How to run B-to-B online promotion

Business-to-business: It’s not the sexiest segment of the New Economy. And true to its nature, B-to-Bs’ advertising strategies are a lot more pedestrian than those of its wild-and-woolly consumer-oriented e-commerce cousins. Business-to-consumer dot-coms debate whether to work with one or multiple agencies to create a big brand boom. But the main question for business-to-business dot-coms is rather more mundane. It revolves around when and how their ad campaigns should introduce targeted, narrower messages and when to launch broad, branding themes.

B-to-B dot-coms generally need to explain their products to customers more extensively than do consumer dot-coms. At the same time, they need to create broad, accessible messages. This makes their marketing job all the more difficult since they’re on the same tight time frames as consumer-based businesses. B-to-B advertisers need to create tactical messages to attract new customers, but they also need to build brand.

Consider Agillion. Steve Papermaster, co-founder and CEO of the Austin, Texas-based company, is quick to emphasize that Agillion’s Super Bowl spot last January wasn’t a budget-blowing act of hubris for his year-old startup. For one, Agillion, which offers inexpensive Web-based customer-relationship management (CRM) systems to small and midsize companies, is among the growing ranks of B-to-B enterprises that have ad budgets big enough in Agillion’s case, $20 million to afford a dash of consumer-style marketing.

And despite the fact that Agillion solicits customers among businesses rather than among individual consumers, the company targets a significantly broad audience of 20 million firms. Thus Papermaster felt it would be a mistake not to include a few high-visibility messages within his company’s overall ad strategy.

To that end – and months before Agillion ran the Super Bowl ad that kicked off this year’s campaign – the company hired an ad agency that could address both the highly targeted and the broader marketing initiatives Agillion planned to introduce. “I think hiring multiple agencies can be a mistake for an early-stage company,” says Papermaster.

The Super Bowl spot was actually an end run for Agillion’s agency, Austin-based GSD&M Advertising. First and foremost, GSD&M helped Agillion market its service during 1999 on a local level, while the company’s service was still in “preview version.” The campaign centered around local radio, print, and TV spots, which attracted a first wave of customers. This, in essence, was Agillion’s round of first-stage tactical advertising.

But as 2000 neared, Agillion and its agency decided they’d present a broader, more general message about Agillion. “As we got into our national launch, we decided we’d have a Super Bowl ad that would be part of our larger strategy,” Papermaster says. It would build the brand, create some name recognition, and, if Agillion was lucky, it would also nurture more customer acquisitions and help the company recruit new partners and hires.

Papermaster notes, though, that the size of his target audience was a key factor in his hiring GSD&M. The agency has worked with such large clients as the U.S. Olympic Committee and Southwestern Bell, and Papermaster felt Agillion would need a thin layer of consumer advertising in the mix. “I would tell a vice president of marketing at any business-to-business dot-com that if the customer base is smallish in the thousands or tens of thousands then reject the idea of using a mass consumer strategy,” Papermaster says.