B2B marketing is challenging, but now is a good time to start working on your marketing plan
In this, part one, we’ll look at where businesses are now, what marketing really is and why B2B businesses need to learn to think differently to survive and thrive in the new, post-pandemic world.
In part two, we’ll look at how to rethink your B2B marketing plan and the steps to take to move your business forward, positively and with a bang.
Snap-shot: where we are right now
“Small Businesses Are Dying by the Thousands — And No One Is Tracking the Carnage.” — Bloomberg
“A quarter of a million small businesses could go bust this year.” — This is Money
“More than 900,000 UK small businesses ‘at risk’ of failing by early April.” — London School of Economics
Okay, so these quotes are educated speculation, but they make unpleasant reading as we know the truth lies amongst them, and what they make abundantly clear, is the sentiment that’s keeping business owners, economists, and politicians awake at night as the pandemic continues to ravage our lives.
There has to be a light at the end of the tunnel.
And there is. People will return to our high streets. Commerce will fire-up and the economy is predicted to bounce back, maybe even peaking than it was towards the end of 2019.
Of course, this is predicated on the success of vaccine programmes, and in the UK at least, the full lifting of lockdown restrictions on June 21st, once and for all. But it’s happening, and positive change will come.
But here’s the rub…
Businesses of all sizes can and will reach the light at the end of this long and gloomy tunnel, but not without a fight for survival, and hard work. Business owners must brace themselves to begin the uncomfortable process of thinking and acting in radically different ways than they probably ever have before.
Why? Because acquiring new customers has never been more challenging.
It will be tough enough for consumer-facing businesses, but if your customers are other businesses (B2B), who are you going to sell your products and services to if they continue to disappear?
Ultimately, it’ll be survival of the fittest and most adaptable — those who work hardest and adjust to a fresh way of thinking about marketing.
The traditional view of marketing
Today, more than ever, business owners need to be smart about their marketing. The challenge will be to make the right decision about the right type of marketing to embrace in order to reach the right audience.
But as technology changes and time marches on, deciding what to do and how to do it are no longer simple choices: it’s a minefield. And it all changed because of the internet.
Prior to the birth of the internet, the opportunities or channels for marketing were about the same as they ever were; brochures, leaflets, posters, business cards, billboards, TV & radio, shop windows, vehicle signage, direct mail, telemarketing, and face-to-face salespeople. These were pretty much what everyone used.
In some respects, not much has changed with this type of marketing, except we marketers now have a fancy name for it: ‘outbound marketing’.
Outbound marketing is all about the ‘broadcast’ or the ‘push’. It’s a one-way street that rarely creates a conversation. You can’t engage people through a billboard; you can only hope they’ll visit your shop because your ad piqued their interest to do so. All you can do is put it out there and wait. And wait.
It works in some scenarios and it’s essential for brand awareness, but I will come on to that later.
The internet happened, and it changed everything
It’s hard to believe the internet is only around 25 years old, and that’s just when people became aware of it, let alone were able to use it.
It took 10–12 years for the internet to become pervasive, yet still, only half the US had access to broadband by 2007. In the UK, we reached that point a couple of years later, in 2009.
But what an impact it made — to everything, everywhere.
The internet opened the floodgates for marketing opportunities, and now there are more types of marketing than you can shake a stick at**; just over forty and growing. Digital marketing, inbound marketing, outbound marketing, brand marketing, affiliate marketing, account-based marketing, relationship marketing, proximity marketing, experiential marketing — the list goes on.
The most significant change the internet made to marketing is what marketers refer to as ‘inbound marketing’. It’s the direct opposite of outbound marketing. Inbound marketing embodies the essence of conversation and engagement, but it requires an understanding of marketing that goes beyond the basics.
Exactly what is marketing?
The boring, obvious definition of marketing is,
“activities a company undertakes to promote the buying or selling of a product or service.”
But it’s obviously true, and to the average person, it translates into advertisements, posters, websites, billboards, and so on, whose purpose is to reach the masses. However, modern-day thinking, facilitated by technology, focuses more on who you want to reach, right down to the individual demographic, not just how many.
The best definition of marketing was coined by Charles Duhigg of the New York Times in 2017:
“Marketing is the art of telling stories so enthralling that people lose track of their wallets.”
Humans respond significantly more positively when being told, or reading/hearing a story they can relate to than they do to cold, hard facts.
Storytelling quickly makes connections between people and helps to build trust. Once trust is established, it builds confidence in making decisions, and decisions lead to action.
Therefore, the way to get through to people is to tell the right stories.
Charles Duhigg, NYT, also observed that:
“…every marketer knows such stories can’t be too complicated.”
For example; Travel marketers know it’s way more powerful to show a video clip of a family having fun on a summer beach holiday (i.e. they’re telling a story) than it is to explain how affordable the holiday is and how quickly they’ll be able to get there. The latter is important, of course, but it’s not what makes them buy. The story makes them buy.
What stories should you tell, and how do you tell them?
When marketing to business customers, stories play as significant a role as they do when marketing to consumers. The difference is that B2B stories typically take the form of testimonials, endorsements, and case studies that are true, real-world, and verifiable.
For example; the Managing Director of XYZ Company is quoted as saying what a brilliant supplier you are, and how trustworthy, reliable, and committed your company is. This type of testimonial is pure, unassailable gold. You can hang your hat on it because it’s real and from an identifiable individual.
We’re not talking Amazon-type, hot-air reviews, most of which we know are fake (or believe to be fake, which is equally damaging), these have to be 100% genuine, which means going out of your way to obtain them.
Telling stories: adding value
Some purchases, such as insurance, are grudge purchases — a necessary evil. Every business needs insurance, yet no business owner wants to pay the premium as it’s just another figure for the expense column.
But if the insurance policy guarantees protection and rapid, quibble-free claim processing, plus 24/7 telephone support, they’re not buying an insurance policy; they’re buying peace of mind.
If your company sells insurance, ‘peace of mind’ is the story you need to be telling your prospective customers (or your existing customers if you want them to upgrade) as that’s where they will perceive the value to be.
Write the following down and embed it in your memory:
The purpose of B2B marketing is to prove to prospective customers that your business is worthy of their hard-earned cash because of the value you bring to them with quality and reliability.
The difference between wants and needs
It’s a loose generalisation, but B2C marketing is largely about appealing to what consumers want, whilst B2B is largely about appealing to what business owners need.
There are many things people need in their lives, from food to cars to clothes to furniture to legal advice. But people are way more susceptible to buying what they want, which they do with the heart, not the head. Holidays, ice cream, mobile phones, toys, alcohol, takeaways, shoes, streaming TV services, etc., are all things we want. And consumer-based marketing campaigns are 100% tuned to the dopamine rush buyers get from satisfying those irresistible ‘want’ urges.
Business customers are quite different because they mainly buy what they need to keep their business running; advertising, uniforms, transport, stationery, office space or premises, insurance, websites, business banking, tools, etc.
There’s very little dopamine rushing going on when businesses make purchasing decisions, as most, if not all, are ‘head’ decisions. Think ‘expense column’.
Being clear about whether your products or services satisfy the wants or the needs of your customers will shape the everyday language you use and how you structure your marketing campaigns.
Take time to thoroughly understand:
- Where the value to your customers is in your business, products, and services
- What your customers are buying from you, not just what you’re selling to them
Both have the potential to transform how you think about your business, how you operate from day to day, how you train your staff, and how your marketing activities will be structured.
You may find this article on the subject useful:
Summary — part one
How B2B Companies Can Survive Post-Pandemic
We’re living through a period where so much has changed, and so many people continue to be affected by what’s changed, many believing things will never be the same again.
World War II is a perfect example in recent history where so many people were negatively affected by a common series of events.
Few of us can relate to what it was like, but we all know how it challenged people to think and act differently, both during the war, commonly referred to as ‘the war effort’, and after the war, as people rallied around to rebuild their houses, businesses, cities, and lives, despite what had happened.
McKinsey’s COVID-19 Executive Briefing note on February 19, 2021, concisely explained it as:
For America’s leaders, innovators, and changemakers, the post–World War II recovery offers valuable lessons for encouraging productivity, innovation, and social-capital creation in a post-COVID-19 future.
This is true the world over. As the saying goes: “It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do about it that matters.”
Brace yourself for change
For businesses to survive and thrive post-pandemic, owners of every type of business need to start thinking differently and acting differently.
The transition will be difficult for some, but hanging on to the old, traditional ways of marketing your business, or not embracing marketing at all, just because the new ways are too scary, is not the way to build a stronger business for the future.
Not every business has a marketing budget. Not every business has a marketing department or even dedicated, in-house marketing staff, so I know it’s challenging. But these are challenges, not brick walls.
The first step is to understand and accept that you need to change how you think about marketing your business, but you’re reading this, so I’m guessing you’re there already. And that’s very exciting.
**Footnote: Way back in time, farmers would indicate where their sheep should go by shaking a stick at them. However, if a farmer had too many sheep and was unable to control them, it was said they had “more than you can shake a stick at.”
Part 2 of this article will explain the additional steps you’ll need to take that, I promise you, will turn your business around.