Plan to be random in 2021
There is a strange inconsistency in the business world. Most successful people, if you ask them honestly to relate the reason behind their business success, would be honest enough to attribute a large part of it to one or two lucky breaks. A chance meeting; an accidental discovery; a coincidental meeting at an airport or bar. And they seek to maximise their good fortune by attending expensive and elaborate networking events with the hope that the same random process can work in their favour again.
Yet when their attention shifts from marketing themselves to marketing the businesses they work for, an entirely different mindset takes over. Suddenly everything is about advance planning, highly focused strategic activity and microtargeting of clearly defined segments. Suddenly everything becomes not a game of chance but a game of efficiency.
I think this is a mistake. The value of fame, and the value of less targeted self-promotion, is harder to measure, slower to emerge, and very difficult to predict in advance. But that does not make it any less valuable. Yes, of course you should bet on what you already know and what you can easily measure: but it also pays to place a sizeable side-bet on what you can never know.
One of the strange pieces of advice I gave my colleagues at the beginning of 2020 was to become more random. Willingly speak on a podcast even if you’re not quite sure what it’s about. Fix a short zoom call with someone you’ve never spoken to before. Attend a conference which is only peripherally connected with marketing. Be prepared to hold conversations without an agenda , and with no clear idea of where they might lead.
Why now? Because in a surprisingly significant and lasting way, the widespread adoption of video conferencing has completely changed the way in which businesses interact with each other. In the past, there was a huge gap between cheap, cold, electronic modes of communication on the one hand and the full expense of a face to face meeting on the other. The latter often entailed a whole day of travel or even an overnight hotel stay. There was nothing in between. This meant you had to target your time very precisely because the cost and the opportunity cost of meeting anybody was disproportionately high. You could not fly out to Frankfurt on the off chance there might be some valuable business there. It simply didn’t pay in terms of money or indeed of time.
This strange bipolar nature of business communication was I think an unspotted problem. It was rather like having a town where there were only two modes of transport: walking on foot or travelling in a chauffeur driven limousine. The video call fills a much needed gap. You can afford to engage in a speculative half hour, without committing to significant additional costs. So suddenly it pays to become more random.
And I think the same applies to B2B communications. I know it seems counter intuitive to say that a company’s communications can be too well targeted, but with a little thought you can see this is indeed true. If the circle of opportunity widens, it pays to widen the scope of people you talk to.
I’m not sure many people will actually do this since media agencies and tech companies have connived together to turn advertising into a targeting efficiency optimisation game at the expense of almost everything else . But, as I keep tiresomely having to repeat, highly targeted advertising merely finds customers: less well targeted creative advertising actually creates customers. The argument for doing less well targeted, more imaginative B2B communication is even stronger in game theory terms: your competitors are probably so fixated on efficiency that they will find it impossible to copy you no matter how successful you become!
So that’s my recommendation for B2B marketing in 2021. Be less efficient in the short term – and you’ll be more effective in the long run.
By Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman