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Ideas B2B2021-04-27

Getting ahead of the curve amid the consumerisation of B2B marketing

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With the traditional B2B marketing playbook in need of a refresh, marketers need a new approach to channel planning, say global media agency Essence’s Rafael Martin and Staffan Holgersson.

Apart from being a disruptor of many industries and sectors globally, COVID-19 has sped up a trend that was already occurring – the increasing consumerisation of B2B marketing. In fact, almost a decade before the pandemic hit, traditional B2B sales techniques started to wane, and marketers have begun experimenting with social selling and digital marketing. B2B teams nevertheless have, until recently, largely relied on in-person networking, as well as physical events and pitch presentations to close sales. In the face of COVID-19 and the resulting restrictions on physical gatherings, legacy B2B tactics have been made all but obsolete. Brands and marketers are thus forced to accelerate the speed in which they explore and adopt new strategies that lie outside of their comfort zone.

On the buyer side, B2B customers typically find their purchase experience overly complex and increasingly prefer making self-serve or remote purchases. This is quickly becoming the new reality, and highlights both challenges and opportunities for marketers to leverage and stay ahead of the curve.

The changing B2B audience

Marketers’ understanding of contemporary B2B decision-makers is constantly changing – far from the days when they were defined and identified by seniority level, sector and company size. They consume media from a complex array of platforms, beyond typical B2B channels, and behave as individual consumers without donning their chief executive hats while scrolling their Instagram feeds, listening to podcasts or watching YouTube videos on their smart TVs. Dubbed the BETAs by LinkedIn’s B2B Institute and GWI, a new and rising group of B2B decision-makers have emerged and they are the first cohort of digital natives assuming senior roles in business. They prefer to get industry news from social and video channels, and are likely more receptive to integrated paid and organic social strategies that maximise platform relationships.

B2B brands are competing for attention on consumers’ various devices, and therefore need to step up their game when it comes to creating engaging integrated campaigns that speak to individuals. An example of the success that this approach can drive is the award-winning campaign by Lamb Weston, a producer of potato products, for its new pub chip product launch in the United Kingdom. The brand evoked a sense of nostalgia around British heritage, unity and pubs, and utilised a media mix that included live events to allow the product to sell itself, alongside public relation efforts, digital and social campaigns, and the brand’s own website and social channels. Through a fun, emotionally-appealing and integrated campaign, Lamb Weston was able to achieve 200% of its product sales target within two months of launch from January 2020.

B2B marketers are quickly realising the importance of engaging campaigns, and understand that if they want to increase reach, scale and drive B2B buyers down the funnel, they need to tap into the duality of data and content. These are the keys that unlock growth through an understanding of first-party data and the complexities of the target audience, identifying signals and having a full view on the consumer journey, as well as a communications strategy that appeals to both the brain and the heart.

With the decline of brick-and-mortar retail and an overall move to remote working, both large as well as small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) have been forced to accelerate their digitalisation to remain competitive. An APAC digital maturity study by Cisco found that 69% of SMBs are accelerating the digitalisation of their business as a result of COVID-19. Additionally, SMBs are investing in cloud technology, security and the upgrading of IT infrastructure to enable more efficient manners of remote working and selling.

Channel planning for a broader, diverse audience

With such massive shifts in both audience behaviours and the general business landscape, how should B2B marketers approach channel planning to achieve a broader media mix, with the ultimate objective of reaching a more diverse audience?

Physical events have been essential to the B2B industry such that it is one of the primary areas of both transformation and long-term opportunities. The hybrid event model will thus be the new normal – a Forrester report found that B2B marketers almost unanimously said that their future events will include digital capabilities aimed at engaging prospects and serving customers who choose to participate remotely. This may be no surprise as Intrado found, on average, only 43% of virtual event registrants and 58% of webcast registrants attend the events live. Therefore, on-demand video and media will be critical to events as B2B buyers will consume them in the same way they consume their favourite TV shows.

Consumers are also growing used to a high degree of personalisation, with SmarterHQ reporting that 72% said they now only engage with marketing messages customised to their interests. Account-based marketing – a highly personalised approach to B2B marketing – may in fact soon disappear from the marketing industry’s vocabulary. This is not due to it going out of fashion, but rather because all B2B marketing may eventually take this personalised and engagement-based approach.

LinkedIn is currently a dominant industry player commanding a significant portion of B2B advertising dollars, with APAC accounting for its highest proportion of members across regions at over 201 million. However, B2B marketers should also look at platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, which may become fundamental staples of B2B plans in the near future. That is because the presence of B2B messaging in those platforms are generally and increasingly common, accepted and even expected, given changing media consumption habits and the systemic shift in the profile of B2B purchase decision-makers.

Another trend that is impossible to overlook is that B2B marketers are shifting significant spend into content creation. According to a survey report by B2B Marketing Zone and Webbiquity LLC, 43% of B2B marketers said they plan on reallocating their live event marketing budgets to content creation. Digital marketing is a primary driver to the creation of such new content, which needs to be platform-first rather than being adapted from existing assets, to compete for consumers’ attention in a saturated space. In the United Kingdom, accounting software company Intuit QuickBooks’ Ask the Expert series of live question-and-answer sessions is a great example of creating content that is platform-first and customer-driven, and making use of influencers to drive engagement and scale. The company reached over 6.5 million customers and garnered engagements at 11.7 times the average rate.

Leveraging TikTok’s engaging video formats, hosting Clubhouse rooms and investing more heavily in podcasts are some of the next milestones for B2B marketing. In an audio and podcasting research by Acast in Australia, 80% said podcast content aligns to their interests and only 17% believe podcast advertising is not relevant to them. B2B players that tap into these fast-growing platforms in a timely manner can expect to be rewarded in the long run.

Looking at what may lie further ahead, social e-commerce is on a sharp rise in the B2C space, with sales in China estimated by eMarketer to grow to about US$315 billion this year. Multinational companies such as Facebook have jumped on the bandwagon with Shops on Instagram which launched in 2020 and other players are expected to follow suit. In only a matter of time, the B2B industry will move in this direction as well – a trend that is well underway in China with major backers like Alibaba and Tencent. Agile B2B brands and marketers who are able to adapt towards this development, in particular create engaging content tailored to these new environments, will be setting themselves up for success.

Moving ahead of the curve in B2B marketing

COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst to accelerate changes that were happening in B2B marketing before the pandemic. B2B marketers that adapt their technology, marketing mix, audience and content strategies, as well as experiment and innovate with new and unconventional B2B channels, will move ahead of the curve and set themselves up for success in the years to come. With the consumerisation of B2B marketing, there is more room for creativity and innovation in the B2B space than ever before.

This article was originally published in WARC and is part of The WARC Guide to Rethinking B2B Marketing.