The Ultimate B2B Digital Marketing Guide

The Ultimate B2B Digital Marketing Guide

For many years, there has been a hard split between business-to-business (B2B) marketing and selling experiences and business-to-consumer (B2C) experiences. Several trends, however, have blurred the line between these two worlds. Many B2B companies are forced into social selling and having a more substantial presence through other digital tools. They are wrestling with an approach to digital marketing, content, and how it can impact the selling process in a meaningful way. We now live on a spectrum between extremes rather than a divide.

This article explores why this blur occurs, what's happening next, key watch-outs, and goals for B2B marketing teams.
B2B Digital Marketing
Talking terms
Before diving in, let’s review a few terms. These sometimes overlap and can create more confusion than clarity.

Digital Marketing: A broad term that includes marketing through digital channels such as search engines, social media, email, and other websites to connect with current and prospective customers.

Content Marketing: Rather than saying, “Buy our product,” content marketing focuses on developing and distributing content that is helpful to your buyer. Doing so helps create brand awareness and establish your brand as a thought leader in the space. It “warms” a lead for your sales team. It is a strategy that can live under digital marketing.

Social Selling: According to Hootsuite, “social selling is the practice of using a brand’s social media channels to connect with prospects, develop a connection with them, and engage with potential leads.” Social selling and building relationships through social media with meaningful interactions aim to replace cold calling.

The combination of these terms, and others, depends on your marketing strategy and how you plan to supplement other activities in sales and marketing. At Peopledesign, we call your collection of tools – or future set of tools – your “Digital Ecosystem.”

An effective digital ecosystem requires clarity on purpose, target audience, effective measurement, and a LOT of content.
New Technology Paradigms
COVID has forever shaped the way B2B marketing and selling happens. Many of these trends were already in the works, but the global pandemic pushed us into the deep end regardless of how well we could swim.

Generationally speaking, younger workers are taking more leadership roles in their businesses. The pandemic aided this trend by forcing hurting companies to offer early retirement packages while individuals on the cusp of retirement may have chosen to do so independently. It means that younger generations are taking on more decision-making roles. If not making decisions, they are influencing them. This shift combines with technology to create new behaviors.

Today, customers do more research online, regardless of the product or service, before reaching out. They visit your website, social channels, and any posted reviews. Now your expensive, valuable sales vehicle – your people – can focus on late-stage selling. It also means more pressure on your digital tools to provide early-stage selling and nurture leads through the funnel. As this occurs, expectations for how B2B businesses go to market have changed.

The old paradigm is salespeople driving around their territories, taking clients out for dinners and golf outings. Don’t get us wrong, nothing can replace face-to-face connections, but in the pandemic, we all became much more comfortable with video conferencing. It forced everyone, no matter the seniority, to shift their preconceived notions of just how much business can get done this way. In doing so, sales expenses also went down. The cost of conducting business changed as companies explored ways to generate leads through digital marketing. B2B companies were already being forced to take on a more visible role similar, but not quite to the extent of B2C companies. Through the pandemic, the expectations for visibility and interactions on that level have become more blurry.

Tools for deploying and measuring have also improved, along with various price points. Your path depends on several factors. In general, there are three main paths that we like to compare to different types of land masses.

For example, the “Archipelago” approach combines different tools to communicate to create a system solution. The benefit is that it tends to come at a lower cost. The downside is that you’re managing multiple tools in a landscape that is changing almost daily. In contrast, the “Continents” approach sees companies buying wholeheartedly into one or two applications (think Salesforce, Hubspot). The benefit, of course, is fewer tools to manage. They’re solid and not going anywhere, but they are often expensive, with more horsepower than needed, and difficult to leave if you change your mind. Some of these tools can also overly dictate the customer experience.

Cornerstone social platforms launched in the early 2000s. LinkedIn (2002), Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), and YouTube (2005) changed the media landscape. Then we saw Instagram (2010), Snapchat (2011), and TikTok (2016). Social platforms are one thing, but we can’t overlook PayPal (1998), MailChimp (2001), Shopify (2006), and Venmo (2009).

Websites used to be a novelty. How things have changed! Now that digital tools play a much more significant role, marketing departments spend more on technology than IT. Websites, social platforms, marketing automation tools, and more are changing how we market. And the rate of change is only increasing. Selling and marketing teams and activities in business-to-business organizations need to collaborate more than ever.

Plan your customer's experience. Consider tools for connecting physical, digital, and personal interactions along the customer journey.

B2B Customer Experience

Technology as a False Idol (or scapegoat)

Technology can be falsely labeled as the solution or problem when the real issues are team related. For instance, is there buy-in from all key stakeholders more robust digital marketing strategy? Do people understand any new responsibilities? Do the marketing and sales teams mutually understand handing off leads? What about expectations? It’s easier to think: “If only we had (X) tool, everything would be easier,” but this hinders progress and is usually a symptom of a deeper problem. Before pointing towards a tool, ask, “Have I communicated clearly about roles and expectations?”

The Big Why (followed by a bunch of little why’s)

B2B marketing is becoming increasingly digital, but organizations must be intentional. It’s too common to cannonball into the pool’s deep end by quickly adding too many platforms. This mistake risks inconsistency and duplication.

Think harder about the “why.” Rethink your marketing and sales strategy and what role digital might play. You may need a deeper understanding of industry trends and customer needs. The little whys lead teams to consider what tools and platforms they want to adopt. Which mechanisms can be maintained? Which will be the most relevant to customers?

A great example of this comes from some of our client work. Through a digital marketing strategy project, our client wanted to create a more effective website and was intentionally not involved in social media except for the bare minimum. Our client also asked for a social media audit of themselves and their competitors. Our research showed that most of their clients interact with the brand through LinkedIn (with YouTube on the rise). This trend was also true for many of their competitors. This insight, along with several others, shifted the user experience and design of the website.

Meaningless Measurements

The easiest things to measure are often the least meaningful. Website traffic, likes, shares, and conversions are helpful, but we need to go a few layers deeper. What do numbers add up to? And are they in alignment with your company’s strategic goals? Gathering data is easy; understanding it is a whole different story. Marketing teams need to do more than report the raw numbers. Consider what is meaningful to your audience. Does your board or CEO want to know the number of followers your company has gained over the past 12 months or how those followers, combined with other metrics, helps the company grow?

Another client goal was to grow its brand awareness in the U.S. western states. By combining social followers and visitors with website traffic and a few other guardrails, we could identify western cities and states that were trending up and those that were trending down. Then, digging deeper into the ebbs and flows, we could identify specific news topics that drove traffic. All of this can help feed the marketing strategy in the future.

Lack of Commitment

A genuine commitment is more complicated than it seems. It’s one thing for the organization to say it will adopt a comprehensive digital marketing strategy – it’s quite another to do it. Adding more to-dos to the marketing team’s list without increasing the budget or team members may be worse than doing nothing. Too often, essential tasks get assigned to the intern. After all, young people digital things, right?

You can overcome these challenges by keeping your eye on the ball. Making small changes can make a big difference over time.
Setting Goals
Make sustainability your top goal.

Setting goals and cultivating habits go hand in hand. Recent books like Habit or Atomic Habit dissect what it is to develop practices and the importance of focusing on them and achieving the goal naturally. Objectives describe the destination; habits define the path. Setting realistic goals means establishing patterns that are within reach. It's tempting to attack the whole digital ecosystem at once, but this often leads to burnout. A quick spark followed by many unfinished efforts.

To make efforts sustainable, take a moment to step back and design the ecosystem. How will you attract leads, what will encourage them to convert, and how do they move through your sales funnel? What role does the website play, and how does it interact with (for example) LinkedIn? With an understanding of the system, divide its development into horizons, time blocks determined by milestones. For instance, depending on where the company is at in its digital journey, it may want to address some needs on the website before overhauling its marketing automation approach. Others may wish to bring a new approach to their social media first and see how that impacts website usage. If it's early in your organization's digital transformation, set the plan, identify milestones, and then address them one by one. Don't try to accomplish everything all at once. Give yourself and the team time to achieve a milestone, gather learnings, adjust, and develop a new habit before moving on to the next.

Business-to-business sales are not spontaneous like some consumer-centric businesses. No one is scrolling Instagram, sees an ad for an ERP system and decides they'd like to implement a new one, clicks a few buttons, and purchases. We all know this, but it's good to acknowledge it. Our sales cycle moves much slower. Teams must develop yearly budgets that map against the organization's broader strategic plan. And everything needs to get approved by multiple parties. It takes time. That said, expectations are blurring. B2B buyers are still people who have world-class digital experiences every day through tools like Amazon and Google. Although we like to think humans are incredibly logical creatures, we're not. Behavioral science has shown us that we often make decisions first with our hearts, then with our heads. With this in mind, we need to consider how digital marketing can positively impact our marketing and sales funnel. Inspire customers, assure them they're making a good choice, and support them with expected experiences as best as possible.

Where does the funnel lead – Ultimately, this is a business, and we are trying to increase sales. With B2B, where the process from awareness to closing a deal can be long and winding, trust the goal. Set up funnels in a way that forces marketers to take on habits that build trust. Trust is the real currency in B2B. While it's also important in the B2C world, the stakes are higher in business-to-business relationships. Consider price and impact.

An extreme example in the consumer world would be the low risk of buying an item at the checkout lane of the grocery store versus hiring a developer to build your new home. The checkout lane item didn't cost that much. It's a spontaneous purchase. You can take a risk on an unknown brand, and if you don't like it, that's okay. It was a temporary, low-cost solution. Building a house is expensive, time-consuming, and must last for decades. The cost and impact are both high. The price scale may change, but the same is true in business-to-business. Costs of B2B services and goods are often higher. A higher price means higher risk. These investments can either propel the company towards its vision or completely throw it off course. The organization feels the ripple effects. The team member who made the call will be judged based on the success or failure of the outcome. These purchases are not just functional; they are personal. Because of this, it is critical to structure the funnel in a way that leads to trust.

Measure against business goals, not platforms

When it comes to an organization's digital toolset, they tend to look at metrics in silos. We believe this is an outdated approach. Today, customers move through your entire digital ecosystem with fluidity. Each platform has metrics that indicate progress or lack towards a goal. These metrics should be combined across platforms and represented as a percentage of a goal.

For instance, if the business' strategic goal is increasing brand awareness, taking metrics only from the website does not give you the complete picture of how your organization is advancing towards this goal. We can also gather metrics that suggest brand awareness growth or decline through LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram. Progress is measured differently on each platform. Based on best practices and competitor activities, we create goals per individual metric, then group them in a way that will help indicate progress toward your overall goal of brand awareness.

By measuring across platforms instead of in silos, we can identify insights and opportunities that could help shape the organization's marketing strategy.

Creating new frames and habits for the challenges we face today.

Action Steps
For some of you, this article may serve as simply a good reminder. For others, it may be new thinking. Either way, we recognize that it’s a lot. To help make it actionable below is a short recap with some questions that can catalyze action.

Terminology: The digital marketing space continues to evolve, and so does the language. Is your team on the same page with terminology?

Trends: COVID has accelerated changes that were already in motion. Do you understand how these shifts have impacted your customer’s needs and decision-making behaviors? Is your company in a position to harness change or fall behind?

Watch-outs: One of the biggest hurdles is sustaining action and working through behavior change. Have you identified areas specific to your organization that would hinder such progress?

Goals: With digital marketing, it is easy to get sidetracked by metrics that don’t matter or hyper-focus only on the number of generated leads. Taking a step back, have you established realistic goals that foster trust between company and customer?

Business-to-business organizations are at different stages of their digital transformation journey, but the journey is inevitable. The needs and expectations of the customer are changing, and business-to-business digital marketing can help answer the call.

As marketing teams look to create effective and engaging strategies that help move their businesses forward, understanding that we are working in a digital ecosystem, not silos, will help deliver solutions that generate traction and build trust between company and client.