Things have certainly changed for B2B marketers. The advent of the Internet and all the associated sociological and technological revolutions, coupled with the severe economic downturn of the last few years, have significantly altered the way industrial brands sell their products. The old ways of doing business are increasingly outmoded. Advances in digital/social/mobile space along with reductions in budget, bandwidth, and body count have ushered in a new era.
The modern marketer needs to be savvy in the ways that Demand Generation can be used to connect with qualified buyers: dynamic websites, SEM, email, analytics, display advertising, and social media. Expense account lunches, golf outings, and trade show parties don’t cut it anymore.
With due apologies to David Meerman Scott, author of one of the most influential books of the Web 2.0 era, I put together a few thoughts on B2B marketing and what the new rules are for Demand Generation.
Old rule: When a lead was captured via the website, it might begin the selling process.
New rule: A website lead is already close to the buying decision, and must be pursued immediately.
The Sales vs. Marketing dynamic is legendary. Sales, with limited time and manpower, only wants to pursue opportunities with a decent chance of success; in extreme cases, they are heavily weighted towards existing customers and ignore any new chances unless they are obvious slam dunks. Marketing, on the other hand, wants to bring in as many leads as possible and has limited facility for deeper qualification. The website has traditionally been viewed by Sales as a blunt instrument, frequently effective at generating lots of leads but not very good at producing clear winners. Many prospects would reach out to manufacturers and request some catalogs or samples when they were just beginning their product consideration or wanted to refresh their binders. At best, most prospects were only beginning their product consideration and were many months from any serious purchase decision.
Frustration occurs when Marketing reaps the fruits of its labor from the site or other channels and passes along hard-earned leads…which Sales ignores because of quality questions. The entire art/science of lead scoring, nurturing, Marketing- and Sales-Qualified Leads and CPL/ROI/VPL has sprung from this conflict.
The new reality is that now it is much more common for prospects to only connect via the website or other channels once they have conducted a significant amount of research and have proceeded as much as 60% towards the buying decision, according to several recent studies. Buyers are accustomed to being able to answer all basic questions via online resources, so that when they reach out it means they represent much more value as a lead than they used to. This has impact for both sides of the Sales/Marketing dynamic: Marketing needs to ensure that the website can meet all of these preliminary needs that a prospect might have (so they can effectively self-serve until they reach the point of contact), and Sales should understand that a website lead automatically has significant value and is worth proper response.
Old rule: Trade shows might start the prospect relationship.
New rule: Trade shows should culminate the prospect relationship.
Smart companies have evolved new ways of approaching the use of trade shows as business-generating vehicles. Traditionally, the trade show is approached like a fishing expedition: we know that there are some number of prospects that will gather at one bend in the river, so we set up shop and toss out our lines in the hopes of catching a few leads as they stream along. Big banners, flashy presentations, and colorful giveaways are all intended to attract attention and pull in people to the booth; whether or not any are actually qualified prospects is never determined unless you capture a business card or swipe a badge. Possibly, the show will provide a list of registrants in advance, but frequently these names come only with street addresses so any pre-show communication have to be via expensive and questionably effective direct mail.
Today, digital and social communications allow marketers to use the trade show as the culmination of a relationship-building process. The actual show provides the common ground where brand and prospects meet, but it is the pre-show preparatory work that provides an elevated chance for conversion and ensures a measurable return on investment. Instead of a haphazard approach that might result in some leads, use digital tactics to do the following:
- Seed the bed. Via email and social media, convince your audience of prospects, current customers, and previous or lapsed customers of the added value they will get by visiting the booth
- Know your audience. Use online registration for an incentive that will guarantee your audience will visit in person; that gives your sales team time to prepare for these particular clients and maximize the face time at the booth
- Create in-show interest. Most major trade shows now provide extensive social media support, with FourSquare check-ins, designated hashtags, and continuous news update via social channels. This allows savvy marketers to use social channels to access a broader audience of show attendees and use “flash” techniques to draw crowds quickly; and crowds at a booth will always draw bigger crowds to see what the excitement is about, reaching those not on social media too.
- Follow up automatically. Use email to provide an immediate “thank you” and link an item of added value (such as a white paper or a sales promotion) to all who attend the booth. CRM or marketing automation systems make this very easy and also allow further timed follow-up to sustain the relationship and encourage prospects to take the next step in the buying process. The sales team will also be directly pursuing the best prospects met at the show, but this ensures all contacts receives at least a minimum of continued engagement.
Old rule: Advertising in trade pubs connects brands with buyers.
New rule: Content marketing connects brands with buyers via Search.
It used to be that trade publications were the “farmers markets” of their given niche industries, the only places where buyers and sellers could come together to learn about new products, evolving techniques, or business news (along with trade shows, many also sponsored by the industry media publishing groups as well). Marketers who did not advertise, or work with the media on features about their products and services, faced the “out of sight, out of mind” danger.
The economic downturn of the last few years has significantly thinned the ranks of business publishers and many niche titles, focused on very specific industrial markets, have folded. Others have merged, reducing further the channels for information flow, and many have also shifted focus to broader categories. The result is a content void in almost every industry, precipitating a significant shift in how B2B buyers get information on products. The key considerations are now:
- Smart B2B brands must think like a publisher, putting out content that not only describes their products but answers questions for their audiences
- Google is now essentially a content curator and editor-in-chief for every information need
Brands have stepped into the void by providing increasing valuable thought leadership to their industry, irrespective of whether readers are customers or not. Blogs, e-newsletters, white papers, and application studies provide detailed information with great value to prospective customers. No longer can manufacturers afford to depend on the trade media to help spread word of new developments; now they take matters in their own hands with e-newsletters, links via social media, guest blog posts, and search engine marketing.
Google, in particular, has continued to increase in importance as a tool for getting the right content into the right hands. Among similar search providers or industry aggregators like GlobalSpec, Google has assumed the dominant position of content curator. In every discovery interview our agency has conducted in the last two years, design engineers say that searching online is the primary way they find new products or research their application needs. This fact indicates the importance of search engine optimization in conjunction with content planning. All new content elements not only have to be relevant and worthwhile to the target audience, but the structures need to conform to a central plan intended to ensure that the content is exposed to, and accessed by, the highest possible number of targets. When engineers now turn to Google, instead of turning publication pages, we have to make sure they see our stuff.
Old rule: Do more.
New rule: Do more with less.
It is an acknowledged reality that the world of brand access now operates around the clock. The Internet provides the platform for any user to connect with any website at any time and from any place; the concept of “office hours” has gone the way of the mimeograph machine. B2B customers now, like their consumer counterparts, want to be able to get information whenever they need it. The increasing ubiquity of social media has further accelerated this trend; for many, direct contact with a brand representative via social channels is expected at any time of the customer’s choosing.
Another factor exacerbated by the recent economic downturn is the reduction of resources coupled with an increase in expectation. Pressure on the sales team ratchets up even as supporting staff has been reduced. Marketing budgets are slashed even as the demand for measurable results grows strident. Every dollar of every spend is scrutinized for the value it returns.
As a result, the importance of marketing automation and online functionality is now critical for many organizations. Smart marketers are choosing to invest in systems and applications that reduce manpower requirements, standardize lead nurturing, and improve the effectiveness of outreach and maintenance programs. Consequently, activities that cannot easily measure the value they bring (such as lavish trade show booths, print advertising, and traditional media relations) are losing traction. Doing more with less means being more efficient and more effective. Online tools can demonstrate the value they provide by tracking Key Performance Indicators and Success Metrics that tie closely to business objectives, such as lead generation or even attributable sales. This allows smart decisions based on real results and leads to continuous improvement month over month and year over year.
Old rule: Relationships are vital to the B2B selling process.
New rule: Relationships are vital to the B2B selling process.
There’s no question that good relationships are vital to the long, considered process of researching, specifying, deciding, and purchasing highly engineered industrial products. Trust is a core component of such a complex decision.
But whereas in the past the individual relationship between a sales representative and one key deciding client was most important, today it is equally important that there be a positive brand relationship between end user and the provider, one that is primarily nurtured online or via social channels. Because access to information is expected 24/7/365, the end user must be as comfortable with website resources and online functionality as he is with his sales engineer.
This puts pressure on website designers and social media managers to ensure their properties meet specific needs of the audience and are as user-friendly as possible. Product information must be easy to find and sort; questions have to be answered before they are even asked. Just like a sales representative builds value in the client relationship through responsiveness, follow-through, and diligence, the online channels must prove their worth in a similar fashion. This online success will improve the chances of “real world” success and make the sales team that much more successful.
Ultimately, people are people. The selling process comes down to convincing one or more individuals that your product is the best for their needs and your company will provide the best service in delivering that product. In that way, nothing has changed. But the ways in which your buyers can and do connect with you are certainly different than they were even just a few years ago, and to maximize those opportunities for a sale, it is very important to understand the new era of B2B Demand Generation.