B2B Marketing in the 2010s – Could the Rules be Changing Forever?

Tuesday, 3 July 2012
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Am I the only B2B Sales and Marketing practitioner for whom the ‘Sales’ part has generally proven to be far more productive, and rewarding, than the ‘Marketing’ part?
Somehow I suspect not. Whichever industry it has been – engineering, economic development or aviation in my case –I’ve always found myself presented with the same challenge: how to promote highly specialised products or services to a relatively small, and nationally or internationally dispersed, pool of potential clients.

Nice Sales...

The Sales part was productive and satisfying because it involved direct, personal engagement with members of an industry community who had shared commercial or technical concerns. It involved building relationships and following up leads; growing existing accounts through attention to customer care; winning new clients with proposals that addressed very specific needs. Sometimes this would involve an evening in the pub, in Wolverhampton, Wigan or Warsaw, talking with a customer about the technical issues that preoccupied him – conversations that could continue for hours on end.

...shame about the Marketing

And we also did Marketing. We placed advertisements (on or off-line) in places where we thought, or rather hoped, our prospective customers would find them. And we did Direct Mail, initially by post, and later by e-mail – messages which would join the 61% of e-mails to professional accounts that are non-essential. We had moved on from contributing to deforestation. Now, we could contribute to executive neurasthenia instead!

Our marketing was relatively unproductive and unrewarding because it cost a fortune, and usually failed to find the specific people who had a need for our highly specialised products or services. And even if it did, it landed in an inbox or pigeonhole that was over-flowing with spam or junk mail, and got filtered out or binned because it was just another one of the 2000 marketing interruptions that people are now confronted with every day. Meanwhile, our online ads merely distracted our ‘prospects’ from the article they were trying to read and were genuinely interested in. And the more it flashed and begged them to click on it, the more they wished it would just go away.

It's about the customer's priorities, not our priorities

Now let’s go back to that pub conversation – the one in Wolverhampton. Isn’t it strange that the same customers who had immediately binned our marketing materials were happy to give up several hours of their free time to talk to us over a few pints of Banks’s bitter? (OK, so we bought the beers, but they could have been drinking with their friends, couldn’t they?)  They chose to spend their time with us because they were working on a difficult job, and the right combination of drill bit and drilling fluid would mean the difference between failure and success. Success would mean winning their bonuses, which in turn would pay for their family summer holidays. At that particular moment, it was the most important thing in the world to them. And our conversation was valuable because it would help them to overcome the technical challenges involved (in other words, it was our customer’s priority). In contrast, our marketing materials had focused on selling them our drill bits (that is, our priority).

So what does this mean for B2B marketers in the 2010s?

Now let’s consider all this in the context of the marketing techniques and technologies that are available to us in the 2010s. We know that our existing customers are happy to engage with us when we focus on what’s important to them, not us. We also know that 84% of the UK's total population is online, that 91% of them regularly interact socially online, and that ‘business social networking’ is increasingly seen as part of everyday working life (e.g. LinkedIn grew by 60% in 2011). And finally: 89% of people requiring a new product or service start with an online Search Engine query – i.e. they Google it.

The lessons from this are clear enough. Your existing customers want to talk to you (if you focus on their needs), and interacting online is second nature to them. It therefore follows that your website and online activities (e.g. your blog and contributions to industry discussion forums) need to become extensions of you customer-oriented sales effort. Your focus should be on producing and publishing content that addresses your customers’ concerns, and then engaging with them on an individualised basis to address their specific issues. Talk to them about selecting drill bits and drilling fluids. The alternative, pushing out messages that say ‘BUY BUY BUY!’ is a sure way to get ignored.

So much for your existing client base. What about generating new leads? Well, when the vast majority of people hunting for a product or service start with an online Search, the priority has to be optimising your website to get found, and then ensuring that your content is relevant and interesting enough to get engaged. Why take a punt on speculative online ads when your customers are out there doing their best to find you?

That's simple enough then, isn’t it?

Unfortunately not. For a start, creating the kind of content that will engage your existing clients and attract new customers requires time and effort, probably from members of your team who don’t usually do this stuff. But if the job’s delegated to the PR department or agency, you’re likely to end up with the usual self-congratulatory PR puff pieces – i.e. more ‘adverts’ that your customers will do their best to avoid. And then there’s the proliferation of spam on social media sites and discussion forums. Aren’t they becoming just another outlet for unwanted, interruptive marketing? In my view, both these issues create opportunities for companies that are prepared to rise to the challenge. If you invest time and effort, and resist the temptation to spam your prospective customers, you’ll stand out from your competitors, build stronger relationships and win more business.

So, in conclusion, could the rules of B2B marketing be changing forever? Probably not yet for the majority, but if you’re prepared to be part of an enlightened minority, you may find that substantial rewards await you.

Sources for all statistics quoted are available on request.
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