The first step before starting to work on your B2B marketing strategy is to ensure you’ve had the business conversation with key members of the c-suite.
As a result, you should have a clear idea of their priorities and where they want to take the business in the months and years ahead.
Where they have been unclear, you should have brought a marketing perspective to the conversation.
You will have, to paraphrase Philip Kotler, spoken with them about defining, measuring and quantifying the size and profit potential of specific markets – the markets that will hold the key to the ambitions and objectives they have defined.
And you’ll have helped identify the kind of value (in product, service, experience etc) that will need to be created to make significant headway.
The good news is that, if you’ve got this far, you have already stepped well beyond where most B2B marketers stop. Your stock, in the eyes of senior management, will already be on the rise.
But now what?
The bad news is that the conversations you’ve had to date are the easy part. The real challenge is to take the high-level business strategy and turn it into a high-level B2B marketing strategy.
The operative word here is strategy. Not tactics. Not a bunch of to-dos masquerading as more than it is. Not random acts of marketing.
There is no such thing as a digital strategy. Or a social media strategy. Or an AI strategy. These are tactics.
To avoid any doubt, before we move on, let’s spend a little time unpacking what we really mean by the term ‘strategy’.
Put simply, strategy is the concentration of resources towards an agreed goal.
It is not about doing everything, it’s about doing what really matters in pursuing the business’s most important objectives. Importantly, it is as much about what you choose not to do as what you do.
At its core, strategy is about overcoming the obstacles and barriers that are hindering the business from fulfilling its long-term ambitions. If nothing stands in the business’s way, you don’t need a strategy (or marketing for that matter).
Strategy sits between goals and tactics.
If goals are where we want to end up and tactics are our options on what we can do to get there, strategy supplies the how we’re going to do it. It’s a roadmap.
As with any roadmap, there will be multiple possible routes to the final destination. Some will be more direct than others.
At the risk of stretching the metaphor too far, some routes will also have unexpected delays, road closures and congestion. In fact, some will mean you need to rethink your plan entirely.
Not every part of the business strategy can be helped by marketing. But many parts can. Sometimes too many. So it’s important to identify a small number of critical objectives to focus time, money and effort on achieving.
Ideally, this should be no more than three.
Of course, a lot is said about ‘strategy’ (much of it either vague or conflicting) so we want to be as clear as possible about how business strategy compares to marketing strategy and how marketing strategy compares to marketing tactics.
Let’s explore a couple of hypothetical B2B examples at a sky-high, 30,000 ft level.
It should go without saying that the actual strategies and tactics would be developed into far more depth than you see here (though the ability to keep to one side of a sheet of paper is a good measure of a focused strategy).
Let’s start with an enterprise web hosting business that is seeing its revenue and profit erode as pure hosting becomes increasingly commoditised. They are losing market share to competitors who are able to layer on profitable professional consultancy and add-on services.
What could the cascade of business strategy to marketing strategy to marketing tactics look like?
Business strategy: To elevate our business from being pigeonholed as a pure website hosting provider to one with the ability to advise customers on their entire approach to digital engagement.
Marketing strategy: Use our in-house experts to help customers overcome key digital engagement issues and give an insight into what it will be like to work with us.
Marketing tactics: Create an online e-learning hub featuring our people to deliver bite-sized lessons on key areas of digital engagement. Use this to allow people to self-select specific streams based on their key challenges. Deliver a targeted nurture programme to show how we can help them meet these challenges.
Strategy is fundamentally about focus and trade-offs. What trade-offs are being made in the above example?
For starters, at a business strategy level, we can see that there is a focus on ‘digital engagement’. The business could have gone broader to the highly contested area of ‘digital transformation’ but has chosen instead to narrow down. Likewise, they could have gone more niche and talked about advising e-commerce businesses on maximising profitable conversions. But they have made a specific choice not to.
In the top-level marketing strategy, there has been a specific decision to personalise the brand, focusing on bringing the business’s people to the fore. They could have chosen instead to focus on existing customers or partner with an established thought leader (eg a business school or analyst) or dominate a specific area of ‘digital engagement’. There would be pros and cons to each of these. All are potentially valid.
Finally, when it comes to tactics, the choice has been made to create an owned digital property that would lean towards more of an inbound approach. Again, this would be one of many, many options. They could have gone down the advertorial/sponsored content route with a major publisher, they could focus on live events, they could (shock, horror!) run an advertising campaign in key hub airports.
To take another hypothetical example, this time from professional services. A premium-level consultancy focused on the manufacturing sector wants to replicate its success across Europe by expanding to the US.
Business strategy: To grow our manufacturing consulting practice by establishing a presence in the North American market, displacing traditional big-name generalist consultancies.
Marketing strategy: Demonstrate we understand how to overcome the real-world issues faced by target customers in the North American market in a way that no generalist can.
Marketing tactics: Commission primary research to uncover the largest business-critical threats to day-to-day manufacturing success. De-position competitors by running an integrated programme with a theme of ‘Cut the Crap’ that contrasts client frustration with traditional consultancies (all-theory, all PowerPoint, no effective action) with our Pathways to Profit™ methodology. Focus our efforts on key foothold clients with a highly targeted ABM push.
At a business strategy level, it’s been recognised that we’ll be entering a mature market with entrenched existing competitors, but that these competitors will be generalist management consultancies. In this, it will be critical to steal share of market, there will be few greenfield opportunities.
The marketing strategy is to focus on a key pain point for customers: generalist consultancies applying generalist thinking to highly specific vertical industry problems. Now, in the real world, this frustration should have been identified with a significant amount of research (depth interviews, market mapping, competitor analysis etc). This leads to a marketing strategy that becomes laser-focused on ‘real-world issues’ versus the epidemic of theoretical slideware that traditional consultancies vomit onto the market.
When it comes to tactics, the focus is to get closer to the customer, running research that shows we’re listening and which will provide them valuable insights (as buyers, we are always interested in what others just like us are doing and thinking). This then leads to a clear de-positioning campaign at the broader brand level, making bold statements that will help achieve cut-through. At the same time, there is a focus on specific named target accounts in a push to get referenceable clients that will resonate with a North American audience.
In both these examples there would have been multiple options at every level. Marketing could have pursued a range of strategies. And the tactical combinations are almost endless. But they didn’t. They made specific choices based on the overarching business strategy which plotted a clear roadmap towards achieving their ultimate goals.
All manner of things could have swayed their decisions in alternative directions. The timescale for success. The definition of the target market. The positioning of key competitors. Broader economic factors. Their available budget.
The brutal truth is that strategy is inherently a process of saying no. It’s about taking a rational decision to prefer one approach over another. But, ultimately, it’s a judgement call. Which is why it is so critical to build marketing’s reputation with senior management to a level at which they trust your judgement.
We’ve worked with B2B marketers across the world to help turn business trategy into an actionable marketing strategy. If you need help, we’d love to talk.
Simply contact us at email@example.com to arrange a time.
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.