B2B Strategic Marketing 101

Too often discussions about B2B marketing turn quickly into long-winded conversations about the pros and cons of all the available options (email, social media, SEO, content, blogging, etc). This is made more complicated by the fact that the range of B2B channels to consider has broadened in line with changing technologies, making it even harder to work out the best option for your company. Add to this that the behavior of professional service buyers is changing (partly driven by the rise of millennial’s) and it’s not surprising that it can feel like navigating a marketing maze with a blindfold on!

However, the real problem is often much simpler. Not enough time and effort is spent by B2B companies on developing a clear marketing strategy that can guide and synchronise their marketing activities to deliver against agreed business objectives.

Written down it looks like common sense that all business functions are aligned to a single set of goals. Even if an organisation has separate marketing, sales and operational departments, everyone needs to pull in the same direction and not work in silos. So where should you start to ensure that marketing is aligned with business objectives? Like most good solutions it’s best to start with some straightforward questions:
– Are we getting our product or brand in front of the right people who could become customers?
– Are we inspiring these people in the right way so they will actively become customers?

The first point is about making sure you are visible at the brand touch-points where your potential customers are active. Many B2B companies have an advantage in that they are specialists in a tightly defined niche, dictated by the products and services they supply. Your customers are more readily identifiable and you can uncover many of their behaviours and activities based on an understanding of how the sector works.

However, this leads to a common mistake of treating all of your customers as a single homogenous group. It is much easier to find the commonalities that link your customers and latch onto these as the basis of your marketing. What is harder is to adopt an approach that says we are gong to identify the factors that make our customers unique and different.

Clearly it is unlikely that you can carry this principle through to everyday implementation and actions – few of us have the resources or time to make that a reality. But that doesn’t stop you adopting an attitude and behaving in a way that assumes your customers are individual organisations with their own set of needs and wants.

The more granular you can get about your customers the better on the basis that, theoretically at least, there is nothing more effective than one-to-one marketing. The better you know your customers the more likely you are to connect with them and be in a position to meet their needs by offering a more tailored service.

Which makes it surprising how many B2B companies spend so little time actually trying to understand their customers, beyond scratching the surface. This is often driven by a viewpoint that, as specialists in our sector, we know what they want. This may be true but it can lead to views that are entrenched and can become out-of-date. Over time these views can permeate through an organisation and make it difficult to evolve or reflect changes that are happening in the sector (and which your competitors are responding to).

What is frustrating in this approach is how it ignores the massive opportunities B2B companies have to use their existing data and knowledge to uncover new truths and learnings.

Digging into existing business data can reveal all sorts of useful information. By tracking trends over time it helps to direct focus on the products and services that are most relevant and popular. This can also be extremely helpful in driving product development and innovations. The numbers can also highlight which customers are becoming more important and which are going in the wrong direction. The point is that it can create conversations about individual customers that can lead to proactive strategies, rather than reacting to situations when it is too late to change the outcome.

Customer-facing teams already have regular and direct contact with your customers. But rarely is this information collated and collected together to provide the basis of new learnings. CRM’s are essential for helping you stay organised and connected but they can only tell part of the story – they don’t reveal what is going on behind the numbers. For this you need to dig a bit deeper.

One of the best methods is (unsurprisingly) to go out and talk directly to your customers. Asking them for honest feedback and what it is they want from a business partner can be very revealing. And if you can get the senior team to participate in this activity it can have a multitude of benefits. Not only does it make customers feel they are getting special treatment, it can also open the eyes of senior management to new insights and a better understanding of what is really going on.

In many sectors it can be worth considering undertaking a Segmentation project (using a combination of existing information and common sense), with the aim of dividing customers into groups based on shared characteristics. Done properly this is not planning ‘mumbo-jumbo’ but a very effective way to be more efficient with your time, money and resources. When marketers divide a market based on key characteristics and personalise their strategies based on that information, there is a much higher chance of success than if they were to create a generic campaign and try to implement it across all segments.

The point is you have lots of information available to you if you are willing to look at it in different ways. And if you find you still have a genuine knowledge gap, than commissioning some original and proprietary research on your customers can act as a stepping-stone for a whole new set of understandings that will not always be available to your competitors.

Earlier I asked two questions, the second being ‘are we inspiring people in the right way so they take action to become customers?’

Nearly every organisation I have worked with has had a deep-seated belief that they are different or better than their competitors. The problem is that these beliefs often get lost or watered down over time and don’t reside in a single place. It’s surprising how often senior teams have differing (and sometimes conflicting) views on what their company should stand for and how they want to be seen by their customers.

The days of simply promoting your products and services are long gone. Your customers are becoming more impatient, more demanding and more discerning. Which means you need to be much smarter about how and what you communicate to them. Companies need to have a clear purpose and ideally it should be linked to how this offers distinctive benefits to your customers.

Uncovering this purpose can happen in different ways but often it simply involves getting the key people within an organisation (and not just the senior team) in a room and exploring what makes you better and different from your competitors. Looking at your company from an external viewpoint and through the eyes of your customers can be very revealing, as well as challenging current beliefs. (It is the challenging nature of this process that often requires the objectivity of an external agency to lead it).

It can be hugely satisfying to uncover brand truths that may have become dormant and, once you have this brand promise agreed, ideas for your marketing strategy and communications will be much easier to develop. This strategic thinking will form a long-term basis for guiding the marketing (and other activities) within an organisation and will be essential in building the emotional connections with your target audience.

There is no question that for B2B companies, adopting a marketing approach whereby you aim to understand and treat your customers more as individuals than some corporate mass, requires more time and effort. But if you are prepared to take on the challenge it is almost certain that you are doing significantly more than your competitors. It also requires commitment and buy-in from people across a wide range of departments and especially senior management. But once everyone is on-board it can have a hugely positive effect on creating a culture and environment where there is a unified sense of understanding and purpose, which can only help to drive long-term business success.

If this resonates with your business goals then get in touch to see how we can help. Email [email protected] or telephone +44(0)1225 445 427.