To Drive B2B Demand, Kill the Story

By Rob Skinner, Scratch Marketing + Media

I did not expect January’s Marketing Profs Virtual Conference, Top Marketing Trends of 2017, to underscore my growing personal sentiment that the “brand story” has slipped into a state of overuse, to the point it’s losing effectiveness as a content marketing framework.

But it did, and the results were revelational.

Probably 10 years ago now, when the content-centric approach to marketing began to take hold in earnest, storytelling emerged as king of the marketing hill. “Be a storyteller,” said the marketing gurus. “Create a compelling narrative, and the leads will follow.”

And I bought in. I fashioned myself into a great storyteller, able to captivate and draw people in with a well-reasoned (and customer-oriented) tale that would ostensibly connect with what my clients’ buying centers were feeling. But a persistent gut check always lingered: Do buyers really respond to a story? Do they have the attention span? And, oddly enough according to my granddad a “story” generally meant a tall tale. “Are you telling stories again, Robert?” he’d muse.

By that measure, maybe the marketing story doesn’t — and won’t ever — hold credibility beyond half-truth.

Then, a few weeks ago, I heard a peer say “narrative” was one of the most overused words in our business, having become a fancy way to inflate creative ideas and justify agency recommendations. As in, “We need to seed a narrative that your company is helping the market because it does X.” Really? How about we just say what you’re doing, and why it matters?

In fact, the disconnect between “content” and “story” reminds me of an experience from the mid-2000s. A client was struggling with how to sell its radically different approach to warehouse operations. The company assumed a storyline about massively-efficient parallel processing would gain attention, and deployed its marketing team to gather direct feedback. But they discovered that buying committees were interested almost exclusively in boosting a facility’s product velocity and order capacity. Speed was the thing, not technological innovation, and my client would never have known to focus on that message had it not engaged in conversation. Once it did, sales were off and running.

Needless to say, I was absolutely riveted when Carlos Hidalgo led off his Virtual Conference session, Content to Engage Buyers, with the point that — despite B2B content marketing being at an all-time high — we’re still not very good at it! Only about one-quarter of organizations say their content marketing is effective, and yet three-quarters say they’ll produce more of it this year. (The data is available from the Content Marketing Institute’s 2016 B2B Content Marketing Benchmarking Report.)

To put it bluntly, content marketing resembles the colloquial definition of insanity: We’re going to keep creating narrative content, even though it isn’t effective, and expect outcomes to change.

The root cause? Marketers are locked into the conventional wisdom that content must tell an engaging, entertaining story. The problem with the storytelling approach, said Hidalgo, is that it’s “me telling you what I think you want to hear.” There is no engagement. There is no conversation. If you just say what you’re doing as a company and why it matters, you’re pushing a one-sided conversation. There’s no room for give and take.

And that is the key: dialogue. Inspiring conversation is exactly where we at Scratch Marketing + Media focus our approach to content. We counsel that content should ultimately focus on information gathering. If the goal is to stimulate demand and sales, content must be a path toward learning about the buyer’s challenge. Just telling stories doesn’t do that.

We advise starting with trends or events that would trigger your buying organizations to engage with a vendor or initiate a product review: Has there been new legislation that could drive a purchase? Have there been consolidation events that might do the same?

For example, Tego Inc.’s patented technology for distributed asset intelligence made its mark by digitizing flyable parts in the aviation industry and effectively modernized airline maintenance and safety routines. Now Tego believes it has analogous potential to reduce pains felt by pharmaceutical companies that must comply with the federal Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA), which mandates an end-to-end supply chain system to make drugs visible from the pharmaceutical manufacturer to the pharmacy dispenser. To capitalize on that potential demand, we are helping Tego engage with buyers about their challenge: What approach are they taking, is there an expected ROI beyond just being compliant, and are there safety and operational issues that won’t be solved by DSCSA compliance? There may be compounded business benefits to be gained from the mandate, and these will provide the conversational hook necessary to engage new customers.

Comedians tell stories. Authors tell stories. Marketers? We start conversations. If you are struggling with that narrative, let’s sit down and talk.

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