Because it’s hard to insert a real-time press interview into my daily schedule in a window that meets most press deadlines, I deliver a lot of my interviews via emailed responses to questions. Not all of my responses make it into the final article, of course. But the one thing that is great about email interviews is that you can remerchandise the content. So here are my recent thoughts on the topic of how B2B marketers are responding to the pandemic.
How do B2B sectors negatively impacted by the virus stem the losses?
LDW: Retaining and growing customers is core to the pandemic recovery. But only about half of B2B marketers use their demand generation tactics for retention and enrichment in the existing customer base (55% in 2019). We’re hearing a lot of “retention is the new acquisition” messages from B2B marketers as they shift from net-new acquisition to focus on cross-sale and upsell opportunities in the base. We also expect to see more investment in account-based marketing strategies. (That could manifest in very targeted net-new acquisition strategies or focus on base accounts. But focus and alignment with sales is key.) In 2019, only 10% of B2B firms spent more than 20% of marketing budget on ABM programs and 60% spent less than 15%. We expect those numbers to increase.
How do B2B firms take better advantage of myriad digital tools and online marketing to reverse the tide?
LDW: In May, Forrester published a report, “The 2020 COVID-19 Crisis Will Stun US Marketing.” As the title indicates, we’re forecasting significant budget cuts, particularly in media and services and internal headcount — regardless of which of the three recovery scenarios we modeled. There was only one spending category for which we didn’t forecast a stunning cut: marketing technology. We expect that marketing technology spending in 2020 will be roughly flat, compared to 2019, before it starts to grow a little bit as we move into 2021.
We might have been too bearish. Since the report, we’ve had the opportunity for many, many more conversations with practitioners. And that anecdotal research suggests an uptick in investment in marketing automation platforms and ancillary tools that improve effective engagement. In fact, in a recent post-COVID survey, 62% of B2B martech buyers from enterprise companies reported having to make an immediate increase in tech investments as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are some of the marketing leads that B2B companies can take from their B2C counterparts when it comes to engaging consumers during such uncertainty and sharpening the brand message?
LDW: One thing I’m hearing consistently from our B2B CMO clients is that brand is going to become more and more important in B2B buying decisions. And brand is a core element in establishing trust. And trust is a core element of building and maintaining a relationship. One established trend that the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating is the role of marketing in establishing and maintaining the relationship between the company and the customer. Our research shows that the “sales rep in person” has decreased in importance as a source of influence on buyer decisions. OK, that’s not surprising. But “sales rep phone and email” is NOT the replacement for “sales rep in person.” Instead, webinars and vendor websites are the sources of influence that lead this list as more important post-pandemic.
These CMOs are also expecting that the consumer behavior of buying from brands that operate and exercise consonant values will find its way into the business-buying behavior. They are already seeing RFPs that ask about diversity of the workforce and plans to be carbon-neutral and so on. So I think we’re seeing some evidence that brand will be even more important as buyers get more sensitive to social and environmental issues.
Considering the severity of the pandemic — and no end in sight — do some B2B sectors need to think about fundamentally changing or seriously altering their business model altogether?
LDW: Some firms will need to think about new revenue streams — if the industries they sell to have been particularly hard-hit. Some firms will have to consider new routes to market, like e-commerce or participating in a marketplace.
Do they also need to hard-wire e-commerce and inbound marketing tools?
LDW: I’m not sure that I understand the question. But B2B marketers need to know how to market to the e-commerce and marketplace buyer. Before the pandemic, traditional B2B routes to market were being disrupted. Our research shows that only 23% of global purchase influencers contract/purchase orders with an enterprise account rep as their primary buying method, down from 30% in 2019 and 33% in 2018. Digital buying (e-commerce) is a fast-growing route to market.
What are some specific examples/tactics/strategies of how B2B companies are tackling the problem?
LDW: I don’t want to mention specific companies. I’m mentioning tactics throughout these responses. I think this is definitely a time to be creative, innovative, and pilot things. For example, one client had not had success with Facebook retargeting in the past but is finding in COVID times that it’s working. We were thinking about why and posited that a largely working-from-home audience was blending their social media consumption more seamlessly into their working day.
The tactic that I’m hearing the most about is personalization. People typically think first of content personalization — which can range from reading the tea leaves on context (the right industry) — the right outcome — to the AI-enabled next best action.
But there is also experience personalization. If someone shares your blog posts on LinkedIn and never opens your emails, quit bothering him with emails. Provide the options for engaging in the buyer’s preferred channels. In fact, we are forecasting a jump in leverage of chatbots and virtual assistants as these tools get more robust and contextually aware.
Will the crisis light a fire under B2B companies to invest much more in outbound marketing and, subsequently, their content marketing efforts?
LDW: B2B marketing budgets are being maintained or cut in most of the firms I’m speaking with. But marketing is not stopping. A lot of budget is being shifted from events to digital marketing — both inbound and outbound. But I would say the flames of the first are driving increased spending as much as they’re driving increased focus. B2B marketers are getting very strategic with their microsegmentation strategies to both make sure their outbound efforts yield better conversions and their inbound traffic increases because of the specificity of messages and offer.
Are these changes leading to more fundamental changes in B2B marketing?
LDW: So far, I haven’t seen any action taken in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic to be completely out of left field. What the pandemic is doing is accelerating the pace of change by 3–5 years. B2B marketers need to be agile and innovative and pilot and test. They must challenge every bit of know-how and experience and proven practice. It might not be wrong. It might still be very right. But there’s no guarantee that what worked in the past will work in the present.