August 9, 2022

The future of B2B marketing in 2023 and beyond

by Renegade01

Intro: The State of Digital B2B Marketing

As of August 2021, The CMO Survey reported that most companies have moved past the nascent phase of digital marketing efforts. In 2020, 31.1% reported being in the early phases, and in 2021 that number dropped to 8.6%. 

These percentages highlight a critical point for businesses: if your company is only just getting started on optimizing your digital marketing, or is not devoting resources to keeping your marketing competitive, your company is falling behind. Rapidly. 

While these numbers indicate that most companies are already devoting time and resources to digital marketing, there are a few points along the journey that are often overlooked. 

No matter what B2B products or services you provide, your company has to understand how to effectively reach a relevant audience. That means conducting rigorous B2B market research, planning digital campaigns, and executing them. This basic template is a great place to start, but in practice, there are numerous subtleties that merit considerable planning and effort—nailing B2B marketing won’t be a walk in the park.

Luckily, our conversations with 100s of B2B CMOs in our CMO Huddles community have revealed how B2B brands can avoid and navigate these challenging areas. 

For this piece, we’ll assume your company has at least done some basic digital marketing planning. Perhaps you’ve consulted with a B2B marketing service provider, or you’ve hired and tasked a small team with figuring it out. Regardless, we’d like to highlight a few areas where marketing teams often get it wrong and help coach CMOs towards a more effective digital marketing machine.

Proper B2B Branding Starts With Executive Buy-In

Like every great company initiative, digital marketing (and, frankly, all marketing) needs to start with internal buy-in from relevant teams. While folks often underestimate how many relevant parties there are, it usually starts with the CEO. In a recent interview, David Friend, President & CEO of Wasabi, noted that CMOs should be simplifiers, and shift away from the technical perspective. This is in part because he believes collaboration with other departments gets complicated but is completely necessary. 

“The battle you’ve got with a CEO in many cases—especially a CEO who comes out of an engineering background—is: What appears simple to somebody like me is totally incomprehensible to a lot of other people. The advice I have for marketing people is constantly simplify, simplify, simplify. Then get your CEO to buy into a simple message.” 

So: in getting buy-in, CMOs and their teams should try imagining themselves as translators who hear the various motivations and goals of company functions, and then relay those to the target audience in simpler, more palatable fashions. Being able to share a simplified message based on collaboration with your CEO (and the rest of the C-Suite) is the best way to kick off digital marketing efforts with the support needed to succeed. But, shaping these digital marketing strategies and campaigns goes beyond the C-Suite.

In short, communicate effectively, early, and often with executive teams. That’ll secure buy-in, and help enrich marketing plans to better speak to overall company goals. Rana el Kaliouby, CEO of Affectiva, puts it well: “[My CMO and I] have this super open relationship, and that’s been really key. She is a thought partner… We both shared this mission of ‘where could this go?’ and a lot of core values.”

Market to your Employees Before Your Prospects

Buy-in may start with the C-Suite, but it needs to extend across the company. After all, the company is as defined by the various departments’ day-to-day operations as it is the executive decisions. Rana el Kaliouby notes the value of diversity here. Diversity of gender, ethnicity, race, and similar characteristics are crucial for making sure your marketing effectively speaks to everyone. Beyond that, diversity of background will help make sure any digital marketing materials going out can effectively speak to all potential customers; potential buying committees are rarely homogenous—your marketing should reflect that. This requires plenty of internal discussion with various company departments before moving forward with a marketing plan. 

Okay—it’s clear that collaboration is critical for internal buy-in, which then supports the quality of digital marketing efforts, but how do you get that internal buy-in effectively? This part incorporates as much art as science, so will depend on what your company culture is, what your employees are like, what your product is like, and a million other things. The best place to start, then, is simply by creating an infrastructure for conversations internally. At Altair, CMO Amy Messano oversaw a massive shift in how communications occurred internally:

“We surveyed every single employee. We had lengthy calls with groups of employees. We had one- and two-day workshops. We took the time to gather feedback across every function, doesn’t matter where you worked… We also talked to 800 customers… It was delightful.” 

SurveyMonkey, under then CMO Leela Srinivasan, took a similar approach to building up their brand and marketing efforts, using their own platform to gain employee feedback about various elements of the company. 

Internal buy-in comes down to knowing your company well and getting multiple departments involved in shaping the marketing. What better way to accomplish those goals than by asking the very employees that define the company?

Don’t Skimp On B2B Market Research

Forming and executing a digital marketing strategy without researching your audience is a bit like biking downhill with your eyes closed. There’s some chance you’ll get where you want to go—but more than likely you’ll hit some unseen speed bump and find yourself sitting still and sticking band-aid solutions everywhere. 

You’ve figured out what your brand is, and how it is perceived (at least internally). Now, you need to figure out who that connects with. You can start with a couple basic, guiding questions. Dawn Colossi, former CMO of FocusVision, a market research company, has some wisdom here: 

“First and foremost you need to understand: Who’s buying you? Whose problem are you trying to solve? What is that paying point and where is the budget coming from? You need to understand where the market’s going.”

In her interview, Dawn offers further advice on how to approach these. Surveys are the most prevalent methodology and are a great way to get started (if they work internally, they can work externally). But you’ve got to balance quantitative measurement with qualitative—consider trying to include questions that don’t have multiple choice, easy answers. The answers you do get, though they take more work to parse, will contain valuable thoughts that may inspire a big portion of your marketing (insights that simple numbers or ‘yes/no’ questions simply can’t capture). 

At FocusVision, Dawn made sure to include open-ended video questions in their surveys to gather genuine thoughts from respondents rather than just boiled-down bits of information. As Drew Neisser says: “When you do quantitative you try to find the averages as opposed to the outliers. I always look for the outliers.” 

To start out, have a few casual conversations with customers or prospects you are close with. Ask them how they’d prefer to be surveyed—this can help you formulate a winning strategy. Beyond that, plenty of B2B marketing firms offer B2B market research services to help companies navigate choices like selecting tools, identifying key demographics, and parsing the data into easily actionable insights.

B2B Tech Stacks Need Well-Coached Employees

Companies often go big on MarTech spending. That’s fine. Where they often go astray is spending too much without planning properly. It’s tempting to go for each and every shiny new piece of software, but without the staff to properly manage it, these tech overhauls will fall short. 

First, focus on the basics. Every B2B company should start with a CRM system. At minimum, CRMs will help you manage your database of prospects and customers. However, make sure you have enough staff, and invest in proper training—which is often conveniently offered by the tech providers. Before you consider your next tech investment, make sure the previous ones are properly staffed, and that the employees working with the systems aren’t facing any outstanding challenges. Bake staffing costs directly into your tech budget to make this easier. As Drew says in his recent book: “A CRM system works only if all leads are entered into the system. Email and other content-management systems work only if you invest in creating content and have individuals who can assess campaign results.”

Automation can be a misleading phrase. It isn’t as easy as a set-and-forget solution. While powerful, and extremely useful, these tech solutions require a lot of oversight from trained employees. 

Eric Eden, long-time CMO and now CRO at InGo, has a wealth of experience leading marketing teams through tech-heavy transitions. As he explains it, “The old IT adage was: for every dollar in license, it costs three dollars in staff time to implement it, and I found that that’s at least the case with these types of [MarTech] systems… Don’t be fooled when it’s called marketing automation, because you need a team who is there to configure it, to run it, to manage it.”

Eric also cautions against the unexpected reality of MarTech: “Instead of just sending people emails one at a time, you’re going to plan out the entire six months of emails they’re going to get. But guess what? To do that, you have to come up with six months of content and get everyone to understand what that is.”

Here’s a bonus tip from Mike McKinnon, VP of Worldwide Revenue Operations at LogRhythm: 

“Don’t let salespeople enter anyone into the database. In all the companies I’ve gone to, the marketing database is crystal clean compared to the rest of the company’s database—the larger the sales force, the larger that pool of data and dirtiness becomes. But the CMO is so focused on, ‘I need to be able to get ROI, I need to be able to look at my different channels and understand which ones are working and which aren’t. I can’t have just data entering the system willy nilly.’ One of the first things a CMO will do is say, ‘We need to put guardrails around all this data, because I need to understand ROI.’ By that very fact of the CMO having to prove their worth, they become the cleanest source of data.”

Bland Content Is Hurting B2B Brands

Given the range of content types out there and how they change based on company, industry, targets, it can be tough to prescribe a cure for weak content. It’s even hard to determine what weak content is—51% of B2B marketers believe they have well-informed insights, but lack measurement data demonstrating the ROI of their content marketing. Only 8% believed they did an excellent job of measuring ROI on their content marketing.

However, there are a few things we see quite often hurting content marketing efforts. First: prioritize quality, not quantity. Katrina Klier, CMO of PROS, says succinctly: “With content, in particular, more isn’t always better. Sometimes more is just more.” 

Focus your efforts first on creating substantive pieces of content. Large, well-researched pieces of content will give you much more than a series of short blog posts. Those are great, too—but should come after meatier pieces. In fact, shorter posts can be a great way to highlight certain parts of a larger piece. This setup can also allow you to drive people towards that large content through a smaller subject they are engaging with and will extend the lifespan of that long content.

Beyond that, don’t be generic. In creating content, you’ll want to look at similar posts out there. Google a few keywords and the subject you’re discussing, then see if you’re just being redundant or not. When you’ve got a greater sense of the content out there, you can adjust your own to provide a unique and actually insightful spin.

Lastly, remember that these are people reading your content. Have internal team members read through, and ask for their input. Great information can be presented in a boring fashion, and shallow pieces can be written flashily. You’ll want to land in the middle, with substantive information being presented in an interesting and personable writing style. Building a certain voice into your B2B branding can help inform this; in early planning sessions for what your brand (and thus, content) will look like, consider establishing brand guidelines both for visual design elements and writing style. For more on how to avoid the trap of just creating content pollution, you can hear more from Katrina in her recent interview.

Measuring What Matters: Blending B2B Data Metrics

Being rewarded purely for the number of leads generated may look nice for marketing, but can just result in more low-quality leads. Before you hit the gas pedal, make sure you have the conditions of success established and have considered the goals of multiple departments as well as the entire organization. It is rarely just “get leads” or “generate revenue,” and mentalities like those can be costly down the line. Collaborate to nail down your key measurements first and work towards those, rather than simply collecting every bit of data you can and then parsing.

One especially contentious metric is Net Promoter Score. NPS has long been identified as the only number needed to measure customer satisfaction. This may be true for some, but many CMOs have found it to be entirely insufficient (it often is). One key issue is that NPS measures stated intent, but not actions. How many times have you seen an email and said “I’ll get around to that,” only to have it fall by the wayside as more pressing matters emerge? That’s why stated intent on its own isn’t the strongest measurement. NPS has value, but don’t stop there. 

A great approach would be to create your own blended metric for customer satisfaction. Blending your metrics makes it easier to share data internally (a common complaint against CMOs is that they share too much data, and not just the data that matters), easier to get a holistic view of your customers, and easier to avoid the pitfalls of operating under purely NPS-driven assumptions. In his book, Drew shares a few examples of data points that can be used for these blended metrics. Take a look, see which strike you as important, and then weigh them against each other to have a single, valuable data point: 

  • Referrals: percentage of customers who provide referrals
  • References: percentage of customers who are willing to provide references
  • Case studies: percentage of customers who are willing to participate in case studies
  • Renewals: percentage of customers gained in one year that renewed the next
  • Upsells: percentage of customers who bought more of your services after one year
  • Training: percentage of customers who are certified on your software
  • Events: percentage of customers who attend your user conferences each year

Pick five of those, add the percentages, and then divide by five. That gives evenly weighted metrics, which you can adjust to better suit your priorities. Perhaps renewals are your focus, or upsells. Let the blended metric reflect that. 

P.S. MQLs are similarly misleading—an influx of marketing qualified leads means nothing if they aren’t accepted by sales, and can cause a big rift between two notoriously misaligned functions. The discussion rages on for this one, but a great place to start is with this interview on perfecting the CMO dashboard with Forrester’s Ross Graber.

Conclusion: B2B Marketing Is Worth Getting Right

Marketing is as much an art as it is a science. That makes it difficult to boil down into an easy, step-by-step guide. However, these have emerged in recent CMO discussions held by our CEO as common challenges and misconceptions tied to digital marketing efforts. Each company will need a slightly different approach based on a wide range of variables from product, to market, to company culture. Ensure you take enough time in planning, and pay special attention to the aforementioned areas, which are often handled hastily, and your digital marketing efforts will find a foothold.