Psychology of Communications Campaigns: B2B to B2C

Published: April 29, 2014

“...our improved understanding of how people think and act is dissolving the customary distinction between how to engage people in business and non-business environments.”

Business to business communications is changing. From Adobe’s recent ‘Click Baby Click‘ to Kern’s ‘Gnome Experiment’, B2B is beginning to look and feel like more like consumer or B2C campaigns. Why is this happening? Why does it matter? And how can we develop more effective B2B communications?

In the same way that mobile technology has eroded the barrier between the office and home, so too our improved understanding of how people think and act is dissolving the customary distinction between how to engage people in business and non-business environments.

New research shows that people use broadly the same form of thinking at work while making a typical B2B choice, such as selecting a new supplier, as they do at home while making a typical B2C decision such as picking a summer holiday or buying a car. In neither situation is the business person or consumer making decisions according to the standard economic model of decision making. Instead of weighing up all the options and eventually choosing what’s best, people use much simpler ways of thinking.

Leading academics from Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman to Downing Street adviser Richard Thaler, remind us in recent business bestsellers that people have limited thinking capacity so use short-cuts called heuristics. These heuristics allow people to develop a simpler view of a problem and how to solve it.

Importantly, it is crucial for those wishing to market services and products to understand the types of thinking their customers are using if they are to influence their decisions. Just presenting a large amount of technical information to customers on the assumption that they will process it all in a rational way is at best simplistic, at worst simply wrong.

The importance of building communications strategies around our understanding of heuristics has proven very effective in the public policy domain. The UK Government’s ‘Nudge Unit’ has shown that communication strategies based on an understanding of the thinking heuristics people use have been very effective in influencing people to sign up to pensions, recycle and to leave their cars at home and take public transport.

So what are these heuristics and how can our understanding of them lead to better B2B communications?

One example is the framing heuristic that leads people to think about the outcomes of their decisions in terms of gains or losses. When communicating with customers we can either emphasise the potential gains from using our products or services or the potential losses from not doing so. This makes a difference. Research consistently shows that people are more likely to commit to a particular action when we talk in terms of losses, yet the default for most communications strategies is to frame in terms of gains.

A second heuristic concerns the tendency for people to make sense of information they receive by constructing stories around the information. One research study presented a short video clip of circles, squares and triangles moving around an area. When asked to explain what they saw people tended to construct a story about a square bullying a circle while a frightened triangle looked on!

Effective communications depends upon understanding the stories that emerge from the information that we provide and trying to ensure that these stories present our goods and services in a positive manner. B2C communicators have arguably been much more effective at storytelling – B2B communicators need to improve their narrative skills to capture people’s imagination.

A third example, the affect heuristic, indicates that people often rely on their initial emotional response when making a decision. If an option generates a positive emotional response this is interpreted as evidence that it is a good option to choose. The reverse is true when the initial emotional response is negative. Interestingly, research shows that when asked why they made a particular decision people often provide a justification based on the standard economic model e.g. careful evaluation of all the available options, even when the decision was actually based on the initial emotional response. We need to understand the emotional impact of our communications and make sure that they’re consistent with our communication aims.

Leading brands and Governments are successfully applying the latest research to develop campaigns that are more attuned to the way people think and act. Work in the fields of psychology and behavioural economics highlights the range of heuristics, or thinking short cuts, that we all use, whether we’re in the office, at home or enjoying some leisure time at the gym. So too emerging research, looking at the impact of humour in communications and the relative influence of different channels such as video, is transforming communications.

The B2B technical white paper may not be dead, but new insights suggest that its days may well be well and truly numbered.

Simon Maule

2 Responses to “Psychology of Communications Campaigns: B2B to B2C”

  1. Tariq Khwaja says:

    A really interesting article, Simon.

    I agree the B2B/B2C distinction isn’t nearly as clear-cut or important as is often assumed. As you say, many decision criteria are much the same – and we’re all just people at the end of the day.

    I’ve written about a similar topic – particularly the decision making short cuts that apply to both consumer and business purchases:

    And a recent study of 500 European B2B buyers found that non-specific emotional factors play a strong role in even high-cost business purchases:—what-makes-buyers-tick

    • Ahmad says:

      Professor Payne’s interesting talk aurond information overload and decision making doesn’t make decision makers look very efficient. This observation gets plenty of backing. A 2005 study published in Harvard Business Review found that 55% of leaders are associated with below-average corporate performance. Just 15% of the individuals studied over 25 years a period of growing business education showed a consistent ability to manage innovation and organizational change. An even more instructive 2004 study from the consulting, technology and outsourcing services company Capgemini found that senior managers in large British companies admitted that one in four of their decisions was wrong, with the rate in the financial services sector being nearly one in three. With an average 20 ‘business critical’ decisions taken by each manager every year, this equates to a wrong determination every eight weeks by each of every one of an average 33 decision-makers in every organization. Whilst these ‘snapshots’ should not detract from the fact that the majority of decisions that managers make are right, the fact remains that many decision makers are not doing productivity and competitiveness any favours. Incongruously, the same general performance among their vocational subordinates would likely not be tolerated. Information overload notwithstanding, my own work in this area suggests that there is a huge gap in the way managers make and are taught to make their decisions. No thanks to the very flexible labor market, their determinations are typically grounded in the experiences of prior employers, which are not always relevant, remembered accurately, truthful, or even transferrable. On top of this, the data, information and knowledge usually provided by their new employers excludes the one crucial component on which most good decision making depends – tacit or cognitive knowledge, which Professor Payne refers to in terms of fluency.Tacit knowledge is the event-specific, organization-specific, person-specific and time-specific ‘how’ of know-how that defines a new employer’s very existence. Much of it is implicit, ambiguous and esoteric, and acquired largely by experience that is functional – and allowed to walk out of the front door never to be utilised by its patron. It is through tacit knowledge that most erudition takes place and where better decision making can emerge. In the pursuit of better decision making, it is both this institution-specific content and an area of instruction called experiential learning that organizations and business schools neglect.

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