B2B decisions have a fundamentally different psychology to consumer purchases.

B2B communicators need to recognise this.

Published on 30th April, 2019
Brain systems graphic displaying the differences between the left and the right side

In the seminal book, Thinking Fast and Slow by psychologist and behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman, two systems of thinking are discussed.

System 1 is fast, automatic and unconscious. It helps you make sense of the world quickly, though is guilty of snap judgements and subject to bias. System 1 makes us choose Coca Cola over Pepsi (or vice versa).

System 2 is more considered. It is slow, effortful, and logical. It helps us make considered, long-term rational choices.

System 2 thinking is one the most ignored ideas in marketing and communication, especially in B2B.

We are taught relentlessly that marketing must target System 1. That certain wording, certain colours, certain phsychological illusions can make people more receptive to making snap decisions about buying your product.

This is absolutely true and there is credible research to support it…if you’re selling consumer products.

But, research into consumer habits are just that - how consumers respond. That is not how experts respond. That is not how investors or people commissioning major engineering projects respond. What is often overlooked is that many decisions – especially B2B decisions, involve considerable System 2 thinking.

System 2 decisions include those that involve major spending commitments, affect your organisation’s reputation, and perhaps put your job on the line. Most people think about them. For a long time. They review all the available information to make as considered and informed a decision as possible. Such decisions include bringing in expensive consultants, investing in new technology, deploying electric vehicle infrastructure, or setting an R&D strategy.

System 2 goes into overdrive. This is particularly true of people in science, engineering and technology, who have been explicitly taught statistical thinking and an ability to quickly spot biases (same goes for economists and people with MBAs).

Person playing chess, about to place the white queen
Experienced chess players engage both System 2 and a honed System 1

B2B communications therefore need to speak to this type of thinking as well. Branding, name checks, and carefully designed messages to get people to notice you are still important, System 1 is still there. But B2B marketers need to go beyond that – they need to make an informed rational case to help customers understand the problem they solve, and guide them to the solution. Not by tricking their System 1 brains, but by reassuring their System 2 brains that you know what you’re talking about and can be relied upon to solve a complex challenge.

What’s more, when communicating with specialists, you also need to be careful about your System 1 messaging. What may sound like a killer marketing line, may fall flat with the expert audience you are trying to reach.

The two systems work closely. A well-trained System 2 can recognise the biases of System 1 and adjust for them. And with training, System 1 can improve its judgement; Kahneman points out that a Chess Grandmaster sees excellent moves without much thought. Similarly, an engineer would immediately spot misleading or irrelevant information about engineering which would be missed by a layman unless they really stopped to think about it.

Understanding the differences between the systems helps you communicate better to expert audiences. These are my two main B2B marketing takeaways from Kahneman’s extensive body of research:

  • Your audiences know their industry – their System 1 will be finely tuned to industry issues, so they will immediately dismiss marketing that isn’t sincere and informed. Ensure messaging and content is well-researched, and tested with your target audience.
  • Once you’ve got their attention, they will think very hard about any decision. Create marketing materials which inform them, help them make those difficult System 2 decisions, and demonstrate that you are the organisation to be trusted with the solution.

It’s easy to believe that marketing is all about clicks, because they are easy to measure. But what matters more is who clicks and whether they care what you have to say. B2B communicators should spend more time developing content that is insightful and useful to the people they want to reach.

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