Welcome to the Age of Experience for B2B marketing

B2B content is no longer just about communicating information as efficiently as possible – audiences want a content experience that's relevant, emotive, and curated by trusted brands

April 26, 2018

Welcome to the Age of Experience for B2B marketing

At the start of this year, I read an inspiring short piece in Forbes by HP’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Antonio Lucio. He was talking about a fundamental shift that he predicted would dominate CMOs’ agendas in 2018.

Lucio predicted that, “2018 will be a breakthrough year for shifting from the boundless options and multiple devices of the ‘Information Age’ to the ‘Experience Age,’ where people crave meaningful experiences and a sense of wonder before they even ask.” He argued that the task for marketing is no longer just to deliver facts. It’s to curate experiences that are “personalised, human, delightful”, and which happen continuously, without the need to seek them out.

I think that most marketers reading what Lucio had to say would quickly assume he was talking about B2C marketing. He couldn’t possibly mean that B2B audiences prized delightful experiences over seeking out relevant facts, could he? After all, we know that the B2B buyer’s journey is getting longer and more complex. We know that the stakes are high. Surely those decision-makers aren’t interested in a “sense of wonder”? They can’t really prioritise experiences over information, can they?

I believe they can – and they do. Over the last few months, I’ve seen more and more evidence that Lucio’s ‘Age of Experience’ is dawning just as surely for B2B marketers as it is for those working in FMCG, luxury, auto or any other B2C sector. It’s the entire experience of thought leadership content that shapes buying decisions – and brands have a more active role to play in curating that experience than ever before. They must pay attention to how content arrives, where it comes from, the emotional experience that it delivers, and how closely that experience aligns with specific moments in their audience members’ lives.

Here is some of the data that suggests we’re entering an ‘Age of Experience’ for B2B marketing – and how marketers need to respond through the way that they plan, create and distribute relevant content:

The demand for intuitive relevance
When LinkedIn and Edelman asked business decision-makers why they engaged with thought-leadership content, 63% say they chose content that related to a topic they were working on right there and then. In the Demand Gen Report’s latest annual survey into B2B buyers’ content preferences, 88% said they wanted thought leadership content that explored the specific value drivers for their business. There’s a clear trend emerging here: B2B audiences want content that anticipates their very individual needs and interests at a particular point in time. They want thought leadership that answers questions before they’ve had to ask them. They want navigating the digital landscape and consuming the content they need to be a seamless experience, not a chore.

The use of brands as a filter
In his Forbes piece, Lucio predicts how “great brands place a mirror to our lives, making us feel like they know us – because they do.” He sees the ability to deliver personalised and relevant experiences as essential for building brand awareness in the digital age. If you’re not hyper-relevant, you’re not noticed.

Other marketing thinkers increasingly agree with this view. In Once Upon a Digital Time, the eBook that he recently wrote for LinkedIn, Brian Solis argues that deep audience understanding and relevance are essential for telling genuinely compelling stories at a time when (thanks to social media), everyone is a storyteller.

In a content-saturated world, people rely on trusted brands to deliver the experiences that interest them and add value to their lives. B2B buyers navigate their content feeds in the same way. More than three quarters (78%) of B2B buyers in the Demand Gen Report survey say they are paying more attention to whether content comes from a trustworthy source. B2B audiences see content as an experience in which they are choosing to invest their time and attention. The key to standing out is being the brand trusted to deliver that experience.

The rise of B2B video
More evidence of the increasingly experiential nature of B2B marketing is taking place in the LinkedIn feed, where we’ve seen brands generating big increases in engagement when they serve video to targeted audiences through Sponsored Content. Just over a quarter of B2B marketers say they will spend more than £300,000 on video advertising in 2018, and 62% describe video as the most important format they will use for content this year. Those marketers are responding to the fact that B2B audiences want more than relevant information; they want relevant experiences.

The stretching nature of human attention
The final proof that a B2B Age of Experience is more than just a theory comes from the depth and length of engagement that immersive content formats deliver. If B2B audiences were really only interested in accessing relevant information as efficiently as possible, they’d spend all their time scan-reading blog posts and case studies. Why then are podcasts now one of the most valued content formats in the early stages of the buying journey, according to Demand Gen Report? Why are webinars the content format that B2B buyers would most happily trade their contact information for?

It’s a myth that the role of B2B content should be to take up as little of an audience’s limited attention as possible. Podcasts and webinars are not particularly efficient ways of finding things out – but that’s not the point. They deliver relevant, value-adding and immersive content experiences, bringing together different perspectives with humour, personality and more. They create a sense of shared experience, of community and of common challenges and opportunities. That’s why audiences respond to them so strongly.

As Oath’s digital prophet Dave Shing argues, a great brand can get a message across in a six-second video – but a great brand doesn’t have to, because it’s also capable of creating experiences that audiences will happily engage with for far longer. That’s what B2B marketers should be aiming for in the new Age of Experience.