What does it take to plan and execute a winning B2B marketing strategy? How do you come up with the right formula to approach your market? You’ll find a zillion articles talking about “best practices,” but you’d be wise to approach them with a healthy dose of skepticism. While adhering to best practices might sound like a safe bet, it’s also a guaranteed way to get lost in the crowd. Don’t fall for it.

Let’s step back and think about what a best practice is in the first place. By definition, it is a way of doing something that’s been proven to work. It’s results have been proven to work — again, and again and again. But here’s the rub: by the time something gets classified as a best practice, it’s also become a common practice. And that is where the trouble begins.

In marketing, if you think and act differently, you can reap great rewards. Those who follow the crowd — the most fervent disciples in the house of best practices — aren’t able to distinguish themselves. They look, sound and go to market just like everyone else.

In this post, I explore three everyday B2B marketing techniques that many people would call best practices. In fact, they are traps. Traps that can hold your firm back and stunt your growth.

Best Practice 1: Ask Your Clients to Refer You

Every B2B and professional services firm under the sun relies on referrals for a substantial part — if not the majority — of its business. What kinds of folks are in the best position to refer you? Your loyal and satisfied clients are there for you. They know you best and are happy to spread the good word, right?

The problem is that selling for you is not at the top of their lists, and usually they don’t think about you until they are asked. But wait, you’ve got that covered because you stay in front of your past and current clients and make it a point to politely ask them to refer you. Surely that will help keep you and your firm top-of-mind and they should bring you up in conversations.

Or will it?

Why You Should Steer Clear

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for referrals, don’t bank on it to produce results that will move the needle. Asking for referrals is like asking someone to be your friend. In reality, the good feelings are either already there, or they’re probably never going to be. Worse, the act of asking could actually create a negative impression.

By their nature, client-based referrals are also limited to the number of clients a firm has worked with. And that’s probably not sufficient reach to take your firm’s growth the to the next level.

Hinge’s research confirms this suspicion: less than 1% of firms cite not asking for referrals as a reason they don’t receive more of them. Clearly, asking is not a primary driver of referrals.

In addition, our research show that four out of five firms receive many referrals from people whom they don’t even know!

That’s because many referrals are based not on personal connections or experience but on a firm’s expertise and reputation in the marketplace.

This is also the best kind of referral because reputation can be amplified by increasing your firm’s visibility. And there are well-understood ways to do that.

Best Practice 2: Use Advertising to Build Brand Awareness

Advertising reaches a lot of eyeballs. And whether you are running ads in print or online, you will know with reasonable accuracy how many people are exposed to your ads. We all know that people build familiarity with a firm over time and after multiple exposures to its brand. Every ad a person sees is one more opportunity to remember and reinforce your brand. Ads also give you exceptional control over your message. So what’s not to love about advertising?

Why You Should Run For The Hills

Got money to burn? Advertising and brand awareness are of limited value when you don’t have a huge ad budget. You simply won’t get enough ad impressions to make a brain impression. Most people have conditioned themselves to pay little attention to ads, so it takes a lot of wasted impressions to start building familiarity. Factor in what it costs to get into the media channels that you really want, and you’ll realize that you aren’t likely to see much ROI for months or years. And with professional services’ long sales cycles, you may never know if your ad spend resulted in revenues.

Buyers also know that advertising is a promise that comes with little, if any, proof. In today’s ad-saturated culture, people are suspicious of advertising claims. So your carefully calibrated message could get minimal traction.

When Hinge Marketing asked firms and expert marketers to rank a list of 15 common marketing techniques, ads came in dead last.

There’s a better way to build brand awareness. Use the expertise you already have in your firm. You know that most of your clients face a similar set of challenges. So if you write, speak or produce videos about these challenges — as well as techniques companies can use to overcome them — you will begin developing a reputation for expertise.

Unlike paid advertising, educational content allows people to experience your expertise. And that builds trust. Invest in promoting these educational materials —in online search, social media and other channels. That will build a large audience quickly.

Once you crunch the numbers, you’ll likely spend considerably less than the cost of a robust ad campaign. But you will reach a much larger audience in a more credible and relevant way. Best of all, by the time these more educated prospects contact you for a proposal, they will already feel like they know you. In many cases, they will prefer you.

Best Practice 3: Use Face-to-face Networking to Establish Trust

I’ve saved the best or last. We all know that there’s nothing like meeting people in person to put a human face on your firm’s brand and build trust. It’s widely believed that meeting the right people at networking events establishes a rapport that can’t be achieved any other way. How about playing a round of golf with a prospect, or taking them out for a meal, to create a special bond? Basically, face-to-face networking gets you in front of new people every week — which sounds like the bedrock of a great B2B marketing strategy. Right?

Why You Should Get Off This Train:

Bottom line: your time is valuable. Unless you have nothing better to do, networking in person is an extremely expensive way to spend your time.

Let’s be real. Most professionals can’t afford to attend networking events more than a few times a month. To make measurable progress, you have to spend a considerable amount of time with someone to get to know them, which limits the number of contacts you can make at each event.

Then there’s this inconvenient truth: many people in your target audience never even attend networking events! Their time is valuable, too.

And as anyone who has invested in networking knows, you are going to spend as much time talking to people who want to sell to you, as you will to your prospective buyers.

Fortunately, there’s a better way. More and more, buyers are finding their service firms online. According to Hinge’s research, only 3.4 percent of firms find that attending networking events increases the probability of receiving referrals.

Instead, invest a portion of your business development time in professional online networking tools, such as LinkedIn (including LinkedIn groups), to connect with large groups of people in your target audience. Add your point of view and expert advice to online conversations, establishing yourself as an authority and credible problem solver.

Take a cue from the anti-advertising approach and point people to valuable educational pieces that you or your firm has written, but don’t be overtly promotional.

Over time, you’ll gain the trust of a much larger audience — one that extends well outside your local area. Don’t be surprise if you develop a national, and perhaps international, following.

Take The Path Less Travelled – And Do It Well

There is nothing inherently wrong with these three marketing best practices. Each will produce the occasional lead and new client. But if you want to supercharge your marketing efforts and make the most of your limited resources, there are much more effective and efficient ways to achieve the same objectives.

If you want to achieve better results, steer clear of the “best practices trap.” Best practices are the devious sirens of B2B marketing strategy. They seduce you with promises of easy efficacy and safety — but when you embrace them they’ll lull you into a dangerous complacency. You might not snap out of it until its too late.

In an increasingly connected world, the rules of marketing are changing. To make your mark, you need to become an active participant in your marketplace. And to win in today’s fragmented markets, you must hold each of your B2B marketing strategies accountable.

Avoid the best practice trap and adapt your approach to the continuously changing marketplace around you — or risk becoming irrelevant.

Additional Resources:

How Hinge Can Help:

Hinge has developed a comprehensive program, The Visible Firm® to deliver greater visibility, growth and profits. This customized program will identify the most practical offline and online marketing tools your firm will need to gain new clients and reach new heights.

Karl Feldman