Digital channels are overcrowded, noisy places.
It’s tempting to walk away from them, as you might leave a busy market because you can’t hear yourself think.
Except the people you most want to meet are all hanging out there. It’s where they come to browse and shop.
They cruise a few channels, but they have their favorites. It’s no use hanging around the run-down place next door. They’ll never show.
And it’s getting busier by the week. More and more B2B buyers are choosing digital channels over traditional ways of doing business.
Despite a growing chorus of voices complaining that it's harder to get seen and that returns on digital marketing are dropping, content marketing remains mission critical for B2B companies that want to grow—and it’s going to stay that way.
Although digital channels are buzzing, much of the content is consumer-focused—even on business-oriented channels like LinkedIn.
B2C content is aimed at the individual buyer. It can still be related to business—for example, a better light for your Zoom calls or a book about leadership skills—but the decision to purchase is made individually by the audience members at whom the message is targeted.
B2B content is aimed at members of a target company’s buying committee. It supports the longer, often convoluted, buying process that companies follow when procuring goods and services.
B2C marketers have spent several years loading up the internet with content that attracts, engages, and converts individual buyers. It has become increasingly targeted, personalized, and seamless.
Today, a B2C buyer can research, evaluate, select, and purchase any of millions of items without leaving their couch. And they can do so from just about any web-enabled device.
B2B companies, in contrast, have stuck to their traditional marketing guns.
Trade shows, physical showrooms, traveling salesman, and printed brochures are still prevalent throughout industry, despite sounding anachronistic in today’s digital world.
But that landscape is changing, and the pace of change is accelerating.
We’re witnessing an exponential increase in online B2B interactions—especially in the early stages of the buyer’s journey where they research and evaluate potential solutions in stealth mode. In other words, where they choose not to speak with a salesperson.
Motivated by their at-home shopping experiences, B2B buyers are warming up to the idea that they can reliably select, if not purchase, complex solutions without having to tolerate salespeople and schmooze.
A recent McKinsey study found that a majority of B2B buyers they surveyed were comfortable using end-to-end digital processes to make purchases worth more than $500,000.
The first wave of early adopters has embraced digital B2B purchasing. That has created the critical mass necessary for vendors to invest in B2B content marketing and ecommerce infrastructure.
However, the wave has only just begun to break.
As senior B2B buyers retire or move on to other positions, their replacements are increasingly digital natives. This means they’ve grown up with technology and experience little anxiety when moving from analog to digital processes.
The next wave of adoption will be faster and stronger because initial solutions are already in place and the user—the B2B buyer—will be pulling them into the market.
Another important dynamic is the geographic redistribution of buying teams.
The COVID-19 pandemic shook things up in three important ways.
While certain finance and procurement functions had already been offshored, it wasn’t until COVID shut down the headquarters that many companies allowed B2B buying to take place somewhere outside the center.
Two years of remote working showed them that B2B buying could function just as well in a distributed fashion.
Secondly, COVID drove the rapid development and uptake of online buying processes and technology, making it unnecessary for buying committee members to be collocated.
In response, vendors began pushing more relevant, helpful information onto the internet to ensure buyers could find what they needed while trade shows were shuttered, and salespeople grounded.
Vendors embraced content marketing out of necessity.
Now, as the centers of commerce reopen and travel resumes, we find businesses and individual contributors questioning whether they want to go back to how things were.
Trade show attendance is down. Many buyers continue working remotely or in a hybrid remote-and-office combination. Salespeople are finding it hard to get through.
I see the early signs of a third consequence: the offshoring of white-collar purchasing roles.
As companies realize they’re paying the same wage for a remote B2B buyer as they did for one who came to the office every day, they’re asking why that role can’t be moved to South America, or Eastern Europe, or Asia where average salaries are significantly lower.
Whether or not that’s the right decision for the buyer, what matters here is that B2B sellers are faced with a target audience that’s increasingly geographically dispersed.
Few buyers are going to fly halfway round the world to attend a trade show.
Few companies are going to employ salespeople to fly halfway round the world to find and engage prospects (although they might pay them to fly in and close deals.)
Content marketing has become the only way of reaching an audience that’s scattered across time zones and continents. It’s ubiquitous, asynchronous, and scalable.
The quality and efficacy of content marketing is what drives return on the associated investment in content production, distribution, and promotion.
What began as a website and an email campaign has become a complex, multifaceted mix of webpages, social media posts, blogs, videos, podcasts, digital ads, personalized email, drip campaigns, and so on.
The tools for creating, managing, and measuring these efforts have become more sophisticated and more accessible.
It doesn’t take the hundred-person marketing team of a billion-dollar corporation to run this stuff anymore. Even a thirty-person shop with a one-person marketing department can run an effective—if basic—content marketing program.
The B2C world is one of short lifecycles and thousands—if not millions—of data points being generated every day. Even an early-stage B2C company can afford to run hundreds of experiments and gather statistically significant feedback in a matter of weeks.
This means that innovation is an everyday thing in B2C marketing. Developments are rapid, and trends short-lived.
What works well gets doubled down upon and becomes widespread. Virality is a key to outsized success.
What works less well quickly gets cast aside or modified and tested again.
In short, B2C is the proving ground for business-to-human interactions.
By comparison, B2B moves at a glacial creep. Changes are infrequent and innovation is methodical and calculated.
Importantly, the B2B sector loves to adopt things that have been proven elsewhere. It’s in the DNA of companies where sales cycles are long, deal sizes can be enormous, and the cost of failure is high.
What better than to follow what’s worked in the B2C space?
Even more importantly, the people doing the adopting—the B2B buyers—are human beings themselves. They’re the C in many B2C transactions.
B2B buyers want to bring the best of those B2C experiences to work with them. They expect B2B vendors to offer them the same quality of CX and a similar level of convenience, within the constraints of corporate processes and business controls.
This conveyor belt will continue. B2C will experiment cheaply, fail frequently, and evolve new approaches. B2B will wait and watch, then studiously adopt the bits of B2C that make sense in the B2B world.
Those who adapt fastest and most effectively will become B2B leaders.
The transition of B2B buyers from traditional to digital approaches has not gone unnoticed by digital platforms.
While the sheer volume of B2C transactions—and the budgets that accompany B2C advertising—have fueled the meteoric growth of many social media and software platforms, there are also big dollar signs associated with B2B.
As more B2B buyers seek solutions online, it makes sense for the companies controlling the digital channels to invest in satisfying their interests.
A recent example is the introduction by LinkedIn of a new Document Ads category, catering for long-form content—such as white papers and case studies—that is a staple of B2B content marketing.
Many of the changes will be more subtle, buried with the algorithms that control what we see in our social media feeds and search results.
B2C interactions are straightforward to monitor. Did the user engage with the result served up by the algorithm, indicating that it aligned with their search intent? Did the user click through to the next level? Did they ultimately make a purchase?
Things aren’t so simple with B2B, where multiple people are involved in reaching a decision, the number of touchpoints correspondingly greater, and the pathway from first touch to last touch to purchase much more convoluted.
This requires innovation on the algorithm side, to which AI and machine learning are already being applied.
I expect to see the results of those innovations taking hold over the next couple of years, as B2B commerce continues its inexorable transition to digital channels and those channels compete to service it most effectively.
From the B2B seller’s point of view, the world is changing rapidly.
Those who fail to take note and then act are at risk of getting left behind.
As prospects and customers shift their focus from traditional points of engagement to working online, only companies that make relevant information and purchasing opportunities available online will be in the game.
Those who continue relying on traditional marketing approaches will find themselves competing for a dwindling pool of business.
To keep up, if not to lead, requires continuously evaluating what’s working and testing new approaches to see if they work even better.
Marketing has always been a game of experiments but in the digital world those experiments run faster and there are far more permutations to consider.
Designing the right set of experiments, running them efficiently, and extracting maximum value from the information they generate are all prerequisites for success.
Successfully evolving your company’s marketing strategy, tactics, and content mix is only possible if you have the data to show what’s working, what’s not working, and where your target audience is headed next.
What I can say with certainty, irrespective of your company’s particular situation, is that the role played by content marketing will continue to grow.
B2B has just scratched the surface of what’s possible and many B2B buying roles are still occupied by an older generation of buyers for whom digital practices are uncomfortable. The more digital natives move into those roles, the more it will become a digital-first domain.
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Image credits: Adobe Stock