As sophisticated as B2B marketing has become in some quarters, many B2B companies still struggle with old school, product-centric, sales-dominated marketing efforts. For all the talk of being “customer-first,” or “customer-centric,” B2B still seems to favor its traditionally self-referential ways. In fact, even content marketing with an orientation towards engaging educational information versus an in-your-face product hype — is surprisingly lagging behind in B2B. The Content Marketing Institute reports that only 30% of B2B marketers feel they have an effective content program.

This situation was brought strikingly to mind in my recent conversation with Kevin Sellers, chief marketing officer of Avnet, a leading global distributor of electronic components and technological solutions. He nailed the real downside of this approach in one word: annoyance.

So for all of you who don’t want to annoy your customers and prospects right into your competitor’s hands, please join us for a brief overview of this very valuable conversation.

Brandingmag: You have described the B2B category’s overall approach to marketing as one of “annoyance.” Can you elaborate on that, particularly in terms of why that happens and how it manifests itself?

Kevin Sellers: Yes. There’s a whole lot at play here, with the advent of MarTech, and the new tools that are available to marketers. But we rely too heavily on very transactional campaigns. I am not exaggerating when I say I get at least 10 solicitations via email every single day, and almost all of them are incredibly annoying. So many are focused on “them,” what their company does, the great services that they have, which means they’re not talking about me, and what they can do for me. They’re talking about themselves. That’s the genesis of my saying that B2B is so annoying.

Then, on top of that, there’s the repetition with which they follow up, and their habit of becoming impatient that you haven’t dropped everything to get back to them! To me, marketing in this generation is often missing the mark because it’s aggressive, it’s me-focused, and it’s not very humanized.

I think that, as much as technology has come in and impacted the way we do branding and marketing, at the end of the day you have to have a compelling story to tell, and you have to do it in a way that engages the audience. If you don’t have those two things, all the technology in the world isn’t going to make you a better marketer. It isn’t going to make your campaigns more successful.

“You have to have a compelling story to tell, and you have to do it in a way that engages the audience.”

One of the things we’re doing with our content is putting the customer at the center of it all, and letting them see themselves in these stories. This way, they have greater interest and desire to engage. And our content is not persuasive because we claim we’re something — instead, it works because we reveal our benefits through the eyes of the customers, and how they see value in what we do. I think that’s really, really important for a B2B marketer — or for any marketer.

Bm: You’re not alone in your conviction — we’ve covered that philosophy in this column before, under the “Be. Do. Say.” moniker. You also mentioned the words, “engagement” and “engaging” several times. How do you define engagement for B2B brands and marketers?

KS: The simplistic answer is that you have content that moves people to action. That action will be getting to your site, or downloading a white paper, or signing up for email distribution. That’s the simple definition: engagement equals content that moves people to action.

When you measure content, there are a thousand different metrics that people can consider. To me, however, there are only two things that matter. One, is it engaging? That is, can you measure the actions your content is driving people to take?

The second most important consideration is whether or not the content clearly links the user back to the brand. There are examples of really great branded content, but it’s not terribly engaging. People aren’t really paying a lot of attention to it. Or, vice versa, a really cool piece of content that people love, but they can’t recall who it was from. I consider either of those situations a crime. You simply have to measure up on those two metrics.

Bm: You’ve spoken about the ability to measure as one benefit. What other benefits do you see in this content-centric, customer engagement approach, versus the more traditional, product-centered, transactional approach?

KS: I think this is an important point, so let me give you a little context before I answer the question.

With any marketing engagement, or any sort of strategy that a marketer would create, it’s really dependent on the business strategy of the company and what’s happening in its evolution. Marketing has to address the issues and challenges and opportunities the company overall faces.

For us, it’s very simple. We’re going through a massive transformation in the industry, not just in the industry that we are immediately in, but the broader technology industry. What we’re finding is that we have wonderful brand value and reputation among the customers we’re directly engaged with already. The problem is, where the world is moving, that’s not going to be good enough for the next phase of our existence.

We’ll have to appeal to a much broader customer set in the technology space. What do I mean by that? Well, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, a company like Avnet was just fine with its sort of large-to-medium size customers, because we basically served a good chunk of the world’s technology needs. The difference going forward starts with this phenomenon called IoT – the “Internet of Things.” IoT is really a function of the fact that technology has become very democratized; access to technology has never been more affordable or easy.

The tools necessary for someone to create a product are now readily available online. What used to be breakthroughs in products that came out of companies with large R&D budgets are now coming out of people’s garages, because the economics and the accessibility of technology allow for a great idea to become productized in ways that were never possible before.

What we’re finding is — whether it’s the next Fitbit, or the next pollution-detecting sensors or whatever it might be — that the breakthrough technologies which will grow to fuel substantial companies are no longer coming through the normal germination process.

Given that, when we looked at our brand outside of our very core traditional customer set, we found that our brand awareness was extremely low. That’s dangerous, because if you don’t have enough people who are aware of you or have a positive perception of you, you’re not even in the consideration set.

B2B buyers tend to be very risk-averse – that is, they don’t want to take undue risk. Having a strong brand reduces risk. I mean, everybody that I’ve ever met who’s been in the technology world remembers a decades-old campaign from IBM, which was simply “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.” It’s a brilliant B2B campaign that lives on to this day, even though they’re no longer running it. People still believe that engaging with IBM is a low-risk proposition, which is a beautiful thing from a marketer’s perspective. It’s served IBM extremely well.

Bm: It sounds like this democratization of technology is presenting a new kind of unknown, unexpected competition, and that your future prospects are equally unknown and unexpected.

KS: Correct — and it’s both a threat and a major opportunity. As we dug into it, we found that we’re not really understood or well known among this emerging set of customers. That led to the strategy of helping them understand who we are, what our value is, and how we can help them to get their ideas to product, and the products to market.

Bm: You mentioned content as being one principal format of positive customer engagement. Can you share some specific examples of what’s been working well for you in that regard?

KS: A lot of what we’re doing is pretty new. The traditional marketing model we had was very old school, product-related, “buy now” offers. There’s always a place for that and there will always be a place for that in your marketing funnel. What we never had was content that really engaged the buyer at an emotional level, that helped them understand what and who Avnet is — how we help customers go from idea to product, and product to market. Now we’re doing that through storytelling.

“Marketing in this generation is often missing the mark because it’s aggressive, it’s me-focused, and it’s not very humanized.”

Whether it’s really engaging videos, or case studies, or the banner advertising and digital advertising that we’re doing, we’re demonstrating that there is real value in partnering with a company like Avnet that helps accelerate their process. It’s a whole range of content from the traditional B2B offerings like white papers and case studies, to a ton of social media, in which B2B was always a straggler. That’s changing because social media has proven to be a dynamic and critical platform to engage B2B buyers, whether it’s LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or even Snapchat.

We’re aggressively taking our campaign across all those channels. What we’re not doing is TV, because the ROI is just not there for us, but we’re executing very targeted digital marketing. We’ve redone our entire owned media properties, own website, and our own social channels, and we’re using a lot of paid digital and paid social, as well, to really get the word out.

We’ve done a really good job of targeting our audience and determining who are we trying to reach, where are they, and how best to reach them. It’s not that a Joe-Smith-on-the-street is going to know who we are, because we don’t really need Joe to know us. We do, however, want the engineers, other makers, and those within the technology sphere to know us, understand us, and start to consider us.

Bm:  One final question — we’ve been talking about customer and prospect engagement, the external game. How important is the internal game, and employee engagement?

KS: The best brands in the world are the brands that are genuinely authentic, right? And that comes from inside.

When Apple said, “Think different,” that was such an authentic statement because that’s actually what they were delivering. They were all about being able to think different. Everything about their culture was about being different, being the James Dean of the tech world. When they went externally with it, it was a truth they were already living. It wasn’t just a marketing gimmick.

Live these things internally and then project them externally. That’s where you’ll find brand magic.