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Even B2B Audiences Want Emotion in Their Content

How is your audience feeling these days?

We always want to learn as much as we can about our audience’s rational preferences, their logical needs, and their transactional behaviors. But their feelings? That’s something we don’t always take the time to ask about – let alone factor in to our strategic decisions.

And yet, with everything everybody has experienced the last few months, it’s probably the most important information we can receive right now.

Marketing Interactions’ Ardath Albee along with Adobe Digital Experience’s Gurdeep Dhillon talked about how to incorporate emotional intelligence into B2B content marketing at CMI’s recent Demand Generation Summit.

“We have an opportunity to rethink the way we’re presenting our products – to make them more interesting and to change the whole conversation and dialogue around them,” Ardath says. “The more you can do with that, the more trust you’re accumulating.

Increasingly, the best way for content marketers to build that trust is by demonstrating deeper awareness and understanding of the positive outcomes and experiences our audience wants to achieve, not focusing on the transactional behaviors we want to drive.

What buyers are asking for

Ardath points out that marketers who have developed audience personas have taken the first and most critical step to gain the understanding necessary to build empathy. But, as the pandemic has brought to light, situations can shift unexpectedly, both amplifying existing emotions and surfacing new ones that impact decision making.

Marketers need to adjust their content priorities so they can answer the new questions and fill their audience members’ current emotional needs, not just the ones always in play when they’re considering a purchase.

Marketers must adjust #content priorities to fill their audience’s current emotional needs, says @Ardath421 via @cmicontent. Share on X

For example, Ardath points to a question posted in a LinkedIn discussion group at the beginning of May – What do B2B customers want to hear from businesses in response to COVID-19? The responses included standard business concerns like how to keep revenue on track and their businesses competitive. But they also touched on more personal, emotion-driven issues, like job security, family safety, and uncertainty about their financial future.

As Ardath sees it, the conversation revealed that customers are looking for brands to help them feel more confident and in control of their work priorities, as well as help them address bigger questions, like “what does the future look like,” what should we plan for,” and “can we even start to plan yet?”

“What they really want now is insights that are going to help them make decisions at a time of great uncertainty,” she says.

Understand how decisions are really made

Identifying which concerns and outcomes our audiences consider current priorities involves tactics in which we should already be well versed: listening to customers, analyzing metrics and data, and monitoring performance for decision-making insights.

But when it comes to how our content should communicate around those high-priority outcomes, marketers also need to consider a different kind of insight. It is one which formulas and feedback mechanisms alone can’t help us surface: empathy.

As I mentioned in an article earlier this year, true brand empathy is different from merely identifying needs, serving up useful information, or even being aware of the personal motivations that drive consumption.

True brand empathy is about creating a shared journey between our brand and its audience, which is not something we can fake or pay lip service to with vague platitudes like, “We’re all going through this together.”

True brand empathy creates a shared journey between the brand and the audience, says @joderama via @cmicontent. Share on X

Instead of merely thinking about our customers’ needs and being sympathetic to the challenges they face, empathy requires marketers to forge a deeper, more emotion-driven understanding of what customers are going through – not just what they want to accomplish but the underlying reasons why they are driven to accomplish it.

If we want our content experience to convey that understanding, Ardath says we need a different set of insights, starting with a look at the two distinct ways our brains process information:

  • Intuitive thinking: Immediate and innate response to a situation based on accumulated memories, biases, emotions, and experiences. Intuitive thinking drove people to run out and hoard toilet paper even though there was no reason the COVID-19 crisis should prompt that reaction (at least initially).
  • Rational thinking: Slow, deliberate, and reasonable responses. It involves thoughtful analysis of the situation and logical calculations around what’s needed to manage it.

Both types of thinking factor in to how people ascribe meaning and value to messages – whether or not they realize it’s happening. As Ardath points out, if we as marketers don’t stop to consider the intuitive, experiential, and emotion-based part of our customers’ decision-making process, we aren’t getting to know them well enough to ask them to trust that our solutions will provide for their needs.

CMI’s 2020 Content Management and Strategy research backs up this assertion: 65% of marketers who responded in January say they face challenges in knowing the goal or emotional needs of their audience at a particular stage of the customer’s journey.

Playing to our audiences’ emotions is a technique more commonly used in B2C marketing. But, in Ardath’s view, B2B audiences share the same fundamental human priorities and are just as interested in seeing their personal experiences reflected in content. The only difference is they use a more business-focused set of criteria to make decisions.

What can B2B brands do to bring a greater sense of empathy, emotion, and shared meaning in the content they create?

Start with truth

Ardath suggests thinking differently about the ways we talk about our products, the topics in those conversations, and the context around our customer experiences.

Think about the brand’s benefits from a place of shared truth with the customers and create stories where the customer – not the brand – is the hero. Customers then see the business as an empathetic partner that understands their goals and provides the tools to reach them.

Create stories where the customer – not the brand – is the hero, says @Ardath421 via @cmicontent. Share on X

Here are some highlights of Ardath’s recommendations for accomplishing this:

Reframe the value of your brand experience

Consider what can make your business more valuable and relevant in the moment – and what messages speak to your customers’ current priorities. As a shining example, Ardath points to how McDonald’s reframed its McCafe line of drinks as a way to indulge in a much-needed stress break during a busy day rather than the company’s standard brand messaging of a cheap and fast way to refuel.

Take a positive stance

After several months in seclusion dealing with the initial impact of COVID-19, signs abound that crisis fatigue is setting in. Audiences now seek signs of hope and a clear path for recovery. They are looking for confidence, reassurance, and guidance for pursuing opportunities rather than dwelling on the stresses and challenges that stand between them and their goals.

Focus on incremental improvements that have momentum

People often have an easier time embracing smaller, simpler steps than large, sweeping changes. Break your experience into stages and create content around the things your customers can achieve now. Show them the bigger possibilities those small improvements can lead to. It can inspire them to take the smaller steps to push toward the bigger outcomes they want to achieve.

Address their personal priorities – not just business ones

Ardath points to 2013 research from Google and CEB’s Marketing Leadership Council that shows customers are 50% more likely to buy when they see personal value in choosing the brand. You can convey this value by creating “talkable” moments around professional goals, like advancing their careers, feeling increased pride in their work, or being better able to demonstrate the value their team contributes to the business’s goals.

Customers are 50% more likely to buy when they see personal value in choosing the brand, according to @Google via @cmicontent. #research Share on X

Fill the empathy deficit

In his part of the presentation, Gurdeep Dhillon offers a simple question for gauging whether you’re creating empathetic content conversations: “Are you filling our customers’ bucket or draining it?”

Gurdeep shares a story about Project Cornerstone, an anti-bullying program he participated in. The premise is that everybody walks around with an invisible emotional bucket. When that bucket is full, they feel great – confident, fulfilled, and full of purpose. When the bucket is empty, they feel anxious and sad and have a sense of loss. People with empty buckets (in this case, bullies) try to fill their buckets by dipping into someone else’s.

“[Marketers] have our own buckets we want to fill,” Gurdeep says. “We want leads, we want pipeline, we want revenue. But our customers have buckets too. We can’t fill ours by dipping into theirs – pushing our products and messages onto the audience. The only way to fill our buckets is by filling theirs too by delivering micro-moments of value – relevant content, ideas, and answers to their most important burning questions over time.”

Do you produce the right pieces of content to fill your audience’s bucket? “Now, more than ever, it’s the time to evaluate every program you have in market. Look at your messaging, understand the tone of what you’re putting into market, and consider whether it’s in tune with where your customers are right now. If it’s not, you’ve got to make changes,” Gurdeep says.

Is your messaging in tune with where your customers are right now? If it’s not, you’ve got to make changes, says @gurdeepd via @cmicontent. Share on X

Emotion unlocks the power of personal connection

Content marketers always say we want to build close, trusting “relationships” with our customers. But how many of our valued personal relationships are characterized by an absence of emotion? Focusing on making stories more personally resonant, situationally relevant, and emotionally intelligent is the best way to build those truly meaningful partnerships we all want to have with our customers.

Join us Aug. 10-12 and dive deeper into how to deliver a comprehensive and valuable customer experience. That’s one of the many topics at the now-virtual ContentTECH Summit. Sign up today.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute