January is traditionally a time when companies look to the year ahead, so what are the main B2B marketing issues they should be addressing in 2017?
Well, despite the many new technologies being bandied about and the cloud of hype surrounding them, it will be a focus on the fundamentals that will allow B2B businesses to succeed this year.
Integrated approach to business
Managing a business used to be easy – each function of the business – manufacturing, sales, marketing, customer service and management had their own departments – their own boxes if you like. Each reported to the board through a more-or-less vertical reporting and controlling system. It was always very clear what each area did, what is was responsible for and what their territory was.
But now we are in a digital age, an age where everything has changed, and every aspect of business is undergoing revolution and upset.
Social media is the obvious manifestation of these wild currents – a completely new, two-way communications channel which enables customers and prospects to talk to each other as well as interact with a business across all areas. One minute they might ask a sales question, the next they may be making a product complaint – and they may even do it in the same post. Businesses must have co-ordinated internal systems for, not just routeing, but actually resolving these disparate enquiries and leads.
Similarly, content marketing and its goal of producing leads is driven more by marketing than sales, and yet sales still has an important role. It’s also impacted by customer service (more below) and so all three functions must be fully integrated into the process.
Currently, according to research undertaken by EConsultancy, businesses are struggling to meet these challenges with 60% of marketers say they lack a cooperative culture.
“However, it seems the most resistance stems from the top down. Half of respondents said management is against investing in data and tech, and 46% said that boards fail to understand digital strategy.”
Without a fully cooperative culture between all areas of a business, any digital strategy involving content management and social media will fail. And if the marketing strategy fails, the business will fail.
Supposing you control a B2B company, what should you do? Firstly, create lines of communication within your business to pass information, enquiries and complaints to the appropriate department instantaneously. In fact, all communication channels should be designed around customer needs rather than your company’s functional requirements. Secondly, work out ways that departments can work together flexibly to deliver total customer satisfaction.
And where content marketing is concerned, make sure that the marketing and sales teams not only work together but do so happily and efficiently while focussing relentlessly on the needs of the prospect and the existing customer.
B2B companies have to realise that a silo mentality is simply not supportable anymore – companies have to create an integrated business strategy for running and growing the business that includes marketing at it’s very heart and encompasses all aspects of the business working together to fulfil the needs of the customer.
This leads nicely on to the increasing importance of customer experience to B2B companies.
The customer experience has been the focus of many retail companies for some years now, with the largest, like Amazon, very focussed around the subject. Increasingly, B2B companies are being judged by the same standards of web experience, customer service, delivery, customer care and aftercare that B2C companies provide. Customers are thinking that if Amazon can offer next day delivery, why can’t you?
But despite B2B companies realising that they're being evaluated on the same level as consumer brands they are struggling to deliver; in a survey by SAP Hybris, just 16% believed customers rated their customer experience on a par with B2C.
Companies that get it right have a distinct advantage, with a decade of research showing that companies who lead in the area of customer experience consistently outperform companies that don’t. The advantages are twofold:
- Higher revenues – due to better retention, less price sensitivity, greater wallet share and positive word-of-mouth.
- Lower expenses – due to reduced acquisition costs, fewer complaints, and the less intense service requirements of happy, loyal customers.
Some may argue that there are significant differences in the customer experience path for B2B and B2C, but conversely, because of the potentially more intimate relationships you see between buyers and suppliers in B2B, it may actually be possible to achieve higher levels of customer satisfaction. And whilst B2C service levels may be hard to match – let’s face it, not every company has anything like Amazon’s logistics resources – this can generally be handled by managing expectations and ensuring that your service is at least as good as your competitors.
B2B businesses must make a strategic effort and recognise that customer service is part of marketing – it’s all part of that aspect of inbound marketing – nurturing the customer (or prospect).
Beware of Fashionable Trends
If you take a look at the marketing predictions for this year, you will find a number of technologies and concepts that dominate the posts. But some of these have been amongst the prediction lists for a while.
Take the Internet of Things (IoT) – the idea that products and appliances will all be connected to the Internet – allowing for a huge range of data to be collected and – so the implication goes – allow for greater knowledge of the customer and opportunities for marketing.
However, the concept itself was put forward in 1985 – nearly 40 years ago, and has been a buzz word for the past five years – here’s an article from 2014 for example. But today, in practical terms, it has meant very little with the issues of costs, security of systems, user’s privacy and even it’s very definition holding up its progress.
There is no doubt IoT will have a significant impact on society and on marketing, but we are still a little way off seeing any marketing benefits right now. For some companies who have implemented the idea well, it will be a key technology, but for most, it will take a while to have an impact.
Wearable technology is another hugely hyped topic – again promising tantalising possibilities for marketing. But it too has failed to take off in the way that some experts predicted, with even the Apple Watch struggling to be as popular as its projections and some commentators going as far as to say, ‘Wearables are dead.’
What B2B marketers can learn from these ‘buzzword’ technologies is that there should be no great rush to adopt them. You see the same pattern again and again – articles proclaiming they are the ‘next best thing’ for a few years, a lull as people get bored of the hype, a slow realisation that the technology is now all around us being used everywhere, and then a wonder as to how we could have lived without it. Think of the web as an example or the use of smartphones – both of which followed this pattern.
History has taught us that it is rarely the very first with any product that succeeds. It is usually a company that comes along later that perfects it and subsequently cleans up. And so it is with marketing – it is right to keep on top of new trends, new technologies, new channels, but only adopt them when they are proven to make a difference to ROI, when the support is there, and when you are absolutely clear how you are going to use them to improve the bottom line. And, incidentally, that is a real skill – judging exactly when to make the jump.
And there are plenty of examples of companies and experts who have misread the advance of technology entirely – including Microsoft’s Bill Gates.
One final statistic that shows that some things at least never change – Email marketing has come out on top for ROI – in an online survey of 1,150 marketers, 73% of respondents ranked email marketing as 'excellent' or 'good' for ROI.
This is actually an increase from 66% in 2015, meaning that email marketing is now ranked 9% higher than SEO (organic search) which came in second.
Third in the survey was content marketing.
In 2017 it will be the B2B companies that concentrate on the basics such as customer experience and co-ordinating customer response that will succeed. And that applies to marketing as well; for now it's steady as she goes, you should be featuring the tried and tested channels of email marketing, SEO, content marketing, paid search (PPC) and social media front and centre in your marketing plans.