The evolution of B2B marketing

This is the first of a series of blogs about the modern B2B marketing malaise and what to do about it. Subsequent articles will be about setting up demand gen blueprints, the relationship between strategy and performance and SEO.

15 years ago, just after Doug and I founded Velocity, we wrote a piece called the B2B Marketing Manifesto

It was written when B2B tech was still dominated by direct sales. But B2B marketing was actually on the cusp of becoming a key part of every company’s revenue engine, of becoming accountable to the rest of the business for the first time. (Before, its job was pretty much limited to being the Sales department’s PowerPoint bitch, deciding what color the logo should be or spending months designing the exhibition stand). The Manifesto was a call to action and a plea for ambition. It prefigured the evolution of B2B marketing and has been downloaded millions of times since publication.

Since then, lots of companies have put their marketing tech stacks to work, driving revenue. But lots haven’t. Often the ones that struggle are the smaller, ambitious companies with limited marketing teams. It’s time to do something about that.

The inbound era: a (very) brief history

The transparency of the Internet encouraged prospects to conduct their own research unencumbered by a vendor’s sales teams. An almost mythical stat emerged that summed up the whole inbound marketing era: buyers apparently spent 67% of their time on independent research before contacting sales. Content marketing exploded and we built our business on the back of it. At Velocity, we likened the shift from sales-led to data-led marketing to the moment in the Wizard of Oz when the film moves from black and white to color. Marketing departments were not in Kansas anymore and we challenged them to respond. 

Back then, the inbound marketing world was linear and sequential: first the marketing happened, then the sales. Marketing’s job was to create ‘leads’, nurture them so they became qualified opportunities that could be handed off to sales reps to close. A bit like a relay race. 

The changing face of B2B marketing

Quite a bit has changed since those days. How customers buy has outrun how most vendors sell. And beyond the companies that are clearly getting their data orchestration right, the majority of B2B marketing departments have little idea whether the right people from the right accounts are interacting at the right time with the things marketing produces. 

At Velocity, we see a lot of companies struggling in critical areas:

  • Pipeline meets cliff: They continue to struggle to create enough pipeline. And metrics are generally worsening. Most companies are spending a fortune on their paid channels and the CPL is astronomic, somewhere between terrifyingly bad and catastrophic. Organic performance is in the toilet.
  • Sugar-rush or dopamine leads: Teams are set up to measure campaign touches, calling them leads and failing to link those into long-term demand gen outcomes. ‘Leads’ come from a series of unconnected campaigns and are generally rejected by sales teams. You know the sugar rush is bad for you but you don’t know what else to do.
  • Talk to the hand: Your sales team is taking chunks of marketing into their own hands, sending more emails than marketing to ‘prospects’ at the top of the funnel using tools like Outreach and other sales prospecting platforms – and they’re not using your expensively produced content at all. They hate the leads you generate. The old ‘we’ll control the top of the funnel and you handle the bottom’ truism is long gone.
  • The ancient mariner conundrum: You know: data, data everywhere but not one drop of useful insight driving long-term, robust pipeline. You can’t make sense of your marketing data because it’s so fragmented and contradictory. And you can’t connect it to the journeys your prospects are taking today.

Together these things add up to a low level despondency and collective loss of mojo among senior B2B marketers. Yes, there are lots of companies out there doing a great job, but many have failed significantly to reap the benefits of the accountable marketing world. 

So why is this all happening and what are the implications?

From the work we do with clients, one of the main reasons for this malaise is that, while buyers no longer buy linearly, many B2B firms continue to be set up for a ‘first marketing, then sales’ world.

Sales today is just one channel to customers and probably not even the most important one.  Gartner reckons that only 17% of a prospect’s time is spent interacting directly with sales reps. That’s not 17% with each vendor; it’s 17% of all the time they spend in research regardless of how many vendors are in the process. You may be running the linear marketing and sales relay race but your prospects are competing in a completely different team sport altogether. Closer to a rowing eight, pulling and applying the power together when necessary to win.

Buyers have become channel agnostic. They use all of them – web, paid, social, reps, third parties, email – simultaneously and expect you to be able to orchestrate that effectively. While everyone has become familiar with all the disciplines and tech that make up the modern marketing department, they’ve found it hard to transition towards managing today’s multi-channel information orchestration challenge. (Many have also failed to realize the implications of that for their SEO efforts too, and we’ll write about that in a later article in this series).

Most marketing teams are still siloed, often around disciplines, and produce siloed data that’s hard to connect to other data sources and glean insight from. Marketing teams do not map to modern customer journeys or the number of people that take different roles across problem identification, solution evaluation, from requirements building and selection, from negotiation to post sale value creation.

Relay raceRowing race
Linear, sequential, single channel, inbound-centricSynchronized and simultaneous across every digital and non-digital channel
Focussed on marketing to peopleMarketing to people and accounts
Short-term isolated campaign view to generate leadsLong-term demand gen focus
Noise drowns out data insightConnected data
Obsession with recruiting new logosRecruit new and nurture existing customers

According to Forbes, tech CMO turnover rates are higher than in any other industry: a CMO in a tech firm is lucky if they last longer than two years in the job. In lots of firms the C-Suite is increasingly disillusioned about the performance of their marketing teams. While marketing is telling the rest of the team it needs a seat at the top table because it’s the company’s growth engine, everyone else is talking about them behind their backs. Increasingly, marketing is seen as a department that promises and costs a lot but nearly always under-delivers.

The new B2B marketing malaise

Marketing departments and their leaders need to shift from their linear, relay race mindset or CMOs will continue to get fired, pipelines will continue to erode and customers will look elsewhere for solutions.

We believe that marketing departments need to think about the B2B opportunity as less like a relay race and more like being in a rowing eight: where sales and marketing really work together rather than roll their eyes once they’ve passed each other in the corridor; and where teams stop making individual channel and marketing disciplines their key KPIs. One reason this is so hard to do is that platform and data complexity gets in the way. Orchestration of different data sets is tough and getting insight isn’t easy. This excuse is weak. At Velocity, we’ve developed a blueprint process that helps clients make the transition to rowing – and we’ll expose that blueprint process in the next few articles in this series.  

The focus for our blueprint process are what we call ambitious, middle-sized tech firms struggling with the pipeline challenge. In the series, we’ll show you how to:

  • Map your marketing data to today’s B2B customer journeys. That involves embracing new KPIs and better channel orchestration.
  • Use SEO to drive down paid costs and turn organic into a demand gen powerhouse.
  • Understand how to use strategy and brand to drive marketing performance.
  • Deploy AI to orchestrate all your channels simultaneously.

Read the next article in this series is called ‘The Universal Digital Marketing Audit‘. In it, we’ll show you how to navigate the evolving landscape of B2B marketing, starting with a thorough audit process. This is the first stage of Velocity blueprints, our strategic go-to-market guidebooks.

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