Why B2B Marketers Don’t Innovate More: There’s a Scientific Explanation

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Last week, at a major trade show, the division President of a scientific instrument company stood in his luxurious 100’X50’ plush-carpeted booth and lamented: “We had a really bad year in 2013. But we have to create a certain image in the industry – our booth has to project success. What we really want to do is more interactive digital marketing. We simply don’t have the budget.” Looking around at the many inactive instruments on mocked-up lab benches, the custom wood trim, the comfortable rented lounge chairs, the numerous show-specific bespoke graphics, and other expensive trappings that were abundant throughout the booth, it was clear why they didn’t have the budget to create solutions to help them sell more. They had spent all of their budget on things that made them feel good about they way they were projecting their image.

Unless the company is bankrupt, when they say “we don’t have the budget” for something, what they are really saying is that they choose to spend their money elsewhere. Of course, a great deal of management is prioritizing decisions, so clearly even some reasonable requests are going to be turned down. But are they making the right choices? Would spending less on the trade show glitz so that they could free up some budget for an engaging customer experience (that could also be re-used by sales teams after the show) really hurt their image? And which choice is likely to have a greater impact on meeting sales objectives?

And here is where the science comes in. When people hold two contrarian beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, the stress of the irreconcilability of this conflict is known to cognitive scientists as cognitive dissonance. The two contrarian beliefs that many B2B marketers hold can be summed up as follows: “I know what we are doing is not achieving the results that we need, but it’s too risky to change what we’re doing.”

A global industrial equipment company recently began an initiative to deliver interactive mobile apps showing the advantages of their products and solutions to their sales teams, channel partners, and customers. The project was delayed by nine months while the marketing team focused on a complete redesign of their portfolio of slide presentations. Think about how often marketers explicitly or implicitly apply this reasoning: “We can’t stop doing this [fill in the blank here: making more data sheets, rejiggering slide decks or making more10-minute videos, building large trade show booths, etc.] because not doing those things might have a negative effect. These marketers are fully aware that the sales teams use less than 50% of the materials that they create. And yet they make conscious decisions to keep creating these materials.

In a purely objective sense, it is logically inconsistent to spend time, money, effort, and focus on activities that don’t achieve the required level of results, while eschewing innovative ideas and strategies because they are “too risky.” This is an example of another cognitive bias that many B2B marketers have: “loss aversion” – the tendency to do avoid a loss, rather than seeking to acquire gains.

The truth is that it is riskier to keep doing something that is guaranteed to under-achieve than it is to innovate and try something new.

If a marketer honestly wants to achieve better results, then they have to be willing to do new things. You don’t have to be a cognitive scientist to understand this. It’s that simple. Everything else is just rationalization.

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