Customers have taken the reins in their relationships with consumer brands—that we all know. But they also have taken their expectations for brand interaction with them to work, shaking up the world of business-to-business marketing (B2B) along the way.
“We’re in the age of the customer,” says Laura Ramos, vice president and principal analyst with Forrester Research. “Buyers are in control.”
Ramos, who kicked off Forrester’s B2B marketing research practice in 2006, has witnessed the evolution of the B2B CMO, but said even more change is needed in B2B marketing organizations to meet new buyer demands. While marketing budgets are only inching up, the investment required to thrive in a customer-centric—Ramos goes so far as to call it “customer-obsessed”—economy is not trivial. That will mean some trade-offs.
CMO.com talked to Ramos about the fundamental shifts taking place in B2B marketing organizations, where B2B marketing leaders should place their bets, and how CMOs can not only meet these increased demands but use them to elevate the role of the marketing group in the enterprise.
CMO.com: How fundamentally has B2B marketing changed in recent years?
Ramos: B2B marketing has changed a lot, and there are more changes that need to come.
I think the biggest change is that business buyers have brought their consumer experiences—and expectations—into the workplace. They’re demanding always-on, always-available information from their mobile devices at work, but instead of looking for Facebook updates, sports scores, or movie times, they want the information that helps them do their jobs. They want it to be relevant, personalized, and as real time as possible.
Traditionally, B2B marketing has been all about how to find the right message, figure out the right value proposition, put the right offer out in the marketplace, and target the right audience. Now that dynamic has turned on its head. Now buyers have control over the the purchase process and how they interact with sellers. Outbound marketing—pushing information out to campaigns and channels and partners—is being replaced by inbound marketing—creating interest that drives traffic to you across a number of channels.
CMO.com: Is multichannel marketing a particular challenge today?
Ramos: B2B marketing has always been multichannel. Highly considered purchase decisions, common in B2B, are made by more than one person. It takes more than one or two touches to inform, educate, and persuade an organization’s buying committee that your solution is the right one.
Today, there’s even more opportunity to create those type of interactions. However, marketing budgets have not expanded in proportion to the increase in number of channels. As a result, many B2B marketers struggle to determine which channels to focus their investments and efforts on. Their dollars are precious, and they have to be more selective about where they place their bets.
CMO.com: What does personalization look like in B2B marketing? Is it one-to-one?
Ramos: Yes, the information needs to be personalized for the individual. You also have to understand what role each person plays in the buying journey and what stage the company is in the process—factors that are not always easy to figure out. The ideal model for understanding how B2B buyers buy is a life cycle, not a funnel.
CMO.com: That would seem to require much more analysis on the front end.
Ramos: Yes, it does. But it also requires marketers to use that analysis to better understand how buyers—individually and representatives of their companies—progress through the purchase process from early stage investigation, through negotiation, deal closure, and lifetime loyalty.
This is where more change is needed. In B2B marketing, there is a lot of focus on customer acquisition. But as markets have matured, the focus must shift to how you keep your existing customers happy and expand your share of their spending.
How do you keep them happy? You get better at communicating relevant information to them, especially after the deal closes.
I think much of marketing automation has been too narrowly focused on acquisition. Marketers need to start using this automation to help customer get started, achieve best practices, cross-sell and upsell more value, and ultimately get them to advocate for you. That’s the real power of marketing—building depth in customer relationships.
CMO.com: Why have B2B marketers focused so much on acquiring new customers rather than creating an excellent experience for existing customers?
Ramos: Since the economic downturn of 2009, most businesses have been trying to get back to growth. The executive team, the board—they want to see growth. To get the CFO to agree to spend another dollar in marketing, CMOs need to demonstrate how exactly marketing impacts the pipeline and, subsequently, revenue.
CMO.com: Do B2B marketers still struggle to prove their business impact?
Ramos: Yes. But that’s not new. When your sales involve multiple buyers in a complex, highly considered process, and when there is a distinct hand-off from marketing to sales—it can get a bit murky when figuring out where marketing’s influence ends and sales’ influence begins.
Digital channels are easier to measure, but allocating the credit can still be contentious.
However, as B2B marketing becomes more automated and more parts of the buyers journey get captured digitally, B2B marketers will get better at modeling their impact and demonstrating marketing’s impact on specific market segments and geographies. It requires a blending of art and science—and the acceptance that the process of attributing influence will never be perfect.
CMO.com: With limited budget increases, where should B2B CMOs place their bets?
Ramos: For B2B marketing to thrive in the age of customer, CMOs must put customers at the center of everything they do. That requires making investments in areas that allow them to be not just customer-centric but customer-obsessed. But it’s a zero-sum game. There are activities they will need to dial back as a consequence.
In this age of the customer, Forrester advises marketing executives on four investment areas: data and analytics to help you understand customers; creating a customer experience that’s relevant and engaging; trading off traditional advertising in favor of digital; and investing in content marketing that creates a two-way dialogue instead of just sending out the old product pitch. To succeed, they’ll need to involve their sales people and channel partners as well.
CIO.com: That would seem to require B2B marketing leaders to reach beyond the boundaries of their own organizations.
Ramos: We’re seeing more alignment between marketing and customer service, focusing on how to educate buyers about best practices rather than simply trying to solve problems as quickly as possible. There’s a growing bond between product development and marketing as companies work to include their buyers in the decisions about what to bring to market.
But the tightest connection we see is between CMOs and CIOs. And it’s a two-way street. It’s not just marketing going to IT to say we need to automate. It’s IT asking marketing to help them figure out how to create systems that engage buyers. Transactional and record-keeping technology is table stakes. The real competitive advantage comes when companies put in new systems that help engage customers.
CMO.com: So is this elevating the role of the B2B CMO?
Ramos: When you talk to B2B CMOs, it’s clear that the scope of their responsibilities has expanded. But they’re also getting greater respect from their peers and being asked to contribute more to strategic decision-making.
Marketing has an opportunity, with technology, to capture the voice of the customer and help the rest of the company tap into what makes buyers tick. Take social listening, for example. A customer complains on LinkedIn or Twitter, and support engages with them in those social channels to solve it. That’s all good. But hearing those customer complaints and concerns can be useful to the rest of the organization and help them understand what’s happening in the marketplace.
CMO.com: Is there a role for B2B marketing in addressing the needs of their customers’ customers?
Ramos: Absolutely. It’s no longer sufficient just to stuff products in the channel and hope your partners sell them. The B2B marketing scope is expanding from direct sales to B2B-to-small business or B2B-to-employee or B2B-to-citizen. If companies don’t solve their customer’s customers problems, someone else will. What used to be an arm’s length interaction is now a more collaborative relationship.
CMO.com: How would you like to see B2B marketing evolve over the next five years?
Ramos: I would like to see B2B marketing become the custodian of the customer relationship across the enterprise—the organization that orchestrates all the issues, whether it's sales, customer support, training, product development, or branding. Marketing should be the focal point for understanding who our customers are and what they want. I want to see marketing take the lead, backed by the data, experience, and insight, in the quest to make their firms customer-obsessed.
CMO.com: Is that likely to happen?
Ramos: That would be a real challenge for companies where sales dominates. But if marketing makes investments in data analytics, customer experience, digital integration, and content instead of advertising, and really communicates valuable customer insight and knowledge, marketing leadership can make the case that they are in the best position to represent the voice of the customer and turn it into competitive advantage.