Reading With Steve: Selling The Invisible by Harry Beckwith

Reading with Steve is a regular feature at Read product marketing and content marketing book reviews.

How is a service business like a product business? According to Harry Beckwith, the question no longer even relevant – every business is a service business.

In his marketing classic Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing, author Beckwith proves this fundamental truth, and reveals what marketers must do to win and retain customers. The content is broken down into 11 thematic sections, each containing a number of very brief anecdotes that demonstrate a fundamental marketing lesson.

Beckwith has a genius for storytelling. He has selected stories that are so compelling they make the resulting lesson seem obvious in retrospect. His skill reinforces these lessons in a way that textbooks cannot, and his consistency and brevity give the lessons more power than any how-to blog. For this reason alone, Selling the Invisible should be on your bookshelf. Pick it up, turn to any page, and gain a valuable piece of knowledge.

I count 162 lessons. If there were 365, a daily flip calendar would be the perfect format (and the perfect gift for any marketer).

selling the invisible is a classic work on B2B marketingThis book is remarkable for its ability to foresee, and shape, future trends in marketing. Though published in 1997, Selling the Invisible anticipates the digital marketing future by imparting concepts we take for granted today: Set your business apart, think continuous improvement, disrupt yourself before your competitor disrupts you, marketing is everyone’s job, improving your service is improving your marketing, market to your core competency, dominate your niche, et cetera. Beckwith proves these maxims without the B-school terminology, and without digital examples. Yet the fact that these concepts are accepted wisdom today, and part of any business school curriculum, points to Beckwith’s influence and foresight.

Most powerful is the core message that every business is a service business. This means that the marketing imperatives of an electronics maker and a software designer are the same. Businesses of all kinds keep customers based on the level of interaction they provide, on their attention to detail, on the strength of their brand. In 2015, businesses also face the leveling plain of social media, with its immediate feedback and direct customer service. Surely Beckwith could not anticipate this coming technology, yet he prepares his readers for it perfectly.

I was pleased to see Beckwith spend time with concepts of organizational behavior (again, he does not use the academic term). The science of organizational behavior uses empirical psychology to show how humans make decisions. Mastery of this discipline gives any marketer a huge advantage. Beckwith uses the section he calls “How Prospects Think” to explain such concepts as familiarity bias, recency bias, anchoring, and the halo effect. He offers the best 15-minute introduction to marketing psychology I have seen.

Even in a universally strong volume, the section on positioning stands out as a tour de force. Start with a fanatical focus on the one thing that distinguishes your business, and then position outward from there. If you cannot find this one factor, look harder until you do find it. Beckwith declares that differentiation is the starting point of any communication strategy. It is hard to disagree with him.

I particularly enjoyed Beckwith’s stories about making your marketing exciting, a concept he terms “vividness”.

With very few exceptions, each story hits home and illustrates its lesson well, but a few fall short by offering a point that is too breezy. For example, Beckwith tells the story of a passionate salesman who wins every deal by being his authentic, charismatic self. This engaging vignette closes with the advice, “You should copy him”. Suppose you are not the natural salesman of this story? What if you are affectless, and not affectionate? It cannot be possible to imitate a presenter whose very power is his authenticity. The story is terrific, however the lesson does not follow so easily. Just a few of the stories fall flat in this way.

Selling the Invisible is visionary, a series of parables that have stood for 18 years with no diminution of their power. I believe this work will still be essential for future generations of marketers.

Remember, Beckwith tells us, that your first competitor is indifference. Your alternative to reading Selling the Invisible is to read nothing at all. That choice would be a mistake.

Buy the book.


Reading With Steve: B2B A To Z by Bill Blaney

Reading with Steve is a regular feature at Read product marketing and content marketing book reviews.

B2B A to Z reminds us that modern marketing is not just a tweet here, a landing page there, and an optimized automation campaign to run it all. Bill Blaney is an agency director with many years of varied experience in digital and creative, yet despite all his enthusiasm for the newest tools, he reminds us that traditional promotions and trade shows can still be important – and indeed, ought to be the focus for certain types of businesses.

More importantly, Bill explains that the message is still the lynchpin of any marketing plan. Without creativity and inspiration, no amount of social media expertise will break through the clutter. The marketing world has not changed so much as diversified over his career.

When I first picked up B2B A To Z, I was expecting more of a reference guide. Instead, I was treated to a series of loosely connected thematic sections, interspersed with examples and anecdotes. While the book is comprehensive, A To Z feels like the wrong title for this work. I would have titled it Approaching B2B Marketing in the 21st Century.

Bill is at his best when providing inspirations from his career, for example, describing why and how he pioneered a social engagement strategy for Witchblade, a TV show, in 2000. He is funny too, wisecracking that how some B2B businesses approach social media is “like watching a polite vegan fill up his plate at a Swedish smorgasbord”. Unforgettable – and it certainly shines a bright light on the issue.

9_6_15 B2BAtoZWith the variety of sections in this book, one core observation stands out. Marketing is designed to speak to people’s wants and needs. Bill shrewdly dissects this basic observation into the core difference between consumer and business marketing: Whereas virtually all consumer purchases are based on wants, virtually all business purchases are based on needs. This difference means that good consumer marketing inevitably displays greater variety, authenticity, and unexpectedness – so that it can penetrate right to the amygdala and stimulate our desire. Advertising is “poison gas”, yet great consumer marketing can become iconic.

So why, Bill asks, don’t B2B companies learn more from B2C companies? We assume businesses have needs, not wants, so appeals that are based on feature lists, tout incremental improvements, or are simply the same as everyone else’s are par for the course. Yet these techniques don’t land. Can’t business-to-business companies study the consumer masters and learn how they generate their “simple, bold ideas”? I think this appeal is B2B A to Z’s single biggest contribution to the art.

Many of Bill’s recommendations will be second nature to experienced marketers. If you already plan your trade shows far in advance, follow up with webinar attendees within 24 hours, and have a process to respond to customer service issues brought to you via Twitter, you probably will not learn much from chapters 4-11, in which Bill comprehensively covers marketing tools and tactics.

There are a few moments in these middle chapters that miss the mark. Some of the book’s advice about using social media is borderline spammy, and seems too specific to Bill’s professional sweet spot of midcap manufacturers. A chapter on the Google Penguin update is dated, since a new budding marketer would never even consider the black-hat SEO techniques that this update famously neutralized. Numerous copy mistakes in this chapter are also particularly distracting.

But Bill’s batting average overall is All-Star level. I particularly recommend the final chapter about Bill’s own career path. It’s the most gripping part of the book, and I hope Bill considers a memoir for his next writing project.

This book gave me a lot to consider, and ought to be part of any serious B2B marketer’s home library. You won’t regret spending a few instructional hours with B2B A To Z.

Buy the book.


Reading with Steve: The Complete Guide to B2B Marketing by Kim Ann King

Reading with Steve is a regular feature at Read product marketing and content marketing book reviews.

In the first of an occasional series of book reports, I’d like to start with a modern bible of business marketing, Kim King’s awesome The Complete Guide to B2B Marketing: New Tactics, Tools, and Techniques to Compete in the Digital Economy.

Kim downloads her decades of experience into this excellent volume. It’s perfect for a beginning marketer or for anyone who wants a manual for the many aspects of B2B marketing in 2015, up to and including CMOs.

I found the book particularly helpful as a guide to the bits of the customer journey I’ve never participated in. For example, I’ve never run an outbound email program. As I read Kim’s pages on email marketing, I found myself thinking, “So this is how it’s done.” When I do find myself responsible for email I’ll come right back to this chapter. Kim is great at demystifying the processes of marketing and breaking them down into their component steps (without telling you basic things you don’t need to know – you are a professional, after all).8_30_15 completeguide

The book is organized around contemporary marketing tools and strategies. It gives you all you need to get started with important topics such as automation, personalization, and budgeting. With a judiciously curated set of references and recommended blogs, The Complete Guide also tells you where to go for more on each of these subjects.

My favorite single part was Chapter 7: Planning, in which Kim creates a step-by-step process for developing a marketing plan. I found myself taking notes and comparing her recommendation against what I’ve done in the past. I will definitely use this chapter as a starting point for any marketing plan I develop in the future.

As a “nuts and bolts” guide, this book has little to say on the topic of what makes great content. It dwells mostly on the whys and hows of content marketing. At the brief points where she discusses what effective content will contain, Kim does talk about consistency, call to action, and inspiration (excitement) – several key pillars of the MEDICAL method.

This is a volume heavy on bulleted lists and step-by-step instructions, and some chapters read entirely like a textbook. There aren’t many examples illustrating the subject matter. I would have loved more of Kim’s personality and experience interspersed in here, perhaps at least one example in each chapter that highlights the importance of what we are learning. “Show, don’t tell” is an important rule for making content that is memorable. More personal anecdotes or stories from the history of recent marketing fails and successes would improve the book.

Whether you are a marketing major or a major marketer, I strongly recommend you pick up The Complete Guide to B2B Marketing. It’s an invaluable resource, and my copy is going straight to my desk, no doubt destined to become highlighted, dog-eared, and tea-stained in the years to come.

Buy the book.