Does anyone genuinely still believe that B2B marketing is the less glamorous, frumpy and unsexy cousin of B2C marketing? I mean, what is sexier than playing the long game … teasing and wooing over a period of time, building desire through a meandering purchase journey full of ups and downs and “maybe one day”…
OK, fine, there are lots of things sexier than that. But can we all agree that B2B marketing isn’t boring? On the contrary, I’m convinced that by the end of this post, you’ll agree with me that B2B is actually the most exciting part of the marketing world.
Stick with me.
A few weeks ago I was a speaker at B2B Ignite in London. I’ll admit I have a bit of trade show fatigue; a lot of industry events I’ve been to in the last few years have felt very same-y and, if I’m honest, a waste of my time. Ironically, as I was on the train down to London, Rand Fishkin tweeted a great article he’d written about the benefits of attending marketing conferences.
My latest post is live: https://t.co/RIOutWv0aF digging into the costs vs. benefits of attending marketing conferences
— Rand Fishkin (@randfish) June 22, 2017
So I was expecting the same old conference vibe – perhaps even more than usual as it was, after all, B2B. How wrong I was. Sure, the event was helped by gin sorbet and some big-name speakers, but even ignoring those, the place was buzzing with energy, creativity and inspiration.
My point is that what the whole day was about B2B marketing, and it was everything that conventional wisdom tells you B2B is not.
THIS is B2B marketing today.
It’s vibrant and alive with possibility.
So what does the future look like?
I asked this question on LinkedIn and a lot of people weighed in. It soon became clear there are five emerging themes defining the future of B2B marketing.
The days of B2B being overly corporate, faceless and impersonal have well and truly gone. In fact, there are some arguments for B2B allowing for more informality than in a B2C context, even in traditionally stuffy sectors like finance and tech.
Stuart Anderson, Managing Director of Alpha Public Relations, believes this makes B2B really exciting. He said: “It’s a big turnaround in the space of a generation, probably driven by a combination of people opening themselves up on social media, new forms of management hierarchy, and perhaps a yearning to get back to a more ‘personal’ way of doing business that has been largely overtaken by process and technology. Whatever the reasons behind it, though, it’s now easier to have a joke with the managing director of a firm of fund managers than it is with one of his or her customers.”
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” said Gemma Davies, marketing director at Apttus. She believes the complex and consultative nature of B2B makes it perfect for personalisation, as it “motivates action and eliminates obstacles”.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking personalisation necessarily means marketing automation. David Gyertson, digital director at Zest the Agency, thinks the focus has – at least in part – been on lead generation, with personal conversations that lead to conversion falling by the wayside. He highlighted the need for personalisation to feel natural.
Authenticity is important, according to marketing consultant Rene Power. He believes it’s important brands offer help and advice not just because it’s good for business, but “because it is the right thing to do”.
Key takeaway: B2B marketing will become more about people, with truly personalised and authentic marketing.
Back to basics
Despite the complexity of buying cycles and the proliferation of tools, tech and data, it seems B2B marketers are getting back to fundamentals of marketing – or “beyond the tactics”, as Heidi Taylor puts it.
Marketing consultant Jade Tambini agrees: “The fundamentals of marketing always remain. We just have to wake up now and realise that digital has changed absolutely EVERYTHING and continues to evolve.”
Jade doesn’t like focusing on trends – similar to Adam Harper from B2B Marketing. Adam explained trends are often simply rebrandings of existing techniques, given a boost by technological advances. “They all go through the hype cycle and the valuable bits enter the standard marketing toolkit without the trendy moniker,” he said.
Adam buys into the “back to basics” approach, and believes we’ll start to see more “rustic” marketing as a result. This, according to Adam, is about embracing imperfections and personality and focusing on innovative ideas rather than smooth processes. “Too much marketing is homogenous as people look to do the most efficient thing instead of the most effective,” he said.
Traditional PR could be one of the techniques marketers start to value more, according to Stuart Anderson. As brand reputation becomes increasingly important amid “an explosion of fake news”, traditional media brands are making a resurgence. Stuart explains that while social media is critical in establishing “know” and “like”, when it comes to trust, “there’s nothing quite like a lovely big folder of positive press clippings”.
Key takeaway: We can have all the bells and whistles of technology, but we need to return to the basics and do that really well.
The role of marketing in the business
Marketing is a central function that touches every element of a successful business. With a clear responsibility for contributing to the bottom line, marketing is sometimes (wrongly) treated as merely sales support.
However, marketing’s seat at the top table is well warmed up, and we are now involved in everything from product and service development to customer satisfaction and staff morale.
Its impact and responsibilities extend far beyond the traditional idea of what a marketing department should do. “Marketing has a huge part to play in connecting everything via the brand – attracting leads, attracting talent, attracting customers,” said Tribal Impact founder Sarah Goodall. She believes social advocacy, led by the marketing team, will be particularly important in the next six to 18 months. “It’s about pulling all aspects of the business together to drive inbound business – not just inbound marketing.”
Key takeaway: B2B marketers need their finger on the pulse of every aspect of the business in order to drive it forward.
We can’t talk about the future of marketing without also talking about the role of technology. Machine learning, automation and targeting were highlighted as key trends by my colleague Peter Yates, while Philip Crothers from Brighttarget highlighted the importance of predictive analytics for B2B marketing (and suggested this report if you’re interested in reading more about the topic).
Richard Robinson from Cambridge Analytica believes we’re moving to a situation where we are truly living and breathing data-driven marketing in a real-time environment. In order for this to succeed, B2B marketers need to ensure they have a good user experience on their website, said Jade Tambini. “Just because a sale may not be made on a website as often as in B2C does not devalue the importance of meeting customer demands throughout their buyer journeys. Data capture is basically impossible without a decent inbound and content strategy.”
But data is a double-edged sword for marketers. Ashley Collyer, co-founder and director at The Cotswold Agency, is concerned about the new data regulations that are due to come into effect next year. “Too many B2B companies have to rely on buying data (ours included), which will cause real issues for data providers and/or building in-house,” he highlighted.
Key takeaway: Technology and data present big challenges and opportunities to B2B marketers.
Big, exciting ideas
A few years ago, the brands we held up as examples of best practice in content marketing tended to be B2C (I have seen way too many decks featuring examples of Red Bull campaigns). But now it’s the B2B campaigns that blow my mind.
You’d be forgiven if your mind turns to whitepapers or research when asked to come up with a content campaign for a semiconductor and telecommunications equipment company. Qualcomm could’ve done that, but instead they commissioned Oscar winner Armando Bo to produce the short film Lifeline. It’s a “product demo disguised as a psychological thriller”, and is as slick as anything coming from Hollywood, featuring international stars Olivia Munn, Leehom Wang and Joan Chen.
Not quite what springs to mind when you need to sell mobile processors and cellular modems.
Another great example is from GE Aviation, whose Paths of Flight video is a mesmerising timelapse of planes taking off and landing at various airports. I’m going to guess this wasn’t the first idea that jumped to mind when the marketing team was told to promote the company’s expertise in aviation logistics. For that reason it is the perfect example of just what magic can happen when marketers think outside the box. (Hat tip to Doug Kessler from Velocity for these examples, from his inspiring keynote at Ignite B2B.)
Of course not all B2B marketers have the budget to shoot a short film with an A list cast, but most have the budget to make a 1:48 timelapse, for example. There’s a lot that can be packed in 108 seconds: your choice is between safe, boring and easy, or creative, risky, exciting and challenging.
B2B marketers can’t hide behind the “boring industry” excuse any more. You’re not in a boring industry, you’re lazy.
For me, the future about B2B marketing is about the big idea. It’s about not settling for the status quo and instead pushing boundaries at every opportunity.
THIS is what makes B2B marketing so exciting. Big budgets are amazing, obviously (or so I’m told), but brilliant ideas are better. We have to break out of the mould of how we used to do things. And no, that doesn’t mean “learn from B2C”. B2B marketing is a discipline in its own right, and there’s nothing stopping practitioners from being trailblazers in the industry.
So go wild. Look at how your company has always done things, and then propose doing the opposite. Find inspiration in the worlds of art, science, music. Tap into your audience’s passions.
Because despite its name, B2B is all about people. Real, flesh-and-blood people with fears and loves and needs and wants – all the things that good marketing is made for.
Key takeaway: Be bold, be brave, be awesome.