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What Does the Fox Say? B2B Companies Need Visual Style

What does the fox say

As storytelling becomes more and more part of marketing, another trend has emerged: Brands have become more visual.

In the business-to-business space, this means companies are loosening up a bit, producing content with a greater emphasis on visual style and design and with a more compelling visual storyline. That’s happening on visual platforms like Pinterest and Instagram and in social media, of course — Ekaterina Walter and DunkinDonuts’ Jessica Giglio have a book coming out in March about that. But it’s also happening with the tried and true tactics like ebooks.

My friend Lee Odden at TopRank Marketing has become a master at incorporating a compelling visual theme (two great examples are here and here); so has Doug Kessler at Velocity Partners. Working with Scorch, Jason Miller at LinkedIn recently produced an e-book featuring some of its marketing influencers (including me) as portly snowmen and women.

People like pictures, as Doug Kessler says: If you can tell your story with a picture, he adds… “well, you probably should.”

Another example of business-casual visual style

Since I’m always looking for good new examples, I like the latest e-book from Marketo, The Definitive Guide to Lead Generation, released last week. It takes a complex topic (lead generation) and communicates it a stylish, fun, accessible business-casual style, dismembering a beast of a topic with a series of checklists, charts, and bulleted how-tos. (Is dismembering a beast a gross analogy… ? Ha!)

I like that the text makes lead generation seem (relatively) simple, but it never makes the reader feel stupid, which I believe is key to effective content.

And probably because I am a sucker for animals, I like the ebook’s visual style, which features a slew of pets owned by people who work in marketing at Marketo (a Westie, a beagle, a few mutts, a Hermit crab, and what appears to be a Pomeranian) along with a fox (who’s from Sales — funny).

It’s a marketing menagerie that lends a lighthearted visual punch line to what might’ve otherwise been a buttoned-up how-to featuring advice and experts (including me and many others who work in content, B2B marketing, and so on).

It underscores a point we made in Content Rules about the opportunity of e-books (quoting Jonathan Kranz):

What’s the difference between an e-book and a white paper? A white paper is a guy in a grey flannel suit: a man of stature who wants to establish authority by demonstrating what he knows in a formal manner. The e-book, meanwhile, is the colleague in a Hawaiian shirt who sits next to you at the bar, eager to share insights hard won through experience.

Dayna Rothman, who wrote and produced the guide for Marketo, says the visual aspect of the guide was as important as the text. It’s “tough to immediately envision what an abstract concept like ‘lead generation’ would look like,” said Dayna, whose boxer Haley is featured in the first chapter. (Her cat Moof appears in chapter 2, and Eggs the Argentinean mastiff mix is the star of chapter 4.) Dayna and dog

Side note: I would’ve played up the pet aspect of this piece a little more, because it’s  not obvious that this collection of animals are real pets that belong to real people. Why not use that to convey a bit of personality and humanity…?

I  like how Marketo plans to extend the theme through reimagining (not just repackaging!) the content. From one of its heavyweight guides, like this one, a content-centric company like Marketo can generate as many as 20 or more additional ebooks, cheatsheets, and checklists. “We are using some personalized aspects of this campaign in our demand gen emails—for instance, the emails are coming from a member of the marketing team whose pet is featured,” Dayna said.

There’s a good lesson in there for squeezing every last drop out of every content asset you produce.

By the way, you’d think that a 160-page guide about lead generation by Marketo would be one massive 16o-page commercial for Marketo, right? Well, it’s not.

Smart marketers know how to strike the balance between useful and yet on-brand —letting their expertise speak for them, versus shouting their brand-centric messaging. As MarketingProfs and the Content Marketing Institute found in our 2014 joint content marketing research, e-books are a great way to deliver a lot of value comprehensively and dynamically: 34% of marketers said they rely on e-books as a content marketing tactic, while 57% of them consider e-books to be an effective tactic. (Full research on Slideshare.)

Check out Marketo’s Menagerie (err… lead generation guide!) here.

FYI: It’s gated behind a lead form. Here’s why, for those of you who wrestle with this issue: Marketo determines its gating strategy by what stage in the buying funnel the content aligns to. Early-stage content is never gated, as it’s designed to spread awareness and incite engagement. Neither is “late stage” (customer testimonials and pricing sheets), because Marketo figures it already has your information.

“Mid-stage content” like this guide (or ROI calculators, and other assets that align closer to its core competency of marketing automation) are gated, since they are “such a huge piece of thought leadership for us,” Dayna said. “A ton of time gets put into perfecting the copy, creating engaging design, and launching the guide, so we want to collect lead information off of who downloaded the guide.”

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33 Responses to What Does the Fox Say? B2B Companies Need Visual Style

  1. Jose Sanchez says:

    Totally agreed, Ann. I would also add that, with so much content being produced these days, brands can differentiate themselves from the rest and break through the clutter by communicating a visual identity through their content marketing. This means not only creating and sharing compelling visuals, but also providing breaks and visual hierarchy to all content pieces (bullets lists, charts, text styles, etc).

  2. Doug Kessler says:

    If your comments section allowed pictures I’d post a photo of me with both thumbs up. As it doesn’t, I will attempt an emoticon (Wish me luck):







  3. Christina says:

    And people identify with a (real) story, not a product…some very wise lady taught me;) Thanks Ann – and I agree, b2b ned to loosen up a bit (putting on the Hawaiian shirt once in a while:-)

  4. Christina says:

    Ups – need (Not ned) thx iPad ;)

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  9. DJ Waldow says:


    As always, thanks for the Marketo love. We really appreciate it. You do know that we’ve learned from the best, right? CONENT RULES is required reading at Marketo.

    And your “side note” about playing up pet aspect? Good call.

  10. I can’t decide if this trend towards B2B visual advertising is simply the latest fad or just another example of “dumbing down” by marketers towards the public.

    I dunno'; maybe it’s both.

    • Ann Handley says:

      Hi Ken – I don’t see it as “dumbing down” information. I see it as loosening up and making the text more artful and appealing. In other words, I see it as an end to dense white papers — and taking advantage of an opportunity to create narratives that are a whole lot more engaging.

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  12. Lee Odden says:

    Being mentioned in the same sentence as Doug Kessler about visual marketing? By Ann Handley? Sah-weet! (you are so generous Ann, thank you)

    I’m writing something about this myself and I think it’s interesting how relevant Aristotle’s “On Rhetoric” and the modes of persuasion are to the topic: ethos, pathos, and logos – especially pathos. So much of B2B marketing is focused on the credibility of the brand and the logic of things, the “information”.

    Beyond the facts, visual experiences are pretty powerful for connecting with B2B humans. Imagine that!

    I don’t think getting the right information to the right people is enough anymore. Creating an experience they can feel and connect to at some emotional level is what smarties like MarketingProfs (love the comics), Marketo and LinkedIn are doing with their visually focused content.

    Oh crap. I’m sure I’ve broken some rule about writing a blog comment more than 50 characters and referencing Greek philosophers. Surely Tom Fishburne has a cartoon about that?

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  17. says:

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  18. First of all, well differentiation of e-book and white paper. You are absolutely right, today’s digital marketers give much importance to content. However, new innovative social mediums like Instagram provide a best opportunity to enhance your business profile with creativity of pictures.

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  21. Unmana says:

    Pet photos are always cool. I’ve seen a business blog or two do this as well — instant generation of interest.

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