B2B marketing is challenging. Now it’s time to up your game to survive and thrive
In part one of this two-part article, we looked at where businesses are right now (March 2021), 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 this, part two, we’ll look at how to rethink your B2B marketing plan and how to move forward in simple steps.
How this article will help you
In a similar way to how a business consultant would give the same ground-level advice to almost any type of business, or a personal trainer would give the same basic fitness advice to any person starting out in the gym, this is marketing 101 for all business types, but especially B2B. It’s straightforward and uncomplicated because it’s what so many businesses overlook, especially those returning to operation as we exit lockdown in the UK.
A drastic change to the business landscape
More than a year on, the pandemic has decimated UK businesses in retail and every type of service business, from the high street nationals, to small and micro-businesses, to one-man-bands. Thousands of people have lost their dreams and their livelihoods. That much we know.
If you kept your business alive throughout, with or without Government support, you deserve a medal, and with the removal of all lockdown restrictions on June 21st, 2021 (fingers crossed) you’ll want to celebrate and enjoy the new-found freedom.
Once restrictions have lifted, retail, hospitality and entertainment will enjoy a significant growth period that will very likely last until Christmas 2021 and into the new year. Other major sectors, such as construction and car manufacturing, should also work their way back to normality.
But what do these businesses have in common?
If you’re a B2B business, the chances are that’s you — your business is part of someone else’s supply chain.
B2B and service-type businesses are our lifeblood
B2B businesses may have been hardest hit because individual B2B suppliers are often only one link in the complex supply chain to an end product. And whilst certain supply chain businesses can form an entire sector within a wider industry (think kitchen companies and the house-building industry), if the end product is prevented from being sold through its relatively small number of outlets (think cars, houses, food, alcohol, gigs and so on), the entire supply chain is likely to collapse, potentially taking every connected business with it.
How does the guy who sells specialist lubricants to the engineer who services the tools for the company who makes moulds for the company who presses parts for the factory who assemble gearboxes for the car manufacturer who is no longer manufacturing cars survive?
It’s been desperately tough in B2B world, and as we climb out of the pandemic (and possibly the predicted 2021 recession that will follow), to find the tool company went under, the moulds company laid off 80% of its staff and the car manufacturer stock-piled parts from a year ago, who will you sell your specialist lubricants to?
You’ll need to find new customers.
Imagine you provide beer-line cleaning and servicing to the hospitality sector.
By the end of Jan 2020, there were 223,045 hospitality businesses in the UK. The expectation is that we’ve already lost 45,000–55,000 of these, which means your market opportunity has reduced by 20%-25%.
Perhaps your business provides office air conditioning maintenance services. When the BBC questioned fifty of the largest office-based UK employers, twenty-four said they had no plans to reopen their offices because ‘work from home’ has proved so successful.
More empty office buildings means fewer customers requiring your services.
One way or another, B2B business will have fewer customers and fewer opportunities for new customers than possibly ever before.
The silver lining
There’s an upside for almost every B2B business getting back on its feet: you will have fewer competitors. It’s ruthless, but you have to treat this as an opportunity — it’s survival of the fittest. Eat or be eaten, and any other cliché that fits the bill.
While others scrabble around working out what to do next, it’s time to get your brain into gear with some creative thinking about marketing.
Start by finding out how many of your competitors didn’t survive the rigours of lockdown. They all had customers so their loss has to be your gain, right? If not you, then who?
Go through your customer list and figure out who is still in business and who is planning to reopen. It will be relatively easy to work this out with the bigger companies as they’ll be posting notices on their websites. If your customers are hospitality-based, you may need to look ‘up’ the hierarchy to see who they’re owned by as they may post on their group websites.
Can you see a pattern forming here?
Your plan of action — how to get back in the game
Exposure — part one
What’s the single most important step almost any B2B business can take right now as the country slowly emerges from lockdown?
What’s the most important aspect of a marketing plan for getting customers re-engaged?
How are you going to move from dormant or ticking-over to thriving enterprise again?
TELL PEOPLE YOU’RE HERE. It’s that simple, to start with.
Pick up the phone and contact everyone in your industry/sector who might be able to help you, either by giving you work directly, or giving you information/inside intel that might help you get work. Use your contacts, the industry sales reps, your customers’ marketing departments — anyone who might help you find out what’s going on in your sector and what their plans are.
Customers: The key to your long-term survival is volume: you need lots of customers.
You know this because you’re smart and you’re in business. But don’t be fooled into believing things will pick up and, in time, everything will be back where it was before.
The pandemic should have taught you that nobody can predict the future, so don’t start by working with one customer at a time and feeling grateful that you have some income. There’s no time for complacency here. It’s time to think bigger — much bigger — because you will never survive another lockdown.
If you’re not working your fingers to the bone to win back as many old customers and persuade as many prospects as possible that you’re ready for whatever they can throw at you — one of your fiercely hungry competitors is already doing exactly that.
Get your B2B thinking cap on, more than ever before
Before the country fully reopens, you have time to get creative with ideas on how to re-engage previous customers, how to approach new prospects and how to continue with a marketing strategy that will keep your name in front of those who don’t even know they need you yet.
Please, do not leave it until after June 21st as you’ll be too busy, and marketing will take a back seat because you’ll start believing everything will be ok.
Take anything you were doing marketing-wise before the pandemic took hold — anything, whether or not it worked — and put it on the table as being equal to any other type of marketing you might do in the future.
Whatever worked before might not work now. Whatever didn’t work before might work now.
You and your team (if you have one) need to learn to be innovative, always trying to stay one step ahead with your ideas.
Here’s a breakdown of the key things you should start working on to develop your fresh approach to marketing:
Smaller businesses tend to think brainstorming is not for them. They see brainstorming as:
- Something corporate-types do in their bean-bag swanky offices
- Likely to descend into laughing and joking at someone else’s expense
- Something you do when you could do something more productive
- Probably a waste of valuable time
Points 1–3 are exactly right, but take nothing away from how effective the process is. Points 4 & 5 are a negative perspective that will change once you get started and see how well it works.
Put aside your prejudices and embrace brainstorming as the way to pull out the most creative ideas from a group of people.
Put simply, it’s getting your key people around you to throw ideas about in a controlled way to see if new ideas can emerge. And they will.
The session needs to be structured, and it needs to have both an obvious purpose and a goal (or goals) that everyone should know at the outset.
The primary purpose of brainstorming is to reach a conclusion that creates action.
The session also needs to be chaired by someone who knows how to run a meeting — not the smartest person, not the most senior person, and definitely not the person with the biggest ego. The Chair must be someone you trust and respect, but perhaps isn’t directly connected to (and therefore influenced by) the business. Women are excellent in this role because they’re more clear-cut, logical thinkers, and they’ll take less sh*t from the rest of you!
Remember, brainstorming is the crucial first step in your business surviving and thriving long term.
Think about ‘needs’
Think not so much about what you sell or what you do, but what your customers actually need from you. This is such an important and often overlooked distinction. What service or product that you provide (or could provide) could they not operate without? How can you improve on that for them? Could you increase the range available? Or the delivery options? The quality? Notice there’s no mention of the price here. More on that later.
Try to move away from the “this is what we do” inward thinking to the “this is what we can do for you” outward thinking. It’s a minor change that will transform many aspects of your business.
Talk to your customers
Get your customers in (or visit them) for a face-to-face chat so they really get to understand how much you’re trying to help them. If they’re a big customer and vital to the success of your business, ask them to be involved in one of your brainstorming session. They’ll be flattered, and their input on how you can best serve them (and others, of course) will be absolutely invaluable.
Be honest and brave. Ask your customers how well what you do for them is working and what you could do to make it better.
Get involved internally
Work with your staff and discuss how their roles may have changed with the ‘new normal’ we’re all getting used to, especially in terms of how they may need to interact more with customers now as it will be all hands on deck at every level.
Get your key staff to pick up the phone and engage with your customers.
Help them build relationships and take ownership of the customer base. Remind them that customers are the lifeblood of the business and the reason they have a job. You’d be amazed by how many people don’t fully appreciate this.
Contacting customers by email is fine, but this should be the fall-back option, not the primary communication method. If you must email, make it personal and directed to an individual. Don’t use a templated email marketing tool (like MailChimp) to send bulk emails. It’s lazy and ineffective.
Engage your marketing department. If you don’t have a marketing department, talk to marketing people. If you can’t afford marketing people, talk to yourself and your staff, but at least ask a marketing consultant to help you with a one-off session and involve them in your marketing brainstorming session.
If you already outsource marketing or decide that’s the way to go, make sure they truly understand the difference between B2C marketing and B2B marketing, as so many really don’t.
There are stories abound of the newly engaged marketing agency’s first action being to run through the buyer persona process.
It’s textbook stuff. Determine the exact type of person your ideal customer is and then develop a highly targeted marketing strategy around this to drive a marketing campaign that talks directly to them. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Sometimes it works, especially in consumer marketing, but for most B2B businesses it’s a time-consuming, pointless and expensive exercise that will make zero difference to your bottom line, right here, right now. Something for the future, perhaps, but what you need right now is clear, direct and positive action.
There are so many aspects of marketing to consider getting involved with, and everyone has an opinion about what the best thing is to do, based on their experience.
In B2B marketing, in particular, it’s more luck of the draw than sophisticated, targeted campaigns. Very often, marketers trying to prove their worth lose sight of the single most important aspect — the one thing they don’t want to spend too much time on because it’s so basic when they need to be convincing you how clever they are and how smart their campaigns will be.
It’s one word; messaging.
Everything else is a conduit, a channel, or a launchpad for messaging.
Without the right message (right for your business, for your customers and right for the way you work), no amount of fancy marketing activity will make any difference.
Getting to the right people
What will undoubtedly be a challenge, from a marketing perspective, is getting to the right people to let them know you exist.
You can’t launch a direct mail campaign to target the facilities manager, or the stationery buyer, or the quantity surveyor. Your salespeople can’t rock-up at the customer’s office and chat with the buyer over a coffee, regaling them with stories of other customer successes, or taking new products to show them. Why?
Because at least 50% of business customers no longer work from an office. They’re all working from home.
Direct marketing in the traditional sense is currently just a waste of postage.
The move to working from home has been a huge eye-opener, as so few companies were prepared for their staff to be able to continue their normal work, but from home. Even now, in the UK’s third lockdown, many home workers are still using their personal email address, or rapidly set up Gmail addresses, because the company’s infrastructure simply didn’t, and still doesn’t, allow for remote email access.
It’s not a criticism of the company — it’s a wake-up call to you, their supplier, as you’re going to have to be creative in how you communicate your services to prospective customers. Now and possibly forever.
Exposure two: be everywhere all the time
The type of marketing that is designed around keeping your name in front of people so that they’ll [hopefully] remember you when they need what you do, is loosely known as ‘brand awareness’.
In some senior circles, especially those which include an accountant, ‘brand awareness’ is a swear word because it’s so intangible, and number crunchers like to join the dots between money out and money in. Whereas brand awareness is about having confidence and trusting that, over time, revenue will increase because more people know you exist and ultimately become customers.
Don’t dismiss brand awareness as something only bigger, established companies with bottomless pockets do. It’s a fancy term for something that’s really very simple; getting your name out there, in front of people.
Embrace it and understand what it means to your business. Spend your time (or your marketing people’s time) and money on developing a simple brand awareness campaign.
Do it creatively. Do it in a fun way. Do it repeatedly and out-publish your competitors.
Don’t do it later. Don’t do it in one channel and don’t limit your thinking.
If you’re a B2B service-providing business, you’re in the ‘need’ business, not that ‘want’ business. This means people need what you do when they have a problem that needs solving. Brand awareness-type marketing is mostly what you’ll be doing.
If you also happen to be in a price competitive market, you could offer incentives such as labour cost discounts, or a free ‘service’ call, but if all you do is focus on the money, you’re devaluing your business and undermining the value of the services you offer.
Focus everything you do on value, quality and service.
Remember, this is not retail, so discounts can look like desperation to your customers, and are a race to the bottom with your competitors.
Think wide (multi-channel) and deep (repetition)
Once you have value, quality and service front and centre in your mind, start working out how you’re going to get to people.
Begin by mapping out every marketing channel available to you. There is plenty to choose from.
The number of channels will depend on the size of your business, of course, but it could be local newspapers, networking groups, trade publications, radio, your website, your vehicles, newsletters, social media, and so on.
Wherever you think your customers will look for the service or products you provide — be there so they can find you. Reminder: be everywhere all the time.
Social media is your friend when it comes to creating brand awareness. Many businesses, especially B2B businesses, shy away from social media because they don’t understand how they can benefit from it.
If you can identify with that, you may find this article provides some useful insight:
Brand awareness is simply about reminding potential and existing customers what a great service you provide and that you’re here, day in day out, for them, whenever they need you and for whatever they need from you.
Your brainstorming session(s) will be a great way to pull-out lots of key phrases that you can use across multiple channels, including social media.
Key points to take away
There’s no golden ticket
If you were expecting a simple answer, a panacea that would provide an instant solution to all your marketing needs, I’m sorry to disappoint you. However, what you should take from this is the simplicity of it.
Yes, it will take effort in an area you’re unfamiliar with and yet to develop, but it’s simple, not easy. So simple that you may wonder why you didn’t do most of it before. That doesn’t matter. It’s here and now that matters.
You’re in good company
B2B businesses are the WORST for embracing marketing because they feel what they do is intangible and difficult to get across. Whilst that may be true if their market is niche (think specialist lubricants from the beginning of this piece), their customers understand that because they’re in that niche market with you. Just talk your language to people who understand it.
It’s different now
You may not like how things have changed, and you may want everything to be as it was before. Get over it and get on with what needs to be done to build a future for your business.
As my friend and author, Melinda Blau points out:
Buddhists say: Don’t argue with reality. Change — whether it’s universally disruptive or far less dramatic — always brings challenges. It’s never easy.
If it were easy, everyone would do it. Change is here, and change can be good. Embrace it.
Get your marketing hat on
If you were actively marketing your business before the pandemic, accept that you may need a fresh approach now. What you did before may not work now, even though it feels comfortable to keep doing that. Don’t let your ego get in the way of accepting that you may need to change.
If you hated marketing and never felt it was something you needed to do in your business, it’s time to wise up. Remember, whether or not you embrace some form of marketing, your competitors are probably all over it. If you choose not to embrace it you’ll be going backwards.
Get help — internally or externally
Whether you’re a solopreneur who operates and lives from one contract to the next, or a medium-sized company turning over £10-£15 million per year, the people around you and within the business should be called upon to help you think and plan to grow the business.
Nobody has experience with your business like you and your staff do.
Don’t wait for new customers to come to you
Right now, if you’re a general builder, you’re probably booked-out for the next six months. With spring here and summer on its way, everyone’s got a building project they want to get on with now. Make hay while the sun shines, yes, but remember it won’t last forever.
Whatever your business type, keep thinking beyond the immediate future. Try thinking in calendar quarters. We’re ok this quarter, but what about next quarter? What about the quarter after that?
Think marketing — think exposure
If telling prospective customers you’re here for them is all you have, work with it. Work out how to keep your company name in front of people, and do that over and over again. Be everywhere, all the time.
Make a marketing plan
Work out what to do from your brainstorming sessions, and how you’re going to do it. Commit nothing to memory — get it down on paper and make a tangible plan that you can be accountable to.
Plans should never be static, set in stone or rigid. Plans are fluid. They’re meant to evolve and adapt as you learn. All the work you’ve put into thinking and brainstorming and plotting and scheming will go to waste if you don’t make a plan.
Commit to a budget for marketing
You will need a marketing budget, but it needn’t break the bank if you’re smart with how you plan to use it.
If you’re a bigger company, be serious about the budget and stick to it so your marketing people know what they’re working with long-term. Accept that marketing rarely has a quick return. When it does, it’s not always directly measurable. When you’re a B2B business, a specific ROI can be impossible to determine as it’s difficult to join the dots between marketing activity and revenue.
Accept it and keep doing it.
If you’re a small business and don’t have the funds yet, make a plan anyway and commit to allocating a portion of your profit margin to marketing.
Discover more free or low-cost channels (like social media) and learn how to make them work for you. Reading and learning are free. You have no excuse.
What’s the alternative? Wait for people to find you? You’ll need to be smarter than that.
Most of what you need to do in business now is get active in a way you’ve never been active before. Remember, whatever your business is, whether it’s product or service-based, it provides a solution. Focus on that and be successful.
If you missed part one, you’ll find it here: