The following post was inspired by my documentary series with Drift called Exceptions, exploring why and how 10 of the best companies in B2B develop their brands. You can listen to the episode below, or read this episode's Big Idea and the 3 Questions To Ask Yourself.
Over the last few months, I've been studying the best brands in B2B. Today, I'm sharing a lesson in great brand-building from the amazing InVision and CMO Manav Khurana, Editor-at-Large Kristin Hillery, plus one of InVision's users. That lesson? Become a platform.
I don’t mean that in the product sense. I mean that in a more definitional sense: "an elevated level surface on which people can stand."
In B2B, top brands like InVision (and Gusto and Wistia, which I also profiled in this docu-series so far) are now that surface that elevates their audience. By calling out what's broken, addressing problems (not just through product, but through community & content), and rallying for a better way, B2B brands (or, said better, PEOPLE who work at B2B brands) provide something far bigger than a set of products and services. They provide a platform.
What if your B2B brand could provide the battle cry, become the rallying point, or create a sort of meeting place for your customers? To do that, you'd have to be ruthlessly customer-centric. You'd need to own customer PROBLEMS that they face... not just sell solutions. You'd also need an "insider" feel for your audience - a sense that you're for THEM, not for everyone.
Here’s what that means for you.
Today’s Big Idea: Become a Platform—Not Just a Solution
All of us in B2B know we live in a world of stiff product competition. Building an amazing product is essential to any good B2B business, as "feature parity" has truly hit every business. But our #Exceptions podcast series isn’t about how to have a good brand. It’s about how to be exceptional. So often, that requires you to figure out what makes you an exception. The best place to start that journey, as always, is your people. The collective behavior of your people, and how others feel about that behavior, creates your brand.
To take your brand from good to exceptional, your company's presence in the market has to transcend your product. Instead of thinking product first, you need to be ruthlessly customer centric; you need to become a platform.
Look, every B2B business exists to solve problems for customers. That's why a B2B company starts, but as it grows, the people can lose sight of that fact.
InVision has a blog where they invite others outside of their company to contribute. Almost every post on that much-loved site is from a product designer or design leader who doesn't work at InVision.
They also created the unbelievable design documentary, Design Disruptors. The goal of the documentary wasn't product promotion. It was simply to give a voice to those within the design industry. They recognized that product designers lacked an identity, and that this issue could hurt their customers' careers and ability to get the proverbial "seat at the table." Guess what kinds of companies buy design software? Companies who prioritize product design.
Thus, your goal in becoming a platform is to elevate the entire market, not just yourself. You fight on behalf of customers. You fix what you can, and invite others to contribute as complementary players.
Remember, the point isn’t to profess to have all the answers. You aren't on the mountaintop, passing down your wisdom from on high. Instead, the goal is to raise everyone up from underneath. That's a true platform. In the end, an exceptional B2B brand is an active participant in their community, championing the problems within the industry.
Ask yourself: Are you more than just a solutions provider or a vendor? Are you a platform for your audience, for their career aspirations, their pains, their companies? Do you constantly and loudly articulate that you understand them, that you are them, and that you will work to elevate them?
Become a platform.
3 Questions to Help You Build Your Brand
Question #1: Do You Love to Hate Stuff?
Let’s be crystal clear: I’m not talking about being pessimistic or cynical. I'm talking about being optimistic and supportive. Doing so requires that you call out whatever feels broken in your space, to your customers. Hate the status quo. Fight for a better way. And invite customers along for that journey.
Think about product managers. Many people believe great PMs are phenomenal solutions providers. But that’s not true: What makes a PM great is their unique ability to constantly call out the problem. They sit with customers, understand them, intimately know their problems such that the PMs' colleagues (engineering) know how to build great solutions.
Great PMs don't just own solutions; they own problems. They intimately and truly understand the issues of their position and their department better than anyone.
Exceptional B2B marketers are the same. They understand the problems of their industry better than anyone else, and they passionately and loudly call them out.
So, you have to fall in love with spotting problems and rallying others together to fight against them ... just as much as you love providing solutions yourself.
Do you love to hate stuff?
Question #2 Are You Finding Small, Recurring Pockets Within Your Projects to Build Community?
InVision does this by constantly sending out content with inside jokes only designers would truly understand. In fact, they have an editor-at-large (Kristin Hillery, who appears in the episode) who has owned this for years, first as editor-in-chief, and now in her new role.
I think about SportsCenter on ESPN as a great example thanks to their “Top Plays Countdown” —10 different top moments of the day in sports, shared at the end of the program. They use the same graphic, same intro music . . . you get the idea.
Essentially, that kind of thing rallies people around the show or brand. Viewers look forward to it. They’re "in on it," and it feels good. Why? Because if you watch SportsCenter, you look forward to the countdown as someone who is now part of something larger. You are in the community.
I try to do this in my weekly newsletters. There’s a quick aside I sometimes make about a character who always frustrates me or botches things named Larry. I’ll call him out by saying, “Ah, damn it Larry!” or, "Freakin' Larry..."
Sure, this sounds cheesy, but it was a joke I felt good about once, and I continued to use it in other spots until it felt like an inside joke to all.
It builds community. So does ESPN. So does InVision.
Do you? Find little pockets of your projects and, rather than spending money, spend the time to do so.
Question #3 Are You Collecting Qualitative Feedback?
In today’s world, everyone collects quantitative feedback, and there are numbers on every demographic. That data is helpful, but does it capture the emotional aspect of what your audience says and feels?
First of all, consider what data really "is" in the first place: information stored for future use. Qualitative feedback and quantitative results are both forms of "real" data. If you are not somehow capturing, collecting, and referencing the thoughts and emotions of your customers about your product, the industry, their problems, their joys, their experiences, and so on, then you are completely missing a huge and valuable source of data.
InVision takes this seriously. Before every marketing meeting, they begin by introducing quotes from their customers about a recent project or the industry at large. This drives the meeting and re-focuses the team on their real goal underscoring every project: building a platform for their community. Manav called this the "three Ps" of InVision marketing: people, process, and platform. In any project, like for instance a series of articles or their documentary film, they care about the people first, profiling the designer or design leader as named individuals whenever possible. Then, they address the process of design more generally. Lastly, they relate things back to their platform (meant in the product sense here, i.e. InVision's software). He didn't share the breakdown with me, but I'd guess they focus 97% of their efforts in marketing on the people and process Ps and 3% on their own products.
So, just because your analytics tools don't capture the emotions of your audience, doesn't excuse you from not needing to take that seriously. Collect this data yourself, or risk missing out on valuable information to fuel your marketing.
Are you collecting qualitative feedback?