B2B manufacturing and professional services companies can tap into a huge competitive advantage if they embrace modern marketing. The changing state of B2B buying has been well-documented. One of the more dramatic changes is an earlier and greater reliance on conducting web-based research prior to reaching out to a salesperson. The pace of retiring baby-boomers and the ascent of Millenials will only strengthen this behavior. It is a normal operating procedure for buying.

Change is hard. What makes embracing modern marketing even harder among certain industries is the tradition.  

Much industrial manufacturing and professional services firms grew rapidly on the backbone of a stellar “door-to-door” sales team. My grandfather was one of these traveling salespeople. He worked for a large B2B electronics distributor and traveled week after week across his assigned territory knocking on doors. Field sales are still effective. Knocking on doors and building relationships are still crucial. Yet today, marketing – modern marketing – provides a complementary service to sales that accelerate the pace of success.

Mindsets Limiting Leaders to Transform Marketing

However, before I get into identifying six essential “first-steps” every B2B industrial provider must implement in 2018, I want to counteract potential “yeah buts” swirling around in some executives’ heads.

  • “We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work.”

Unfortunately, some B2B companies are tainted by poor experiences. Often though, these experiences are tracked-back to bad outsourcing to a cheap, amateur marketer, an over-extended agency or an attempt to grow an inexperienced in-house person into a strategic marketer. I have heard enough stories from CEOs to feel comfortable with this reasoning. After all, marketing isn’t easy but it is highly effective. Setting the right expectations, investing appropriately, and designing the right strategy for the current market reality will produce positive outcomes.

  • Assigning marketing to the sales executive.

Sales and marketing require different skill sets and more importantly – mindsets. As a marketer running my own business, I can sell but I am certainly not a salesperson. I don’t possess and haven’t honed the skill set. However, I have continually studied and successfully applied marketing skills over the past eighteen years to qualify me as a strategic marketer. Solving a marketing problem by shifting responsibility to an overflowing plate of a sales leader tends, most often, to lead to mediocre or poor results.

  • Hiring commission-only salespeople instead of investing in a marketing resource.

B2B buying has changed. It’s not a “feet on the street” situation anymore because few prospects are answering the door-knocks. Buyers are moving to the Web to research and evaluate solutions. By the time a salesperson calls, a prospect is probably half-way through their buying process and already has a list of potential providers.

Marketing operates out ahead of sales and helps uncover, attract and engage the right prospects so sales can help solve their problems and attain their goals. Demand creation/generation and sales enablement conducted by marketing strengthen the sales team by allowing them to apply their sales expertise at building trust and closing deals.

There are more “yeah…buts” lingering around. Yet, all of these attempt to only side-step the reality. B2B buying behavior has changed. Businesses need to adapt to align with the new reality. And, as such, a competitive advantage is available to companies who deliberately decides to move towards modern marketing to fill the gap.

What is Modern Marketing in the Context of B2B Industries?

Marketo, a leading marketing automation platform, eloquently stated, “Marketing has always been an evolving practice, but the digital transformation has increased the rate of change exponentially. Modern marketing strategies are inspired by, and contribute to, changing expectations and philosophies, and competitive marketers need to stay ahead of the trends.”

According to Econsultancy, modern marketing simply blends classic and digital marketing. But what I like most about eConsultancy’s definition is its corresponding “twelve constituents.” These characteristics help uncover the full spectrum of what modern marketing really means. The twelve constituents are:

  1. Strategy
  2. Brand
  3. Experience
  4. Data
  5. Digital
  6. Personalization
  7. Technology
  8. Creative
  9. Content
  10. Multi-screen
  11. Social
  12. Commercial

Let’s face it, on a modernization spectrum of 1 to 100, most B2B companies, except those operating in technology markets and/or are larger enterprises, operate on the left side of the spectrum’s midpoint. Therefore, expecting a rapid move from 1 to 100, even 5 to 30, is ludacris. However, there are many readily available opportunities to shift further right on the spectrum to gain a competitive advantage AND to meet the demands of today’s buyers.

Although competitive, financial performance or market pressures may force leaps versus steps, many B2B companies can make great strides by executing six critical steps towards modern marketing. With the twelve constituents in mind. Here are the six “must-take” steps, in no particular order, required to serve today’s B2B buyer while gaining an upper hand on the competition.

ONE: Invest in Building a Highly Effective Website

Roughly 90% of prospective customers will visit a vendor’s website during the buying process.

An effective website does multiple things well.

  • It creates the right brand impression with the prospective buyer letting him or her know they’ve arrived at place relevant to their needs.
  • It clearly communicates the value and benefit buyers and customers gain from the brand.
  • It is mobile-responsive to serve the multi-screen (desktop, tablet, and mobile) devices.
  • It presents multiple engagement paths to support the buyer at different stages across his or her buyer’s journey.
  • It serves multiple stakeholders while directing each to its respective area for information gathering, support, and engagement.

A major component of building a highly effective website moves beyond the creative design and technical development. It involves the brand communications captured in the message platform, the brand identity, the buyer personas and the content strategy. These critical components lead the creative and technical processes.

A B2B website is such a significant part of the customer acquisition program that it requires appropriate time and investment.     

TWO: Implement a Marketing Automation and CRM Platform

Marketing automation is a category of technology that allows companies to streamline, automate, and measure marketing tasks and workflows, so they can increase operational efficiency and grow revenue faster (Marketo).  This is a rapidly growing category with marketing technology. A few respected brands include Marketo, Eloqua, Hubspot, Infusionsoft, and Pardot.

While a CRM (customer relationship management) system provides a clear overview of your customers and prospective customers. It provides a simple, customizable dashboard that provides visibility into the sales pipeline, enables segmentations for effective marketing, gives customer’s previous history and can provide any outstanding customer service issues. (Salesforce.com.)  

Many marketing automation platforms also integrate a CRM. All the brand mentioned above include CRMs or integrate seamlessly with Salesforce, the CRM market leader.

These are the important marketing and sales tech platforms that provide critical visibility into performance and enable data-driven planning and execution. Without either platform, B2B companies are operating at a disadvantage. And fortunately, the cost of these technologies have decreased while their usability has increased.

As with any new technology, it’s important to develop clear objectives, goals and use cases before evaluating which platform to implement. Here are some questions to consider when evaluating marketing automation and/or CRM platforms:

  • What do you want to accomplish?
  • Is it built for small business?
  • What features do you really need?
  • What is the implementation process and how much technical assistance?
  • How easy is it to use?
  • Can I easily train employees?
  • Are there any user minimums?
  • What is the total cost of the software? Is there any setup or additional fees?
  • What if I need to add more users or integrations?
  • Is the API accessible?What type of security features are built-in?

THREE: Spend Adequate Time Researching and Documenting Your Target Buyers

I have written extensively (and produced a video) on the importance of deeply learning about your prospective buyers. You can gain enough understanding simply by investing a few days completing a couple immersive activities. These activities include:

  1. Customer interviews
    • Schedule a 25-30 minute call with recently won and, if possible, recently lost customers.
  2. External-facing team interviews
    • Schedule 1-hour meetings with sales, customer support, marketing and subject matter experts
  3. Competitor assessments
    • Study how your competitors are communicating and whom they are communicating with.
  4. LinkedIn profiles
    • Once you have gathered the titles of your prospective buyers, do searches on LinkedIn for individuals with these titles. Review what groups they participate in, how they describe their role, their certifications, accreditations, what articles and activities they are sharing and who else they are connected to.
  5. Third-party (analyst) research reports
    • Perform Google searches on your target market and prospective buyers to find analyst reports. Often these cost money to download but important data points can be gathered from news releases to help validate insights gathered elsewhere.
  6. Second-party surveys
    • Identify a company or media brand currently serving your prospective buyers and propose a survey. There are multiple ways to conduct it but it starts with a conversation of the benefits gained by both parties.

B2B companies may believe these activities have already been done long ago.

Well, a tremendous amount of change has happened over the past ten years affecting practically every industry. The onslaught of digital.penetration, an explosion in multi-device usage, globalization, major generational shifts with baby boomers retiring and millennials stepping into the workforce, are only a few. These forces impact purchasing behavior and the journey buyers pursue to complete a purchase..

A study by Bain and Company discovered a significant perception gap between buyers and sellers. “Eighty percent of organizations believed they delivered a “superior experience” to their customers; however, only 8% of customers felt the same way.” That’s a monumental gap in perception!

What’s more startling, especially because it could be solved, is that “73% of sellers don’t naturally have the skills to create the experience that buyers want In many cases.” But these skills are not difficult to learn. It’s about allocating resources and time to deep-dive into the activities presented above and then continue learning as the business moves ahead to stay in alignment with the buyer.

FOUR: Leverage Buyer Research to Build a Message Platform

Understanding prospective buyers’ challenges, goals, beliefs, and feelings within functional, social, emotional and mental contexts provides the ability for sellers to craft relevant communications.

Communications theory, established in the 1920s, is incredibility relevant even today in the digital age. As  Claude Shannon, father of information theory, stated, “The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point.” In other words, the art and science of effective communications are speaking the figurative “language” of the buyers in a manner in which the message is clearly heard, felt and integrated into their current thoughts and beliefs.

In a business-to-business setting, it’s very important to identify buyers who have an urgent and acknowledged problem to be solved.

If unacknowledged, the seller will need to spend resources educating the prospective buyer why a problem exists and why it’s imperative to prioritize its resolution. Likewise, if not urgent, the seller is also forced to allocate resources to compel the buyer into urgency. In both cases, the seller has a more complicated and longer-term communications effort before sales are realized.  

Crafting an effective message involves multiple communication components including:

  • Defining buyer personas
  • Developing a clear value proposition
  • Clarifying points of differentiation

From these three major components come multiple sub-components that define buyer messaging. These include:

  • Value statements
  • Value (Benefit) Bullets
  • Reasons to Believe
  • Dramatic Difference
  • Associated Product Feature
  • Proof Points

Together, these components form the Message Platform which becomes the central buyer communications document across the company. It ensures messaging consistency and alignment between marketing and sales. Message consistency is very important to avoid confusing prospective buyers especially as they engage with different touchpoints along their buying journey.

FIVE: Develop a Content Marketing Strategy

With knowledge of the buyer’s journey, a documented message platform, and defined buyer profiles to target, it’s time to develop a content strategy. A content strategy spans from website copy to content marketing to sales collateral. The goal of the content strategy is to attract, engage and support your prospective buyer throughout their buying journey.

The content strategy should ensure message consistency and focus on timely, valuable and relevant presentation to the prospective buyer. Keep in mind, the content is not about your company and its products or services directly. The emphasis is on helping the buyer first, followed with positioning your product or service as a solution, second.

How you position and what benefits you prioritize in solving the very real buyer needs, is where the indirect selling occurs.  In other words, how you “frame” the buyer’s problem, leads him or her to the solution – your product or service. Clearly though, if the buyer disagrees with either the problem definition or the solution presentation, then they’ll fall out of grace with your brand, at least until they learn more about other alternatives or receive pressure to make a decision.

SIX: Establish Performance Metrics

In today’s digital world, it’s unacceptable to not track marketing engagement and performance. The depth of tracking may vary but basic-level tracking is mandatory for all businesses. After all, Google Analytics for website tracking is free. Email marketing, social media marketing, paid search (SEM), search engine optimization (SEO), direct mail, and events – practically every marketing channels’ performance are traceable through inexpensive and easy-to-use digital tools.

Once the tracking mechanism is in place, then specific targets should be set that is based on what needs to be achieved to reach the business’ goals. Setting performance metrics simply provides a “yes or no” answer to the question, “did the marketing channel we invested in achieving the target?” If the answer is “no” then why? If “yes” then what can be done to get more out of it?

It’s the ability to answer the question that creates the power of performance metrics and tracking mechanisms. Without them, the answer is simply “I don’t know” which is terrible because it leads nowhere but to guessing and hope.

Ready to Transform Your Marketing?

An effective executive understands the pace in which their organization can change. A great strategy applied at the wrong time will fail. As I mentioned earlier, on a marketing modernization spectrum of 1 to 100, most B2B companies, except those operating in technology markets and/or are larger enterprises, operate on the left side of the spectrum’s midpoint. Therefore, expecting a rapid move is fantasy. However, pursuing the six steps I outlined above will set every B2B company up for more sustainable growth in a changing B2B buying landscape. It will also establish a foundation for continual modernization into new areas including segmentation, data, experiences, and personalization.

Invest in modern marketing and take advantage of the opportunity to attain a competitive advantage to better serve the new B2B buyer.

If you are interested in developing an effective game plan for modernizing your marketing strategy, feel free to contact me. You’ll get an honest assessment of what’s required and a clear plan for making it work at the right pace for your organization.

Kevin Gold is the executive marketing consultant at Next Leap Strategy, LLC. With more than 18 years of market strategy, customer acquisition and marketing leadership experience, Kevin helps B2B industrial manufacturing and technology clients modernize their marketing to deliver greater customer acquisition results.