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Where B2B marketing is going: 5 top takeaways from #BMA14

#B2B, #BrandStorytelling, #BuyerInsight, #Conferences, #Forecast, #Strategy

Last week, Tony Mohr and I joined 1000+ fellow B2B marketers from all over the world at BMA14, the Business Marketing Association’s (BMA) annual conference in Chicago, to explore “where B2B’s going.” Seventy nine speakers and three days of great (non-stop!) content later, here are our 5 top takeaways:

BMA14 promotional image

1. B2B needs to be human to human

The call to “humanize” B2B marketing—to go to market in ways that create more emotional, human connections with buyers—was a strong theme throughout the conference. So how can B2B brands create emotional connections? “Tell great stories” (urged Jonah Sachs, author of Winning the Story Wars) that “inform, inspire and entertain” (added Google’s Mike Miller). And remember, your brand or product is not the hero.

Here’s a few memorable moments on this topic:

  • Remember, you’re not the hero. Your audience is.@jonahsachs
  • You can’t sell anything, if you can’t tell anything.@bethcomstock
  • Forget Unique Selling Proposition. B2B brands need to understand and articulate their Unique Buying Proposition.@RHsays
  • Connecting via emotion is 2x more impactful than connecting via business values.@HeatherT_HBC

2. B2B needs more insight (not more data)

Big data has been a hot theme for several years. So, not surprisingly, there was tons of talk about it (so much, in fact, that one attendee proposed a drinking game!) Clearly, there are sound arguments and good reasons for marketers to leverage data, embrace accountability, show measured results and elevate the profession’s reputation so it achieves equal credibility to finance and sales among CEOs. Yet, we couldn’t escape the feeling that amidst the dozens of references to big data—and particularly the new term ‘data lake’—marketers are actually drowning in too much data.

Marketers don’t need more data. What they need is more insight—specifically, actionable insights so they can engage customers in relevant and emotionally resonant ways. Data (especially quantitative data) is not insight. On its own, data doesn’t tell you what you need to know. Savvy marketers collect both qualitative and quantitative data. They talk to their customers in order to develop insights into what really motivates them, use quantitative data to assess relative importance and distribution of those insights, and then build marketing messages, content, experiences and stories based on a deep understanding of which insights are truly transformative.

Some of our favorite quotes from the stage and floor:

  • Get up from behind your desk and meet your customer. If you don’t, you’ll never get beyond data to insight.@jaybaer
  • Effective marketing insights lead to choosing you over the competition. Ask: what is ownable for your brand?@brentadamson
  • Thinking “big data” needs to be re-branded…it’s about insight & decisions, not data.@Bill_Morrison
  • You need to have actionable insights to be able to effectively differentiate. Onsite = Insight.@tonymohr

3. B2B is about employee engagement too

At first glance, it might seem surprising to see not just one, but at least three, presentations explicitly focused on the importance of engaging employees, but with one factoid in-hand, the rationale for this amount of emphasis becomes immediately obvious. Betsy Henning, CEO and Founder of AHA!, shared research proving companies can improve their business results by as much as 240% by engaging their employees. That same research showed engaged employees are 14x more likely to consider their jobs significant and meaningful. And, when they do, they’re much more effective in creating exceptional experiences for customers.

That’s why B2B is about employee engagement too. Your organization’s ability to deliver on its brand promises—to deliver exceptional, brand-building customer experiences—depends on the effectiveness of your marketing, operations, IT, HR, sales, finance and executive teams. Great companies engage their employees and their customers.

To get to engagement—as we wrote in a recent article, What’s the #1 Factor in Delivering Exceptional Customer Experiences?—marketers need to develop empathy. How do you achieve empathy? See #2 above (insight!).

Powerful quotes from the conference:

  • Marketers need to be great listeners to both employees AND customers.@betsy_henning
  • Brand is no longer just what you tell and message to customers. It’s also the experience & values you provide/reinforce with employees.@TonyMohr
  • A 1% increase in employee engagement drives a 0.6% increase in sales on average.@PhilClement84

4. B2B shouldn’t be boring

In fact, boring is dangerous. Why? Because business customers are consumers too. And they’ve upgraded their expectations of B2B brands based on their experiences with consumer brands. They want to be inspired and entertained (see takeaway #1), just like B2C marketing.

Here’s what others had to say:

  • Business marketing does not mean boring-to-boring.@bethcomstock
  • 73% of people who read corporate blogs are people!@timwasher
  • Content that’s only about your products and services isn’t Youtility, it’s a brochure.@jaybaer

5. B2B should market like it’s 2014

“Most business are not doing business as if it’s 2014,” said keynote speaker Gary Vaynerchuk. It’s true. Most B2B marketers still over-rely on traditional techniques and tactics. Approaches that may have worked in the past do not today. The way buyers buy has fundamentally changed, and with information at their fingertips, they’re now in control. In fact, B2B buyers now complete 57% of the buying process on their own before first connecting with sales. The bottom line is, the role of marketing—the jobs that organizations now require marketing to do—has changed, but many marketers have not. It’s time to embrace change. This means social. This means mobile. This means marketing automation. This means jumping in. Here’s a few of our favorite tweetable moments on this topic:

  • Change or feel the wrath of innovation. It doesn’t care about you.@JayBaer
  • Technology is changing the way customers interact and make decisions. As marketers we must adapt, or risk becoming irrelevant.” LinkedIn’s @NickBesbeas
  • Salespeople are being replaced by search engines and social networks. Buyers are having learning parties without you!@jill_rowley
  • Social media is a contact sport, and you won’t learn how to play the game if you’re sitting on the sidelines.@MargaretMolloy
  • Only 20% of CEOs feel B2B marketers are stepping up when it comes to marketing automation.@Tom_Stein

BMA14 was an exciting event to be a part of. It affirmed what an exciting time it is to be in B2B marketing. A time when the clock-speed of change requires us to be more nimble than ever before. A time when product differentiation alone is not enough. A time when deep customer insight can be a transformative brand advantage. If you recognize that status quo is no longer an option for your B2B brand, we’re ready to help.

So, where do you think B2B marketing is going?

Headline photo credit: “Link Bridge Pano” by David B. Gleason on Flickr (modified)