Soft Sell vs Hard Sell B2B Marketing

Soft sell vs Hard sell. Also known as brand messaging vs conversion copywriting. Also known as direct vs brand marketing.

Most providers of B2B products and services think they should adopt a light sell for their service. They don’t like the hard sell because it feels bossy and demanding. Hard sell B2B marketing makes them feel uncomfortable.

In fact, Ford made a killing in the 80s and 90s by introducing a car line whose entire value proposition is that it would be extremely soft sell. It was and it sold well for quite a while, despite being a mediocre product for its non-negotiable price.

In fact, there is a bias in business to business marketing against the hard sell. I think this bias exists for good reason. Consider the following stereotypes of business customers vs individual consumers:

  1. Services pitched to business customers are likely to be more expensive and you can’t hard-sell something that’s expensive
  2. Business customers are more sophisticated than consumers or have a cultural bias against commercialism
  3. Business customers are more likely to have researched the product or service they intend to purchase

Mom, get this house now!

Now ask yourself – how true are those statements?

Consider the cost argument – you can’t hard sell something because it’s expensive. First of all, define expensive. Exactly, it’s relative. Second of all define cost. Is it a cost or an investment.

If you see an opportunity for your parents to purchase an expensive home, but you know it’s a great value, do you give them the hard sell of the soft sell.

“Well, you might want to consider  a home like this one” or “Mom, get this house now!”

When you write marketing copy, and you believe in what you’re selling, hard-selling might be in your reader’s best interests.

People are people, whether at work or not

Is a business customer less more wary of being sold to at work than when she’s in the checkout aisle of the grocery store?

First of all – who cares?

Second of all – it completely depends on your customer.

The cultural bias question is tricky and hard to measure. I was in a pre-contract meeting with a major cultural institution based in Washington D.C. once. One of my colleagues said, towards the end of the meeting, “Is there anything else I can do to make you feel more comfortable buying our services”?

You could hear the tension in the room in the awkward silence that followed. These clients were sophisticated professionals with graduate degrees. They lived lives insulated from direct or even indirect sales pitches. This was a violation.

Or so I felt then. Having reflected on that precise moment several times over the past few years in considering the “salesy-ness” of copy and approach, now I’m not so sure. For one thing, who cares whether a transaction is awkward? Isn’t the end goal to make a match of the ideal customer and their ideal product?

Don’t try hard sell B2B marketing without research

I think I was wrong to conclude from experiences like that though, that a high-sell pitch is a wrong approach. It completely depends on (a) your customer demographics and psychographics and (b) their market awareness.

The buyer’s market sophistication, as established by Eugene Schwartz Breakthrough Advertising, is not a reference to how many graduate degrees your customer has but to their understanding of their own business problem and the capacity for the market to address that problem.

He describes that dynamic using progressive stages of sophistication paradigm as outlined below:

  1. The Most Aware: Your prospect knows your product, and only needs to know “the deal.”
  2. Product-Aware: Your prospect knows what you sell, but isn’t sure it’s right for him.
  3. Solution-Aware: Your prospect knows the result he wants, but not that your product provides it.
  4. Problem-Aware: Your prospect senses he has a problem but doesn’t know there’s a solution.
  5. Completely Unaware: No knowledge of anything except, perhaps, his own identity or opinion.

The general idea is that the sell-quotient should be pitched the prospect’s stage in the buying journey. Stage 2, for example, might be the place where it makes sense to make the hardest sell, providing the most reasons, evidence, and buy-urgency.

This is also an extremely useful lens through which to make a decision about what marketing channel to use, by the way.

But by itself, it’s not enough. Personality does matter. A lot. In the end, people are people. How would you sell to someone you were in a conversation with, one person to another, given everything you know about that person. How hard or how soft would your pitch be?

There you have the answer to how hard to sell in your marketing copy, and the only way to get it is through research.