When new clients seek out our services, they naturally have a lot of questions. When it comes to content, these questions tend to center on our ability to understand the language of a particular profession and audience: Will we be able to capture their company’s voice? Can we write about complex technical and scientific material? How do we decide which topics are relevant to their target audience?
While these are all very relevant concerns, they actually speak to the easier aspects of our work—easy in that they refer to very straightforward elements of our content creation process. They involve questions that lead to very clear-cut answers—answers found through basic empirical research, merely a matter of collecting the right information.
As in any profession, the more complex and exciting aspects of our work are those that cannot be answered in programmatic ways, but which require ongoing thought, judgment, and creativity. When it comes to content creation, one of the more complex dimensions of the process involves anticipating and strategically building on the diverse contexts that inform how the meaning of content will be received and understood by audiences.
After all, marketing is fundamentally about the effective communication of information from a sender to a receiver, speaker to audience, producer to consumer, company to client, and so on. And communication is effective only to the extent that the person interpreting the message attaches a meaning to the message that is relatively similar to the meaning intended by the person transmitting it.
We tend to see communication as a straight path between two ends: A message is sent from a source and travels in a direct line to a receiver, where it is then interpreted and understood as intended by the source. However, communication is never this straightforward. Communication takes place in the messy real world. And all this wonderful messiness tends to complicate that line linking the source and intended destination of a message. For better or worse, all kinds of factors can intervene to influence, interrupt, mess, meddle, and otherwise tweak the fragile harmony between the intended and interpreted meaning of a message. And, consequently, there is no guarantee that the person interpreting your message will draw the meaning you intended .
Cultural differences, of course, often play an essential role in how different people interpret messages.
In the world of B2B marketing, the cultural differences that lead to misunderstanding often emerge from cultural differences specific to particular professions. It may seem odd to think of a profession as a category of cultural difference. When we speak of cultural differences, we tend to think of these differences in nationality, region, or ethnicity. We think of cultural difference in these terms because they take place on a larger and thus more noticeable scale. Going to another country, the cultural differences stand out as obvious, unavoidable, even overwhelming: Everything can seem different—the language, the clothing, the food, the buildings. Everything.
When we do speak of cultural differences in the context of professional life, they tend to focus on differences of cultural identity within a single profession, not as cultural differences between professions themselves. Unlike national and ethnic cultural differences, cultural differences specific to professions emerge on a smaller scale. And small-scale cultural differences—for instance, differences in the common topics of conversation at a tech company when compared to conversations that take place in a law office—are subtler than the very obvious cultural differences between China and the U.S. And it’s the subtlety of cultural difference between professions that can make it that much more difficult to anticipate potential points of misunderstanding between professional worlds. Like any cultural context, however, professions each possess their own cultural mix of shared meanings, conventions, practices and values. And this cultural mix can scramble the intended meaning of a message.
And, because it involves the creation and distribution of information between professions, effective B2B marketing means effective Cross-Professional Communication: The ability to speak to and across the often-unseen differences that shape the knowledge and norms of different professions. As with other forms of cross-cultural communication, communicating across professions requires developing a finely tuned awareness of the codes and norms that shape how a message will be understood in a particular professional setting.
What does it mean to understand something?
Anticipating how misunderstandings can emerge between different professional cultures requires imagination. After all, effective writing requires the ability to imagine the ways in which specific audiences may understand your message. You also need to know something about how people construct understandings of information relative to their own backgrounds—particularly, their professional training.
Imagine, for example, that you are a highly educated business professional—an MBA—recently employed as the financial manager of a hospital. (I focus on the example of a business professional because business tends to operate as the dominant common language in the marketing industry: As a profession, marketing emerges from a business culture.) As a business professional, you have previous experience as a financial manager in a private company, but you have no experience in the health sector. Professionally speaking, the medical industry is a new culture.
The first thing you want to do in your new job is to get an insight into what is particular about the activity of a hospital. You visit all departments and you meet representatives from the great number of professions found in a hospital: Doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, bioengineers, psychologists, social workers, educationalists, computer engineers, administrative personnel, drivers, porters, janitors, etc.
In order to perform effectively as a financial manager in such an organization, you want to understand the system you are going to work in. But what does it actually mean to understand something? How does one prioritize what needs to be understood? How does this understanding take place? How should you, for instance, approach big and powerful professional groups with their own deeply developed professional cultures, such as the doctors, or big and influential unions, such as that of the nurses? Simply put, how do you understand a professional culture outside your own training and experience?
Language and Learning
Understanding the medical field will require, among other things, your using language to “capture” the unfamiliar details of your surroundings in familiar terms. Learning involves relating what is new and unknown to something that one already knows. In this case, your references will draw predominantly on your education and your earlier work experience. As a business professional—trained and experienced in the language, perspectives and culture of business practice—learning about the medical profession will initially involve understanding the language of the profession through the concepts and language of business.
You will, for instance, find it both practical and illuminating from your perspective to consider patients as a certain kind of “user,” or maybe even “customer” of the hospital. As well you should: This language is useful for thinking about details such as operational efficiency—a key element in the ongoing financial life and success of a hospital.
But to label patients as “customers” does not simply translate a medical term into business language; the shift in language also actively shapes the very meaning of healthcare. To view patients as “customers” foregrounds their role as consumers who buy their care in exchange for money. This shift is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the shift is very helpful in many ways. For instance, thinking of patients as “customers” implies that patients do not need to feel gratitude for the care they receive—which they might feel obliged to if care were simply a gift. Instead, the language of the market makes it possible to say that patients are entitled to value for money, and that health care should follow patient demand instead of being supply-driven. Indeed, to refer to patients as customers reinforces a vision of patient-centered care based on choice: The logic of choice suggests that, if supply were indeed to follow demand, care would – at long last – be guided by patients. And given the initiatives of patient-centered care, which emphasize the importance of patient choice, referring to patients in business terms as “customers” may in fact reinforce, not contradict, current initiatives in the medical profession.
At the same time, however, within the organization you may likely discover a strong resistance from health personnel to such terms. They will probably react negatively to this because in their view such terms reduce patients to their functional role relative to hospital operations while ignoring their status as humans. (Economists and business people, who really want to provoke health personnel and at the same time expose the limits of their own knowledge, may call the patients “cost units.”)
You will of course not deny that patients are humans, but in your economic assessments you find it both practical and illuminating to regard them primarily as the users of the services of the hospital, in the same way as customers in any company in the service industry. What you are doing is attaching something that from the outset is “quite different” from everything you know, to something that you already know so that you can conceive it as “the same as” something you already know. Everyone does this. It is what it means to “recognize” aspects of experience: To re-cognize or re-think the new in familiar terms.
The very word “conceive” comes from the Latin word concipere which means “to take in.” It is a combination of the prefix com- and the word capere, meaning to take or capture (see The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories). In order to make something a part of your own understanding of the world, you must ‘capture’ it and make it a part of your already existing understanding. Your understanding of reality is your understanding of reality; it cannot be someone else’s.
The Professional-Cultural Bias of Understanding
The purpose of elaborating so much on this here is to make clear how our understanding is determined by previous knowledge. To the extent that your professional language comes from your training in business, your understanding of another profession—in this case medical care—reflects a necessarily “business-centric” bias. And this bias obviously works in both directions. If healthcare personnel find offense in your reference to patients as customers, this perception results from their background as health professionals trained in the care of human bodies.
To say that as a financial manager your understanding of the hospital is biased may suggest negative associations. But it is neither meant here as something negative, nor as being morally blameworthy. Understanding the world involves a fundamentally biased dimension; that is just what I have tried to explain above. But at the same time this also means that such an understanding, just because it is a product of a particular perspective, has limitations. Our knowledge at once shapes and constrains how we understand new information and experiences. In this sense, “expertise” can serve as both a strength and a limitation.
The example of the business professional in the medical profession demonstrates how effective communication between professions requires understanding necessary to avoid potential misunderstandings. However, the example also reveals new possibilities for learning from cross-professional encounters. Both the business professional and the healthcare personnel have something to learn: The business professional can make business decisions with greater sensitivity to patient needs if compelled to think of patients in terms of the physical and emotional needs. And this sensitivity could in fact lead to more effective business decisions. Conversely, if compelled to think of patients as chooser-customers of healthcare service, caregivers may develop greater sensitivity to patient needs for autonomy—a sensitivity that could in turn enhance the quality of healthcare. Simply put, while cross-professional misunderstandings can lead to a perceived conflict of interests (in this case, business vs. medical priorities) these misunderstandings can also lead to new understandings that enhance the effectiveness of both professions.
If effective marketing minimizes misunderstanding between professional cultures, truly strategic marketing goes even further: Imagine B2B content that actually introduces new ways of thinking between professions—a kind of multi-professionalism. Imagine content that, for instance, empowers the medical industry to learn the advantages of business discourse and vice versa. Instead of worrying about how to simply “speak” to professional audiences in their familiar “language,” let’s develop content that truly educates by expanding professional lexicons and knowledge into unknown territory. Located at the intersection of diverse professional cultures, B2B marketing occupies a uniquely powerful position: Not simply for the delivery of information, but for the expansion of professional horizons.