Secrets of the most successful activation campaigns

The creative techniques proven to prompt the next step

August 20, 2020

Secrets of the most successful activation campaigns

It’s fair to say B2B marketers spend a lot of their time thinking about action – and how best to get people to take it. It could be the act of downloading a piece of thought leadership content that moves them along the consideration journey; the action that causes them to become a lead; or the moment that prompts them to get in touch with sales. Our most important objectives, sooner or later, come down to persuading people to take the next step.

The more we understand how marketing drives growth in B2B, the more obvious it becomes that these actions don’t take place in a vacuum. Groundbreaking research by Les Binet and Peter Field for LinkedIn’s B2B Institute shows how brand marketing primes people to respond to the calls to action that we serve up in activation or demand generation campaigns. That’s why the marketing strategies that are most effective at driving clicks, leads and other activation effects, are those that also succeed in building brands.

Binet and Field found that, to drive growth most effectively and profitably, B2B marketing budgets were best split roughly 50/50 between brand and activation campaigns. To drive action, we need to do both things well: building brand salience and mental availability that presents our brand as the most obvious solution to a need – and then persuading people to take immediate action to address that need. If we don’t invest in brand, our activation campaigns will struggle to command attention and credibility. If we don’t get the activation right, then we’re not tapping into the potential of the brands that we’ve carefully built.

The creative imbalance between B2B brand and activation

I’m writing this post because I believe there’s an imbalance in the way that we approach these two, equally important parts of the B2B marketing formula. And it’s not the imbalance that you’re most likely thinking of (and which we’ve written about on this blog several times in the past).

It’s true that most B2B businesses spend far more than 50% of their budget on activation marketing – and that there’s opportunity to increase profitability and effectiveness by increasing the share of their budgets that they give to brand. However, it’s just as true that brand marketing gets the lion’s share of our creative attention. There’s a real irony in the fact that brand often gets too little budget but plenty of creative thinking – activation gets arguably too great a share of the budget but not the creative care and attention that should come with it.

There’s creativity and craft in putting together compelling brand advertising that can engage on an emotional level and build the influential long-term memories and brand salience that support long-term profitable growth. However, there’s equal creativity and craft in putting together an activation campaign that directs people’s attention, communicates a sense of urgency and compels action in a credible way.

This became really evident to me when I led a project to analyse the characteristics of the most effective video campaigns on LinkedIn. We split our analysis by different stages of the funnel, identifying the elements in video ads that best drove awareness, consideration – and action. And we found definite patterns among the videos with the strongest click-through rates – the videos that delivered on activation.

Over recent times, we’ve also studied campaigns leveraging other LinkedIn ad formats and identified the best practices that correlate most strongly with an audience taking a desired action. What’s really interesting is the degree of consistency across these formats. It’s clear that there are creative principles common to effective activation campaigns. There’s a real art in helping someone decide that now is the time to act.

The two foundations of top-performing activation campaigns

So what makes a great activation campaign? It starts with targeting the right people: people who are likely to be actively buying, and are therefore genuinely interested in information like product features and pricing. This gives activation campaigns the license to include detail on what a product does, what price it costs, and what value it provides; to differentiate their brand’s solutions versus the alternatives. According to the Binet and Field research, primarily rational marketing like this is roughly twice as effective at driving activation effects like leads and sales. However, rational details that demand attention to process are lost on people who aren’t actively interested in your category.

It also helps hugely if your activation campaign is building on branding activity that means audiences know you, like you, and are ready to listen to and believe your product campaigns. This explains why the Binet and Field data shows that marketing strategies that succeed in building brands are also the most successful when it comes to activation. It’s also why many of the most effective activation campaigns are strongly and clearly branded. They don’t just deliver rational messaging in an unconnected way. They frame those messages with visual cues and a tone of voice that leverage the brand salience they’ve established. On LinkedIn, it’s now possible to retarget audiences based on engagement such as video views, which makes it easier to tie brand and activation campaigns together.

Activation campaigns, then, are built on telling details that help to differentiate solutions and provide rational reasons to act. However, a great activation campaign doesn’t just deliver this information. It frames and presents it in ways that people can’t ignore – and don’t want to ignore. It directs attention, sends subtle, reassuring signals of your credibility – and crucially, communicates a sense of urgency. Time-bound elements such as seasonal discounts are a tactic often used to create urgency, but there are other techniques in the activation marketer’s toolkit as well. The behavioural scientist Bri Williams talks about the importance of overcoming an inherent laziness in human behaviour by making it overwhelmingly easy to do the right thing. The most effective activation campaigns focus their art and creativity on doing exactly that:

Call out audiences and communicate value in headlines and body copy

The most effective Sponsored Content on LinkedIn often calls out a specific audience in headlines or body copy. Similarly, strong-performing message ads tend to be personalised with concise references to a recipient’s role or situation. And the most effective video ads for driving clicks at the bottom of the funnel don’t just depend on the video itself. They summarise key take-aways in headlines and body copy too.

The consistent thread here is that top-performing activation campaigns don’t force audiences to look for relevance and value – even for a moment. They signal it as clearly as possible within the first second of somebody encountering an ad. At the same time, they establish credibility by proving that they know the audience they’re speaking to – and know what matters to them.

Model the action that you want people to take

It’s striking how many of the top-performing videos for driving clicks on LinkedIn show somebody taking the action that you’re asking your audience to take. This could take the form of a product demonstration or walk-through, an unboxing video (something tech firms like Jabra make great use of), or motion graphics showing somebody clicking – or what happens when they do.

Modelling actions in this way works on several different levels. It clarifies the call to action and reassures about how simple that action is to take. It visualises the benefits, and it provides social proof by showing others taking it. And this doesn’t just apply to video. In image-driven Sponsored Content campaigns, try replacing stock photography with action-oriented images of people using your specific product or solution. We’ve seen examples of activation campaigns when a relevant shot of a product being used outperforms even carefully designed infographics. Action is the hero of this type of marketing – and there’s much to be gained by putting your visual focus on that action.

Keep initial copy concise and focused

As a marketer, you know lots of reasons why people should buy your solution – and it’s tempting to try and throw all of these reasons at them at once, and make an irresistible case. However, cramming in too much information means that your audience has to work harder, and process more mentally, before doing something. It’s more effective to keep the initial copy that you ask someone to engage with concise – and focused on one, clear and compelling reason to act. The less in-depth detail you give upfront, the more mystery you can create – and the more reason to click and learn more.

Try to keep close to 150 characters for Sponsored Content intro copy, and 500 characters for Message Ads. Those are very tight word counts – but if you can communicate a clear reason for acting concisely, you’ll reduce friction and generate more clicks. Try focusing different versions of your ads on different forms of value – and then use A/B testing to establish which resonate best with your audiences.

Use action and movement to create urgency

Just because activation campaigns are primarily rational doesn’t mean that we respond to them in an entirely conscious and logical way. Our brains use a wealth of different visual cues to make sense of the world and form rapid judgments about what matters and what doesn’t. The best activation campaigns make use of this.

In our study of top-performing video content on LinkedIn, we found that campaigns performing strongly in the lower funnel often included a lot of movement. There’s a sense of things happening, whether through what people are doing or the way that the video editing cuts between different sequences. This creates a feeling of urgency that our brains respond to. When things are happening, we want to pay attention.

And it’s not just video content that can do this. I remember a series of A/B tests that LinkedIn ran for one of our own campaigns. The ad featured a call to action button and an image of a young professional. Of all the variations of the image that we tested, by far the most effective positioned the button so that the professional was looking directly at it, as if they were deliberately guiding someone’s attention that way. The visual incorporated a sense of movement and interaction that created a subtle, but very effective, sense of urgency.

Compel action from anywhere

Another assumption that often comes with rational activation campaigns is that our audience will carefully read or listen to everything we have to say before considering whether to take action. However, rational isn’t the same as deliberate – or slow. Audiences often make the decision to act quickly, and they always make it on their own schedule. It can be hard to predict how much of their attention you will have – and hard to predict exactly when they will be ready to respond.

This is why the most effective Message Ads don’t just feature a hero call to action at the end of the message. They also feature hyperlinks at relevant points earlier in the copy. This helps audiences to take control of when they act. Something similar happens with Conversation Ads that use decision trees to sequence messaging in response to the options that people choose. These options for responding to a message encourage conversation and discovery. They also ensure there’s a call to action available based on the needs of the audience and what they want to do next.

One of the most interesting findings in our video study was that people don’t have to watch a video in full to take action in response. It’s perfectly possible for video content to have a relatively low Completion Rate but a very high Click-Through Rate (CTR). This works because video ads on LinkedIn play within a Sponsored Content framework, where a call to action is always visible. Editing a video to include regular reasons to act throughout its runtime plays to this strength. You don’t have to wait until the end of a film to explain what people should do – and why.

Putting rational messages in an instinctive framework

Successful activation campaigns feature well-chosen, compelling, rational reasons to act. However, whenever you ask human beings to act, you’re not just dealing with logic. We’re instinctive and emotional creatures that make decisions based on all kinds of subtle cues and signals. These include the influential memories that we’ve already built up around a brand – but they also depend on the creative techniques used to put activation ads together. The most successful demand and lead generation campaigns know just how valuable these are.