The value of a learning culture has bypassed most B2B marketing departments. They’re missing out on a hugely powerful asset…

There’s a never-ending dialogue about the difference between B2B and B2C marketing. For me, it’s always been a bit of a spurious debate (the two clearly overlap on almost all dimensions). But one thing does seem annoyingly true of B2B marketing departments compared to their consumer peers: B2B departments don’t learn.

A new CMO walking into her new job in a B2B company ought to be able to ask for the ‘Book of Learning’ and be given a big, fat ring binder (or wiki URL).

One section might be on SEO and keyphrases; another might be on offers, promotions or campaigns that have worked or flopped; there would be a section on the state of relationships with the most influential bloggers and analysts; one summarising the results of all the multivariate tests that have been run; one on landing pages; one on email response rates; another on social media…

But there is no such thing. B2B marketers tend to stumble from one year to the next condemned to repeat their mistakes and forego the opportunities that learning creates.

This may be true of many consumer marketing departments too, but in the age of digital and e-commerce, it’s much less likely. There’s just too much at stake and the consequences of every action are too obvious and public.

Maybe the long sales cycle in many B2B markets is the culprit. Or the (unsustainable) lack of communication between marketing and sales. Or (God forbid) it’s down to the calibre of the average B2B marketer. But in my 25+ years in B2B marketing, I can count the number of true learning cultures on one hand, without dropping my iPhone.

What a learning culture looks like

A learning culture is one in which learning is an explicit company goal. It’s one that recognises that, in the digital era, we’re all lab rats; so we need someone with a white coat and clipboard to take a few notes. A learning culture does things like this:

  • Includes learning in the ‘goals’ section of every plan – not just ‘what do we want to achieve’ but also ‘what do we hope to learn’ from this program.
  • Practices post-mortems – learning organisations build in a review after just about every activity to capture the learning.
  • Includes learning in every job description and performance review – make it clear that everyone needs to be actively helping the whole group get better and better at everything.
  • Never stops testing – in Digital Land, we can test everything that moves. Why wouldn’t we? Celebrate flops – they’re never complete wastes of time and energy, they’re at the very least hugely valuable learning experiences.
  • Publicises lessons – learning is useless if it isn’t shared openly.
  • Captures experiences formally – okay, maybe not a ring binder, but if it isn’t written down somewhere, it doesn’t really exist.

As a B2B agency, we can be as guilty of letting the learning machine slow down as any client-side marketing team. But we do fight this tendency. Our recent Project Open Kimono is one example — a living B2B case study tracking our most recent content marketing campaign: the B2B Marketing Manifesto.

Just running Project Open Kimono has reminded us of the value of learning and how important lessons can hide behind the general, broad-brush sweep of a campaign (unless they’re ferreted out).

It’s never too late

The good thing about the value of learning is that the dividends start whenever you get serious about it. So even if you’ve never written down a single lesson before, you can get up to speed quite quickly.
Start building learning goals into your plans.

Assign one person to be the social media learner and another the SEO learner. Make sure they capture all lessons and share them.
Start a wiki. Revise those job descriptions and reviews. The rewards are almost instant — not just in continuously improving results, but in a new mindset that actively looks to get better tall the time.