Some clear distinctions remain between the business-to-business and business-to-consumer markets: B2B buying cycles are longer, the purchase motivation is different, and the cost of a sale is higher.
But, in some fundamental ways, the lines between B2B and B2C marketing are blurring. Business buyers are becoming as empowered as their consumer counterparts. They expect the same benefits and experiences from B2B brands as they receive from the consumer brands in their personal lives, said Glen Hartman, global managing director of digital transformation for Accenture Interactive.
“This is a rapidly evolving marketplace that is changing and growing at unprecedented speed,” added Theresa Trevor, marketing director at Amplifinity, a maker of brand advocacy solutions, in an interview with CMO.com. “Traditional marketing efforts are not enough to stay competitive.”
B2B marketers must expand their existing models to incorporate the data-driven decision-making that can complement years of experience. They must focus less on hawking products and more on building relationships. They ought to replace the push of mass messages with the pull of individualized communication.
Now is the time to “give customers what they want—and a little more,” Hartman told CMO.com. “Use established mental models, but evolve them through the use of data, business intelligence, and real-time analytics. Deliver the right experience at the right time to help customers achieve their goal of the moment.”
The traditional, linear marketing funnel is dead, said Christy Uher Ferguson, director of applications communications strategy at Teradata, in an interview with CMO.com. It has been replaced by continuous and consistent interaction with the customer.
“Depart from everything that makes you comfortable,” said Gabrielle Boko, executive vice president of marketing for business management software maker Sage, in an interview with CMO.com. “Now is not the time to continue with the activities you’ve always done; it’s time to get energized and take some risks in the way you communicate to your audience.”
Be The Customer
“If you’re championing an initiative that doesn’t have the goal of understanding and engaging customers,” advised Accenture Interactive’s Hartman, “stop.”
B2B marketing today begins and ends with what the customer wants. Thus, empathy has become a critical skill. Marketing is no longer something you do to a customer, it’s something you do with them, Hartman says. Stop using terms such as target, capture, and convert, and replace them with engage, share, and help.
There’s no denying that B2B marketers know more about their products than anyone. So what? “Your customers don't care,” said Tamara Jurgenson, senior vice president of marketing and e-commerce for Electronic components distributor Newark element14, in an interview with CMO.com. “What they care about most is that you understand their needs and that your product or service offers them a solution. As a result, your company's marketing content should focus less on your product or service and more on how it solves buyers’ needs faster and better than your competitors.”
“Too many B2B marketers think that their buyers are only interested in their products,” agreed Susan Ganeshan, CMO of social media intelligence provider newBrandAnalytics, in an interview with CMO.com. “In fact, buyers need to learn to trust you first. To gain trust, you have to show prospects that you know their business, their needs, and their industry.”
For Ganeshan, whose customers include Hyatt and Apple, that means focusing 99 percent of marketing efforts on how businesses can get the most out of social media, whether or not they purchase solutions from her company. “Once that foundation is there, those potential customers feel like we're already adding value to their business, and that builds trust,” Ganeshan said. “We never mention our product or services explicitly until after someone shows signs of buying.”
Above all, don’t waste customers’ time. “Today, marketers are only successful when they implement responsive technologies that allow them to listen and respond to customers across a variety of channels,” said Morten Hjelmsoe, CEO and founder of Agnitio, a maker of marketing software for the pharmaceutical industry.
Traditionally, drug companies pelted physicians with mass messages that didn’t take into account interest or knowledge levels. Today, Hjelmsoe told CMO.com, they’re turning that on its head by putting the doctors in charge. “Instead of pushing information at them, hoping something will stick, physicians can pull in the information they are actually looking for,” Hjelmsoe explained. “This approach allows them to build stronger relationships with medical professionals, as well as their bottom dollar.”
Once a customer trusts the brand, it’s not time to go in for the kill and make the sale; rather, it’s a signal to build a relationship. Today’s B2B marketing efforts are less about short-term wins and more about long-term benefits.
“One of the best ways to increase revenue is to stop focusing on the volume of leads you’re pursuing and instead focus on nurturing quality leads and building meaningful relationships with prospects over time,” said Rob Begg, CMO of Introhive, maker of social selling software. “The key to nurturing relationships is to be consistent when you approach prospects and make your interactions part of a longer-term plan for business success, rather than a one-off sale.”
Prospects should get your attention not just when you need them, but on a regular basis. “This demonstrates that you’re not only interested in working with them, but that you are dedicated to their needs,” Begg told CMO.com.
Indeed, marketers need to build relationships, “particularly in B2B, where sales are usually complex,” Teradata’s Ferguson added. “They need to educate prospects, nurture trusted adviser relationships, and truly understand the key role the human element plays from marketing to sales. The fact is, when marketers know more about their customers, they can do more to serve them in relevant and meaningful ways.”
And such relationships are built or broken not just during interactions with marketing, but across the full customer experience.
“The marketing purview has expanded. The relationship with your customers is defined by the experiences you deliver across marketing, sales, and service; online and offline; before, during, and after campaigns and transactions,” Hartman said. “Focus on experiences that tell a cohesive story, create brand engagement, and, ultimately, drive both transactions and continuous dialogue. This leads to both short-term, incremental gains and sets the stage for the longer-term nurturing of customer relationships, loyalty, and optimal evangelism.”
Focus less on making quotas and more on managing the relationship, less on campaign and more on continuous interaction. “A truly effective marketing strategy requires ongoing and always-on programs that ensure customers, employees, and other third-party influencers are not disconnected from the brand by stop-and-start advocacy programs,” Amplifinity’s Trevor said.
Put Data To Work
The Holy Grail of B2B marketing is giving customers what they want before they even know they want it. “This goes beyond personalization,” Accenture Interactive’s Hartman said. “It’s establishing a new level and definition of relevance–one that understands and can take action based on a customer’s intent, what they are trying to achieve in the moment. This is key to short-term conversions and in establishing trust and longer-term loyalty.”
B2B marketers have a wealth of transactional and customer service data on which to build predictive analytics capabilities.
“Historically, B2B companies have relied on experience and intuition to make business decisions,” said Eric Hills, senior vice president or marketing and sales at Zilliant, maker of price optimization and sales effectiveness software for B2B firms. “Too many companies leave important decisions about which customers to call on, which products to sell, and what prices to quote up to the best judgment of front-line sales and marketing employees. Predictive models can change that, making it possible to improve decisions at all levels in an organization.”
Customer data has value beyond rear-view mirror reporting; it can be used to identify the best prospects, uncover cross-sell opportunities, optimize pricing, and pre-empt customer churn.
In fact, there is such a wealth of customer data available today that it can overwhelm some marketing organizations. Using that data to create next-generation buyer personas is one way to transform that information overload into an actionable set of insights, Teradata’s Ferguson said.
“Buyer personas provide marketers with a clearer picture of their target customers, with the goal of creating marketing plans that connect with them more effectively,” she said. “The level of specificity we can now achieve has the potential to make today’s B2B buyer personas much more effective.”
The number of digital marketing tools available can be equally overwhelming, from software suites that automate marketing processes, to data monitoring and analytic tools, to new ways to engage the mobile consumer. And with lower barriers to entry—from low-cost or free tools to cloud-based options requiring little up-front capital expense—it can be tempting to throw technology at B2B marketing problems. Don’t. Approach new marketing technology thoughtfully.
“Because the market is very saturated with tech solutions for brands, it is very important to involve several key players from the brand in the vendor selection process: marketing, lead gen, customer acquisition, digital and/or social executives, and—very key—high-level IT or development officers,” Amplifinity’s Trevor said. “Technology platforms should be evaluated for configurability, ability to be integrated into a brand's current CRM and other systems, and several other factors.”
Organize—And Energize—Around Outcomes
Proving the value of B2B marketing investments has always been challenging. But with limited budgets and increasing demands, it’s more important than ever to demonstrate the impact of the marketing spend.
It’s time to “reverse-engineer marketing initiatives around desired outcomes,” Accenture Interactive’s Hartman said. “And those immediate outcomes aren’t always sales transactions.”
Marketing has an impact on the core business and must be woven into it, not placed atop or beside it. “It’s critical to establish a digital strategy and platform that drives business transformation and growth,” Hartman added.
B2B marketers should rethink their entire ecosystem—all of the offline and digital brand touch points customers will encounter across all channels (mobile, tablet, desktop, social, sales rep, call center), and, most importantly, how they integrate.
“This requires companies to develop capabilities to transform,” Hartman said. “[They need] the right organizational structure, operating models, technology, data, [along with] senior management support to help break down organization silos, and create incentives and performance metrics in terms of the customer.”
“It’s time to get energized and take some risks. It begins with changing mind-sets at the top of an organization, focusing less on what has worked in the past, and more on what your customers want and how they want it. It ends with. . .well, it doesn’t end,” Sage’s Boko said. “This can’t be a short-term commitment. Always be looking for new opportunities to create the community your customers want to engage with. Break down the silos between marketing departments and don’t set boundaries on idea generation.”