The B2B marketing metaphors controlling your mind

Is content marketing really like fishing? Is lead management really like gardening? You decide…

September 30, 2016

Is content marketing really like fishing? Is lead management really like gardening? Does your business have a funnel attached to it? The language that we use to discuss B2B marketing strategy has a huge impact on how we think about, plan and execute it – and this is particularly true of metaphors.

Metaphors aren’t just a more colourful or poetic way of saying something; they are a way of shaping how human beings think and feel about ideas. They persuade us that the same rules that apply to something tangible and familiar also apply to something more abstract and difficult to grasp. When it comes to ideas, metaphors are hugely influential – you might even say that they control our minds. They certainly control the strategies and tactics that we adopt for B2B marketing.

For this post, I’ve picked out 11 of the most widely used B2B marketing metaphors. They’ve exerted huge influence over the way that marketers try to capture an audience’s attention, persuade them to consider and buy their products, and organise marketing teams. This influence is often a very positive one. If a metaphor is widely used it’s usually because it works – it draws a parallel that’s informative, inspiring even, and useful for coming up with the right tactics. However, metaphors can also imprison our thinking, and lock us into B2B marketing strategies that are outdated. Some of the metaphors in my list are guilty of this as well.

Every time we talk about elements of marketing strategy as if they are really something else, we run the risk of making assumptions that are wrong. The key to making sure metaphors are controlling your mind in a positive way is to register when you’re using them – and keep challenging whether they really reflect what you’re trying to achieve:

Content marketing is really fishing

Some metaphors are so pervasive that even when we’re not consciously referencing them, they’re still shaping our thinking. The idea that content marketing is really fishing is one of those. Whenever we talk about hooking a reader or incorporating hooks into our headlines to catch their attention, we’re buying into the concept. We’re also recognising the importance of identifying what our particular target fish are hungry for – and dressing up hooks in a way that’s fundamentally attractive and draws them to us. Those are pretty sound content marketing principles to follow. Things would be very different (and much more interruptive and annoying for our audiences) if the dominant metaphor in marketing were hunting, for example.

In recent times, the fishing metaphor has become increasingly flexible. Influencers draw on different fishing tactics when they talk about casting a net widely – or selectively spearing the exact fish you want (which is how Marketo co-founder Jon Miller talks about account based marketing). There are many different strategies for catching fish – which is why this metaphor will have its hooks in us for a while yet.

Lead management is really gardening

Once you’ve caught the attention of those fish you were targeting with your content, what will you do with them? In the world of marketing metaphors, you’ll plant them in the ground and tend to them with water and fertiliser until they blossom into future revenues. The idea of ‘nurturing’ leads in the style of young plants is firmly part of the marketing vocabulary – and with good reason. The principle that prospects need to develop before they are worth something to you – and that they will have different needs at different stages of that development – is another sound one.

Lead nurturing is just one in a rich crop of marketing-as-gardening metaphors. We talk about fertile ground, pay attention to green shoots of recovery, focus on the grassroots, plant seeds in people’s minds… I could go on. Even the idea of growth as being a natural state for businesses – and something all marketers must deliver without question – is at heart a gardening metaphor.

Your content assets are really food

Well, why not? They certainly should be what your audience is hungry for. They do a lot more good when they are mixed and varied in a healthy way, and they can go a lot further if you don’t gorge on them all at once and get creative about how you use the leftovers. The metaphor of content as food to sustain your audiences and keep them coming back for more is another powerful and hard-working one. It extends to the need to balance the content food groups (from sweet and shareable chocolate cake content to in-depth, protein-rich meats) and to get maximum value from your hard work in the content kitchen (through turkey slices that help a big content production keep your readers going for weeks or months). Content as food is a metaphor we keep coming back to at LinkedIn – and it keeps delivering very tasty results.

The economy is really the weather

There are stormy conditions ahead, you might need to make hay while the sun shines in case a rainy day comes, but don’t worry – sooner or later conditions are bound to improve. That’s right – the economy is best understood as weather – or at least that’s what it seems by the way that marketers (plus politicians and the media) talk about it. This makes sense on many levels: like the weather, the economy is largely outside your control as a marketer – and like the weather, it changes. However, the metaphor can be misleading as well. The weather tends to change a lot more frequently and reliably than the economy – where stormy conditions can last for years. And marketers can’t afford to use it as an excuse and leave their objectives on hold until it changes. There’s an old saying that “there’s no such thing as bad weather – only the wrong clothes.” Perhaps that’s the attitude we should take to this metaphor, picking the right B2B marketing tactics for the conditions.

Big Rocks make a big impact

Just ask the dinosaurs – or Sir Isaac Newton. The bigger, more solid, more visible and more impressive something is, the bigger the force it brings to bear when it lands. The Big Rock is one of the foundations of our content marketing strategy at LinkedIn, and we design launch strategies that make sure a Big Rock arrives with as much noise as possible.

Your future customers are passing through a funnel

The funnel metaphor is a mainstay of B2B marketing – and its central concept stands up pretty well. There are almost always more people in the early stages of the process of deciding to buy from you (the wider top of the funnel) than there are closing deals at the narrower bottom. The changing shape of the funnel also focuses marketing thinking on the need for different tactics at different stages: content that’s broad enough in appeal to engage a wide range of potential prospects at the top, for example. However, as Doug Kessler has pointed out, there are limits to the funnel metaphor– and it’s important to recognise them. There’s no inevitable force of gravity forcing prospects through the funnel towards you – you have to work at making it happen (that's where the gardening metaphor comes in).

Every buyer is on a journey

There are many different kinds of journey. The value of this metaphor to B2B marketing strategy depends on what type of journey you think you’re dealing with. If you’re imagining a predetermined path to purchase that leads inevitably to your door then you’re likely to be left wondering why more buyers aren’t turning up at the end of it in the way they’re supposed to. The fact is that today’s B2B decision-makers have a pretty good idea where they need to get to, but they’re not following a map that tells them exactly how to get there – and there are many different turnings they could take. They’d appreciate a guide to show them the way – but you first have to prove that you’re the guide they can trust.

You should pick the low-hanging fruit first

Focusing on easy wins first has become an automatic approach for marketers – and this metaphor has helped to make it so. It’s got an inherent logic to it – and the imagery it uses conjures up the idea that the most obvious and easy steps to take are also the most ripe, juicy and rewarding. As anyone who’s ever picked apples knows, trying to reach past low-hanging fruit and aim for more ambitious things further up often means knocking those easy wins off the branches – and ruining the value you could have got from them. It’s another reason why this metaphor hangs together.

Opportunity is an ocean

“Boiling the ocean” is one of my favourite figures of speech. It’s both very visual and very absurd, and it perfectly captures the idea of an over-excited team setting out to do something ridiculously ambitious and utterly pointless. However, its power also comes from the fact that it’s part of a long legacy of nautical metaphors in business. We’re taught to think of market opportunity as an ocean – a big blue inviting ocean with no competition on the horizon, which we can sail off into to find success. The tactics that we adopt on the way owe much to maritime history: we ‘launch’ brands and products, get ‘flagship’ initiatives ‘under way’, ‘batten down the hatches’ if there’s trouble ahead and ‘sail close to the wind’ when taking risks to get there faster. Subconsciously, B2B marketers spend a lot of time visualising themselves captaining some sort of sail-powered vessel. And of course, boiling the ocean makes even less sense as a result.

The best ideas have got legs

This metaphor seems to say much about the way that a business comes up with, chooses, tests and eventually executes its creative ideas. It sees the ideation process as a marathon rather than a sprint – an extended obstacle course where ideas need stamina and the ability to outrun all of the different objections that can be raised, and potential reasons for ditching them. It also says something about the way we judge the value that ideas bring: it can’t be fleeting, it must be sustained. Are these really the best criteria for judging creative ideas? Thanks to this metaphor, they’ve become the dominant ones.

You need to think outside the box

It’s become a cliché that haunts every brainstorming session – but when you think through the ‘outside the box’ metaphor carefully, it’s actually a challenging and inspiring idea. It captures the idea that we continually put constraints on our thinking, and that it’s important to somehow escape from those constraints. In a way, the metaphors that I’ve included in this list are often a part of the box. They shape our marketing thinking around assumptions that are very rarely challenged.

To think outside the box, you first need to identify where the sides of the box are. Hopefully there have been some ideas in this post to help.