From tactical overhead to strategic growth driver: B2B marketing in the digital age

Veolia's marketing manager, Jason Gow, details how digital enablement and marketing automation are finally providing B2B marketers with the tools they need to prove business contribution

In order for business organisations in complex selling to not only stay competitive in the future, but to achieve growth in markets where customer needs are constantly changing, a strong marketing function that is digitally capable is a necessity, writes Veolia’s Jason Gow.

In the world of complex selling, where multimillion-dollar opportunities are a slow burn and where buying decisions are made by a handful of people, B2B marketing has traditionally been perceived as a support function to business development.

I however, have always been a firm believer that marketing functions within B2B organisations should have the same level of importance, if not greater, as other functional business lines such as finance or human resources, or as they do in B2C companies.

Many B2B organisations are yet to see value in doing this, being unable to understand the bottom-line benefits marketing can potentially deliver. But in those companies that do recognise marketing as having the same level of importance as other internal functional lines, the CMO function can truly embed itself and achieve optimal, customer-focused business outcomes.

Having been in B2B marketing for close to 10 years now, I can sincerely say that marketing is a driving force for growth within an organisation, playing a critical role in matching market needs with company solutions through many forms of strategic and persuasive communications.

Through multiple channels and touchpoints, an effective marketing function influences the handful of decision makers that must be targeted throughout the B2B buying cycle. Measuring this influence in B2B marketing, however, has been difficult.

Thankfully, this is now beginning to change as we welcome a new era for B2B marketing through digital enablement.

Brand building in a business environment

From a branding perspective, there are many things leading B2B companies can and have adopted from the world of consumer marketing. And there are examples of B2B organisations that have built strong brands for the exact same reasons B2C companies have done so.

Companies such as IBM, Boeing, GE, Siemens, Veolia and, which are all involved in complex selling, have embraced a B2C approach in building brand equity through storytelling that attempts to make an emotional connection with the audience. These companies often employ multiple channels to deliver branded content through print and online advertising, trade shows, customer focused forums, and more recently, social media platforms such as LinkedIn.

As a result, these organisations are reaping the rewards of having a strong brand. Among these are fast-tracking the buying process, linking the buyer need with the seller’s solution, providing better access to potential clients for the sales function to pursue as the brand is known, gaining a competitive point of difference, and communicating a promise or commitment on the service or product to be delivered.

Thanks to the value communicated, all of these companies can charge a premium. The perception of quality is also greater, and for the organisation as a whole, this means a higher stock price and stronger balance sheet.

Content strategies employed by these companies are akin to the likes of a Nike, Apple or Starbucks in that they’re highly creative, emotive and focus on promoting brand attributes. This is about things that make up a brand’s identity. Nike’s ‘Last’ and GE’s ‘Childlike Imagination – What My Mom Does at GE provide great examples of storytelling that resonate regardless of whether you’re in a B2C or B2B environment.

Business organisations are also going into consumer dominated mass-market platforms like TV and social media channels. Why? To gain access to the younger, influential millennial audiences. Millennials are now being targeted by first-mover B2B organisations for the potential they represent in terms of being future investors or prospective employees. Businesses have also seen value in targeting these group as part of a network that influences the buying decision in a B2B organisation.

B2B marketing in the world of complex selling

Conversely, from a target marketing perspective, from lead generation through to sale, and top to bottom of the sales funnel, it has been a different story for B2B.

In the consumer space, there has always been a direct correlation with marketing and sales. In its most basic form, if a retailer of electronic goods ran a campaign for a discount sale on LCD TVs through email and print advertising, you would no doubt see a spike in sales during the campaign period, provided the price was right.

In a B2B environment, however, if an engineering firm endeavouring to win a large design and build opportunity in the municipal water sector, and ran a targeted two-year campaign that consisted of print advertising, industry event participation and strategic messaging/relationship building through the business development team, this may or may not get the B2B company over the line during the buying decision making stage, which commonly ends in a formal tender process.

B2B organisations involved in smaller value, higher volume transactional sales, such as selling treadmills to gymnasiums and healthcare facilities, are very much focused on generating leads, and a marketing department’s success is typically gauged on the number of leads gathered during a campaign period.

It’s a different story for a B2B organisation involved in larger complex sale worth $20 million, as there may only be 20 large-scale prospects/clients that make up an entire market within a specific region like Australia. Rail, water, power and aviation industries are good examples.

Here, success for marketing is very much about providing a platform for business development and to build an intimate relationship with the prospect or client who is usually already known by the seller. It can take several months, and sometimes years, to develop this intimacy.

What’s therefore required is more continuous lead nurturing for marketing to keep the target prospects interests high. Combined with one-on-one engagement by the business development function, this ensures the company remains top of mind for the prospects right up until the purchase decision-making stage.

As a B2B marketer, I know I have had a hand in winning large opportunities, providing more than just a support to business development. But again, without proof, performance cannot be measured. This goes to prove the old adage: What cannot be measured cannot be managed.

Well, that was the case up until now.

Marketing automation as the tool for empowerment

Granted, there will always be differences between B2C and B2B markets and companies. But thanks to digital capabilities and technologies, B2B marketers in the arena of large complex deals have gained the ability to develop meaningful and ongoing conversations with prospects and clients through the delivery of targeted and relevant content.

More importantly, the effectiveness of the content can be measured, which is something I have always dreamed of as a marketer – having full transparency, knowing how effective a campaign has been.

This has been made possible through marketing automation.

B2B marketers have been working on this for some time now, but in the space of large complex sales, the technology is finally mature enough to turn B2B marketing departments into strategic growth drivers.

Before learning about this capability at the recent ADMA Global Forum 2015 conference in Sydney, I used to be quite sceptical about the term ‘marketing automation’, associating it with direct email marketing. Sure, this is one of the functions of marketing automation, but there is so much more. All digital marketing activities can now be linked through one central point that delivers, tracks and measures campaign outcomes.

Through marketing automation, a business can be completely aligned from strategy and marketing through to business development/sales – top of funnel to bottom of funnel – generating leads, to lead nurturing through to conversion into sales. Business development functions will always play a crucial role, but through marketing automation, both marketing and business development activities are optimised.

There are many automation platforms out there now such as Salesforce Pardot, Marketo, Oracle and IBM, to name a few, which have specially designed applications for marketing-led B2B organisations.

The importance of having a sound CRM platform

Critical to an optimal performing marketing automation solution is a solid CRM platform. This is where all critical target data lives, from contact details, to the sector a prospect operates in and at what stage they sit in the sales funnel. With a CRM system linked to marketing automation system, marketing can effectively target individual contacts at specific stages in the sales funnel with relevant content. And because of this, the opportunity linked to that prospect is pushed through the sales cycle quicker, as they have access to the right information at the right time.

For example, if a target prospect within a company’s CRM platform has shown an interest in a campaign, channels such as direct emails, social media advertising and online trade show competitions could be employed to deliver branded content to the target prospect as they travel through the sales funnel - all orchestrated through the marketing automation platform.

The beauty of marketing automation is that marketers can now see engagement statics for individual target prospects. From LinkedIn advertisement clicks through to whitepaper downloads via a company’s website, there is a lot a marketer can see through marketing automation, even the amount of time a prospect has spent viewing an opened campaign email.

This is the proof in the pudding that marketing in complex selling has been after for so long. A B2B marketing function can now say, with hand on heart, that they have not only had a hand in winning an opportunity, but have sped up the purchasing process as well.

A new outlook for B2B marketing

As B2B marketing operations evolve, the focus will be on the constant generation of relevant content. It’s no wonder that content creation market is worth billions and set to increase substantially over the coming years through smarter marketing-led organisations.

With various market segments, a multitude of ever-changing client needs and the different stages in the sales funnel to consider, there are many targeted stories to be told to further improve a company’s chance of winning an opportunity in complex selling.

So for those companies who implement marketing automation, the question for B2B marketers in the future will be more about how much revenue can they help bring into a business, and not so much a justification on every line item listed in the budget. Marketing spend will have a return (an ROI).

Essentially, B2B marketers in the digital era will have a seat at the revenue table.Digitally enabled marketing functions will drive growth and help companies become more nimble and agile in adapting to the market’s rapidly changing needs to ensure optimal customer focused experiences and outcomes are continuously delivered in complex business environments.

More marketing automation stories from B2B marketers:

About the author
Jason Gow is the client communications and marketing manager at Veolia Australia and New Zealand, and has been with the B2B environmental management firm since 2013. Prior to that, he was a corporate marketing to UGL and UGL Rail.

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