: it might be YOUR fault! 😉

I’ll get to all of that in a moment, but first, Tom Cruise…

The Mummy

I recently watched the Tom Cruise film ‘The Mummy’ while on a flight to the States. (I’d already seen The Greatest Showman and Moana, thanks for asking). The movie was – to no great surprise – a ripping yarn about ancient Egyptian maledictions and curses; a chilling tale of bad choices and ageless, unspeakable evil. Thankfully, the good looking hero with the perfect teeth and coiffured hair seemed to be able to cope with the life-sucking she-devil, armies of undead and other hideous entities.

All of which (apart from the perfect teeth and coiffured hair) reminds us of the dire consequences of ignoring or messing with curses. Which in turn is an important reminder for us marketers, because many of us are unknowingly blighted with a curse. A real curse… the curse of knowledge.

The Curse of Knowledge

Just in case you haven’t heard of this before, let me start by saying this curse is a real thing. It’s well documented both online and in several books (such as ‘The Choice Factory’ – a bloomin’ good read from the fabulous Richard Shotton). I’ll summarise it quickly now, and then offer my interpretation of it for fellow B2B marketers…

‘The ‘curse of knowledge’ is a cognitive phenomenon, coined by renowned economists Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein and Martin Weber, that has profound implications for professional communicators (such as marketers). Paraphrasing, the curse of knowledge describes the problems that can happen when someone with a lot of knowledge about a particular subject (e.g. a marketer within a supplier), tries to communicate effectively with someone with lesser knowledge about that subject (e.g. a customer). Problems happen because the communicator has forgotten what it is like to have lesser knowledge, and so fails to communicate in a way that the receiver understands.

That may sound like complex waffle, so hopefully these examples demonstrate the curse in practice…

  • Recent Physics PhD graduate to a Year 7 science class: “A spontaneous parametric down-conversion process can split photons into type II photon pairs with mutually perpendicular polarisation” → Year 7 science class: “Huh?
  • HR Director’s welcoming speech to the new graduate intake: “In the forthcoming period we’re going to the reinvigorate our onboarding initiatives and take full advantage of synergies between our regional learning programmes” → Graduate intake: “Huh?
  • Car mechanic to my mum: “I think you may have a fuel compression problem because of the exhaust valve seal” → My mum: “Huh?

Again, the curse of knowledge is when someone with knowledge tries to communicate with someone that has lesser knowledge, but has forgotten what it is like to have lesser knowledge. In that situation, there is a severe risk of the communication not working, which reminds me of the timeless quote from George Bernard Shaw…

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Economists Camerer, Lowenstein and Weber first explored how the curse of knowledge can negatively impact trade, but the curse also blights B2B marketers on a daily basis…

The curse of knowledge in B2B marketing

First up, there’s one obvious example of how the curse of knowledge impacts marketers, as highlighted by this real-life-inspired example:

Marketer to customer: “Our agile collaboration system provides a paradigm shift in disruptive business acceleration” → Customer: “Huh?

Simply, us marketers are surrounded by so much jargon – both in terms of the jargon used within our respective industries, and also the jargon used within the modern marketing profession – that we can lose sight of the fact that no-one in the real world knows what that jargon means. We’ve become so used to words and expressions like ‘disruptive’, ‘engagement’, ‘agile’ and the like, that they have seeped into the language we use. But we’ve seemingly also forgotten that many people within our companies or target customers have no idea what we mean by them (or they may interpret them in different ways to how we had intended).

By the way, it’s worth reminding ourselves at this point of some of the words that dictionary.com uses to describe ‘jargon’…

Jargon (noun): unintelligible or meaningless talk or writing; gibberish; any talk or writing that one does not understand; language that is characterised by uncommon or pretentious vocabulary and convoluted syntax and is often vague in meaning.

Jargon can be seriously harmful to our B2B brands, because it can make customers think our brands are unclear, unintelligible or baffling. And I’m fairly certain there are no B2B brands out there with ‘unclear, unintelligible and baffling’ as core values.

It gets worse

Alas jargon isn’t the only obvious problem that stems from the curse of knowledge. There’s an even more basic issue…

If you took the time to look at 100 B2B websites, I guarantee you’ll find a good number that don’t say on their home page (either at all or in super-clear writing) what the B2B business actually does. I took a look at some B2B websites this morning, and here are just a few of the opening lines I found… ‘people-driven engagement’, ‘think outside the box’, and ‘experience success’. Can you figure out what those brands do? Of course you can’t. I confess it took me minutes of reading to try and figure out what the companies did. Which is not a great starting point for a new potential buyer.

In another example, you can often see the same thing in B2B pitches. You often have to read pages of text, and work really hard, to spot the top reason(s) why a supplier is better than all of their rivals and why the customer should choose them.

The curse has made us stop communicating clearly, effectively and persuasively to customers. We’ve all been guilty of it within our careers. The good news is that we can do better going forward. We can break the curse…

A cure?

The first step, simply, is to make sure fellow marketers are aware that the curse exists. We need to be wary of it making us forget that many people in our markets don’t know who we are, what we do or why we’re better.

Awareness and fear of the curse established, here are some quick cures to then get rid of it:

  • avoid the use of jargon at all costs within our marketing communications. If it’s got a big word in it that sounds like a management consultant said it, think again;
  • allied to that, take something that you’ve written and read it out loud to a friend or a business person, ideally outside of your company. If they look at you blankly, groan, tell you you’re talking jibberish or give you that puzzled ‘what the ____?’ face, then you know the curse has blighted you. Saying things out loud to other people has the weird effect of making the curse more noticeable;
  • in other words, just tell people who you are, what you do, why you’re better and why they should believe you in the simplest, clearest language you can; and finally
  • get out of the office and talk to as many customers as possible – to remind ourselves how real people talk, what they’re really focused on, how they really evaluate B2B suppliers and what (if anything) they know about us.

Those basic cures shared, I’m going to venture one further, more provocative viewpoint on a cause of the curse and a consequent cure… Beware your marketing hiring policy.

Is your B2B marketing hiring policy perpetuating the curse?

Look at most job descriptions for most marketing vacancies and it will likely say something like – ‘must have 10 years’ SaaS marketing experience’ (when hiring for a Software as a Service company), or ‘must have 6 years’ marketing experience within a accountancy firm’ (when hiring for an accountancy business). It’s completely understandable that business leaders want to hire people with relevant experience of their industry. But what if it is that very stance that is perpetuating the curse of knowledge? Here’s an alternative perspective on why that hiring policy may not always be ideal…

I could have picked any sort of B2B business for this story – a real estate business, an insurance business, a law firm – but let’s assume for simplicity, that you are a reasonably-sized B2B marketing technology (martech) vendor. I’ll assume that there are dozens or even hundreds of people within your business that know everything there is to know about martech. And there may already be a marketer or two within your business that know quite a lot about martech too. And the same thing is true at the dozens of other martech providers you compete with. It’s an industry full of people that know lots about martech, and about how marketing should be done in martech companies.

Over time, marketers from one martech brand move to another martech brand and, in turn, the marketers from that martech brand move to yet further martech brands. It’s a hiring cycle that goes on and on, with martech marketers taking similar marketing experiences from one martech brand to another.

Experience that is then instilled in new marketing graduates that join those martech brands. You get a new generation of young marketers who learn how marketing should be done in martech companies from the senior marketers already there. Learning that is further reinforced at marketing webinars and conferences dedicated to people working in martech companies, where they’ll hear from fellow martech marketers on how marketing should be done within martech companies.

It can be a closed, incestuous environment. An environment where standard ways of doing things – industry norms – can quickly become established and perpetuated, all of which stoke the flames of both the curse, and two nasty siblings that I recently read about:

  • The Einstellung Effect: This psychological bias refers to a person’s natural tendency to solve a given problem in a particular way – a way most familiar to them – even though better or more appropriate methods of solving the problem may exist. Previous experience is used to solve new problems – the issue being that fresh ideas may not be sought or considered.
  • False Consensus Effect: This is a psychological bias where we believe our approach to be the most effective, particularly when we see others within our peer group acting the same way. Stating that another way, if we are surrounded by a group of marketers that think and act in the same way as us, we mistakenly believe that everybody thinks the same way as us, reinforcing that we must be doing the right thing. It creates a ‘false consensus’, which can lead to overconfidence and potentially ignorant decisions.

Of course I’m laying this all on a little thick, and I’m not a qualified psychologist, but it seems there is a strong risk that, perpetually surrounded by people with the same knowledge, the same experience and the same response to marketing challenges as us, the curse of knowledge can perpetuate and grow. And we can see evidence for those curses around us, all the time…

They are core reasons why most marketing communications within a particular sector look and sound similar. And worse still, we can mis-assume that how we’re marketing is the best or the only way. We might pay undue heed to closed-minded people that say ‘advertising is dead’ or ‘programmatic is the best way forward’, for example. Which can make us fail to consider new ways (or very old ways) to market our brands.

Our marketing tactics may be sub-optimal, but we might fail to see that because those around us are also getting it wrong. All because we’re not getting fresh perspectives.

Well I, for one, propose that we break the curse. And here’s how…

Breaking the curse, and other nasty side effects

Simply, marketers fresh to our sector aren’t cursed with knowledge. They ask fresh questions. They challenge conventional wisdom. They have to work harder to succeed. They are consequently more likely to bring new ideas and perspectives to the table. And new ideas often have the best chance of standing out from the crowd in a congested, noisy, competitive environment. So I urge fellow marketing leaders to consider hiring marketers from other sectors.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t hire marketers with experience within our particular sectors – that would be daft. But what I am saying is that we should never solely hire marketers from within our respective sectors. Of course arguments will rage that ‘you can’t succeed in the highly regulated environment of financial services without understanding the implications of those regulations’. And people will argue that ‘you can’t succeed in law firm marketing if you don’t understand the needs of lawyers’. And similar meritorious arguments will apply in technology, real estate and other B2B sectors. They are good arguments. But I counter-argue that our offices are probably already full of people that can teach us that stuff.

What I believe the best marketers bring to the table are supplementary skills – things that aren’t innate to one specific industry sector. Things like the ability to coldly prioritise market niches, the science of revealing new insights and the art of persuasive communication. And I further argue that marketers who have fixed outlooks in terms of how things must be done within a sector often end up simply repeating, evolving and tweaking things. Incrementalists rarely break completely new ground. And breaking new ground is probably required if our businesses want to steal business from our rivals and outperform the market.

Summary

In summary, here are my (hopefully-provocative) points of view on this… (the last of which is clearly the most important one)…

  • The curse is real, and it leads to boring, undifferentiated, sub-optimal marketing communications.
  • I believe that using big, complex words and jargon is unhelpful. It’s a sign that you have the curse.
  • We can never let the curse make us forget that that customers don’t want an SaaS solution, or a lawyer, or an insurer, or a paradigm shift, or some disruptive innovation, or any of the others things we might focus on in our marketing communications. They want a business problem to go away, or an easier life, or a more productive work environment – or something rooted in their self-interest, not in ours. Focusing on customer self-interest is the ageless best practice for marketing communicators.
  • I believe marketing teams need talent from within their industry and from outside. It is about balance. I believe that recruiters who narrow their options to solely seeking a very specific sort of marketer are unknowingly tempting the curse.
    To avoid the curse, I think it is a good idea for marketers to try a new industry at least once in their career. I believe that all B2B marketers can benefit from learning how different industries solve marketing problems.
  • Beyond moving industry, I recommend attending non industry-specific marketing conferences. At the very least I believe it is incumbent on marketers to never stop looking for fresh ways of achieving success and never having a closed-mind to which tactics will work best.
  • And unless you’re Tom Cruise, I suggest you take this curse very, very seriously. You are not immune.

I hope you have strong viewpoints on all that, which is great news. They don’t call it a curse for nothing.

Recommended further reading

Although I’ve provided my own interpretations of psychological theory above, I heartily recommend reading more about the cognitive biases listed in this post. Google has a host of awesome entries on them – but to get the party started, I recommend this article from Harvard Business Review on the curse of knowledge >

And again I recommend Richard Shotton’s book – it’s super interesting.

 

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