I spend a lot of time with our clients figuring out the best strategy, the latest measurement tools and how to cut through the noise. But lately many of the questions have been around should B2B marketers be doing in times of economic turmoil, when no one is sure how far it is to the bottom and when we will start coming back up. So I carved out a little time and tried to come up with a few key best practices that might give at least a little direction. I’d really like to ask for everyone else’s thoughts. And maybe together we can chart the right course.
First, as the old saying goes, the best time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining. And while the weather metaphor may not match the current financial outlook, the lesson should be heeded by every marketer and by B2B marketers the most. Success in B2B focused businesses comes as a direct result to the quality of the relationship between companies. Traditionally this has been primarily the province of the direct sales force. But in an increasingly more online world, the quality of the relationship is measured by the quality of the online experience, which is most often managed by marketing rather than sales. So in hard times, when B2B purchasing is put on hold and buying cycles lengthen considerably, it is up to the B2B marketer to use all the tools at their disposal to nurture the relationship so that when the recovery comes and the buyers have money in their hands, they turn to those with whom they already have a relationship.
Second, in today’s world, the selling of technology is becoming a larger share of B2B transactions and the process of buying and selling technology is changing rapidly. IT purchases used to be the almost exclusive realm of technology professionals. They would recommend new technologies, deploy them and have complete responsibility for their support. And to many business users, how that technology worked and how it worked together was a mystery that went well beyond both their expertise and their interest. Now however, approaching the end of the first decade of the 21st century and when Gen X types are approaching what we used to call middle age, the roles are in flux. The rapid growth of Software as a Service and even Software plus Services, especially in the enterprise space, is testament to the fact that business owners are no longer willing to completely delegate technology to the IT department. For this new generation of business leaders, technology is not just the plumbing that runs behind the scenes, it is often the measure of innovation and a key differentiator in their business. For the B2B marketer, this means that technology can’t be packaged just for the geeks and promoted by the proverbial speeds and feeds, it must be presented to the business decision maker and must demonstrate the business value it delivers. It’s solution selling at its most basic.
Next, it’s not only that technology is moving out of the server room, it’s also being taken home. According to a recent survey of online adults, 77% used Microsoft Word at home as well as 58% used Microsoft Excel, once an exclusive business tool. What does this mean to a B2B marketer? The line between B2B and B2C customer is becoming blurred as the line between our work and our home lives fades. We are taking traditionally business applications like Word and Excel home and we are bringing Facebook and Twitter into the office with us. This is especially important as consumer products lead the innovation race and it’s just as likely that a business will be clamoring to get the latest B2C products and services, but use them in a business context. So the B2B marketer has to recognize that their audiences may be interested in their products as a consumer and that their companies are competing against consumer products in the business arena.
Finally and perhaps the most important tip for today’s B2B marketers comes from one of my favorite analysts at Forrester Research, Laura Ramos. She’s been posting a series on Forrester’s marketing blog entitled, “B2B Marketing Obsolete, Really?” And one her best messages is, “For marketing to evolve, we need to learn to listen more than we talk.” The world of Web 2.0 is no longer an abstraction. According to the most recent data I’ve seen, 75% of online adults in the United States participate in some form of social media. And that number is fairly consistent across most age groups. It’s not just a bunch of tweens on MySpace. Companies are being talked about on the Web, B2C and B2B alike. Business people are seeking out their peers to research and rate products and companies alike. And if you are not reaching out to find out what they are saying, where they are living online and who they are listening to, you can bet your competitors are.
Bottom line, despite the economy, there’s a lot B2B marketers need to be doing now and its not just this quarter’s sales that depend on it. The future of their companies may depend on how they step up to the plate.