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Mastering B2B marketing: 5 key takeaways from #BMA16

#B2B, #Conferences, #Innovation

For me, each spring, there are three telltale signs that summer is just around the corner: my kids start summer sports, I’m able to hit the trails on my mountain bike and, being a bona fide B2B marketing geek, I get excited about the opportunity to meet with fellow B2B marketers from all over the world at BMA, the Business Marketing Association’s (BMA) annual conference in Chicago.

Granted, the first two signs of summer may not be of interest to you, but the third certainly will be—guaranteed. Last week, along with Richard Hill (@RHsays), Quarry’s Managing Director, Demand Generation and Meredith Fuller, Managing Director, Buyer Engagement—plus 700+ other B2B marketers—I immersed myself in three days of insightful presentations, ideas and content at BMA16. Here are our top five takeaways from this year’s “Masters of B2B Marketing”-themed event.

1. Surprise! “Branding matters in B2B – even more than in B2C” [Tweet this]

A controversial statement, but Russell Findlay, Chief Marketing Officer for Hiscox (@Hiscox_USA), is bang on with this declaration. Branding is incredibly important in B2B.

Brands exist for many reasons, but one of the primary reasons is to offset the risk associated with the purchase decision. Strong brands stand as a sign of a credible, trustworthy, and experienced company from which buyers can purchase with confidence. In other words, buying from a strong brand reduces the risk of making a poor choice.

…a strong brand in B2B marketing goes well beyond just being something that encourages customer affinity.

So, ask yourself: how do risk levels compare in B2C versus B2B markets? When a buyer makes a typical B2B purchase decision, that choice—relative to a typical consumer purchase decision—involves:

  • Greater spend
  • Longer-term commitment
  • Greater reputational risk
  • Higher complexity
  • More viewpoints to consider
  • A larger number of alternatives

In these situations, buying from a well-known, credible company that’s trusted by others goes a long way to reducing the risk of making a poor purchase choice. So, it stands to reason that those companies that establish strong brands in the B2B space—where risk can be incredibly high—will be the ones that receive greater affinity from potential buyers. (As a proof point, you might remember the old adage: “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.”)

That said, as Aon’s Andrew Miller (@millerandrewh), VP, Global Corporate Marketing shared, the value of a strong brand in B2B marketing goes well beyond just being something that encourages customer affinity. Other compelling benefits include the brand’s ability to attract high-quality employees, the opportunity to charge a price premium over competitors, the attraction that a strong brand creates for vendors to want to do business with you and the stickiness that a brand can create with customers.

2. Great B2B marketing demands insight to be human-centric, yet most B2B marketers don’t get this [Tweet this]

This takeaway really gets me fired up—particularly because I made this observation to my colleagues back in 2014 after my first BMA conference. And, based on a study of B2B marketers that was shared by the ANA at BMA16, nothing has really changed. Only 10% of B2B marketers believe they’re effective at using customer insights to improve performance. Only 13% firmly believe they understand decision journeys of their customers. Nearly half of marketers cannot measure critical stages of the buying journey. Yikes!

Robert Tas (@TasRobert), CMO of Pegasystems referred to another study of B2B marketers that showed that while 67% of marketers felt they understood their customer needs, only 20% of those customers agreed with the marketers’ self-assessment!

Let’s go beyond Voice of Customer. Let’s get to Mind of Customer.

From our vantage point at Quarry, B2B marketers as an overall group still do not fully appreciate the value of moving beyond ‘Voice of Customer’ (VOC) research to achieve deep customer understanding. VOC research deals in asking your customers to tell you things about your company. It doesn’t reveal deeper insights about who they are, what matters to them and what motivates them, nor does it even remotely provide the opportunity to discover unmet needs that could fuel innovation for your business. Let’s go beyond Voice of Customer. Let’s get to Mind of Customer.

Great B2B marketing and the delivery of exceptional customers experiences use insight as their fuel source. It’s the foundation for creating brand experiences that connect with human beings. Brands that are using insight well—like General Electric and Merck—leverage it to drive what Linda Boff (@LindaBoff), GE’s CMO, calls “human-centered marketing.”

Human-centric marketers seek first to understand their customers’ context and the problems those customers are seeking to solve. Then, they position their brands in a manner that articulates a Unique Buying Proposition® (note I didn’t say Unique Selling Proposition) and leverage the proven approach of storytelling to create compelling narratives that lead to their products, not lead with their products.

As Steve Liguouri (@stephenliguori), long-time GE innovation executive and now head of Liguori Innovation succinctly put it: help your customers. If you understand what they’re trying to accomplish and help them do it, you’ll build goodwill for your brand and create affinity that, ultimately, will translate to driving revenue growth. How do you get to that understanding? You need what we at Quarry call ‘innovation insight’.

The notion of human-centric marketing arose numerous times at the conference. Here are several comments on the topic:

  • “Transform and use technology to become more human…elevate your customer interactions” @LABrunner
  • “Marketing needs to be human-centric, even with all the available technology. Tech needs to enable our experiences with clients” @tasrobert
  • “Digital transformation starts and ends with the customer” @anavillegas

3. Differentiating your brand today requires introducing an unexpected need that disrupts the status quo [Tweet this]

For a long time, the basis of competitive positioning in B2B marketing was features and benefits. And it still is. With few exceptions, B2B brands focus on highlighting how their products or services outpace the competition on the key features and functionality that customers say they want.

However, in an engaging joint presentation by Tim Riesterer (@TRiesterer), Chief Strategy Officer, Corporate Visions, and Juan Corsillo, Former VP, Sales and Marketing, for United Rentals (@United_Rentals), we heard research that shows that not only is the features/benefits approach not working for beating the competition, it’s not working against an even tougher foe: the status quo.

…B2B marketers aren’t giving their customers sufficient reason to be dissatisfied with the status quo.

We heard that 60% of B2B purchase journeys result in the company sticking with the status quo, rather than making any new purchase. The problem is that B2B marketers aren’t giving their customers sufficient reason to be dissatisfied with the status quo . The most effective way to differentiate your brand in the context of both competitive forces and the status quo is to introduce an insight about your buyers’ business that they didn’t know, but which has the potential to unlock value for them and leads to you as the supplier of the solution.

Now, if you’ve read or heard about CEB’s The Challenger Customer, you’ll no doubt recognize that Riesterer’s ideas share a similar DNA with CEB’s concepts. What Riesterer and Corsillo did, though, is share a simplified yet compelling way to understand and activate this approach. Then, they told a powerful story of how the approach was applied to help United Rentals create significant value for its customers, thereby improving the stickiness of relationships with those customers and driving consistent revenue growth over the long term.

And, lest anyone worries that taking this approach might create a situation where customers are made to feel stupid, Reisterer assured the audience that that rarely happens. In fact, done well, this approach leads buyers to feel smarter for having met you and discovering your offer.

4. Marketers need to focus on what makes an impact—and stop trying to ‘do it all’ [Tweet this]

My strategy management professor at business school had a favorite saying: “Focus! Focus! Focus!” This was a common theme across several presentations at BMA, and it’s advice we all need to heed. The job of marketers has become increasingly complex; there’s no denying this fact as you consider even just the ever-expanding suite of marketing technology and social media channels that marketers need to stay aware of. So, what are marketers to do?

Stop doing what your boss wants and start doing what your buyers want!

Michael Brenner, CEO of @MKTGInsiders, advocates for greater awareness of what makes an impact on driving revenue—and doing only those things. He offered a useful piece of advice that applies to all marketing activities and which received a lot of laughs as well: “Stop doing what your boss wants and start doing what your buyers want !”

Robert Rose (@Robert_Rose), Chief Strategy Officer at Content Marketing Institute (CMI), shared an eye-opening anecdote on this point as well. He told of one client that had over 2,400 white papers on its website. When they conducted an analysis to see which white papers were garnering attention and driving leads, only four of the 2,400 were actually getting traffic! The point? A key way to reduce complexity is to focus on quality, not quantity. Stop practicing ‘random acts of content’ and instead, build content assets with a strategic, overarching experience in mind.

Several other comments on this topic included:

  • “In our norm of uncertain & changing times, marketers must design for velocity, not perfection” @bottomlinemr
  • “Content marketing is a business activity performed by marketers. If you look at it like that, you can drive value” @Robert_Rose
  • “Content marketing needs to be part of a cohesive program. Not a pile of disconnected assets” @SFBizCoach

5. Account-based marketing offers huge potential for marketers to drive growth [Tweet this]

Driving growth was a key theme at BMA16, and one of the most compelling presentations on this theme was delivered by Peter Isaacson (@peisaacson), CMO of DemandBase, and Sydney Sloan (@sydsloan), CMO of Alfresco Software, on the topic of Account-based Marketing (ABM). They said that ABM is nothing new, but what is new is the ability to do it at scale.

…ABM is nothing new, but what is new is the ability to do it at scale.

If B2B marketers heed the advice to focus on what makes an impact, then certainly ABM needs to be an approach that gets ample attention. ABM today goes well beyond just identifying key accounts in relevant industry verticals and geographic regions. A smart ABM strategy leverages a combination of predictive analytics, intent data and specific buyer profiling to provide a powerful resource for getting marketing and sales activities much better aligned. The outcome: marketing and sales teams work collaboratively to close more deals.

If you want to hear more about what a savvy ABM approach looks like, my colleague Meredith Fuller just published an article in B2B News Network that argues that ABM holds the potential to bring marketing and sales back into strong alignment and unlock significant value by doing so.

It’s a great time to be a B2B marketer

BMA16 proved—like the last two I attended—to be an engaging experience that highlights the value B2B marketers can produce for their organizations. With the discipline gaining increased credibility and influence in the C-suite, and increasingly drawing in some of the world’s best marketing minds and practitioners, it’s a great time to be a B2B marketer.

Yet, while the rewards for those who can do B2B marketing well are clear, so is the challenge. The B2B marketer’s job continues to increase in complexity, and we’re simultaneously being asked to do more with less. How do we thrive? Focus is required. Effective brand building is a must. And deep customer understanding and human-centered storytelling are keys. If you’re seeking to master B2B marketing and need help on that journey, reach out to Richard Hill and start the conversation.

Here’s looking forward to another year of driving revenue and catching up at BMA17 to share results.

P.S. To get a recap of 10 of the hottest talks from BMA16, download our Keynote Inks. Hand drawn in real-time as presentations unfold, each Keynote Ink condenses speakers’ ideas and energy into one fantastic visual summary.