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What’s Wrong with Business-to-Business Ads? Or Why Most BtoB Ads Don’t Work
Written Aug 24, 2008, read 869 times since then.


Recently trapped in a client’s waiting room, I devoted some time to looking at the trade magazines staring at me from the coffee table. Thumbing through competitors’ ads, one question rattled my mind: “Why are Business-to Business ads so bad?”  And by “bad,” I mean completely ineffective.

In advertising, we break ads into two groups: consumer and business-to-business. I suspect that is where the problem starts.  Let me explain.

Consumer: Consumers are people and we all know people. They think and feel and have distractions and passions. People are three-dimensional. They laugh at jokes, they cry at sad stories, they want to be cool, they relate to things on a personal level. All of these characteristics are taken into account when we make ads for consumers. After examining the demographics and psychographics of our target market, we ask, “How can we get their attention and get them to most closely relate to the product?” We reach out to them on an emotional level as well as a rational one. Why? Because people buy with their hearts as well as their heads.

BtoB: The “business” most companies advertise to is a vague, monolithic thing. Business has no face, because it is an ongoing process involving many different levels of activity, hopefully all focused on creating a product or service that generates a profit. There is no target in advertising to a business, because there are so many targets. This lack of focus is evident in most B2B ads.

Since business has no personality, most B2B ads lack any sense of real humanity. Immediately, advertisers think they need charts and graphs and data - lots of data – proof that they do what they say they do. Looking at most B2B ads, it seems business doesn’t have a sense of humor, because most of the B2B ads are completely without wit (puns your Dad would make, don’t count as wit, and generally make terrible headlines). Business must also have lots of free time, because many of these ads are so information dense that getting through the entire ad in one sitting is impossible.

Advertising to businesses doesn’t work. I often find that the companies running these ads are skeptical about advertising and its effectiveness. No wonder - they have spent a lot of money on media buys, ad development and production, and have seen very little ROI. The low ROI is because the advertising hasn’t targeted the people in the business who would care about the product.

In fact, one can argue there is no such thing as Business-to-Business advertising. All great advertising applies consumer advertising principles. Business should be targeting the person who could benefit from the product being advertised. That person is a three-dimensional being with thoughts and emotions, tons of distractions and very little time to devote to a company’s problem of selling its product. Businesses don’t make decisions, people in businesses make decisions. Companies should make ads that appeal to those people - not the business. 

To achieve this, companies should apply the same approach to Business-to-Business ads as they would to consumer ads:

1. Get the readers attention. But cheap tricks like girls in bikinis, screaming headlines or bright fields of yellow will convey a message that the company is desperate - and desperation can equate to “cheap and untrustworthy” in the consumer mind. Be smart, honest and creative.

2. Speak to the reader. Consumers aren’t stupid, they know “ad speak,” so companies should focus on the consumer’s needs and struggles. Often companies think an ad is about the company. It shouldn’t be. It should be about the consumer’s problem and how the company’s product provides the solution. All of that should be conveyed in no more than a 15 second read.

3. Say one thing, really well. A page full of product facts is boring, and won’t stick in most consumer’s minds. An ad isn’t an article. Advertisers are stealing the consumer’s attention. Be brief and be engaging. If the consumer is interested in finding out more, they can always look up the details on the company’s web site. People who have a positive feeling about a company or product are more inclined to remember and buy that product.  Creating an emotional response helps anchor  a company in the mind of a consumer.

Above all, companies need to remember that even if their target is businesspeople, the most important part of that demographic is the people part. 

Learn more about the author, Karl Backus.

Comment on this article

  • I set up Small Biz Credit Lines 
Temecula, California 
Desi Arnaz
    Posted by Desi Arnaz, Temecula, California | Oct 31, 2008

    I market Corporate Credit Lines to small business owners & I really appreciate the insight you have shared in this article.

  • Branded Merchandise  
Snohomish, Washington 
Cassie Roundy-Sackett
    Posted by Cassie Roundy-Sackett, Snohomish, Washington | Nov 25, 2009

    I agree with everything you said! The only way to effectively use these "tricks" is to be obvious that you are mocking them.

    Thanks so much for this article!