Consumers emerge on b-to-b companies' radar

As the PR and marketing landscape continues to evolve, even firms long rooted in b-to-b communications increasingly need to help clients reach consumers.

As the PR and marketing landscape continues to evolve, even firms long rooted in b-to-b communications increasingly need to help clients reach consumers.

As the PR and marketing landscape continues to evolve, even firms long rooted in b-to-b communications increasingly need to help clients reach consumers.

Agency execs say there is a definite trend toward historically non-consumer-focused clients paying more attention to the consumer space, particularly tech companies whose customers are other tech businesses. That means new sets of challenges - and opportunities - for agency management.

"There is lots of consumer outreach by traditional tech companies for different reasons, including brand awareness they need to have," says Kazumi Mechling, SVP of Waggener Edstrom's consumer marketing practice. "There is just more receptivity to us being creative and promotional by tech clients [than I've seen in] the past. We see lots of growth projection for us, and we don't want to lose our great tech clients [to whom] we [must] provide resources. They would otherwise go elsewhere."

To provide these resources, says Mechling, WE has ramped up its consumer practice. It now maintains a team of communications pros with a varied mix of skills.

"We end up needing to have a cross-team of people who are tech-literate, as well as people who are really engaging in very consumer-oriented PR and promotional marketing," Mechling explains.

In addition, she says, helping a b-to-b client enter the consumer market involves a delicate balancing act between two worlds: its established customer base and the new realm of consumer media. Efforts can be most successful, Mechling notes, when clients take "mini-steps" into the previously foreign territory.

These days, "if you don't bring a chair for the customer's customer into the equation, you will fail," warns O'Keeffe & Company principal Stephen O'Keeffe. "Traditionally, the trend has been to dig deeper and deeper into the technology. Obviously, we must understand the technology in the products, but a lot of the value we bring to the client [now] is in stepping away from [the technology] and closer to the customer."

Regardless of their tech savvy, it's the b-to-b customers' customer - the consumer - who will in the end determine whether a product is good or bad, says O'Keeffe.

To help tech businesses target this sometimes more emotional audience - unlike b-to-b, a population less concerned with speeds and feeds and more interested in how a product looks or fits a certain lifestyle - PR pros say that clients may need some hand-holding.

When tech companies foray  into the consumer realm, says Strategic Communications Group (SCG) MD Chris Parente, agencies are sometimes required to push clients to talk about their products in ways previously unfamiliar to them.

In announcing the launch of a client's Internet protocol-based TV (IPTV) service in Kansas, for example, SCG incorporated The Wizard of Oz as a press-release theme. That, Parente says, provided consumer-media reporters with something a bit more fun - and accessible - than the tech product announcement alone.

"You need to understand the market well enough to have the client's trust and respect as a business counselor, but you also have to remain a little bit of an outsider," Parente notes. "If you drink the Kool-Aid too much, you're not in a position [to reach consumers]."

Key points:

B-to-b-focused companies increasingly need to understand their products' consumer appeal

Unlike business populations, consumers are often driven more by emotional messaging

To reach target audiences, even b-to-b-focused firms must now employ a mix of tech-literate, consumer-friendly staffers

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