The challenges that are emerging for B2B – and how marketers are tackling them so far.
Lizzy Knights-Ward. April 16, 2020
No marketer has been unaffected by the events of the last month or so. However, the impact depends very much on which type of business they are in. We can all think of examples of brands for which demand is surging – just as we can think of many for which it’s disappeared. We all know about the difficulties that companies grapple with when operations are forcibly shut down and willing customers are suddenly unable to buy from them. We’ve all seen what happens when supply chains can’t keep up with demand. However, the brands that most of this discussion has focused on are consumer-facing. There’s far less commentary on how B2B business models are affected – and how B2B marketers need to adjust their approach.
It’s hardly surprising that at times like these, B2B marketers reach out for forums where they can share experiences and talk through the particular challenges they face. One of these platforms is The Business Marketing Club, a not-for-profit B2B marketing network run by Chair and Co-founder Dave Stevens and Managing Director Jay Neale. The Business Marketing Club has been providing networking and mentoring opportunities for B2B marketers for seven years – but it’s never seen the surge in demand that it’s experiencing right now. Much of that interest centres on free weekly webinars, which bring together B2B marketers from different backgrounds to discuss the changing situation and how it impacts them.
“We’ve seen audiences tripling in size since the crisis began,” says Dave Stevens. “You’d never believe normally that we’d have hundreds of people tuning into a webinar that has basically the same subject matter every week. However, the situation is changing so rapidly and B2B marketers want to know what it means for them, so there’s a need to keep checking in.”
For this blog post, we asked Dave about some of the themes emerging from the Business Marketing Club discussions – and the tactics that B2B businesses are starting to adopt when it comes to navigating a way through the rapidly changing landscape. We’ve also pulled in insight from agencies, B2B marketing experts and the research fellows at LinkedIn’s B2B Institute for a cross-section view of how B2B tactics are being reinvented for unprecedented times.
The B2B tactics that are off the table in their traditional form
Events, direct mail and PR: none of these three go-to tactics for B2B marketers can play the same role that they once did – or at least, they can’t play it in the same way.
“With DM, businesses have the addresses of their contacts at work – which is no longer where they are,” says Dave. “PR plays an important role for a lot of B2B marketers – but for obvious reasons, there just isn’t interest in corporate PR stories at this point in time.”
B2B businesses are already re-inventing their approach to DM, reaching out digitally to enquire whether customers or prospects are interested in receiving mailings at home. The terms on which marketers ask people to share contact details are changing to reflect the sensitivity of personal addresses. The emphasis is very much on requesting permission for specific, one-off mailings rather than adding addresses to a database for future campaigns. It’s evidence of how B2B tactics can evolve if marketers stay focused on delivering the right audience experience in drastically changed circumstances.
The most dramatic evolution of all involves events. Of the three tactics, traditional face-to-face events are potentially the biggest loss for B2B marketers. They’re not just a marketing opportunity – they’re often the marketing opportunity that is most closely aligned with the sales agenda, with face-to-face discussions leading to highly qualified leads. This leaves sales teams, event marketers and event management companies all caught in an anxious waiting game. “Event management is seasonal and September to December are very busy months,” says Dave. “The industry is really hoping that things will open up again in time for the bulk of activity to still go ahead.”
Live video: how can marketers boost impact and interactivity?
In the absence of face-to-face events, B2B marketers are turning to webinars, podcasts and live video to fill the gap. The challenge they face is replicating the sense of interactivity and immediacy that comes from sharing a room or a stand with your customers. “This technology can still feel very one-way,” says Dave. “Even when you’re running a video webinar like we do, it’s still a challenge to keep the audience feeling involved. With the Business Marketing Club, we’ve been introducing questions and polls to our webinars – and we’ve made a special effort to respond quickly to feedback when people reach out during the sessions.”
As live video takes on a wider role in B2B marketing, it seems likely that we’ll see brands adopting more sophisticated production techniques to dial up impact, and help their content stand out in the feed. Scott Jackson, the managing director of video production consultants, Through The I, recently worked on LinkedIn Impact 2020, a virtual conference for talent professionals. With speakers forced to work from home, some of the event content had to be captured entirely remotely.
“There are a whole range of techniques that we can use to increase the image and audio quality that people are able to capture at home,” says Scott. “Using our remote studio technology, we can also bring in different webcam video feeds so it feels like a news studio with experts introducing their points of view. We talk presenters and other stakeholders through things, off-air, in the same way we’d manage them in a studio or at a live event. That way, when we move to on-air, it’s a smooth experience for the audience watching.”
Scott believes this focus on the audience experience will quickly transform the way that B2B marketers use live video. “There’s a real opportunity to improve quality through technical knowledge and coaching that can be delivered remotely,” he says. “A better audience experience will engage people with marketers’ messages more deeply from the start. We’ll see this kind of live video content become a lot more engaging as we move on from PowerPoint slides and badly lit webcams.”
From demand generation to relationship building
The majority of B2B marketing spend traditionally goes on demand generation. So, in a situation where demand isn’t there to be generated, should B2B businesses be marketing at all?
The evidence of the Business Marketing Club suggests that, if anything B2B marketers are communicating more than they did before. However, the focus of that communications is changing – to reinforcing relationships with existing customers.
A total of 60% of participants in one of the Club’s recent polls said that their communication with existing customers has increased since the crisis. That aligns with the advice of B2B marketing experts like Ann Handley, who talks about the need for marketers to be present for their customers and communities. “We have to put what we’re doing in context,” she said on a recent edition of her pop-up video show on LinkedIn. “We need to acknowledge the challenges that we’re all dealing with together – the challenges that we are now doing business with.”
The B2B Institute Research Fellow Peter Field argues that this shift away from demand generation and towards relationship building should form part of a wider adjustment for B2B marketing strategies during the crisis. “For B2B businesses whose customers and prospects are unable to buy… pursuing bottom-of-funnel, short-term, sales activation makes little sense unless it can help shore up existing relationships,” he wrote in a recent post on the LinkedIn Marketing Solutions blog. “For these brands, investing in long-term relationship-building is a better path forward.”
Dave’s experience is that a shift to relationship-building communications doesn’t have to mean abandoning demand generation or giving up on driving future growth. It just means doing so over a different timeframe. “Demand generation still works but in a softer way,” he says. “I would say there’s more need to spend time on relationship building and relationship management, and you need to be more patient than you ordinarily would about turning that opportunity into something that’s revenue-generating.”
A shift in focus for ABM
A greater emphasis on strengthening existing relationships is influencing the nature of Account-Based Marketing (ABM) strategies as well. “It’s still an important thing for B2B marketers to be looking at – but circumstances mean it’s going to be used in a different way,” says Dave. “The emphasis is less on targeting new accounts and more on using the insight that you have from ABM to reinforce your sales teams’ most important relationships.”
This supportive role for ABM is forming part of another trend being driven by the crisis: a closer working relationship between sales and marketing. “We’re hearing reports of much stronger individual relationships between marketers and their sales colleagues,” says Dave. “There’s a real sense that both teams are in this together and they are going to need each other to pull through.”
What you do is becoming more important than what you say
In his analysis of marketing strategies during recessions, Peter Field demonstrates that brands able to defend or grow their Share of Voice are rewarded with dramatic growth in their market share when a recovery begins. But how can B2B businesses maintain that share of voice when marketing budgets are collapsing along with the business bottom line? Many are focusing less on traditional advertising – and more on building awareness through initiatives to help other businesses through the crisis.
“This is happening on many different levels,” reports Dave. “At one end of the scale, you’ve got Microsoft with a six-month offer for SMEs to be able to use Teams free of charge. You’ve got B2B businesses shifting production to making masks for the NHS. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got small businesses and consultants reaching out with free strategy or website reviews or free mentoring.”
Your most important marketing activity could be internal
There’s a growing realisation among B2B marketers that the work they do forming relationships with other areas of their business could have the biggest implications for the future health of their brand. “At a time like this, marketers should have something to say about every aspect of their firm’s operations,” said Stuart Maister, the Joint Managing Director of consultancy Mutual Value, on one recent Business Marketing Club webinar. “The businesses you want to do business with are those that are seen to be behaving correctly and making the right decisions – and that means everything your company does is a brand statement.”
With the normal course of business disrupted, there may actually be more opportunity for B2B marketers to reach across siloes, pick up a phone and influence decisions in other areas of the business. And that’s where the attention of many is increasingly focused. “It can feel like a strange thing to say, but this is a moment that B2B marketers can choose to seize,” says Dave. “There’s a real opportunity to build more strategic relationships with other functions and find a way to make a real difference for businesses at a time when they really need it.”
You can sign up for The Business Marketing Club’s free weekly webinars on how B2B is responding to the crisis at www.businessmarketingclub.org.uk/events or listen back, also for free, at www.businessmarketingclub.org.uk/podcast.