B2B marketing has changed a lot in the last 15 years – so much so that it’s starting to resemble B2C marketing. Digital marketing and mobile marketing, which used to be non-existent or negligible, are now front and center among B2B marketing tactics. So what happened here, and what does modern B2B marketing look like?

How traditional B2B marketing worked

Traditional business-to-business (B2B) marketing used to be an adjunct to the sales function. This makes sense: most traditional B2B enterprises had customers numbering in the hundreds or maybe thousands, not the millions. Sales were large, lumpy and customized enough that it was both necessary and profitable to have individual salespeople go after each account.

In other words, in the old days marketing was really designed to feed the sales funnel – that is, to get leads to salespeople. Using the traditional AIDA model (here presented colorfully by Alec Baldwin), this is what that meant:

  • Awareness: Advertise in industry print publications or maybe even newspapers; go to industry trade shows and give away tons of swag; do PR to get into these same publications/newspapers and speak at these events for free; and maybe run direct mail campaigns. Make sure you’re in industry directories and even the Yellow Pages.
  • Interest: More of the above, with more direct calls to action: 1-800-CALL-US-NOW.
  • Desire: Here’s where all the collateral and sales support stuff came into play: print collateral like brochures, one-sheets, white papers, presentations, sales scripts.  Whatever sales needs, marketing provides.
  • Action: At this point, sales takes over. They get the prospect on the phone or meet them in person, and then entice, cajole, or hoodwink the prospect into buying.

See what’s missing from all this? Web marketing. Even when you sold technology products, online marketing was an afterthought, and probably unnecessary. Maybe you had a brochure-ware website, but that was it – the call to action was always call us, by phone.

How the Internet changed B2B marketing

In many industries, B2B marketing has changed substantially – yes, due to the Internet. But this change has happened due to five separate causes:

  1. There are NEW B2B businesses, enabled by the Internet, that now have the capability to serve millions of small businesses nationwide; and
  2. Even OLD B2B businesses now have prospects with much greater access to information on your products and those of competitors via the Internet; and
  3. The Internet is replacing the traditional business and industry press, so all those magazines, newspapers, and even journalists are falling by the wayside; and
  4. Social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) are new ways of reaching large portions of the population; and
  5. Consumers are now accessing the Internet on more devices, most especially, their phones, where they are often most likely to encounter email first.

As a result of both more potential prospects and their better access to information, B2B marketing is looking much more like B2C marketing. That is, prospective customers can do extensive research on you well in advance of picking up the phone. Sales becomes more like order-taking, because now the customer can see the menu first – assuming you haven’t been hiding the menu — and decide what matters before they talk to you.

How B2B marketing works now

In this new world of B2B marketing, the whole sales evaluation process can happen and even be completed online. So here’s what AIDA might look like now:

  • Awareness: Search marketing, SEO, and content marketing are kings, because prospects actively go to the Internet first to find solutions, and this is where you get the hottest leads. Advertise online on industry-relevant websites with email list rentals, sponsorships, or maybe banners ads (heck, you can use publications too if there are any left). PR comes down to blogging (yours and guest-blogging), your social media presence, and your site content. Maybe you go to events, if they pay off. You use unusual partnerships to make people aware of you while going about their normal business. And by online marketing, don’t forget social network marketing like Facebook and LinkedIn.
  • Interest: Your website is where people learn about you and your products. It’s essential to have a web presence worthy of your brand – both attractive on the desktop and readable on a phone browser. You run ongoing webinars to introduce customers to your product, or provide a free online taste of the customer experience. You also spend a lot of time cultivating the ecosystem of recommenders, reviewers, e-tailers, affiliates, and parasites that provide “objective,” third-party information about your products and compare you to competitors.
  • Desire: All those former brochures, one-sheets, and white papers are now on your website – or even off your website (see the recommenders and parasites above). Maybe this product information is public, or maybe you tease prospects with it to get their contact information.  This information is now much more extensive, because prospects can read to their hearts content – they don’t have to carry or wait for a ton of dead-tree paper in the mail. Behind the scenes, sales still needs those presentations and sales scripts, but they are much more likely to be used online, via a phone call or web conference.
  • Action: Make it possible and easy for prospects to buy online without the intervention of a salesperson – an e-commerce site that is inviting, easy to use, and mobile-friendly is essential for this. Give prospects the option of chatting with sales people using IM or phone. Support your salespeople with a good CRM system to understand what the customer has done to this point, and help sales push prospects over the top. Use mobile-friendly emails to prompt prospects to evaluate the product, finalize their decision, and start using the product. Use even more emails to teach users about new features and increase engagement.

As you can see in this new world, sales is important, but depending on the business, it may be more of an adjunct to the marketing and e-commerce than the leader. Note also that the AIDA model doesn’t work so well anymore — or really, the web causes it to blur together, with prospects jumping from first look to sale in a matter of minutes. In essence, the world of B2B marketing just doesn’t look that different from B2C marketing any more.

So what to do now?

Some obvious dos and don’ts come of out of this new world of B2B online marketing:

  • Think of value of marketing before the call.  Some estimates are that 70% of research for big ticket B2B purchases is done before a prospect is ready to pick up the phone – and most of this research is now happening online. Remember to do the online marketing and thought leadership that make prospects aware of you before the call.
  • Don’t ignore new channels. Even if you don’t know how to use them, and even if your sales team doesn’t value them, new marketing channels like online or mobile marketing are here, and your competitors are likely to be already using them. Know what your competitors are doing and watch what’s successful. If you ignore the latest online marketing channels, you may end up with the skills or staff to understand them or use them profitably.
  • Don’t hide the menu. Give customers the information necessary to sell themselves.  Put as much information as you can out there, unless you have a legitimate reason not to, such as competitive concerns.  Help customers shape their understanding of the problem before the sales team gets to them — they’ll be better informed and easier to sell.
  • Don’t do cargo cult marketing. Just because something worked in the past doesn’t mean it works now. Don’t just write press releases nobody reads, because now they may never be read. Make all the marketing you do testable, and try to learn something from everything you do — even if it’s just, can we prove that we should do this again?

Needless to say, you can contact me if you need help.

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