Developing an effective business-to-business (B2B) marketing strategy is essential for keeping pace in a highly competitive environment. Marketing is an integral part of any business, but it’s important to understand which types of marketing make the most sense for a given industry or target audience, and how B2B marketing has its own unique requirements.
Companies who sell products or services to other organizations need a marketing strategy that accounts for the differences between marketing to businesses and to individual consumers. But just like individuals, businesses are looking for the best value for their budget, and will research extensively and shop around for good deals on the products and services they need.
B2B businesses are not only in competition with each other for market share, but also for the attention of potential clients in what has become a very crowded digital space.
While business-to-consumer (B2C) marketers and B2B marketers share many of the same marketing channels such as email and social media, how they use these channels is very different. B2B marketing strategies should consider how best to reach business customers and then determine the most effective messaging and content to reach marketing goals.
Keep reading to learn the basics of B2B marketing, how it differs from B2C marketing, and how to build the best B2B marketing strategy in 2022.
What is B2B Marketing?
B2B marketing entails the branding, messaging, and advertising of products and services to other businesses or organizations.
Both private and public organizations often rely on other businesses to provide them with supplies, equipment, services, and even personnel that they need to do their work. Finding reliable, affordable vendors for long-term business relationships can be a winning scenario for everyone.
Vying for the attention of potential B2B customers not only requires understanding the industry being marketed to, but how organizations within that industry communicate. On top of that, the platforms and technologies that are used to reach business audiences are in a constant state of flux, so a big part of any B2B marketing campaign is assessing the current trends in marketing, to avoid being drowned out by competitors.
Not all market audiences are created equal, and B2C marketing strategies don’t necessarily translate well into the B2B world.
The Differences Between B2B and B2C Marketing
Although the goals of all marketing campaigns are essentially the same, the strategies they employ can vary widely. This is not only due to the fact that there are different types of customers, but also because those customers have different needs.
Traditional consumer marketing is oriented toward the products and services that are currently in demand among individual consumers. Consumers are notoriously fickle, and B2C marketers must constantly monitor trends in their respective markets.
The table below shows some examples of the differing kinds of products and services that are typically in demand for individual and business consumers.
|Cloud storage and software|
Outsourced business departments
Business consumers can be much different than individuals in their purchase volume, product needs, and decision-making processes. For example:
- B2C consumers don’t operate on the same fiscal cycles as B2B clients, who are often bound by long-term budget plans and schedules.
- B2B buyers, especially in larger organizations, must go through multiple administrative steps and a lengthy negotiation process before agreeing to a purchase contract.
- The volume of B2B is huge. The global market size reached almost $7 billion in 2021 for e-commerce alone—double that of B2C and growing.
The differences between B2B and B2C marketing aren’t just about the type of audience and their needs, though. Businesses and individuals also communicate in different ways and have different expectations with regard to marketing content.
For example, both have a heavy presence in social media, but messaging in that space tends to be more formal and focused when targeting businesses.
So, developing a B2B marketing strategy involves understanding:
- The target audience and the positioning of B2B competitors.
- The best communication channels to reach the target audience.
- The most current trends in B2B marketing.
Next is a high-level overview of the most important elements in developing a B2B marketing strategy.
Overview of B2B Marketing Strategy
Developing a B2B marketing strategy begins with a lot of information gathering. It’s critical to get the lay of the land before jumping into planning a campaign.
There’s no “one size fits all” marketing strategy, and there’s not necessarily a level playing field, so before getting into the details of strategizing, it’s wise for companies to first have a solid understanding of where they fit in with their industry, audience, and their competitors.
It’s also helpful to learn about the best options available to reach audiences, how to use them, and which have the best track records of success. These marketing channels will be the main tools of a successful marketing strategy.
Preparing a B2B Marketing Strategy
There are three major factors that must be considered and well understood in the context of B2B marketing:
- the brand
- the audience
- the competition
A solid and honest assessment of these factors provides a framework to begin crafting an effective marketing strategy.
There are few things more fundamental to a business than its brand identity. Successful companies bake their brand into everything they do, from their mission statement to their logo to their messaging to their product packaging—in short, brand is everything.
Marketing is part psychology, part sociology, part warfare, and part poetry, but establishing a brand is the one marketing activity that is most reliant on a basic understanding of human psychology.
Think of the most iconic brands from your childhood all the way up to modern day:
- The McDonald’s arches invoke their name, their buildings, and their hamburger boxes.
- Coca-Cola’s trademarked red would be unmistakable even on an unlabeled soda can.
- Amazon’s smile logo conveys the joy of opening the box that just landed on your porch.
These successful branding examples all have one thing in common—recognition. People associate experiences with smells, tastes, sounds, words, and visual images, giving them certain expectations when exposed to those sensations in the future and hopefully leading to a sense of loyalty to the brand.
Branding is a perfect example where the details of B2B marketing can significantly diverge from those of B2C. The emotions and expectations that B2B companies wish to convey in their branding to other businesses are much different than those of more consumer-directed campaigns.
B2B clients are generally more disciplined, goal-focused, risk-averse, and financially motivated than their consumer counterparts, who are more prone to impulse-buying, following trends, or meeting immediate needs. As a result, B2B branding is more about establishing a sense of stability, reliability, and competence.
Colors play into the branding. For example, red is considered to convey “passion” or even “anger”, while blue conveys “stability” and “reliability”. Consider that no one was ever fired for making a decision based on the stability of a brand.
Before setting out on a B2B marketing campaign, companies should have a clear understanding of what their brand identity is, and be prepared to encompass that brand into their marketing strategy.
Understanding the target audience is where B2B marketing can become a very specialized activity. Not only do markets differ between organizations and individual consumers, but B2B audiences can vary widely between industries and organizational types.
Some examples of B2B clients that could have very different marketing responses are:
- Sole proprietorships
- Small and medium businesses (SMB’s)
- Large businesses and corporations
- Non-profit organizations and charities
Sole proprietors, for example, might share some characteristics with both small businesses and individual consumers. While they have similar needs for products and services as businesses do, they may not have a very large budget or work on the same fiscal cycles.
Larger corporations, especially when dealing with large volume purchases, won’t be as nimble as smaller businesses in changing their operations, so they’re often looking for long-term relationships to maintain continuity.
These different approaches based on the size and nature of a B2B client are a major consideration when developing messaging for a marketing campaign. In addition to the type and size of the organizations in a target market, the industry and business sectors play an important role in understanding an audience.
Audience segmentation in B2B marketing is the grouping of target audiences so that marketing materials can be tailored to the shared characteristics of organizations within each segment. Taking what is known about the size, needs, and buying practices of identified audiences, they can be categorized into segments for different marketing approaches.
For example, a SaaS company providing B2B cloud computing might segment their audience, in part, by company size (i.e. number of employees) and develop different marketing materials based on the types and level of service needed by typical companies of each size. Furthermore, the typical revenue generated by each segment will inform the marketing budget assigned to them, so that ROI can be maximized.
Alternatively, a B2B company that manages information security for clients may approach segmentation by categorizing companies by industry and the types of cybersecurity threats typically faced by each group. This allows them to create more customized campaigns that bring attention to the most relevant services offered—a useful approach in a complex and technical field.
There’s no set rule for how to segment audiences, but it’s common for B2B marketers to use the following characteristics:
- Demographic (or “firmographic” for businesses) – measurable characteristics like industry type, number of employees, revenue, and corporate structure.
- Psychographic – assessing psychological responses to messaging for different values like stability, trust, and competence.
- Behavioral – analysis of audience habits and activities like social media use, corporate culture, and usage of the product or service being offered.
- Geographic – location-dependent aspects like local regulations, regional culture, and resource availability.
Even with a thorough understanding of brand identity and target audience, there is still one major obstacle in the way of a great B2B marketing strategy—the competition.
Businesses are in perpetual competition with each other for market share and customer loyalty, and players are constantly entering and leaving the fray. Knowing what competitors are doing right—and wrong—in their B2B marketing is essential to avoid being left behind.
Part of knowing the competition is knowing how businesses in the sector measure up to each other, and where one’s own business is positioned. For example, the chart below shows the top ten software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies in terms of market capitalization.
Running a competitive analysis is an important preliminary step in developing a B2B marketing strategy. Thorough research and data analytics, like through business intelligence (BI) sources, can provide valuable insight into how competitors are approaching the target market.
Useful data on competitors include:
• The products and services they offer
• Their pricing tiers
• The marketing channels they use
Competitors may be using sales tactics and marketing content that others are unaware of or haven’t tried yet, so knowing the latest methods and technologies being deployed, both successfully and not, gives marketers a complete view of the arena they’re stepping into.
So far we’ve discussed brand, audience and competition with respect to the development of a B2B marketing strategy. Next comes an assessment of how businesses go about reaching their target audience through various marketing channels.
Understanding Marketing Channels
In the internet age, B2B marketing has rapidly evolved from a world of direct mail, cold calling, and running print ads in trade publications to shrewd use of social media, email campaigns, and sophisticated online content development.
Let’s look into how modern marketers use content and various means of electronic media to reach their audience. Balancing these communication channels and using them to support each other is part of what makes marketing an art.
B2B Content Marketing
Bill Gates’ famous 1996 declaration that “Content is King” in the title of his 1996 essay is so often quoted now that it has become cliché. But the prescience of this terse title is really unpacked in the first line of the essay:
“Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting.”
People don’t get on the internet to see ads, just like they don’t turn on the TV to watch commercials (except for maybe on Super Bowl Sunday.) What drives consumers to any medium is…content!
[Content can be text, audio, images, or video that provide:
- Information (news, podcasts, blogs).
- Education (tutorials, courses, webinars).
- Entertainment (music, streaming videos, novels).
When looking for specific content, people invariably begin by using a search engine—that’s why using search engine optimization (SEO) is such a valuable marketing tool. Shrewd use of SEO when developing content is a powerful way to attract a target audience.
Content marketing is a way of providing information or entertainment to prospective audiences in order to generate traffic and leads, build trust, and establish branding. When content marketing is executed properly, it doesn’t feel like advertising to the consumer of the content, but can have the same, if not greater advantages.
In fact, content marketing has been shown to have triple the perceived return on investment (ROI) as display advertising.
B2B content marketing must take into account the differences in content likely to be consumed by business audiences as opposed to individual consumers. Businesses are more focused and selective, and are looking for content that can help them with their own business goals.
For example, a company that markets cybersecurity services in a B2B environment may publish a blog that details the various security threats that potential clients can face, complete with information on the costliness of data breaches. This content can have a powerful combination of benefits:
- It establishes the company as subject-matter experts.
- It attracts the types of readers that would be interested in their services.
- It puts their brand in a visible position.
Although content marketing combined with SEO (to “lead the horses to water”) may seem like an indirect way of gaining a customer base, it has become one of the most used and most effective marketing strategies.
B2B Email Marketing
Email marketing is as old as the internet. But with everyone wary of cluttered inboxes and persistent spamming, marketers must tread carefully to get the most value out of an email campaign.
Unlike content marketing on websites or blogs, where businesses try to attract customers to them, email marketing is typically directed at specific users based on leads from other sources, or for existing customers. This provides an opportunity for a more individualized marketing strategy, both for bringing in new business and maintaining relationships.
While it may seem that email is falling out of favor with increased use of social media and instant messaging, it’s still a widely used channel. More importantly for B2B marketing, businesses still prefer communicating via email, and it remains an effective way to reach audiences.
To avoid being relegated to email trash or block lists, though, marketers must be selective and innovative when using email to engage—B2B clients are less tolerant of having their time wasted. Also, the types and content of email messaging should be different for potential leads than for those sent to past or current clients.
A common goal of email marketing is to gain and retain subscribers. Those willing to opt in for further communications (or at least not to opt out) are more amenable to further engagement.
Ironically, the most common modality for building a company’s email list is through the aforementioned Content Marketing. A website visitor is attracted to the website which answers their question. When the website displays a discreet popup or sidebar exhorting the visitor to subscribe to the email list to get a steady stream of answers, it’s a tantalizing incentive.
Email subscriptions provide an excellent opportunity to extend B2B content marketing into the email domain. For example, regular, content-based newsletters can provide useful and engaging information and keep the customer’s attention.
And email “newsletters” need not be lengthy; in fact, many marketers use short and pithy emails to encourage readers to click the link to learn more. This pushes the reader back to the website, where the conversation can be most carefully controlled.
While email is still a mainstay in business communication and is likely to remain so for a long time, its younger and more glamorous cousin, social media, expands B2B marketing even further.
B2B Social Media Marketing
Like email, social media serves a drastically different purpose for businesses than it does for the general public. Social media is an efficient networking tool and allows for flexible, dynamic, and interactive communication.
One of the most powerful aspects of B2B social media marketing is that popular networking platforms like LinkedIn are a reliable way to reach executives and decision-makers within the target audience. LinkedIn claims that 80% of its members are those who drive decisions within their respective businesses.
While email is a more directed messaging platform than online content, social media provides an opportunity to focus even more on individuals when creating marketing materials. More details are shared on social media profiles that can provide insight into tailored content and messaging, or to more finely segment market audiences.
Social media also gives marketers the ability to really stand out with creative campaigns, and by making the marketing experience with users more interactive.
B2B companies have used many innovative social media strategies:
|Hashtag campaigns||Salesforce encouraged followers of its Pardot marketing tool’s Twitter account to submit industry video tips on #TrailblazerTipTuesdays.|
|Humanizing the brand||IBM had employees create and share videos of their work and research, including technical “explainers.”|
|User-generated content||Adobe used its vast content creation community to showcase the capabilities of its software by allowing them to post their work on its Instagram page.|
|Showing work product||Enterprise software maker SAP found a fun way to display a use case of its database software by processing 70 years worth of NBA statistics to show its use in live games.|
In all of the above examples, the marketing strategies took advantage of some unique features of social media to do things that would be impossible or less effective by other means.
Involving the target audience directly and working with them to create or feature content on social media are powerful ways to build the type of lasting relationships that are essential in B2B commerce.
B2B Marketing Trends in 2022
When researching different options for B2B marketing, there can be a seemingly infinite number of approaches. While many may seem a perfect fit for a brand’s particular audience and marketing goals, they may not provide the best “bang-for-your-buck”, or may have already been so overused that they’re no longer as effective as they once were.
Trends come and go quickly, especially in the digital marketing world, so keeping up with the latest and most effective methods, both in terms of planning and executing a marketing strategy, keeps companies from being left behind by competitors who stay ahead of the curve.
Novel marketing approaches may emerge due to new technologies, changes in audience expectations, or innovation on the part of marketers.
Following are a few examples of some of the hottest and emerging trends in B2B marketing.
Hyper-Personalization Through Analytics
It has been said that “data is the new oil”, fueling the new economy and the future of commerce. But like oil, the real value of data is how it’s used.
Gathering data on leads and target audience behavior is easy—and there’s no shortage of data to work with. Intelligent analysis of data, however—through artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning—can provide useful insights that inform strategies and is driving the cutting edge of marketing.
Data allows marketers to tailor their messages to more granular groupings of audiences, and even to specific individuals. Robust data analysis can allow for fine audience segmentation by revealing tendencies like:
- Purchase frequency
- Customer Loyalty
- Product/service preference
Hyper-personalization is this finely-tuned approach to getting the most value out of marketing by leveraging what is already known about a particular audience segment, or individual clients, as opposed to simply applying the same message to a broad spectrum and hoping for a percentage to respond. This method can become more effective in longer-term B2B client relationships, where there is a history to draw from—a valuable lesson to learn from the B2C marketing arena.
Providing custom product or service recommendations is the most obvious and common example of hyper-personalization, and this method can work for B2B customers just as effectively as it does in the B2C world. Today, the cutting edge of hyper-personalization is providing a custom, responsive customer experience throughout the entire customer relationship, including:
- Welcome emails
- Customer account interfaces
- Upsells and follow-on marketing
Increased Usage of Video Channels
Video content, which has been shown to be generally more engaging and more conducive to retention than text, is another example of an effective marketing vehicle that B2B strategies can borrow from B2C. Not only does video provide a more flexible content platform, but it can be deployed on multiple channels, including email and social media, that have been traditionally more text-based and image-based in B2B communications.
With the evolving nature of media, more companies are viewing video as an effective B2B marketing tool with a rising ROI.
Video is an excellent medium for informational content, and can incorporate multiple brand elements all at once. For example, videos can simultaneously convey the following aspects of a brand, among others, within a single instance of content:
- Brand colors
- Sounds (i.e. musical jingles)
- Product visuals
- Product usage and user experience
Videos produced for B2B marketing must also take into account the difference between business audiences and those of individual consumers. For example, due to office settings and other factors, most videos viewed on LinkedIn are done so with the volume off.
A relatively new and interesting twist on marketing has been the inclusion of employees (not just those on the marketing team) in the content creation and marketing process. This trend seems to have been spurred in part by the effects of the pandemic, and can not only humanize a company to a target audience but build better relationships with employees as well.
Chances are, employees are already active on many of the B2B marketing channels that a company plans to use. They also know the products and services better than anyone, and often have personal familiarity with individuals within the target market, whether from existing business relationships or industry events.
IBM’s use of employee-created videos on Facebook discussed earlier is an example of how companies can leverage the knowledge and expertise of their employees to simultaneously grow the authority of their brand, put a human face on their business, and give their audience informative content, all while fomenting a sense of pride and involvement among their staff.
Measuring Success of a B2B Marketing Strategy
In addition to keeping up with the latest tools, trends, and technologies in B2B marketing, companies need a way to measure and compare the effectiveness of their campaigns. Measuring ROI is the number one current challenge reported by B2B marketers today.
While it’s easy to track what’s being spent on a specific marketing campaign, it’s much more difficult to extract the returns that each strategy is generating.
To complete the ROI formula in a way that yields meaningful comparisons, an effort must be made wherever possible to track the path from marketing materials and content to actual revenue.
Common ways of tallying sales conversions to help trace revenue from individual marketing campaigns include:
- Website analytics and tracking software in online ads and content
- Customer surveys
- Key performance indicators (KPI’s): keywords or topics for which a company wishes to rank on Google or Bing.
Remember that the use of multiple channels in a marketing strategy and multi-layered nature of marketing “funnels” doesn’t always lend itself easily to tracking, and many of the benefits of these strategies are intangible, like building brand awareness and community trust. These factors make the task of measuring ROI quite challenging.
One way to separate the ROI numbers is to experiment with different B2B marketing strategies one-at-a-time over short durations instead of all at once before settling on which ones to use for a full cycle. This takes an extra investment in time and money, and can carry some risks, but it’s a more reliable way of comparing the results of different approaches.
Attribution is a concept marketers use to track the engagement of potential and existing customers at various points in the process of marketing. Each “touch” of a prospect can be an entry point to a sale or to another step in engagement.
For example, when searching the internet for tips on small business tax filing, a potential buyer may find a blog run by a B2B tax software vendor. This leads to the person signing up for regular newsletters from the vendor, then clicking a link in a newsletter to the product page, then to a sale.
There are different types of attribution models, but two of the most common are “first touch” and “last touch” attribution.
In first touch attribution, the credit in the example below would be attributed to the content that originally drew in the buyer. In last touch attribution, it would go to the product page that led to the actual closing of the sale.
There are attribution models which are even more finely tuned than first touch and last touch. The appropriate attribution model for a given ROI assessment can depend on multiple factors like the length of sales cycles, the number of different attribution touchpoints, and the characteristics of the market segment.
We have seen that there are a lot of complex and interconnected considerations when developing a B2B marketing strategy.
The strategic process is a cycle that begins with understanding where a company fits into a target market, planning and implementing a strategy, assessing the success of its campaigns, then starting the cycle again with new lessons learned.
So what is the best B2B marketing strategy for your business in 2022?
The truth is there is no one “silver bullet” for every company’s marketing needs. You should be using all available marketing channels, focusing on the channels your best customers are regularly on, and measuring their effectiveness through ROI to maximize the opportunities to reach your ideal prospects.
According to data from Truelist.co, closing a B2B sale typically requires at least 8 touchpoints across multiple channels.
Ultimately, staying “top-of-mind” is everything when it comes to reaching your best customers and closing the deal.
Gone are the days when marketing consisted of door-to-door salespersons, aggressive cold calls, and mass mailers.
Using the three key B2B marketing channels with maximum efficiency can bring your ideal prospects right to your business.
Make sure you’re “there” when they are ready!