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Empathy and foreplay in B2B Marketing

I don’t know how else to put this: nobody gives a shit about you. Your software or service or widget may be the center of your world but the people you’re selling to have better things to think about. Once you accept this simple fact, your marketing will get a lot better – because you’ll realise that your first and toughest job is to stop people in their tracks and offer you a small flake of their most precious, scarcest resource: their attention.

This post is about the most important part of every marketing communication: the opening. The come-on. The headline, subhead and first paragraph. If you’re reading this sentence, it’s only because I’ve passed one of the trickiest obstacle courses in marketing. I’ve got you to stop, read one line, read the next and decide to continue.

I accomplished this through a bit of craft and trickery (including a naughty word) but mostly through an incredibly powerful thing called empathy.
Empathy is at the heart of every great communication, from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (among the most moving 700 words ever spoken) to classic ad lines that boil down entire marketing briefs into five words (like “Buy more beef, you bastards.” from the Australian Beef Commission).

Empathy demands that you stop being you and start being your target audience. If you can do that, you’re more than halfway to an effective piece of communication. If you can’t do it, you need to do more homework or find someone who can.

Starting from empathy does all sorts of good things for your marketing. For one, it forces you to create punchy, relevant, intriguing openings. Short, sharp headlines; subheads with a bit of context; introductions that speak plain English and tell the reader this is about them not just about you.

Remember, you’re not you. You’re a very busy person who knows nothing about your product, who has a toothache and whose boss is being a total jerk. Even putting your lousy ad, website, brochure or video in front of him is an affront akin to Oliver Twist asking his captors for ‘more’. How very dare you.

Since you’ve already interrupted your audience, the least you can do is to reward their attention by being clear, open, relevant and, if possible, just a wee bit entertaining. Let’s take these one at a time:

Be clear – For God’s sake spit it out. Save the business-speak for… on second thought, bin the business-speak altogether. The voice you’re looking for is the one that comes out of your mouth, not your pen or keyboard.

Be open – Most marketing acts as if it’s got a dirty little secret; a hidden sales agenda. Well guess what, it’s not a secret, it’s not especially dirty and your agenda is actually standing naked on the desk with a bird of paradise in its mouth. Just do your job and sell me stuff.

Be relevant – This is about me isn’t it? Well prove it. Start being about me right from the beginning. Start with an interesting way of looking at my world and my problems. Then maybe I’ll hang around.

Be entertaining – Like it or not, marketing is show-biz. There needs to be a spring in your step. You need to be enjoying yourself not getting a tooth extracted. If you think what you do is boring, I guarantee you that I will too. This doesn’t mean you have to be funny. Trying to be funny and falling even a tiny bit short is a very sad and embarrassing thing. Just be comfortable on stage, in the spotlight.

I’ll write specifically about headlines in another post, but these four points should help guide your openings (and, frankly, the middles and endings as well).

For an example of what I’m talking about, scroll up. You’ve just read this entire post so one thing you know is that this opening worked.

Send me one of your headlines and opening paragraphs and I’ll see if I can do a make-over to show what I mean (look ma, no brief!).

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