B2B marketing is stale. Design thinking is the fresh perspective that will drive empathy and build trust.

Case in point; I’m going to address this article to you as a fellow human being, not a faceless drone who operates out of some monolithic, equally faceless megacorp! That’s the beauty of design thinking, it’s truly human-centric. We may be selling business-to-business but we absolutely need to start communicating human-to-human.

This is just one of the key benefits in employing a design thinking approach in your marketing strategy; it will get you closer to your customer by giving you tools to really understand them, as people, not data points.

So, let’s dive in.

The top benefits of design thinking to your B2B marketing strategy.

  • Improve your customer experience
  • Reduce the risk going to market
  • Get to market faster
  • Create better solutions by identifying the right problems
  • Fully align your stakeholders and teams
  • Significantly increase your ROI

On a per project basis, design thinking delivers a median ROI of 229%

– “The ROI Of Design Thinking“, Forrester Research, December 12th, 2019

Yeh right? Yes, really.

It’s actually not rocket science. I love this phrase. Because you know what rocket science is not? Complex. It’s complicated but not complex. Marketing in a large organisation however, is complex.

Now, for all the science nerds out there lighting pitch forks, hold tight, I promise you won’t regret it.

"Humans are very good at linear thinking, but we can’t solve complex problems that way."

– “How to tell if a problem is complex or merely complicated“,
Fast Company, July 2019

There is a great deal of difficulty in complicated work but its components and outcomes are generally known. Complex matters however, include many components that are often unknown, varying and mercurial; impossible to get a handle on and even more difficult to predict an outcome. Like for example, trying to create consistent messaging between markets when there is an obvious culture difference between you and your HQ. Or how about aligning with your sales team, stakeholders and leadership team? All of whom are all plugged into a bigger goal but whose activities are entirely different *pulls hair out. What about the pressure to innovate when you’re still trying to satisfy targets and KPIs?

There is one known cog in this complex machine; humans. Whether they’re the people you work with, or the people you are delivering a message to. This is where design thinking will change the game for you and your B-to-B marketing team.

How to tackle complex problems with design thinking

These core principles of design thinking are the most fundamental to the success of your marketing strategy. Each of these principles are used throughout the process itself which we’ll get to a little later on. In the meantime let’s breakout these core pillars:

  1. Empathy – Being human-centred means you can be genuinely customer obsessed

I can practically hear the eye rolls and that’s fair, we’ve all come up through business shoulder pads first, serious and target driven. Empathy is a soft word, right? But the hard results from emotionally understanding our customers say otherwise. More and more buyers are looking for you to engage with them on a human and emotional level:

Four out of five tech buyers (82%) say it's important to have a credible authentic story that shows how you help customers succeed

– “Credible Empathetic Content Wins Over Elusive B2B Buyers“,
Forrester Research, April 30th 2020

In a world where most of your buyers are drowning in a sea of whitepapers and webinars, what they’re really looking for is some connection:

Show me someone like me who’s done this before.
Show me how that person used your product and then tell me how I can do the same.
Show me someone like me who’s had success with this product.

In other words, empathise with me, make this easy for me, don’t show me product features show me someone using the product who struggles like I do.

Connecting empathetically with buyers' expectations and emotions must be a core element of your messaging platform and inform every customer experience.

– “What B2B Buyers Crave“, Forrester Research, May 4th 2020

Design thinking allows us to advocate for the buyer the whole way through the process. Right from Phase 1 we are getting close to them, not just through your normal desk-research but also by going out in the field and talking to them. By observing them in action and digging a little deeper, we can develop an understanding of what drives and frustrates them on a day-to-day basis. More importantly, our empathising doesn’t stop at the research phase. We bring customers into our workshops, you should too. Ideate with us, show us how or why this doesn’t work for you. Not only will this get you genuinely closer to your customer but you will hear directly what the real issues are that they’re facing. More on this in the fourth principle; collaboration.

  1. Problem-first approach – Design the right thing, before designing the thing right

This is hugely important and unfortunately not considered a lot of the time by major organisations. We often just do the thing without asking why. Is that really the pain point? Is that problem the problem, or is it merely a symptom of something else? And back to principle 1 here, have we asked the right people if this is really their issue? Maybe Dave, your major stakeholder, said “hey guys we need a series of video content ASAP!” but where did that insight come from? From Dave’s head at 2am while scrolling on Instagram? And in fairness to Dave, maybe he has great instinct and intuition and so we all dive into creating solutions with him. Therein lies the issue, this approach we are all used to following, is solution-first. We haven’t stopped to check why are we doing this?

We use design thinking to identify and reframe problems. In reframing issues we determine whether or not they’re a problem at all. In reframing issues we ask and try to answer the question of “why”? There are many methods we use to do this during the design thinking process which we’ll cover more of later.

  1. Testing – Iterate and get ready to fail

Still grateful for this advice from a former colleague; Assumptions are the mother of all f*ck ups and boy do you pay for them. Testing assumptions early on stops us from investing time and money in problems that are not the right ones. Moreover, it means the solution we arrive at is the optimum one for our customers’ pain point.

In a recent design sprint we worked on with a client, we invalidated 3 major assumptions we had about our end-user. These three assumptions were based on tone of voice, content type and method of delivery. All extremely important factors that would impact the success of the messaging going to market. Had we not tested these assumptions, we would have produced arguably good creative but would’ve totally missed the mark in terms of what was desired by our customer.

  1. Collaboration – Alignment is critical

So long silos. There is a phenomenal amount of information we are individually retaining about our customers, experiences, ways of work, processes etc. It’s a long list. Getting the right people together in design thinking workshops unearths a shocking amount of insight before we even begin speaking with customers. In addition, it means all departments are aligned from the get-go.

There is one specific method we love to use in pre-ideation called the MoSCoW method. You may have heard of it. It’s an easy 1-hour workshop with a multi-functional team that helps put some guard rails on the project. This therefore aligns all team members around what Must, Should, Could and Won’t (MoSCow) be done.

However, this covers only collaboration within teams and there is a bigger piece to consider here; collaboration with your customer.

Progressive companies such as Amazon, HP, and Microsoft are starting to use digital collaboration platforms to bring buyers into the process of solution innovation, cocreation, and value measurement.

– “What B2B Buyers Crave“, Forrester Research, May 4th 2020

This is where collaboration and empathy meet; bringing your customer into your ideation process. Maybe that seems nuts to some. To me it seems nuts we’ve not been doing this for years. Relying on big data alone does not get us the emotional and human perspective that having someone in the room will bring. As we’ve already discovered, right now B2B buyers crave this level of connection.

There’s also a final piece to this that we’ve found to be incredibly powerful. Yes the ideas created in collaboration with customers are amazing. What’s potentially even more powerful is the piece around reporting this fact to your other buyers. It’s authentic, real and genuine; all elements craved by buyers. By communicating with your customer that you had someone like them in the room with you creating this solution, you immediately establish connection.

We’ve covered a lot around the principle and benefits of design thinking so far. Now I bet you’re thinking yeh great but how do we actually do all of that? Top up that cup of tea and let’s get into the design thinking process.

How to run B2B Marketing with Design Thinking

Depending on your school of thought, university you attended, or company you’ve worked with, there are various stages of design thinking. Usually 3-5. I’d recommend you check out the d.school’s overview of design thinking as they’re prolific in the field.

Sidebar: If you’d like to dork out further on the history of where design thinking came from, then check out this incredible article by Jo Szczepanska “Design thinking origin story plus some of the people who made it all happen

For now I’ll share with you the Atomic process, designed specifically for B2B:

1. Identify

2. Ideate

3. Prototype

4. Create

Sound simple? Good, because it is! The whole process is extremely straight-forward. Here’s how it usually flows:

The Atomic 4 phase process for B2B Marketing

Each stage of the process provides an output used in the next stage e.g. we define the real problem in the Identify phase whose key insights we’ll then use to create solutions in the Ideate phase. That’s not to say that this whole process is linear. In fact quite the opposite!

You’ll see in the above graphic that there are loops, some call feedback loops, others call iterative loops. You might find yourself sailing through the first couple of phases and testing your concepts with your end user in the prototype phase. Here your assumptions may be invalidated or your ideas really not hitting the mark with your customer. It happens, don’t sweat it! Wouldn’t you be delighted to find this out now rather than when your message has already gone to market?! That’s what the loops are for. Go back a phase and ideate again with the new intel you have from your customers. Or, potentially go back further and reassess the research, or simply do more.

This flexibility is what makes design thinking so valuable. Still, in the interest of being honest, you may find your first design thinking projects feel a bit like this:

And that’s ok too. We’ve all mostly been trained in taking a very linear approach.

We plan that way, roadmap that way and ultimately think that way. Trust the process, not only will it not let you down but it won’t let you go to market with anything sub-par, ill-fitting or just plain wrong.

When it comes to running a design thinking project you don’t always have to start with Phase 1, remember; not linear. You may already have a lot of key insights to work with, or ideas you’d like to test, so dive right into the phase that makes the most sense to you and don’t forget to keep checking yourself; empathise, iterate, test. The loops are there for a reason, iterate until you’re happy that you are satisfying your customer need.

Before we close out, let’s have a very quick view of what sort of design thinking workshops or methods you can employ in the various phases. Some of these will be familiar to you already, together they are very powerful.

Let’s circle back, how does this help you?

Now that you have a better sense of what actually happens during a design thinking project, how exactly is it going to help you? With everything you’ve learned so far, the context should be clearer now, let’s revisit those benefits in more depth:

  1. Improve your customer experience

    The majority of buyers think the information they are getting from you is “useless” (“Credible Empathetic Content Wins Over Elusive B2B Buyers“, Forrester Research, April 30th 2020). Over the course of this article we’ve established how much buyers are craving connection and trust with your brand. The primary way for us to establish this with them is through empathy. In fact, this is overwhelmingly the case. Research by Forrester shows the importance of empathy and understanding to decision makers:

– “Credible Empathetic Content Wins Over Elusive B2B Buyers“, Forrester Research, April 30th 2020

Your customer is blatantly telling you how to improve their customer experience; listen. They are starved for that authenticity and understanding. One of the most surprising of the above responses for me is “Share my vision for what success looks like”. This is so wonderfully human, down to the word “share”. And this is one of the key things that design thinking brings to the table; humanity. Let’s humanise these data points. Empathy is key to your customer’s experience, so get to it.

2. Reduce risk when going to market

Testing is your new best friend. It’s kind of hard to believe sometimes that this hasn’t been our way of work for years. We can reduce the risk in going to market by simply testing our solutions before we invest time and money in the execution of solutions. Follow this mantra; Ask your customers, reduce your risk.

3. Get to market faster

In my experience collaborating with clients there is often a feeling of panic at the start of a design thinking job. We are all used to diving head first into solution mode, there is a fear we are investing too much time at the start of the project. Let me put these fears to rest for you.

Design thinking saves enormous time. Why? Because we are ridding ourselves of the inefficiencies and assumptions of a linear, traditional approach. In fact, 35.1% of the financial benefits of design thinking come directly from elimination of redundant costs (“The ROI Of Design Thinking“, Forrester Research, December 12th, 2019).

Investing more time upfront saves us huge time and cost toward the end of the project because we have clear and tested solutions that don’t require those 1000 rounds of changes that frustrate us all desperately. You’ll get to market fast and as you’re about to find out, with a better solution too.

4. Create better solutions by identifying the right marketing problems

Companies are losing millions a year investing in perceived problems rather than correct ones. Often we are correcting symptoms of bigger problems that will still exist after the lifecycle of our solutions. Using design thinking means we can solve the right problems for far greater impact within our businesses but also for our customers.

5. Fully align your stakeholders and teams

We covered earlier some of the methods used to align cross-functional teams, most commonly sales and marketing teams. Ultimately, alignment depends on genuine collaboration from the start. This will be new for a lot of teams but the time and energy saved in getting the right people in the room throughout this process is key. This is also hugely useful when working with different regions. Using virtual whiteboarding tools like Miro means you can align anytime, anywhere, no excuses! Plus, speaking from experience, it’s good fun and beats the hell out of any normal meeting.

6. Significantly increase your ROI

Design thinking drives results on both a per-project and organizational basis, with the most significant financial benefits derived from improvements to how teams work.

– ”The ROI Of Design Thinking”, Forrester Research, December 12th, 2019

We opened this article with a very attractive median ROI percentage delivered by design thinking; 229% (The ROI Of Design Thinking“, Forrester Research, December 12th, 2019). There are countless examples that demonstrate the validity of design thinking’s success in terms of ROI. In fact, Salesforce one of our own clients, implemented design thinking in it’s sales discovery process and saw an increase of 100% in revenue growth as a result. (“Why Design Thinking Is The Future Of Sales”, Forbes, January 2019).

Using design thinking principles solidifies trust with buyers through the process of being truly empathetic. And right now there is a huge deficit of trust with B2B buyers.

That’s a wrap for now folks

Research has found that, according to buyers, the number one way for salespeople to create a positive sales experience is to listen to their needs.

– “Why Design Thinking Is The Future Of Sales“, Forbes, January 2019

I think this quote summarises it best. We can no longer ignore the fact that B2B buyers are behaving more and more like B2C consumers. There is an inarguably emotional response felt by key decision makers in the buying process. Design thinking is the vehicle we all need to empathise, build genuine connection, forge trust and deliver the best possible customer experience. It’s a no brainer.

Watch this space for more in-depth articles on how to use design thinking in your B2B marketing strategies.

Coming up next:

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