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How to structure a B2B argument

B2B marketing: the importance of structuring an argument

If you’re marketing fabric softener, beer or perfume, you’re in the business of manipulation.  You win if you make someone feel a certain way.

If you’re marketing security software or network infrastructure equipment, you’re in the business of persuasion.  You win if you manage to convince someone to try a better way.

Convincing is about building an air-tight case for doing something humans hate doing: changing their behaviour.  And while emotion (especially trust) plays a hugely important part in any sale, B2B marketing always comes down to building an argument; telling a story that leads to an inescapable conclusion: ‘You need to buy this, now.’

Marketing agencies love to stress the power of brand – the magic dust of marketing. They’re not wrong: brand is a powerful asset that can’t be ignored.  But unlike perfume and beer marketing, B2B also has a left brain side., where logic and analysis matter.

This is where argument comes in. Where the hard work of building a rock-solid case begins.

If your argument isn’t solid, the creativity of Björk and the budget of Nike will not move your business.  If you have a great argument, you can whisper it in a crowded room.  You have what the Earth has over the Moon.  You have an irresistible gravitational pull.

This post is about one aspect of building great B2B arguments: structure.  The roles of style and emotion are for another time.

A construction job

When talking about structuring an argument, the language of architecture is entirely appropriate.  Strong arguments are designed and built.  They have solid foundations and load-bearing walls.

If style is in the realm of creativity, structure is more about engineering.  You assemble pieces of logic; you test each piece for integrity; you bolt them together and test the joins; then evaluate the whole structure for soundness.  Only then, when the work is 90% done, do you call in the stylists to dress things up.

Whether presented in a brochure, on a website, in a short video or a powerpoint deck, the best arguments are always well-structured.  Just as you can’t make a good movie from a bad script, you can’t build a compelling argument on a bad structure.

Any decent copywriter can craft a pretty sentence. The ones who can build a strong case, then make you want to read it are worth their weight in gold.

The three building blocks.

In Hollywood, stories are built to a tight formula using movable parts called beats, scenes, sequences and acts.

In the persuasion trades (politics, law, marketing…) arguments are built on three main parts: Premises, Inferences and Conclusions.

If you’re struggling with a piece of communication, it pays to expose these parts and repair the weak links.  If you can’t find the parts at all, there’s your problem.

The Premise

The premise is the key to the argument.  Get it right and the inferences and conclusion are inescapable.  Get it wrong and you’ve allowed your audience a whole range of alternate pathways and ultimate destinations.

A good premise must do three things:

  • Establish empathy – show that the prospect’s problems are your problems.
  • Demonstrate authority – show that you’re in their market and know what you’re talking about.
  • Frame the problem or opportunity – clarify the precise boundaries of the headache you’re curing or the opportunity you’re seizing.

To do this, you need to have a world view.  You have to see where the market is going, understand the context of the problem and earn a degree of credibility in talking about it (by doing so intelligently).

The goal of the premise is to tip the playing field in your favour — but to do it subtly enough that it feels objective.

The first job is to start getting the audience nodding in agreement, so you can keep them nodding as you proceed through the inferences and arrive at the conclusion.

You can’t do this if your premise is too controversial; if it’s subject to debate. But you can’t maintain interest if it’s entirely obvious and middle-of-the-road.  (Another approach starts with a bold, controversial statement, depending on the controversy to sustain interest while you build the case.)

  • For Nativ, we described the ‘video anarchy’ every brand and marketer faces in trying to harness the many online video opportunities – then identified the Five Big Challenges they’d face in trying to overcome the anarchy.
  • For Dr Foster Intelligence we built our argument on the fact that Primary Care Trusts waste money in their public health campaigns by reaching the wrong people and sending the wrong messages.
  • For ip.access, we identified and named ‘The Power Problem’, explaining why 3G signals are weak inside buildings and why this is inherent to the design of the 3G network.

    It’s a tricky balance.  You need a clear fact, with a spin.  A recognised issue with a twinkle of originality.

    The Inferences

    Once you’ve established your premise, you use inferences to move the audience along towards the conclusion.

    This shouldn’t be hard: a good premise draws your inferences for you: because X is true, Y is true; because Y is true, Z must be true.

    • For Nativ, we showed how all five obstacles to successful online video marketing could be solved by the right distribution platform.
    • For Dr. Foster, we showed how better segmentation and insight would inevitably drive down waste and improve campaign results.
    • For ip.access, we showed that putting base stations inside buildings was the only sustainable way to solve the 3G power problem.

    Reviewing the obstacles is a task for the Inference stage of your argument.  Show why things are so hard and why previous attempts to overcome the obstacles are doomed to fail.

    This is where you discount the most important alternatives to your solution — competitors, indirect substitutes or simply inertia.  You need to show why these alternatives fall short or how they create more problems than they solve.

    • For Nativ, we needed to show that the ‘silo’ approach – building a new delivery platform for each and every online video channel – was the road to ruin.

    Three important things about Inferences:

    1. Stay on course. Only use the ideas you need to get you to the conclusion.
    2. Marshall the facts. Use independent statistics, refer to analysts and authorities, quote customers.
    3. Don’t fudge the logic. If Y doesn’t really follow from X, don’t pretend it does.

    The Conclusion

    If you’ve done your job so far, you won’t really need to construct a conclusion.  It will construct itself.

    The principle of inescapability has guided the argument so far.  Now all you have to do is close the deal, review how you got here and back it up with more credibility builders (facts, stats, quotes, awards, reviews…).

    • For Nativ, the benefits in time, cost, quality and process efficiencies make the MioEverywhere™ platform overwhelmingly compelling.
    • For Dr Foster, the closer was an invitation to see how accurate segmentation and insight could transform results and drive down waste.

    These arguments sound facile when compressed and when all support is removed.  But all good arguments follow simple paths like these.

    Argument structure does not have to be brilliant.  It has to be clear, simple and, above all, inescapable.

    Your job as a marketer is to build your arguments, support each step and find compelling ways to deliver them to the people you need to convince.  It’s harder work than sprinkling ‘brand dust’, but it pays off.

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    Photo: Creative Commons: Syntopia

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