The Holy Grail for marketers is to give customers what they want, sometimes before they even know they want it. This means generating clear customer insights and developing an innate understanding of the buyer. While many embark on this journey with great intentions, getting to the final destination brings its challenges. Without careful navigation, it is easy to go off track, resulting in a marketing strategy that overpromises and underachieves.
It is now widely recognised that business to business (B2B) marketing is a discipline in its own right, requiring its own unique strategic approach. The differences between B2B and business to consumer (B2C) run deep. B2B markets are inherently complex, underpinned by a diversity of products, relationships and buying motives, across segments or even within large organisations. The target audiences are diverse, made up of groups of constantly changing individuals with different interests and motivations. For instance, the procurement function in an organisation will seek a good financial deal while the sales function will be more interested in improving sales performance. And those are just their simple, functional needs.
There are significant challenges that make B2B marketing distinctive and that need to be addressed to ensure success:
- It’s relationship driven, so marketers must maximise the value of the relationship with customers
- It’s a small, focused target market – people are on first name terms, personal relationships are developed, and brand identity is created through these relationships
- It incorporates a multi-step buying process and a longer sales cycle – the decision making process is complex with multiple stakeholders evaluating a large range of purchase criteria
- Educational and awareness building activities are critical as the products themselves are often complex and the purchase of an industrial, technical or business related product frequently requires input from a qualified expert
- Buying decisions tend to be rational, based on a clear business value. That said, we need to recognise that although the rational, functional information is necessary, it’s the non-rational dynamics (whether emotional or cognitive) that will actually get customers to internalise that information to drive action
Success means addressing the customers’ needs in these different scenarios and formulating a communications strategy that meets them. Here are a few key pointers that I believe should be firmly plotted on any strategic B2B marketing map.
Sales team engagement, capability and support
Ultimately, it is the interaction and activities of the sales teams that are the difference between success and failure. As marketers, we must be able to deliver a set of messages, tools and programs that have the right level of structure, yet also allow the sales teams to adapt to the various situations that they face e.g. technical presentations for a CIO audience, productivity and ROI focused messages for a finance audience. While it’s important to connect with customers and prospects, it’s equally important to influence the employees who interact with those customers.
Communication messages that talk about benefits rather than features
To really drive the ‘wow factor’ home, it is more powerful to clearly communicate the user benefit that resonates with the decision maker. For example, in the case of a tablet computer that provides remote access to data files, the benefits that could appeal to the sales director might relate to greater productivity while on the road, while for the HR director, the benefit of the technology supporting a flexible and remote working policy could be a key selling point.
Paying attention to how the creative works and getting cut-through
Although this is a common truth across B2C as well, this is still one of the biggest challenges in B2B marketing. The temptation to revert to clichéd business creative is strong, but to bring a story or proposition to life we need to look at alternatives. Media selection is also an important consideration in targeting and tailoring messages to the right audiences with the right message at the right time.
Maximise the right sponsorship opportunities
Sponsorship of relevant events is a key tool to delivering messaging and positioning in the right context. Sponsorship falls down when activation is poor, limited to the event itself and pushes an overt sales message. To maximise sponsorship, you must maximise activation before, during and after to really drive the message and association. Sales force engagement and visibility is also paramount. It is all about leveraging the sponsorship to create a platform that brings the right people closer to the message, enhances their experience at the event, with the right content that ultimately improves relationships and creates opportunities.
Use digital to engage with your audience
The digital environment presents opportunities to engage with your audience in a way that suits the customer. The buyer journey is starting earlier with search, before sales has any contact with a prospect. Increasingly, social media strategies are becoming an essential platform for B2B activities and initiating and developing relationships with both potential and existing customers, which will in turn reveal customer insights.
One final crucial point needs to be made about the B2B customer. Put simply, they tend to be more demanding. They have a responsibility to make the right decision when purchasing on behalf of their companies. They take fewer risks and therefore need to be convinced that they are making the right decisions for their organisation. But with the right strategy, the B2B marketer can deliver exactly what they need.