B2B marketers are different than B2C marketers.
The path to being wildly successful in B2B digital marketing is a journey and, unfortunately, many B2B companies have struggled to prove the ROI of digital marketing. The reality is that most B2B organizations have a legacy of being sales-driven. Even the most established B2B companies have a history of a sales-driven mindset with a limited understanding of marketing. Contrast this mindset with B2C companies who generally understand that marketing starts with brand awareness and proceeds with creating differentiation and a trust factor resulting in a purchase opportunity. In a B2C company, marketing is understood as a necessity to generate demand. B2C marketers have traditionally placed emphasis on tracking customer satisfaction, customer retention and lifetime value of the customer.
B2B marketing has come a long way.
In recent years, we've seen evidence that the B2B marketer has made progress in digital marketing, especially in the area of content marketing. In the 2015 B2B Content Marketing Report from the Content Marketing Institute, we see plenty of evidence that B2B marketers are more intentional about their content marketing strategies and tactics. And, while this is a positive trend, there is still a long way to go for B2B digital marketers.
From my vantage point on the agency side of the landscape, I've had experience working with more than a hundred B2B organizations, ranging in size from 50 to 15,000 employees. My team and I have observed three phases of the digital marketing journey - we set out to document the attributes of each stage of the B2B digital marketing success journey. Let's take a look at each stage.
Whether it's a new exercise program or a new digital marketing strategy, the early stage is mostly a learning curve. Too often, a B2B company begins the journey with unrealistic expectations. These expectations may be influenced by inexperienced management (from a digital marketing perspective) or simply by a lack of understanding of what it takes to create trust, credibility and ultimately create viable leads through digital marketing strategies and tactics. In the early stage, which is commonly about a two-year time horizon, the marketing team is generally figuring it out as they go, even if they have help from a capable digital marketing agency. As a representative of the agency spectrum, I can say (with the scars to prove it) that the early stage takes a lot of discipline. The most common challenge of the early stage is impatience from the brand's leadership.
In the early stage, B2B marketers should focus on developing a strong digital foundation with a documented strategy that doesn't spread the team too thin. The brand shouldn't expect to go from 10 leads per month to 100 leads per month in one quarter. Rather, it should embrace the opportunity to launch a documented digital marketing plan that aligns with the brand's core business strategy, including its messaging. Considerable effort should go into collaboration between marketing and sales to establish benchmarks for success and a realistic time horizon of results. In many B2B companies, this exercise alone is huge. It can spans months of conversations. Yet, it's foundationally critical for marketing and sales to get aligned so it is well worth the effort.
The percentage of marketing budget allocated to digital marketing is generally low in the early stage largely because it is not yet a proven marketing method to the company. This is why a laser focus on relevant content created for distinct buyer personas in each phase of their buying journey is so important in the early stage in order to produce true business results.
The most important metrics in any stage of the B2B digital marketing journey are - Visitor to Lead Conversion Rates & Lead to Customer Conversion Rates. These two metrics matter most because they tell the ROI story to the C-Suite. It's important for an early stage company to understand the importance of these two metrics to avoid being distracted by vanity metrics that are meaningless to the C-Suite.
If these two metrics are not improving quarter over quarter, your digital strategy should be revisited.
After a couple of years of digital marketing experience and measurable progress, a B2B company is in the mid-stage of their journey. Often, we see a B2B marketing department on their second or third generation marketing team since launching their digital strategy. That's a natural progression as the structure of a digital marketing team in the mid stage requires a different set of skills, particularly writing and story telling skills, as well as advanced skills including creative design, analytics and website maintenance. In the mid stage, the company is much more intentional about the content it produces. A twelve month editorial calendar should be in place, tied to buyer personas and buyer journey stages. A content production team should be in place, as well as an emphasis on marketing your content, aka "marketing your marketing."
In the mid stage, the company recognizes the value of employee participation in content marketing. I call this "marketing is not a department." Employees with subject matter expertise should be invited to participate in creating content. The marketing team should create processes to make it as easy as possible for employees to contribute content.
In the Mid Stage the company understands the importance of investing in marketing technology and tools to streamline efforts and measure key KPIs. Visitor-to-Lead and Lead-to-Customer Conversion rates produce enough ROI to warrant an increased allocation of the marketing budget to digital marketing in comparison to the Early Stage.
The mature stage is usually in the range of 5 + years into the digital marketing journey. Employee advocacy is well along. In fact, contribution of high quality content from employees is substantial in the mature stage, including contribution from executives. The volume of website traffic, calls-to-actions and content produced is substantial both in quantity and quality. The content produced in the mature stage spans thought leadership to tactical. The Mature Stage company embraces employee branding by empowering select employees to speak at conferences, author white papers, e-books, participate in videos, podcasts and other forms of content that brands the employee as an influencer in their market.
A mature stage company also understands the importance of building a proprietary audience. They've been building a loyal audience with a laser focus on providing true value, and enjoying loyalty and advocacy as their reward. Their Visitor-to-Lead and Lead-to-Customer Conversion Rates are strong, which contributes to a healthy relationship between the Marketing and Sales teams. This alignment produces a self-perpetuating collaboration that is considered by many as the holy grail of modern B2B marketing.
The three phases of the B2B digital marketing journey described here and depicted in our infographic look different for each company. Hopefully, this diagram and explanation offers guidance to consider in your journey.
I recommend you ask yourself where you are in this journey. If the Marketing and Sales teams are not yet aligned, make that a high priority. If you don't have a documented strategy based on buyer personas and the buyer's journey, make that a priority as well.