B2B marketing is endlessly innovating. For the most part, this is a very good thing. It means we keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. We try new approaches and techniques to make better connections with customers and prospects. We avoid complacency.
But it also leads to a fascination with the latest hyped technology and some approaches that, for all the froth around them, simply don’t live up to the promise. In fact, in recent years, the explosion in B2B martech and rapid expansion of channels has led to a dizzying array of must-have approaches that are, in reality, anything but.
So if the latest bright shiny toys are not the answer to B2B marketing success, what is?
Do we simply return to an older, gentler time, when men wore hats and marketers relied on a bit of above-the-line advertising for brand development and some direct mail for demand generation?
The simple answer is: No. (To be clear, it wasn’t the answer back then either.)
To move things forward we need to think more strategically and more holistically.
While many things have changed in B2B marketing at the tactical level, some of the core truisms remain just as valid as they ever were:
At the company level, for the seller, relatively small shifts in sales can have an exponentially large impact.
In the greater scheme of things, it doesn’t matter so much to Coca-Cola if its sales across a single product line go down by a few percent in a single quarter. But when you are selling a limited number of high-value products and services to a comparatively small universe of prospects, a few percent can make a world of difference.
The challenge is how to build success over both the short- and long-term. How to remove the barriers that separate marketing from the wider business. How to accelerate the path from unknown prospect to loyal customer.
When B2B marketers talk about this process, they’ll inevitably invoke the image of the funnel.
The highest number of prospects possible will be loaded into the top. Then, by a process of assisted gravity, an ever-shrinking number will drop down to the bottom where some will become paying customers.
This isn’t how it happens.
In reality, the funnel isn’t a process. It’s simply a picture of a diminishing number of potential customers.
In this regard, it would be better drawn as a colander with unresponsive prospects jetting out the sides.
It’s like trying to hold water in your hands. You might end up capturing a small puddle but the floor around you will be soaking wet.
The reality of long B2B marketing and sales cycles is that they are a war of attrition between forward momentum and debilitating friction.
This starts long before a customer gets involved.
Even at the strategy and planning stage of B2B marketing, good intentions are continuously thwarted by opposing forces.
Sometimes this is down to competing agendas and opinions. Sometimes it’s due to an absence of actionable intelligence and insight. Sometimes it’s as fundamental as a complete mismatch between what marketing thinks it should be doing and what the business needs.
The friction doesn’t stop once we get to tactical execution.
Sales lurch forward as the business finds some traction and then stall if it fails to capitalise on its gains. Some stall for good. Others go into zombie loops, where they remain as a notional opportunity that will never actually happen (just sucking in more of people’s brains as they fester).
The effect on B2B marketers and their sales colleagues is that the entire process is so much more painful than it should be.
What should be the most dynamic part of the business becomes a slow, torturous slog. A forced march towards an uncertain outcome in some far-distant future.
It shouldn’t be this way.
The good news is that, in many cases, it won’t be the entire end-to-end B2B marketing process that’s broken.
Often, some of the parts will be working fine. Or at least they’ll be capable of working if only some of the other processes (often upstream) weren’t so dysfunctional.
Yet, in our short-term quarter-by-quarter world that prioritises the ‘leads’ we can achieve tomorrow over the exponentially greater success we could generate for years to come, who really stops to focus on eliminating friction?
Who is going to put in the time and effort to turn B2B marketing away from a series of stop-go reactive activities and towards a fluid process that leads seamlessly from business strategy to tactical execution?
Who is going to ensure marketing finally gets the respect it deserves at the highest levels of the business?
Yes, that’s right, it’s down to you. Because no one else is going to do it for you. Not senior management. Not your agencies. Not the latest vacuous blog post with its nine must-have technologies some tech vendor thinks you should buy this year (you’ll be amazed at number 6).
You’re the one who’ll carry the can for failure. You’re the one everyone will focus on if ‘marketing is broken’. You’re the one that’ll have to deal with ever-shortening tenures and never-ending budget arguments.
But, if that sounds too depressing, you’re also the one who could turn this around.
You’re the one who could revolutionise the way marketing works at your company.
You’re the one that other businesses will kill to hire when they see your results.
So it’s not all bad.
Jason Ball is the founder and managing director at Considered. With a multi-decade career in B2B marketing, he’s worked with world-leading brands such as Adobe, Google, EY and Cisco together with niche specialists in technology, manufacturing and professional services.