Back in the mid-80s, three of my siblings and I shared a rather nontraditional yuletide tradition. And ultimately, it had everything to do with B2B messaging.

On Christmas Eve, with gifts wrapped, cider mulled, pudding figged and halls decked, the four of us – all teenagers – would each curl up in an afghan.

We’d hit the remote, and within moments, bliss out to the slightly warped-sounding, creased-VHS-warbled opening tune of Rod Stewart’s Infatuation.

A Family Tradition

See, our holiday tradition wasn’t exactly It’s a Wonderful Life. Nope. Our younger-half-of-the-family favorite was The Sure Thing, a film rarely glimpsed on Top 100 Christmas Movies lists.

Most people who’ve watched it have to think a moment before recollecting that yes, technically, it meets the criteria for (barely) passing as a holiday flick.

Admittedly, it lacks the key ingredients to etch it forever into the nostalgia chamber of a society’s collective Noel. You know: things like Santa, a nativity story, jingle bells, roast beast, inanimate objects springing magically to life, John McClane announcing Yippee ki-yay…

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire… Jack Frost nipping at your nose…

But it’s got lots going in its favor, too.

    1. The Sure Thing takes place over a college Christmas break.
    1. It plays up the vagaries of holiday travel.
    1. It puts an old year to rest, along with old, tired, immature expectations
  1. And it turns to the new one full of earnestness and maturity and hope and fresh opportunities.

So yes. It counts.

Bonus: it forever makes you think of a trough of Spritzer anytime you hear The Christmas Song.

(Double bonus: we were teenagers, and it starred John Cusack. ‘Nuff said.)

Targeting your audience

My siblings moved on, but it remains an annual tradition in my household, so the film’s brilliant script remains fresh. I confess I’ve even classified some of its more quotable cinematic gems into marketing lessons.

Take this definitive monologue, spoken to the lead character Gib by his unlikely Lothario of a roommate, as a canned script to recite to any girl he wants to date:

You know, I’ve never met anyone like you before. Usually when I meet someone new, I feel awkward and shy. But with you it’s different. I can talk to you. You know what I’m thinking without my having to explain to you in fancy terms. We speak each other’s unspoken language… fluently. I love you.

It’s a great example of a message that focuses on the audience, right? After all, it’s all about “you.”

The problem – well, one of them, anyway! – is that even though this pitch uses certain tactics of persuasive copywriting – persistence, rapport, flattery, heart-strings – it’s just generic boilerplate. It’s not tailored to the recipient.

Everything wrong with 80s teen-movie pickup lines is still wrong with manipulative sales copy today.

People who fall for a message like this are going to be disappointed when it fails to pay off, and people who don’t are going to keep their guard up even more stubbornly.

Or whack you in the head and then kick you when you’re down, as Gib’s love interest Alison does to him when he tries the line out on her.

As every smart marketer knows, and as Gib knew even as he cringed his way through it, the message was not developed with her situation in mind.

More than half the movie shows Gib wasting his time and effort following “expert” advice for tricking his love interest into engaging with him, instead of spending a little bit of time and effort engaging with her to learn what makes her tick.

And that’s what bugs us about many copywriting and content marketing tricks and tactics taught today:

    • “Use the word ‘you’ more.”
    • “Reword the features as benefits.”
    • “Imply scarcity to exploit people’s desires and needs.”
    • “Start with statements people agree with to make them more receptive to your message.”

They’re just ploys, not messaging strategies.

Stop substituting cheap tricks for great B2B messaging.

But if it works for thousands of online marketers and copywriters – and it does – how can we argue with results?

Good point. We can’t.

Just as The Sure Thing roommate’s “enormous pile of horse —” pickup line will work on the eager coed who’s vulnerable enough to click on it, today’s copywriting tricks are still effective in convincing thousands of consumers-on-the-cusp to open their wallets.

But tricks have no place in B2B messaging, where trust and credibility are vital for retaining customers for the long term.

The real trick is listening.

Manipulation, ploys and wordplay will cost you credibility, loyalty, and reputation. But there is still one trick you can use: listening.

    • Flip the microphone and let buyers provide the core messaging. You can work with Sales to find the ones who won’t be shy about what’s bugging them and how they make their buying decisions.
    • Fuel your B2B messaging with insights you uncover about your clients’ customers and industries.
    • Transition from old-school sales methodologies, and create content that’s less focused on hyping your own features and benefits. (We use Challenger-trained, Pragmatic-bred marketers as our content writers.)

Listening works. It works for buyers, it works for our clients, and it works for the content and campaigns we create.

In fact, as we enter into the new year in a B2B world that’s ever more skeptical about marketers making marginal claims, we’re doubling down. We’re decreeing this year the Year of Listening and you’ll see us covering a lot more about this topic in coming blogs.

Here’s why:

In B2B messaging, the goal of each sentence is to get the right audience to read the next sentence – and the next – and understand why they should take the call to action. The strategy for accomplishing this shouldn’t be “what tricks can we use to exploit the reader?” but rather “what does the reader want or need to know?”

Put the buyer first.

And the only way to do that in B2B messaging is to listen first. The writing comes after.

Anyway, that’s what effective marketing is – it’s about, you know, the market. It’s not merely convincing. It’s listening to customers and prospects, and reflecting their needs in your offering.

In The Sure Thing, Gib finally achieved success [spoiler alert – if it’s possible to spoil a film 32 years later] when he not only changed his message to more closely reflect his ideal buyer, but also changed himself to become more ideal for her.

See, there is always something to be learned from an 80s movie.

The year of listening.

This is our commitment at Knowmads: we will highlight much more of this listening perspective in our B2B messaging and others’, and share our findings, methods, surprises, and results throughout the year.

In the process, we’ll all become better marketers and writers. That’s a sure thing.