Sunday, September 27, 2020

Mid-Summer Research Updates COVID's Impact on B2B Marketing


                                Image Source:  Edelman and LinkedIn

A report recently published by Edelman and LinkedIn provides a useful update on COVID-19's impact on B2B marketing and customer engagement. The report was based on a survey of 394 U.S.-based B2B executives in customer-facing business functions, including marketing, sales, business development, and communications. Survey respondents represented a wide range of industries and company sizes.

This survey was fielded in June, which means that responses were obtained after the initial shock of the COVID-19 pandemic had subsided and some early signs of economic recovery had appeared. So, the results should reflect a more balanced view of business conditions than surveys conducted in March or April, at the height of the economic lockdowns. 

Not surprisingly, the Edelman/LinkedIn survey found that COVID-19 was impacting customer buying behaviors in several ways.

  • Seventy-two percent of the survey respondents said their customers were focused on conserving cash and weren't interested in buying non-essentials.
  • Sixty-one percent said most customers were interested in purchasing familiar products with proven reliability rather than new or more innovative products.
  • Seventy-three percent said customers were interested in buying, but were slower to evaluate and commit to specific purchases.
Even in June, however, business conditions were not one dimensional. Sixty-five percent of the survey respondents said some customers were looking for unexpected opportunities to strengthen their position, and 58% said some customers were eager to advance their pre-pandemic plans while the environment is fluid.
The Edelman/LinkedIn survey also found that most of the surveyed executives agreed on what actions they needed to take to succeed during COVID-19.
  • Eighty-four percent of the respondents said they needed to strengthen their position as a trusted thought leader who could help customers solve immediate problems.
  • Seventy-two percent believe it's important to increase their communications with customers about their expertise in helping customers protect or grow sales.
  • Sixty-two percent believe it's important to improve their understanding of their customers' customers through new or intensified research or data gathering.
Unfortunately, the survey also revealed significant gaps between what the respondents identified as important and what they (or their companies) were actually doing with respect to those key actions. The following table shows the percentage of respondents who rated each action as very or extremely important, and the percentage who reported that their company was actually enabling each key action. The table also shows the percentage point difference between the belief and the follow-through.

As the table shows, the biggest gap between belief and action was in the ability of company leaders to understand the needs and circumstances of their customers' customers. Other findings from the survey indicate why this gap might exist.
The responses suggest that many of the respondents had adopted a short-term focus in their marketing and sales efforts. For example:
  • Forty-six percent of the respondents said that marketing spending was being closely evaluated for its direct impact on sales.
  • Fifty-five percent said they were shifting their marketing efforts to focus on existing product or service offerings with immediate appeal, while only 45% said they were focusing on developing new products or services.
The short-term focus can also be seen in the sources of information the surveyed executives were using to increase their understanding of their customers' customers. About half of the respondents said they were relying on feedback from sales teams and social media monitoring, but only between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 respondents reported using primary survey research and/or customer focus groups/interviews.
While information from sales teams and social media can provide useful insights about the immediate needs and circumstances of customers (and their customers), more structured research is required to gain deeper and more persistent insights. And, as the respondents in this survey overwhelmingly agreed, deep and persistent insights are what's needed to successfully navigate the COVID and post-COVID business environment.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

What Brand Marketing and Anchovies Have in Common


In Italian cooking, anchovies - those salty little fish that usually come in tins or jars - are often added to a variety of sauces and dishes. Many people - including me - don't particularly like anchovies, so I'm tempted to omit them when using a recipe that includes them.

Professional chefs know this is a mistake. Anchovies add an important flavor element even though, in many cases, you don't specifically taste them in the final dish. If you leave the anchovies out, you will notice that "something" is missing, but you usually can't identify what the "something" is.

Strong brands play a similar role in the recipe for revenue growth at B2B companies. A brand that is well known and well respected will enhance the effectiveness of demand generation programs and make it easier for sales reps to win deals. And because brand perceptions tend to "stick" with potential buyers for a long time, a strong brand can make a significant contribution to long-term revenue growth.

The benefits of a strong B2B brand - and of investing in marketing programs that are specifically designed to build the brand - have been demonstrated in numerous research studies conducted over many years.

The CEB Research

For example, a 2013 study by CEB (now part of Gartner) compared the behaviors of high brand consideration customers with those of no brand consideration customers. High brand consideration customers were those who gave brands high scores for trust, image, and industry leadership. CEB found that high brand consideration customers were:

  • 5 times more likely to give consideration to a brand
  • 13 times more likely to purchase from a brand
  • 30 times more likely to be willing to pay a price premium
The TechTarget Analysis
A 2017 analysis by TechTarget (a technology-focused publisher and provider of marketing and sales services) found that brand marketing can boost the effectiveness of demand generation programs and elevate overall marketing performance. This analysis covered 1,675 branding campaigns run on the TechTarget network from 2015 to 2017.
The analysis found that consistent brand advertising increased consideration performance by 25%, while non-advertisers saw consideration decline 10% - 15%. TechTarget also found that when companies ran simultaneous brand advertising and demand generation e-mail programs targeting the same potential buyers, e-mail click-through rates were 22% higher compared to e-mail only programs. Equally important, targeted brand advertising improved funnel conversion rates (lead to MQL to SQL) by 25%.
Binet and Field on Brand Advertising
A 2019 report published by The B2B Institute (a think tank funded by LinkedIn) also provides persuasive evidence on the value of brand advertising for B2B companies. The 5 Principles of Growth in B2B Marketing describes the findings of research conducted by Les Binet and Peter Field, two highly-regarded, UK-based experts in brand advertising.
This report was based on an analysis of data contained in the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) Databank. The IPA is a trade association representing the UK advertising industry, and the Databank includes extensive data submitted for the IPA effectiveness awards competition.
Based on their analysis, Binet and Field argued that B2B companies should balance their spending on brand building and sales activation activities. They define sales activation activities as any marketing activity that is designed to produce an immediate response from a potential buyer.
Sales activation activities can produce quick results, and their short-term ROI can be high. But the effects of sales activation programs don't last very long, so they don't foster long-term growth. Brand building programs, on the other hand, excel at driving long-term growth because their effects persist a long time.
Binet and Field found that B2B marketing effectiveness is maximized with a company allocates about 46% of its marketing budget to brand building and about 56% to short-term sales activation.
The Elusive (but Critical) Impact of Brand Marketing
Despite an abundance of research showing the importance and value of building and maintaining a strong brand, many B2B companies aren't investing enough in brand marketing. One main reason for this under-investment is that the business impacts of brand marketing programs are more challenging to measure quantitatively than most short-term marketing programs.
The primary objective of brand marketing is to influence the mindset of potential buyers, but these changes in mindset become visible primarily in improved responses to other marketing programs. So like anchovies, effective brand marketing enhances the "flavor" of many marketing "dishes" even when you can't specifically "taste" it.

Image courtesy of Nathan Forget via Flickr CC.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Promise and Perils of Focusing on "In-Market" Prospects

Intent data and predictive analytics have been hot topics in B2B marketing circles for the past few years. Simply put, intent data is information collected about the online activities of a person with the goal of using that data to identify or predict purchase intent. To make this prediction, intent data is processed using a software application with predictive analytics functionality.

Some providers of intent data and/or predictive analytics capabilities have been rather effusive in describing the benefits of their solutions. Consider, for example, these two blog post passages from firms operating in the intent data/predictive analytics space:

    "To avoid wasting time and money pursuing prospects that either already just bought the product from your competitor or are not serious about buying yet, your team should focus on the right people, targeting them at the right time by leveraging intent data, which will help you understand total active demand. Instead of a broad market of generic buyer personas, it enables you to find specific accounts that are active in your market."

    "The opportunity represented by intent data is obvious:  find in-market buyers before they enter the funnel by tracking their online behavior and content consumption on different websites. Get enough of a head start and you can land a deal before they even consider your competition, shorten your sales cycle, and cut your customer acquisition costs."

This is heady stuff because the ability to know which prospects are engaged in an active buying process could enable fundamental changes in the practice of B2B marketing.

The Promise

For example, suppose that your company has implemented account-based marketing. With intent data and predictive analytics, you could select ABM target accounts based on both fit (how well a prospect matches your ideal customer profile) and interest (whether a prospect is "in-market"). You could also frequently update your list of target accounts so that you have a near real-time view of which accounts are engaged in an active buying process.

This sounds like marketing nirvana, right? When you know which of your prospects are in-market, you can focus your marketing programs on this "low-hanging fruit," which should result in higher conversion rates, increased marketing efficiency, and as the blog passage says, lower customer acquisition costs.

The Perils

It's clear that some companies can reap substantial benefits from using intent data and predictive analytics in their marketing efforts. But intent data still has some important limitations that marketers need to understand. Those limitations have been widely discussed in articles and blog posts. For example:

Using intent data and predictive analytics to focus marketing efforts on in-market prospects also presents a broader hazard. If taken to the extreme, it can lead marketers to ignore prospects that don't make the in-market cut. This is dangerous because it disregards an important aspect of how business buyers make buying decisions.

The conventional view is that a B2B buying process begins when a company's leaders or managers recognize a need or a problem and decide to do something about it. These "buyers" then gather information about the need or problem, evaluate possible solutions, and may or may not decide to buy a product or service to address the need or problem. So our traditional view of B2B buying is that information gathering, learning, and evaluation all occur after an intentional buying process is underway.

But business decision makers rarely begin a buying process with a clean slate. Every day, they are forming impressions of companies, brands, and products from touch points like ads, content resources, news reports, and conversations with business colleagues and friends. When something triggers an intentional buying process, these accumulated impressions become pivotal because they shape the initial consideration set.

The initial consideration set contains those companies and/or solutions that business decision makers immediately think of when they're faced with the potential need to buy something. And being included in the initial consideration set really matters. Research by McKinsey in the B2C space has found that brands in the initial consideration set can be up to three times more likely to be purchased than brands that aren't in it.

I suspect the impact is slightly less in B2B, but being part of the initial consideration set is still important because it all but guarantees that your solution will be one of those evaluated in the formal buying process. And, you have to be invited to the party before you can be asked to dance.

The importance of being in the initial consideration set explains why it would be a mistake for most B2B companies to focus their marketing efforts exclusively on in-market prospects.

At any given moment in time, a large majority of your most attractive prospects - those with high potential value and good fit - will not be engaged in an active buying process and would not qualify as being "in-market." These attractive prospects may not be likely to buy in the near term, but that doesn't mean they are unlikely to buy in the longer term.

If you focus your marketing efforts solely on in-market prospects, you'll be abandoning the opportunity to influence the perceptions and preferences of high-value future buyers.

Image courtesy of Fertile Ground via Flickr CC.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

What Has - and Hasn't - Changed in B2B Marketing

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun."
Ecclesiastes 1:9 (New International Version)

"Don't throw the past away
You might need it some rainy day
Dreams can come true again
When everything old is new again."

"Everything Old Is New Again," Peter Allen and Carole Sager, 1974

The last two decades have been a period of almost nonstop change in B2B marketing. Over the past fifteen years, we have witnesses the proliferation of marketing channels, the explosive growth of marketing technologies, and the appearance of several new marketing techniques, including inbound marketing, content marketing, and account-based marketing.

Over the same period, major consulting firms such as McKinsey, CEB (now part of Gartner), SiriusDecisions (now part of Forrester), and ITSMA introduced an array of concepts and models describing the B2B buying process and exploring the role that marketing can/should/does play in revenue growth at B2B companies.

Most of these developments have felt new, and many have been presented as new. But in fact, many of these "new" models of B2B marketing and buying aren't really new at all. They have antecedents that go back several decades.

This phenomenon can be seen in a 1972 book titled Organizational Buying Behavior by Frederick E. Webster and Yoram Wind. Here's how Webster and Wind described the six distinctive attributes of "organizational" (a/k/a B2B) buying:

    1.    "First, and perhaps most important, organizational buying decisions are made more complex by the fact that more people usually are involved in them and different people are likely to play different buying roles."

    2.    "Second, organizational buying decisions often involve major technical complexities relating to the product or service being purchased."

    3.    "Third, organizational buying decisions typically take longer to make than consumer (individual) decisions."

    4.    "Fourth, the greater time required for organizational buying decisions means that there are significant lags between the application of marketing effort and obtaining a buying response."

    5.    "Fifth, each buying organization is likely to be significantly different from every other buying organization in the potential market in ways that may require viewing each organization as a separate market segment."

    6.    "Finally, the organizational members participating in the buying function are neither purely 'economic men' nor are their motives purely emotional and irrational. Rather they are human beings whose decisions and behavior are being influenced by both task- and nontask-related variables."

If I change a few words here and there, it would be easy to believe these six attributes were written this year instead of nearly 50 years ago. The first attribute captures the essence of what we now call a B2B buying group, and the fifth attribute is remarkably similar to the original concept of account-based marketing.

Organizational Buying Behavior also presents a thoroughly modern view of marketing's ultimate purpose and mission:

    "In a nutshell, the marketing concept as it exists today is a business philosophy that sees the fundamental purpose of the business as the creation of satisfied customers . . . The responsibility of marketing management, according to this philosophy, is to interpret conditions in the marketplace and to coordinate and influence the direction of company operations so as to ensure that the company's offerings of products and services have the highest probability of satisfying customer needs."

Again, with just a few word changes, this statement could have been written this year by a B2B marketing or customer experience leader.

All this  may seem like a "random but interesting" segment on Brian Sullivan's "Worldwide Exchange" show on CNBC. But this is one example of a larger and more important truth.

The pace of change in some aspects of B2B marketing has been so rapid over the past fifteen years that it's far too easy to lose sight of the fact that many of the core principles of marketing and buyer behavior have changed very little. The tools and techniques we use are certainly different, but the thoughts and emotions we need to evoke in customers and prospects are essentially the same today as they were decades ago.