Call it the year of accelerated transformation. Call it the year of Covid. Call it the longest continuously burning dumpster fire the world has ever faced. The year 2020 will go down in history as a year of hard lessons and hard-fought best practices.
We started 2020 with an almost breathless anticipation for the miracle dubbed as digital transformation. It was the journey we had all been planning...our AI models ready...our bots skinned and ready for brilliance. As if on queue, the global pandemic struck and the best laid plans were decimated. Many learned the hard way that digital transformation was not a destination: It was (and remains) an ever-moving and ever-evolving target. As the COVID-19 wreaked havoc on daily life, it also took a toll on the very processes, platforms and daily operations that connected businesses with their enterprise buyers.
Our most comfortable tools of sales enablement and marketing engagement were destroyed with every new ban and lockdown. Gone were the sales lunches, trade shows and lengthy journeys to a handshake. Gone were the three-year timelines for digital modernization and transformation. In the blink of an eye, expectations lifted and shifted regarding where, how and how quickly customers needed to search, engage and transact. Suddenly, the business fo DOING business had fallen and needed help getting back up.
For marketing organizations, the questions from the C-Suite didn’t just focus on how much budget needed to be cut. Perhaps we can thank the recession for weakening that knee-jerk reaction to chaos and uncertainty. Instead, Chief Marketing Officers were being asked how fast technology could empower teams to run—and how they could accomplish the digital pivots to meet their customers where their customers needed to be. For marketers looking to IT to help fix all that ailed us, we quickly learned they had their own massive fish to fry as workforces went remote overnight and some CIOs weren't just scrambling to get clouds up and running...they were literally shopping for laptops. The martech stacks we had lovingly (or carelessly) built over the past decade had to go it alone in a brand new business world. The conversation shifted from identifying the business cases that could be addressed to understanding how and how fast business challenges could be solved.
Which brings us to now… 2021. For B2B marketers…it’s time to make the donuts.
As CMOs plan for a postpandemic business world, big issues loom regarding how technology will answer the call of buyers who are now fully embracing digital engagement and mapping their own path to purchase—and at a speed that will satisfy their business demands. The question is how long businesses can keep innovating and evolving at this pace.
In the push to get back to “business as usual,” marketers in B2B organizations have had to keep their eyes firmly fixed on the customer—on the buyers driving revenue and the influencers shaping behaviors—and hope that their tech stacks and teams are ready to keep up.
Because of this, there are a couple key trends pushing B2B marketing to change in ways some enterprises will be uncomfortable with. The first of which is homing in on the difference between “consumerizing” as opposed to “humanizing” experiences. One involves commodities...the other involves people. So why do we keep talking about both as if they were identical motions?
The Call to Humanize Experiences for Humans
(Yup...my head hurts now)
A funny thing happened as industry experts talked about B2B buyers’ wanting experiences that felt like those offered to B2C buyers: B2B marketers forgot that behind the accounts, the segments and the personas were real live human beings. The expectation for simple, easy, accessible and self-service engagement has grown out of innovative and creative engagements often born in B2C experiences—the ability to watch a movie on demand, subscription services for everything from toilet paper to peanut butter, gorgeous websites full of images personalized and curated for that individual user, virtual fitting rooms and digital concierges—limitless service and creativity on wild display. Ironically, in Marketing’s race to prove that following the trend of consumerizing B2B experiences will yield profitable engagements, a truth is often overlooked: Regardless of what a buyer is buying, from soda to software, that buyer is a person.
For far too long, B2B marketing automation platforms sought to respond to the needs of the business to streamline, orchestrate and measure communications and interactions with prospects and customers. In Marketing’s drive to deliver growth-driving leads, systems and processes have behaved more as if Sales is the customer of Marketing’s actions than as if the end buyer is half of an ongoing conversation.
The B2B consideration cycle, on average, involves six to 10 influencers and executive stakeholders crafting experiences and journeys to formulate their own buying decisions. The old function of B2B websites that exist to deliver brochureware and track a customer through a linear sales funnel simply cannot address the complex reality of as many as 10 executives leaving different signals and queues across a customer journey they defined largely on their own.
One specific example has been the rise in video as a replacement for in-person engagement. Some recent research by video platform vendors such as Vidyard indicates a year-over-year increase of as much as 93% in businesses deploying video for sales prospecting and engagement, with 94% of the study respondents indicating that these videos have performed as well as, if not better than, other traditional outreach forms. Organizations have touted staggering results from a video-first approach, with deployments of custom video at each stage of a buying journey—from initial business use case thought leadership to unboxing, deployment and setup—resulting in a quadrupling of close rates and a more than 200% increase in the overall response rate.
Although it is easy to marvel at the increased response rates, it is easier still to overlook that this push for self-service, video-based engagement is not new, especially to B2C marketers who have been fighting for attention in a sea of TikToks and Instagram Reels. B2B buyers know that self-service video experiences are possible: They get them for everything from the shoes they buy to the food they cook. Now the expectation is to have that same digestible content available when buying a commercial jet engine or a subscription to a SaaS solution. Add to this the reality that when you are working from home, the work-clock is different...so sometimes, you just need that video tutorial on how to complete set up on a new module. If the customer can't get it from the brand they just did business with...rest assured they will get it someplace...on YouTube...or Reddit...with a LOT of other content about how much easier that "other" solution is to set up.
The consumerization of B2B, in the end, is more about treating buyers like human beings than about adopting new technologies or channels. In a "consumerization" model, we can focus on the story, the creative, the flashy scope and scale so that an individual engagement feels more like buying a luxury car. What the humanization of B2B means is that as in a B2C experience, buyers assume they can engage the way they want to—that the functionality, ease of use and self-service nature of the vast majority of B2C digital touchpoints are available to them in their buttoned-up business world.
This drive for humanization must extend beyond “personalizing” communications. Expect to see new investments and inquiry regarding loyalty schemes for B2B customers that focus less on points and redemptions and more on activating advocacy and peer-based influencer communities. These won’t be “platinum tier” competition schemes but, rather, smart programs that feel familiar to the business buyer, where the “prize” is insights from other respected thinkers, experts and executive leaders. Enhanced service, exclusive trainings and special access to content or even partner content—all tied to loyalty tiers—will hold significant dollar value for customers hoping to get more from their investments before making any decisions to invest more. Look for these programs also to be more about the person than about the account, bringing more human touchpoints and opportunities for gathering rich, valuable first-party data and intelligence about the people using products rather than about the contacts stacked in an account.
B2B buyers expect a wide range of resources and content. They also expect access to quick answers and live interaction. Content that is contextual to their individual experience and their account experience are top of mind for buyers exhausted by the misplaced expectation that hours of webcast views, mountains of digital brochures and digital reams of virtual paperwork satisfy their search and information gathering. They are, fundamentally, people buying from other people via digital channels. They expect to be treated as such. Treating customers like human beings, not accounts, shouldn’t be a shock to the system—yet here we are.
What is perhaps most predictable about a year like 2021—a year following a string of global incidents that all bore the tag of “unprecedented”—is that recovery, rebound and realignment will all roll off the tongue as easily as revenue. Growth will stop being a broad, amorphous banner for B2B marketers to rally behind and instead will become a goal with specific metrics and benchmarks. This is perhaps the biggest trend driving change in B2B marketing. Growth is no longer a goal or an aspiration but rather a mandate that has pushed everything from strategy to compensation plans to align around the customer’s ability to scale and easily do business with the brands that help them get back to business.
B2B organizations will be pushed as never before toward true customer-centricity. It is, without question, time for Fred to go make those donuts, cranking out all the different flavors and shapes that power the lasting, profitable, durable relationships with customers that can endure a global pandemic. Those with the systems that enable and empower rapid decision and action velocity will win. Those that remember their customers haven't been entirely replaced by machines yet...they won't just win, they will dominate.
(Random end note here: This is just one of the 5 B2B Marketing trends outlined in my latest report. If you want more trends, have questions, want to debate best donut spots, reach out! I’m happy to blab endlessly about this…not just as an analyst but also as a recovering and constantly evolving B2B marketer. liz at constellationr.com, lizkmiller on Twitter. Let's talk!)