A Human-Centered Approach to B2B

“Our revolutionary product will allow your company to cut costs by increasing efficiency and boosting ROI to entirely new levels!” – Sound familiar?

If you’re purchasing in the B2B sector, you probably hear this all the time. Companies are offering you an abundance of abstract benefits that sound great, but don’t actually speak to you. The worst part is that company X offers the same low prices and “innovative technology” company Y does, and you’re left trying to find a company that will actually solve your problems as a buyer.

The problem is that the core of B2B marketing consistently focuses on pushing product benefits instead of aligning with customers’ goals. This approach to marketing makes sense if you’re envisioning yourself selling a product to an entire company all at once. But the fact is, as a B2B marketer, you’re still selling to a person, and that person has needs and goals they’re trying to accomplish. Needs and goals that typical product benefits simply don’t address.

The solution? B2B marketing has to become human-centered. In an industry where every company is building the fastest product that’s going to save customers the most money, the only way to differentiate is to break away from the benefits-only mold and focus on telling your unique story in a way that speaks directly to the customer in a meaningful way.

Become Human-Centered


It’s easy to focus solely on the business goals of your company, but in order to connect with your audience and adopt a human-centered approach you have to focus on the goals of the customer.

How Do They Want To Feel?

A human-centered approach to marketing starts with understanding the experience goals of your audience. What are they trying to feel while they go through the process of buying a product with you?

This becomes incredibly important in B2B marketing, because when dealing with complicated technology there’s always going to be industry jargon that is perfectly understood internally but is completely foreign to everyone else. While your vast knowledge of the inner-workings of your product may seem impressive to you, using that level of complicated language can cause customers to feel embarrassed when they don't immediately understand. A self-conscious customer isn’t going to feel like they can trust you, they may even resent you, and they certainly won’t want to purchase anything from you.

It’s equally important to understand how your customers feel throughout the buyer journey. Most people aren't going to convert on their first interaction with your brand, especially in B2B. It’s vital that you’re taking the time to understand how your audience wants to feel during each phase of the purchasing process so that you can you deploy a marketing strategy that will support your customers’ goals every step of the way.

What Are Their End Goals?

As people, we set end goals every day. We turn on the radio with the end goal of hearing music, go to work with the end goal of getting a paycheck, and go out with friends with the end goal of having fun. In everything we do, we hope to accomplish something. Whether they’re subconscious or proactive, our motivations are the key to why we do… everything.

Your end goal as the seller of a B2B product is simply to make a profit. You want to sell products to people who just happen to be spending someone else’s money. The problem is it is someone else’s money. And their decision could impact the entire company. Therefore, the customer’s end goal isn’t to just buy your product, and it’s up to you to understand what’s motivating them in order to market to them.

So what are the end goals of your customers? In B2B specifically, Seth Godin has done a great job creating a B2B hierarchy of needs that explains B2B purchasers first want to avoid risk and hassle, and last, want to make a profit. 

[caption id="attachment_17163" align="alignnone" width="620"] Concept by Seth Godin[/caption]

This makes sense, considering B2B customers are spending someone else’s money. Making a profit would be nice, but as a B2B purchaser I’m much more concerned with making a good decision that will potentially get me a raise. Understanding the end goals of your audience must be an essential component of your B2B marketing strategy.

What Are Their Life Goals?

If your end goal in selling a product is to make money, then your life goal could be to be rich. If you go to the store, your end goal could be to buy new makeup, but your life goal would be to become more attractive. Life goals aren't going to be the key motivator of a purchase, but they’re equally important to keep in mind, as they are the key to emotionally connecting with your audience. 

Outside of a marketing campaign, having a brand that aligns with the life goals of your audience creates a deeper bond that’s especially important in B2B sales. As a consumer, if I buy a shirt that rips, I’m out the cost of the shirt. As a B2B purchaser, a bad decision could lead to the loss of my job, my income, and the life goals I hoped to accomplish with that income. If you’re able to align with my life goals in a way that makes me trust you, it could be the determinant that causes you to win over the competition.

How Do They See The World?

Beyond experience goals, end goals, and life goals, being human-centered is also about understanding how your audience interprets the world. How do they establish right from wrong? How do the experiences of their lives impact the way they make decisions?

We see brands’ marketing campaigns backfire all the time when they fail to align with the worldviews of their audience. For starters, there was the time Entenmann’s tried to leverage the #notguilty hashtag while it was trending during the Casey Anthony trial. Then there was Motrin, who said baby wearing was a fashion trends for moms. And, of course, there was the time American Apparel offered a sale for anyone who was “bored” during Hurricane Sandy.

Like life goals, aligning with your audience’s worldviews isn’t going to be a direct influence on a purchase, but failure to understand and respect these worldviews can lead to incredibly costly marketing failures. 

Tell Your Story


Once you’ve answered those questions and sincerely understand your audience, all that’s left is to tell your story. Creating your story shouldn’t be easy, but if connecting with the core values of your audience is at its core, quality marketing campaigns will follow.

Solve Problems

You’ve taken the time to understand the problems your audience faces, so center your marketing campaigns around how you can solve those problems. Most importantly, remember that the problems your audience faces are going to evolve throughout the buyer journey. The problems a user has when they first discover your company are going to be completely different than right before they sign a contract, and if you don’t have a marketing strategy in place that solves every problem, you’re going to miss out on connecting with customers. 

Have A Personality

B2B doesn’t have to be boring. Aside from competing with companies in your industry, you’re also going to be competing with the entire world for your customer’s attention. Find an interesting way to tell your story that’s going to capture the attention of your audience.

Volvo does a great job of this, making semi-trucks exciting while also remaining authentic; proving they’re not just using cheap tricks to get your attention. Corning makes something as simple as glass inspiring by showing how it can integrate into our daily lives. Kinaxis even manages to make supply chain management interesting by comparing it to dating.

Don’t mistake being interesting with being controversial. As long as you’re keeping the worldviews and life goals of your audience in mind, you’ll be able to generate a creative campaign that doesn’t simply rely on the shock factor for share-ability. 

Be Authentic

Throughout every piece of content that you develop for each channel, you have to remember to be authentic. Don’t rely on simple strategies like newsjacking, hashtag surfing, or shock humor. Providing value to your audience in a way that’s bigger than just selling a product is the key to establishing the trust that’s necessary in a big B2B purchase decision.

It's not enough anymore to simply tell the story of how your product works better than the other guys’. Taking a human-centered approach to marketing and understanding the motivations of your audience is essential to making connections that lead to positive results, for both you and your customers.

Written by Sarah Lively on November 13, 2014


Add A Comment
Bruce says:

Interesting read. Would you consider the use of the cute dog picture akin to a softer "shock" humor (you mention this in the last paragraph)? It certainly helped me grasp the idea of differentiating (mentioned in par. 4) much better--and also made me smile before I even read the first word.

Written by
Sarah Lively