The Evolution of B2B Marketing
By Robert W. Bly

One of the worst things about growing older is that you risk becoming obsolete. I’m in that quandary right now.

You would think the older you get, the more experience you have and therefore the more you know. It’s true you do know more about and get better at the things you already do – in my case, copywriting. But at the same time, there is an increasing number of things you don’t do – and therefore don’t know much about – in my case, mobile marketing and social networking.

I can see this, and perhaps you can too, when you trace the evolution of B2B selling and marketing over, say, the past 5 decades….

Stage one: features selling. In the early days of advertising, ads concentrated on the features, the physical facts, about a product. The belief was that the buyer already knows the benefit. To take a contemporary example, if your printer has a small footprint, then obviously it takes less space in your office.

Feature selling has gotten a bad rap, but sometimes it can work, mostly when the competition is limited and your product has a narrow market. For instance, an ad for Borsig has the headline, “Transfer Line Exchangers for Ethylene Cracking Furnaces.” If you have an ethylene cracking furnace and need an exchanger for the transfer line, I don’t think you need a headline more creative than that.

Feature selling is used primarily for selling products rather than services. To do it effectively, you should visually inspect the product. If you see a feature that the engineers haven’t told you about, ask what it’s there for. Also request a demonstration of the product.

Feature selling works best when your prospects are experts or professionals in the application for which the product is designed. A builder, for instance, doesn’t need to be told that the benefit of insulation is keeping the house warmer and lowering the electric bill; he just wants to know the R value and other features; for instance, does the design make it easier to install?

Stage two: Features and benefits selling. In the case of Borsig, this would mean adding a benefits phrase to the headline. (Keep in mind that I know nothing about the product): “Transfer Line Exchangers for Ethylene Cracking Furnaces Cut Operating Costs 25%.”

In features and benefits selling, which was the standard approach for decades, sales and marketing staff compiled a list of product features and then uncovered the benefits offered by each. These features and benefits were used in print ads as well as sales presentations.

They could be presented in a table or integrated into the copy with a features/benefit statement. Such a statement gave the benefit and attributed its existence to a feature. For instance, “Self-lubricating gears virtually eliminate maintenance.”

Features and benefits selling is still practiced today and many marketing and sales professionals have not gone beyond it. The risk: by reciting a long list of features and benefits without knowing what’s important to the prospect, you risk boring your potential buyer and turning him off.

Stage three: Solution selling. This was all the rage starting, as I recall, in the 1980s. Suddenly we didn’t say we were selling products; we told prospects we were offering them solutions.

Solution selling meant more than just substituting the word “solution” for “product.” The marketer’s job focused more intently on understanding exactly what problems were most important for the customer to solve. Then the marketing and sales efforts would focus on positioning the product as the solution to those problems.

Another trend that took place around this time was “systems selling,” which was a subset of “solutions selling.” Suddenly no one sold a product or a service anymore; everyone was selling “systems.” It worked because system was a value-added word; you could charge more for a system than a product. An example from consumer marketing: the Hair Club for Men didn’t sell weaves or toupees; they sold “hair replacement systems.”

Stage four: Consultative selling. In this evolution of solution selling, salespeople positioned themselves (and marketing people positioned the company) as not salespeople but consultants. The idea was that the salesperson would work with you to solve your problem, except unlike a conventional consultant, there would be no charge for this advice. The salesperson gave the consulting away in the hopes of selling the solution his consultation recommended.

An example of consultative selling was Ascom/Timeplex’s “network topology map.” The salesperson would visit with a laptop and piece of software that configured networks for optimal routing. She would input the client’s network configuration, and with a few keystrokes the software would reconfigure the network with fewer costly T1 lines and less equipment, saving the customer money. Of course, to implement the reconfigured network, the customer needed Timeplex hubs and multiplexers.

Stage five: Content selling. “Content selling” means persuading your customer to buy from you not by making sales pitches but by providing useful information for problem solving and decision making. The shift from traditional marketing to content marketing is epitomized by the decline of sales brochures, clearly a selling tool, and the rise of white papers – sales brochures rewritten and redesigned to look like and contain useful information.

Content marketing assumes prospects have become more sophisticated today and reject outdated approaches of selling with traditional sales talk and promotional copy. The prospect is seen as an information seeker (specifically seeking information with which to solve his problem) and the marketer’s role is to win his confidence and business by providing that information. Of course, the content provided by Company X makes clear that the best way to implement the ideas and solutions is with Company X’s equipment.

Stage six: Social networking. Marketing is seen not as selling; the marketer and the prospect are “having a conversation” with each other. The platforms for these conversations include LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that social networking has proven itself anecdotally but not universally. Some companies have examples of campaigns generating solid, measureable results. Others say it is a lot of hot air and find that it cannot be monetized.

About the author:
Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of more than 75 books including The White Paper Marketing Handbook (Racom). You can find him on the Web at, or e-mail him at, or phone 201-505-9451.