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Roundtable: Navigating B2B Marketing in an Election Year

By Abby O'Connor

Conversations change during presidential election years in the U.S. Online discourse, media coverage, and everyday discussions take on political undertones as the upcoming election implores Americans to explore their country’s most complex issues.

I sat down with three of INK’s brand communications experts to explore all the nuances of running B2B communications programs during an election year. Should you stay your course and avoid alienating stakeholders? Or do you take advantage of the focus on politics and speak to relevant topics and election outcomes that could impact your business? 

Our experts shared actionable advice for companies still smoothing out their election year strategy — which isn’t as easy as deciding to take a stance or to stay neutral.

B2B Comms Challenges in an Election Year

Abby O’Connor, Moderator: November is quickly approaching. What are the unique challenges and opportunities for B2B businesses and marketers this election year?

Caitlin New, Vice President, Communications: Election year challenges and opportunities depend on your industry. If you work in energy, tech, or finance, the election could heavily influence your business, and your stakeholders will look at your communications through a politically charged lens. Many brands struggle with not wanting to be divisive while needing to speak to policy changes and share instructive insights with their audiences.

Paige Buescher, Director, Content: While it can be a challenge to ensure readers don’t misconstrue your content as partisan during an election year, there’s also an opportunity to be relevant in important conversations. By covering election-related topics, B2B tech companies can show how relevant their technology or company is and highlight their value. Still, we live in an incredibly divisive time, so staying in the conversation and avoiding bias is a delicate balance.

Traci Mazurek, Vice President, Digital: Misinformation and conspiracy theories are rampant. We particularly see this in conversations around the energy industry, which includes politically charged topics like climate change. Brands that can back up their statements through original data and/or citing reputable sources have an opportunity to establish themselves as trustworthy thought leaders during the election cycle and beyond.

The Enduring Impact of 2020

Abby: This is the first presidential election since 2020, a year marked by a global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Will businesses continue to address politically charged issues, or are we in a different climate where there isn’t such a universal obligation to speak up?

Caitlin: As communicators in 2020, we all had a collective “a-ha” moment as brands everywhere realized they had never defined their role in addressing societal issues. Companies were quick to speak up and amplify their corporate citizenship efforts.

Now, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction for many business executives and investors. Take DEI and ESG initiatives, for example. A lot of companies are becoming more moderate in their approach. They’ve realized it takes a long time and hard work to address systemic inequities or environmental issues, so they are prioritizing incremental progress over sweeping changes. Any time you make significant progress, there will be some pushback, but every step forward is a good step.

Traci: I agree. Companies are still recovering from COVID-19 and its massive impacts on their businesses, with many trying to grow their revenue back to pre-pandemic levels or just stay flat from last year. Because of this, they may not want to run the risk of seeming politically inclined in one way or the other and alienating potential audiences that can benefit their bottom line.

Leveraging the Election for Relevance

Abby: For companies that want to speak to political topics, how can they best leverage the election to stay relevant while staying authentic to their brand?

Caitlin: As we get closer to November, many brands will try to leverage the election for coverage. You will have to find things nobody else is saying or commenting on to get journalists’ attention. Luckily, you still have time to get ahead of things. If you want to ensure journalists include your brand in election-related conversations, start talking to reporters and prioritizing those media relationships now. You don’t want reporters to hear about you for the first time when you’re reaching out about a hot topic.

Paige: In pitches or content, if you have to stretch too much to tie your content into the election, that’s probably a sign to pull back. Your content should be relevant to your brand, not just applicable to current events.

Traci: Absolutely. Your content also has to be unique. We’re starting to see more brands moving away from the we have to post every day just for the sake of posting” digital strategy—thank goodness! They’re prioritizing quality over quantity, which is where thought leadership and research reports come into play. Original sentiments and proprietary information will help you provide a distinct, valuable perspective on relevant topics and break through the noise.

Staying Out of the Election Conversation

Abby: What about the businesses that don’t want to participate in the election conversation? Are they doing themselves a disservice? What if staying neutral is better aligned with their brand?

Traci: This goes back to Paige’s previous point. If it feels like a stretch, it’s probably not a fit for your brand. However, some industries are inherently more affected by political outcomes than others. If you are in one of these industries, staying neutral might cut you off from relevant conversations. You don’t have to address the election in your content specifically; you can speak about current issues and the political landscape without being overt or partisan.

Paige: You also have to think about how your communications will impact your customers and readers. If you work in a highly regulated industry, then chances are that the election will also impact your customers. They’re looking for guidance and advice from you. So, you can’t think only about whether staying “neutral” is doing a disservice to your brand. You have to, more importantly, ask yourself if you’re doing a disservice to your customers.

Caitlin: Brands considering neutrality should ask themselves four questions: Does addressing the election align with our company strategy? Can we meaningfully address the election and its outcomes? Will our customers and stakeholders want to hear from us on these issues? Will our employees want to hear from us on these issues? 

If the answer is “yes” to all four questions, you are in a good position to take a “leader” approach to industry commentary regarding the election. Leaders communicate before anyone else because people want to hear from you on the issues at hand.

If you answer “yes” to only some of the questions, you could choose a follower approach. Followers have commentary, but they may wait to see what other industry leaders say before putting out messaging. Or you could take a listener approach, which is still an active role even if you’re not actively communicating. Listeners create open spaces in their companies for employees, customers, and stakeholders to ask questions and share their concerns without repercussions. In the end, remember that you can be an expert and trusted voice without saying anything bold and incendiary.

How B2B Brands Can Prepare for the Election

Katie: To wrap things up, what is your best advice for businesses currently preparing for the upcoming election cycle?

Caitlin: Whether you decide to be a leader, follower, or listener, you need to prepare for different election outcomes ahead of time. Consider various scenarios: If you’re a clean hydrogen company and the country elects a president who promises to slow the energy transition, how will you address that? What if the next president promises to expedite clean energy legislation?  

Then, interview your thought leaders for their insights on addressing different outcomes. Get your executives and board on the same page so no messaging comes out of left field. Come November, you should already have a messaging framework solidified so that when it’s time, you can act quickly.

Traci: While we think of TV as the traditional medium for political ads, this year, we expect to see a 156% spike in digital political ad spend from 2020, particularly for Meta and Google. Brands need to prepare to budget more for digital throughout EOY; political advertising is only going to increase as we get closer to November, meaning more competition in the auctions and higher CPMs.

Paige: Be authentic in your content. Try to ground yourself and your copy in your brand’s messaging and overall purpose. It’s very obvious and often disingenuous when brands try to use a bright spotlight to make themselves seem more relevant. Just because a topic is hot across national news doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to your brand or customers.  

Also, make sure you’re not writing blatantly partisan content or content with the goal of making everyone happy — you’re never going to. If a reader wants to find a political tilt or partisan tone in your writing, they will find it. Focus on being authentic and speaking to topics that align with your brand.

Traci: That’s a great point for social, too. There will always be people with something to say, and that’s okay. Prioritize your audiences that will gain value from what you have to say, and don’t make comments or reactions the metrics for success; look at the full spectrum of your social metrics to better evaluate performance and sentiment.