Haus of Bold’s Erin Balsa: B2B Brands Must Surprise and Delight Their Audiences

Most B2B marketing is boring as sin. Erin Balsa reveals how brands can go from beige to bold.

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“B2B doesn't have to mean boring.”

“Most B2B marketing sucks.”

“I want to go into B2C marketing, B2B is dull.”

LinkedIn agrees about one thing: B2B marketing’s boring as sin. Problem is, very few of the people criticizing B2B marketing offer any sort of way to fix it. When they do come up with ideas, they’re so broad as to be useless. Make it fun, they say. Add some emojis and write like you speak.

But one content leader is fighting back effectively. Erin Balsa, marketing leader turned content consultant, helps brands turn the dial on their boldness. I caught up with her to discuss how brands can go from beige to bold and what’s holding them back from doing so.

Why does the B2B space have a problem with boring content?

There are decision-makers who think you need to put on a suit and tie because your customer wears a suit and tie. You act in a certain way and speak a certain way because that's what you think your customer expects.

We don't need to sound like McKinsey.

People making decisions at these companies hold on to archaic beliefs that were true for a long time. But we need to evolve. We don't need to sound like McKinsey. We don't need to sound like Josh Bersin to be trustworthy, authentic, and authoritative. We can be all of these things while being uniquely ourselves.

Do marketers worry a bold voice will alienate prospects?

We are never going to attract 100% of the pie. That's okay. You don't need to attract 100% of the humans on Earth. You need to attract people that will buy into your brand, vision, point of view, and product.

The more you can lean into your unique point of view, style, and personality, the better you'll be able to attract the right people. You cannot attract the right people when you sound exactly like your four biggest competitors. Where's the differentiation?

Gong is bright purple and has a bulldog mascot named Bruno. Are we starting to see green shoots of change?

Gong’s a great example. They prove that you can have fun in B2B, but they're not the only ones. G2 is a huge trailblazer, too. They've had a lot of fun with their marketing. There are many other examples as well.

In certain spaces, such as sales and marketing tech, it's easy to be bold and playful, because they’re marketing to people just like them. They're speaking the same language as their audience.

Being different can be scary for them.

It's more difficult in other industries. I've worked a lot with human capital management brands. They're used to the Deloittes of the world. Being different can be scary for them. They’re afraid that the bolder they are, the more difficult it’ll be for their internal champion to get buy-in for a big purchase. That’s especially true for expensive enterprise software.

Imagine you’re pitching your CFO on a product and you show them the vendor’s website. If they’re dropping F-bombs and using crazy language, it's not going to jive. When I say, “Be bold, don't be boring,” you don’t have to go to the extreme. 

It’s about finding your sweet spot?

I like to talk about boldness on a spectrum. Picture a stereo. You can turn the dial to turn up or down the volume. If I'm talking to HR leaders, I might have that stereo volume on medium. I’m not going to be cracking tons of jokes, but I might take a bold stance on the workplace and leadership and employee engagement and remote work. That's how they’re bold and not boring.

Some boldness is required.

In other industries, it might be appropriate to turn the volume up. What I never want to do is turn the volume all the way down, because that's when you get vanilla content. That's when you're afraid to take a stance. You're afraid to comment on some important social issues that your audience cares about. You're afraid to push people and tell them that the way they’ve been doing things is wrong.

Some boldness is required. Otherwise, you're just gonna be boring and melt into the sea of sameness.

You’ve said that sales-led B2B SaaS companies need four types of content: thought leadership, product, sales enablement, and content that surprises and delights. The first three are straightforward, but what’s the last one all about?

There are lots of ways to have fun in the traditional categories of sales enablement, content that drives thought leadership, and product-led content. However, there's a missing piece of the pie. It's not a missing quarter of your content. It's a little sliver. Think of the other three types of content as the meal. Your “surprise and delight” content is the seasoning you sprinkle on top.

Let me give you an example. 

At the Predictive Index (where I worked for three and a half years), we were creating a lot of educational content about remote work. There was a big conversation around psychological safety so people could bring their full selves to work. 

We decided to lean into this conversation. We flew one of my videographers all around the country for three weeks. In about a month, we produced a 20-minute documentary on the topic and invited a select list of target accounts and valued customers to our virtual documentary premiere.

You can sure as hell bet that your average company isn't creating these sorts of events.

We created really nice gift boxes and mailed them to everybody's house. We asked them to log on at 12:30 in the afternoon. Out of the 300 people we invited, around 99% attended. Plus, they stayed the whole time.

After that event, we said, “If you'd like to stay on longer, we're going to break up into little roundtables to discuss some of the themes in this documentary.”

That's an example of “surprise and delight” content. We're creating a space—an experience—where a group of people can come together to talk about belonging in the workplace. That's an important conversation. You can sure as hell bet that your average company isn't creating these sorts of events.

A lot of content marketing teams are stuck on short-term goals and KPIs. How do you get bold ideas approved?

Great question. In my case, I was very lucky that our senior team was open to us experimenting because we were meeting our goals. That’s the first thing to highlight. If your team is falling short, failing to drive marketing-sourced pipeline, and not meeting your targets, you're not going to be able to spend $40,000 flying a videographer around the country and sending 300 gift boxes to people's houses. That's not going to fly.

However, if you're a strong marketing org and you're meeting your goals, then you can allocate some of your budget to surprise and delight campaigns. 

It’s not just for your audience, it’s for your team, too. I saw that my team was incredibly energized by doing this type of work.

A lot of times companies set and forget content strategies. They decide to write five blogs a week. They have their marketers there doing the same shit for one, two, three years. I can't imagine anything more boring.

I saw that my team was incredibly energized by doing this type of work.

Top talent gets bored easily. They want exciting new projects, they want things that they’re proud to put in their portfolio. These kinds of projects are creatively engaging. It's a great mechanism to keep your own employees engaged.

Perspectives is a weekly series interviewing the best marketing leaders. Subscribe for interviews straight to your inbox.

David is a former craft beer journalist turned writer and digital strategist. He now helps ambitious technology brands tell narrative-driven stories.

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