For years marketers have talked about business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) marketing as if these transactions could exist. Communications are produced and received by humans, not organisations, and it is human beings that make decisions about what will be purchased.
This human to human (H2H) approach may seem self-evident but like many obvious concepts, that doesn’t guarantee this approach will be taken. Organisations are still communicating like robots: in cold messages that don’t alter tone to fit the person they are speaking to. They’re also churning out sales patter when they should be involved in conversations, and using the language of business rather than the language of people and emotion.
H2H proponents argue that in the era of social media, customers both want and expect a human-to-human connection. This human aspect to communication encompasses many things, from quick response, to tailoring messages to suit both the person and the circumstance, to communicating with warmth and sincerity using human language rather than marketing cliches. Furthermore, H2H proponents argue, making a human connection with your stakeholders is essential if the company is to thrive.
The age in which businesses could broadcast one-size-fits-all communications to the world is now past: conversations need to be two way and have a personal touch. Organisations need to talk with their customers rather than at them. Not only is this new approach enabled by the advent of social media but customers have increasing expectations of businesses in terms of the way they communicate.
Customers expect brands to respond much faster via social media channels than they actually do: 42% expect a response in under an hour. In reality brands often insist any social media communication is approved by several internal stakeholders before release. This approach delays responsiveness and means companies fall short of customer expectations. Other companies just aren’t using social media at all despite customer preferences to communicate using these channels.
H2H proponents argue that businesses are placing their own desire to communicate perfectly above the customer’s desire to have a genuine interaction. H2H aims to help businesses to meet customer expectations by suspending the need to be perfect and embracing being authentic.
Fear is the barrier
Author Bryan Kramer, author of ‘There Is No B2B or B2C: It’s Human to Human’, argues that it is mostly fear that is holding companies back from taking a more human approach. Mostly this is a fear of getting it wrong.
Many companies still force all communications to jump through various hoops of internal approval to ensure compliance with company policy and to ensure they get it right. Others just aren’t participating at all on social channels, or they are lack the courage to create a social strategy and guidelines for staff that would offer direction and confidence in these channels.
Although the H2H approach may seem to entirely make sense, achieving this enlightened approach is likely to be very difficult for many organisations. Business processes, particularly communication, strongly favour getting things right and taking a low-risk approach.
Contemporary businesses are entirely organised around this right-every-time approach, with separate departments dedicated to reviewing messages before they are sent. Moving away from this addiction to control and perfection is likely to be extremely hard. Convincing internal stakeholders of the value of doing so, even harder.
It’s certainly the case that the costs of getting things wrong on social media can be punishing. Social media gaffs are widely broadcast and cause huge embarrassment.
The BBC was recently left cringing when it erroneously announced the Queen had died in a test tweet that accidentally went live. News organisations such as this one need to balance how they achieve rigorous accuracy with the desire to be as responsive as possible to news events.
Organisations that have less requirement to respond quickly, such as financial services firms, often suffocate communications with their insistence on risk minimisation. Replying to social media communications days after they are sent is not very ‘human’. Genuine human exchanges tend to be relatively fast regardless of the communication channel.
New approaches are needed
There’s no immediate solution to how to balance meeting the required standards of communication with being authentic and responsive.
That’s the challenge of H2H: contemporary organisations are not geared to achieving this style of marketing but rather to actively obstructing it. In order to master H2H, businesses are going to need to adapt the way they organise themselves and their policies and also how they empower their employees to communicate with the outside world.
H2H marketing is essentially an exercise in branding because finding an authentic voice for your organisation is a key part of the H2H approach. H2H requires brands to articulate what they stand for with every communication they engage in.
That’s going to require organisations to both understand their brand and also empower all employees to apply it in their communications in an authentic rather than scripted manner. For brands with international operations, this is a huge challenge that will require separate communication strategies to be developed for each region that they operate in.
If organisations are to move towards holding authentic communications with stakeholders using their own distinct tone of voice, they will need to overcome their own fears. Moving beyond the B2B approach where communications with customers are essentially poorly disguised sales pitches is going to take quite a big leap of faith.
It’s likely that brands are going to move to H2H only at the speed of their most nervous board member, and in most organisations that’s likely to be fairly slow. Convincing internal stakeholders that customers neither want nor need perfection is likely to quite some time.
The point of social media is that conversations happen very publicly. Brands that are not able to evolve towards a H2H approach are therefore easily compared against rivals who are doing it more credibly in social channels.
Those that are sticking to old style B2B, with its thinly veiled sales pitches and one-sided conversations, are increasingly exposed as poor communicators in comparison to those that are more successful at articulating their human side.
Brands will need to overcome their fear of failure in order to be more human and more authentic. For some organisations, and some industries, that is going to be a harder proposition than others.