At its core, creating a B2B marketing strategy is a multi-stage process.
While it would be possible to skip some stages in the hope of accelerating things, doing so is an exercise in hope.
Maybe you’ll get lucky.
Maybe you’ll hit on precisely the right strategy at the right time.
Chances are, however, you won’t.
As skilled as you are, a quick look across the marketing of many B2B brands, each with their own team of smart, skilled professionals, shows that most B2B marketing strategies are average at best.
Most lack the focus and clarity they need to make a tangible difference to the business (the kind of difference the CEO wants to see).
Fundamentally, many businesses simply do not have the kind of rigorous process required to do B2B strategy well. Instead they rush headlong into tactics:
You get the picture.
So how do you create a more effective B2B marketing strategy?
In this guide, we’re going to outline a 6-part framework you can use to ensure you put the right foundations in place.
We’ve already covered how to translate your business strategy into a B2B marketing strategy in another guide. Have a read if you haven’t already as it deals with the need to gain clarity over the business’s core strategy. This is an essential foundation for everything that comes after. But, if you’re already up to speed…
In this first stage, you will need to take a deeper dive into the real challenges, issues and problems that marketing will need to solve if it’s to play its part in moving the business forward.
Before we can propose a solution, we have to be able to clearly articulate the problem. There could be any number of these.
The list goes on.
Once you have the core problem, everything else in the marketing strategy should be focused on overcoming it.
Remember, strategy is the concentration of resources towards an agreed goal. It’s about overcoming barriers to success.
If you identify multiple problems, you’ll need to determine which is the most critical to solve and focus on first.
Unless you’re in an almost unique set of circumstances, you will have competitors.
In my career, it’s not been unusual to hear someone say, “We don’t really have any competitors.” On almost every occasion, they’ve been wrong.
One way to think about this is to ask: Who or what is your competition?
The who is often reasonably clear. Even those who think they have no direct competition often do in their customers’ eyes. (And what customers think is the only thing that matters.)
What those guys? We don’t compete with them. Their solution doesn’t do half of what ours does.
Yet, what if those other businesses deliver a solution that does just enough at a reasonable price?
Be a little more open, a little more cynical and all sorts of competitors will bubble to the surface. Go further with a subtle reframing of the market you’re in and you’ll uncover competitors you never knew you had.
A little time spent on your favourite search engines will quickly uncover the real picture.
So much for the who, the what can be a different matter. This often includes other ways potential customers can achieve the same outcomes that your product or service is designed to deliver.
These may be workarounds.
They may involve partnering with others.
They may even be to use products and services that sit in a different sector altogether.
Finally, consider the most important competition of all: Do nothing.
Many times, the challenges customers face are seen as either not important enough or simply too complex to solve. As a result, your potential customers will just muddle on as they are.
When it comes to understanding your physical competition (other companies more or less just like yours) it’s important to identify where they are positioning themselves.
Many B2B markets are incredibly noisy with different companies claiming a wide range of territories. You may decide to fight it out over an existing positioning but this approach will tend to be slow, expensive and difficult to win.
It’s almost always better to carve out a unique space you can own.
Your marketing objectives should be intimately linked to the business strategy.
At a fundamental level, this is about asking: What does success look like? It’s about determining what we’re trying to achieve over the short-, medium- and long-term.
We need to understand how we will know when we succeed or fail.
If we revisit our manufacturing consulting practice looking to break into North America from our previous article, key objectives for the next year could include:
The thing to note here is that these objectives are all specific. They can be measured.
It would, of course, be possible to place these objectives within the SMART framework: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based. The only one I might take issue with is ‘achievable’ as this can lead to thinking that’s overly conservative.
Do not be timid
When it comes to setting B2B marketing objectives, it is far easier to start ambitious and scale back than to start small and scale up. So I would always push you to think of the most audacious objectives you can (without being hopelessly unrealistic).
Ultimately, what’s important is that we are moving from the general to the specific.
We are narrowing our focus, enabling us to zero in on what we need to do to succeed in the eyes of the business. We are clarifying what we’re going to do in the real world of our markets and customers.
In doing this, more often than not we’ll be focusing on the specific behaviours we want to see. Talk is cheap. People lie. It’s what they do that counts.
One way to think about this is to ask: What do I want someone in my target market to do as a result of my activity?
While the kneejerk response may be: “BUY MY PRODUCT!” that is unlikely to be the direct action we want from our B2B marketing (unless we’re in a direct sale situation and, even then, there is probably a range of actions that will precede signing on the dotted line).
Notice the plural: strategies.
If you only have one possible strategy, you simply haven’t spent enough time and effort exploring the problem. There are always multiple ways to go about achieving your objectives.
At a minimum you should have three viable options. In fact, get this right and it should be difficult to choose between them.
Each strategic option should be able to answer six simple questions:
Importantly, while a lot of marketing’s focus today revolves around communications, this is just a part of the picture.
The ‘differentiated proposition’ in #4 above is not necessarily simply about the claims we make, our brand positioning or the space we seek to occupy in the customer’s mind.
Going back to the classic four P’s, this proposition could be just as focused around pricing, place or the product itself as it is around promotion.
Thinking as broadly as possible will help ensure you explore all the ways B2B marketing can add the most value to the business. The reality is, a truly differentiated product will tend to outperform even the most creative, insightful communications strategy.
Whatever strategy you pursue, it will take time and money to deliver.
Some strategies can involve a price tag many times that of others. And some, while appearing to be the right approach, may not be able to be executed in the timeframe available.
Again, if you’ve run the numbers and talked to the right people, you should be in a position to make an assessment about how much of your budget you are prepared to invest in your chosen marketing strategy (and the component tactics that will see it come to life in the wider world).
An inherent danger with a lot of B2B marketing efforts is scope creep. Or else the gradual but relentless expansion of costs – all those wouldn’t it be cool if… moments that see you scrabbling around for more money or more time.
While you may be salivating over what’s possible, all senior management see is another marketing programme with runaway costs.
This is, of course, not to say that you’ll be able to avoid all unforeseen events – they wouldn’t unforeseen if that was the case.
But you can prepare for them by being rigorous in your planning, clear in your briefing, holding partners to account and building in a contingency (just in case).
What if the agency has a crazy brilliant idea that you’d just love to do?
What if there is a media opportunity to ‘go viral’?
Are we really going to let the bean-counters win the day?
Believe me, I understand. Back in the day, I was the creative director at a large B2B advertising agency. It was my job to convince clients to do big, bold, exciting new things. If only we could find another ten, twenty, thirty thousand, imagine what we could do with this idea.
And this was with the best of intentions. Because, if they did indeed ‘find’ that money, I could make a bigger splash for their brand in the market.
However, marketing is not art, it’s business. It’s about investing resources (often scarce resources) to deliver certain outcomes for the organisation.
Of course, if you can clearly show a specific marketing strategy delivering standout results (ones that the CEO and CFO will understand) you are in a good position to go back and ask for more budget.
If they can see that for every pound, dollar or euro they invest, the business will get 10 back, it’s a pretty easy decision.
Until then, dream like an artist but budget like an accountant.
There is a saying in the military that no strategy survives first contact with the enemy.
It’s not so different in B2B marketing.
For the limited number of factors you can control, there are a multitude you cannot.
Competitors will launch new products and marketing campaigns to support them.
Your target audience may change their priorities.
And budgets will go up and down with the wider fortunes of the organisation.
None of these should be able to derail your ability to deliver value for the business.
If you’ve done a good job on your B2B marketing strategies, you’ll already have alternatives to your current approach. This presupposes that the alternatives were all capable of meeting the needs of the business. It also assumes they were meaningfully different from each other.
Thing is, many of the complications you will face are utterly predictable. This is not to say that they will happen (in which case you’d factor them into your core strategy) but rather that they will be unsurprising. For example:
These are all plausible scenarios. If you’ve been in business-to-business marketing for any length of time, you have probably already experienced at least a couple of them.
In my 20+ years in the industry I’ve encountered them all (multiple times).
What this means is that, when creating your strategic options, you should at least consider what should happen if you’re faced by the not-so-unexpected.
In doing so, you could go through a formal scenario planning exercise, mapping out a number of possible futures and exploring how those what ifs would impact your strategy.
You could spend time roleplaying what you would do if you were one of your key competitors – how would we kill us if we were them?
Or you could simply outline what would happen if, for example, you had to deliver the same results with half the marketing budget, half the time or half the people.
As marketers, we’re hardwired with a tendency for optimism. Of course the product will be a success. Of course potential customers will beat a path to our door. Of course that marketing campaign will go viral.
The evidence, however, tends to point in the opposite direction.
This is hard work. Things will go wrong. The world is never quite as we think it is.
The more you are prepared for this, the better results you’ll ultimately achieve.
Doing strategy is challenging. It’s far easier to focus on tactics – email marketing, lead generation, Google ads etc.
But without a solid strategy, you run the real risk of committing random acts of B2B marketing that will be underwhelming at best and career-limiting at worst.
Sadly there are no easy hacks, no 1-2-3 playbooks that will magically deliver what you (and your business) needs to grow. If there was, everyone would be doing it.
However, if you get the right people, data and support together you’ll be able to create a strategy that will focus your marketing efforts on what really matters to the business. You’ll be able to zero in on the barriers to growth and explore tangible ways of overcoming them. And, ultimately, you’ll be able to the kind of results that will drive success for your business, your stakeholders and your career.
We’ve written a number of articles on how to plan and create strategies for B2B marketing. Here are some you may be interested in:
There’s a saying we love that says: From inside the jar, it’s difficult to read the label. As we say above, strategy is difficult. It’s especially difficult when you’re looking from the inside out.
We’ve worked with B2B marketers in businesses large and small to help them take a more strategic approach to their marketing efforts.
If you’d like to find out how we could help you, get in touch at email@example.com and we’ll arrange a time to talk.
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.