June 11, 2007
Blog Entry

Does Sex Still Sell in B-to-B Marketing? New Web Site Study Reveals Answers

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By Anne Holland, Content Director

I've always wondered why so many B-to-B homepages feature photos of beautiful young professional females. I mean, why should Web sites for companies selling proxy servers, enterprise software, electronic components and the like use stock footage of pretty women on their homepages?

Back when I graduated from college, one of my very first jobs was as an assistant in the circulation department for The Oil Daily. Sometimes I'd hear whoops of laughter from the art department down the hall when a new space ad came in. We called it the Sex Sells Syndrome. The advertiser figured their new pipeline or oil platform equipment wasn't exciting enough to catch attention by itself, so they'd stick a naked babe on it.

It was the art department's job to clean up the ads, carefully drawing bikinis onto models before the issue went to press.

In one of my next jobs, I was in the aerospace publishing industry, marketing for Jane's. They didn't have a problem with the advertisers -- thankfully no one I heard about thought to stick a naked babe on a missile. But I did run into the whole booth-babe world.

There, I would be at the big trade show standing proudly in my serious-young-executive Ann Taylor suit at the Jane's booth, ready to meet customers. But it was a bit difficult to sustain conversations because of the babes in the next booth over in their white leather-with-zippers-all-over micro-miniskirts.

In fact, many attendees figured that because I was a young woman who dressed professionally, I must, ipso facto, be military and not corporate. "Air Force?" they would inquire looking at my navy suit.

But, that was nearly 20 years ago ...

B-to-B marketing has grown up and far beyond those old Sex Sells days, right? Well, almost. My rough guesstimate is that perhaps 30% of B-to-B Web sites for sales-driven organizations often feature a woman's photo on their homepage. Generally, the young woman has absolutely nothing to do with the company because the picture was purchased from a stock footage company.

So, I guess this proves the B-to-B marketers of the world still think a pretty girl can help to sell a melody. But, can she? Does it work?

Striking data from MarketingSherpa's new B-to-B Web site Homepage Study suggests it does to some extent. (See below for info hotlink.) In every single instance when a female face was above the fold on a homepage, both the male and female executives in our lab spent time looking at her. Men's faces didn’t get nearly the same level of attention.

Unfortunately, lots of other elements didn’t get as much attention either. In some cases, a female face got more eye-time than promotional offers, sales copy and company news on the same page.

In other words, yes, businesspeople, male and female, alike will absolutely look at a beautiful woman. But, that look could be distracting eyes from the copy and hotlinks more important to your business. So, you're getting attention in the wrong place.

One B-to-B marketer actually tested the "does sex sell?" concept for a lead generation campaign MarketingSherpa gave an award to last year (see link below.) Results: a cheerful male model got 53% more responses than a beautiful female model.

The marketer wasn't sure why the male model worked better for a campaign to 40-something business executives. But, now that I've reviewed our B-to-B Homepage study, I'm inclined to believe the male model worked better because he was ignored. His smiling face didn't distract email recipients from reading and responding to the offer at hand.

Does this mean you should eliminate all women's photos from your Web pages? No, of course not. However, you might:

o Post critical must-read in positions most likely to be read near a women's face (generally underneath as a caption and/or in the direction her eyes are looking) to take advantage of the extra attention she generates.

o Consider using a "real" woman, such as an executive working at your firm or one of your happy customers, rather than stock footage, in order to promote your organization instead of a stranger.

Useful links related to this blog

Info on MarketingSherpa's new research study into B-to-B homepages:

ProspectZone B-to-B Email Test - Does Sex Sell?

Got feedback - have you tested "sex sells" for B-to-B marketing recently? Post a comment below.

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