The Future of B2B Marketing

Marketing is a bit of a two-speed profession. In the fast lane, new technologies, tactics and platforms hurtle into view at bewildering pace. In the cruising lane, marketing pillars like product, price, distribution and promotion remain constant as strategy focuses on segmenting markets, positioning brands and developing propositions.

Most predictions about the future of marketing tend to be wide of the mark because the people making them are stuck in the fast lane. Their attention is almost entirely focused on the things that are changing, and they’ve got no time to glance over their shoulder and take note of the things that aren’t. However, it’s equally possible to misjudge the short and medium-term future of marketing from the cruising lane. Genuine changes to the way people prioritize their lives, value products and think about buying choices do matter. The way that you apply the fundamentals of marketing strategy has to adjust to take account of them – and the way that you execute these through marketing tactics certainly does. When it comes to B2B content marketing, we don’t evolve our thinking as much as we should.

What’s wrong with the view from the fast lane

In the fast lane, the future of marketing discussion becomes an exercise in cramming as many shiny or scary disruptive technologies as possible into one coherent narrative. We’re told that marketing five or even two years from now will be unrecognizable from marketing today: audiences won’t make buying choices anymore because they’ll be trusting to Artificial Intelligence (AI) to organize their lives for them; they won’t read anything anymore because the world will be run by voice; their attention spans will have shrunk to the point where brand videos will only be viewed for a maximum of six seconds – unless they are created in VR when people will immerse themselves in experiences for hours on end. TV won’t exist, reaching audiences at scale will be a pipe dream, and almost every aspect of marketing from media planning to developing creative will be run by AI, because it’s the only way of keeping up with the complex, new, fragmented world that we’re predicting.

Needless to say, a lot of these predictions don’t stand up well to any kind of scrutiny; sometimes because they are making big assumptions on the basis of very small data sets, and sometimes because they’re based on myths that feel like they ought to be true but actually have no evidence behind them. The Goldfish Attention Span myth that causes marketers to obsess unnecessarily about shorter and shorter formats is one example. The claim that AI and virtual digital assistants will automate lots of people’s buying choices might well be another. Research out this month showed that only 2% of Amazon Echo owners have asked Alexa to buy something for them.

The ‘Everything must go’ fast-lane logic applies as much to discussions about the future of B2B marketing as it does to B2C. The difference is that we’re often making predictions based on changes that aren’t even happening in the B2B space. Will the way that people choose TV shows on Netflix really influence the way they research enterprise-level IT solutions? Are buyers going to start asking technologies like Google Duplex to make calls and vet their potential suppliers? A lot of the discussion assumes that any change in the consumer space must bring instant disruption to B2B marketing as well – often without any evidence to back that assumption up.

What’s wrong with the view from the cruising lane

However, the fact that we often overestimate the rate of change doesn’t mean that change isn’t happening or that it doesn’t include fundamental shifts. B2B marketing will change in the next five years – in fact, it will change in the next two. By 2020, we’ll need to have adapted our approach to accommodate new expectations from both our businesses and our potential customers. We will need to have adopted new creative formats in order to maintain engagement with our audiences. We’ll need to have improved our approach to metrics and measurement, and we’ll need to get a handle on how AI and voice search are changing the buyer journey and our role within it. However, we can only do this effectively if we step out of the fast lane, avoid the distractions of tech companies and thought leaders pushing particular agendas, and try to take a holistic and pragmatic view.

The real future of marketing – and what to do about it

It’s within the power, learning potential and current skills of most B2B marketers to navigate the changes coming our way. You don’t need to reinvent yourself or take a year’s intensive training sabbatical. If you’re trained in marketing you have the strategic foundation you need. If you’re curious about technology and new creative opportunities then you’ll have a natural appetite for exploring the most accessible and valuable options out there. The key is staying focused on the change that’s actually happening and the practical, actionable ideas that will enable you to respond to it.

Here’s my take on the eight changes that will genuinely reshape the B2B marketing landscape over the next two to five years – and the steps that B2B marketers can take, in order to respond. These changes aren’t disruptive in the way that fast-lane marketers usually mean when using the term. They won’t sweep away entire ways of doing things and replace them with something else. They are subtle developments from where we are today – but they are no less significant for that. Respond to them with curiosity and confidence, and you’ll be well-placed to navigate the future of B2B marketing that we can most sensibly predict:

Want to influence the B2B buyer journey? You’ll need personalized content and original data

58% of B2B buyers say the length of their buying cycle has increased

Source: Demand Gen Report 2017 B2B Buyers Survey

49% of B2B buyers say they rely more on content to guide their decisions than they did a year ago

Source: Demand Gen Report 2018 B2B Content Preferences Survey

48% of decision-makers have awarded business to a supplier as a direct result of thought-leadership

Source: LinkedIn sponsored research, 2017

We’re used to hearing that B2C buying journeys are becoming ever shorter, more automated and more passive as consumers accept recommendations from AI-driven virtual assistants who compile options and potentially even make purchases on their behalf. However, all available data shows that something very different is happening in B2B. Buying journeys are becoming longer, with greater consideration and greater scrutiny of content during that time.

The future of the B2B buying journey isn’t going to exclude marketers from influencing the decision-making process. However, it will raise the standard and expectations when they do engage buyers. We know that personalization and relevance are vital for content engagement in B2B, with 63% of decision makers defining thought-leadership content as valuable if it relates directly to a topic they are currently working on. The latest B2B Buyer Content Preferences Survey from Demand Gen Report shows buyers consuming three or more relevant pieces of content before talking to a salesperson, and paying closer attention to the value and credibility of that content than ever before. In particular, 75% of buyers want more original data in B2B content and 62% want more insights from thought-leaders and analysts.

How will B2B marketers respond? By continuing to shift the balance between working and non-working spend for content marketing, to ensure that they are investing in content with real value. They also need to use all of the tools available to them to signal the value of that content: experimenting with new formats but also testing the value of older ones, testing different approaches to personalization and targeting, and using AI where relevant (and practical) to help do these things more efficiently.

Almost every B2B marketer will use AI to predict, test and optimize – even if they don’t realize it

Only 15% of organizations are currently using AI – but 31% say they plan to invest in it over the next 12 months

Source: Adobe Digital Trends, February 2018

72% of business executives believe that AI will be the business advantage of the future

Source: PwC, Consumer Intelligence Series, April 2017

70% of business executives believe that AI can increase efficiencies through automated communications and alerts to enable more proactive approaches

Source: PwC, Consumer Intelligence Series, April 2017

The C-suite has big expectations around driving growth through AI and that means a lot of pressure falling on marketing teams to find applications of the technology that can lead directly to increased revenues. For enterprise-level businesses, this might include building bespoke AI systems that can inform everything from segmentation to value propositions, predicting which audiences they should be targeting and when and how they should be targeting them. However, investing in your own AI platform won’t be the only way to gain competitive advantage through the technology. Working with technology and media partners will provide a more accessible route to making the most of the capabilities AI currently has.

Despite the impression given by deep-learning language-processing systems like Google Duplex, AI is not capable of empathy. Its creative judgment doesn’t match that of human beings, and it can’t match humans’ instinctive understanding of audiences’ needs and motivations either. Trying to build AIs that can take the place of human marketers in planning and applying strategy is likely to prove a very inefficient use of resources. But leveraging AI’s predictive capabilities to take testing and optimization to the next level will prove invaluable. IBM is already making off-the-shelf AI testing solutions available to marketers. Smart social media platforms will use similar tools to help marketers engage their audiences as well, including tools that can multiply the value of the data that businesses own by using them as the basis of AI-driven targeting. I believe we’ll see a democratization of the use of AI in marketing over the next couple of years as businesses demystify it and get a far clearer sense of what its best use-cases are.

We’ll need a new balance between demand generation, lead generation and account-based marketing (ABM)

70% of B2B marketers say that demand generation budgets are increasing

Source: Demand Gen Report, 2018 Benchmark Survey

93% of B2B marketers say ABM is ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ important to their organization’s success

Source: SiriusDecisions, 2017 State of ABM

B2B marketers have often been guilty of mixing up demand generation and lead generation – and up to now they haven’t had a decent excuse for doing so. When B2B marketing prioritizes capturing contact details to pass onto sales, it’s generating leads; when it prioritizes maximizing the reach and engagement around content, it’s generating demand. This distinction makes a lot of sense because gating content, and asking people to share details to access it, has inevitably compromised the overall reach and engagement that it achieves.

Things are changing though – and the rate of change is likely to increase over the next two years. Innovations like LinkedIn Lead Gen Forms are stripping friction out of the lead generation process. They are also helping to erode the idea that you need time to convince a buyer of the value you have to offer, before expecting them to willingly share their details with you. Lead generation can happen at any stage of the process of building demand. In fact, as Account-Based Marketing (ABM) takes on a wider role for many B2B businesses, there’s less need and less need for those involved in buying decisions to ‘become’ leads in the traditional sense. Integrated sales and marketing organizations are already aware of them, monitoring their engagement levels, and in many cases, reaching out directly. In this context, the old metrics of Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs) and Sales Accepted Leads (SALs) become far less relevant.

However, just because the old distinctions between lead generation and demand generation are fading away doesn’t mean that marketers can afford to treat these two areas as one and the same. There is still room in B2B marketing strategy for distinguishing between activity focused on raising awareness and encouraging consideration, and activity that’s specifically designed to bring about an introduction to sales. Smart B2B marketers will use different targeting, buying and creative strategies for these two very different objectives.

Sales and marketing alignment will become sales and marketing integration

74% of businesses say they are making some progress on sales and marketing alignment

58% of marketers say sales and marketing alignment improves customer retention

54% say that it boosts financial performance

Source: LinkedIn, The Power Couple: How sales and marketing alignment makes your business unstoppable

There’s never been more awareness of the importance of sales and marketing alignment and the business benefits that flow from it. Research from LinkedIn a year ago showed how businesses reported higher customer retention levels and improved financial performance as a result of taking practical steps to align the two teams. These businesses were likely to have shared objectives and KPIs for sales and marketing, good customer insights and understanding, clear accountability and workflow and a schedule of regular team meetings.

After talking about it for years, businesses are definitely making more tangible progress in bringing sales and marketing closer together and building a shared view of the customer journey. Fast-forward a few years though, and this will all look like table stakes. The sales and marketing conversation is moving fast, powered by the new type of relationship that results from working together on successful ABM programs. A personalized approach to delivering content to prospects means that we’ll focus less on handing over buckets of aggregated leads and more on using marketing and social selling in tandem to move people through the funnel. This will be supported by shared metrics and objectives that involve marketing paying closer attention to sales outcomes – and sales having full confidence in the value that marketing engagement represents. Sales and marketing operations will become increasingly integrated. Competitive advantage will come from investing in shared platforms – and building a shared culture between the two teams.

B2B marketing metrics will be more directly correlated with revenue

59% of B2B marketers say that the way they measure marketing performance needs improvement

48% say they struggle to track marketing’s impact between buyer stages

20% currently measure ABM

48% plan to do so in the next 12 months

Source: Demand Gen Report, 2018 Marketing Measurement and Attribution Survey

Closer integration between sales and marketing will shape the development of B2B marketing metrics as well. In a Demand Gen Report survey this year, 38% of B2B marketers said that sales and marketing alignment was leading them to focus on deeper metrics beyond MQLs and closed/won deals. And there’s a lot of room for improvement. In the same survey, 48% of B2B marketers say they are currently struggling to track the impact of their marketing from one stage of the funnel to the next, 45% aren’t measuring marketing in the middle of the funnel, and 70% do no attribution analysis at all. Our ability to join these dots will improve significantly over the next few years, and that could have a significant impact on B2B marketing as a whole.

The drivers of change in B2B marketing metrics are already assembled: ABM proves to businesses that they can track the impact of engagement with marketing all the way through to conversion, and in a way that both sales and marketing can buy into. New tools such as Conversion Tracking and Matched Audiences on LinkedIn will provide the means to apply these same standards across other areas of demand generation and brand awareness building.

In my view, the net result of this won’t be a profusion of more complex marketing metrics – but agreement on the real value of a few key measures. This might include some that have been written off as ‘vanity metrics’ up to now, but which will acquire new significance and credibility once B2B marketers get better at tracking impact through different stages of the funnel. Don’t be confused by all the waterfall diagrams. B2B metrics get really exciting when we can build our marketing strategy around simple measures of engagement that we can be confident correlate with business success.

Voice search and virtual digital assistants will reshape SEO and content strategy

50% of all searches will be voice searches by 2020

Source: ComScore

16% of Americans now own a smart speaker

Source: NPR and Edison Research

Siri has 500 million active users, Google Assistant runs on 400 million devices, and 150 million people use Microsoft Cortana

Sources: Apple, Google, Microsoft

ComScore predicts that 50% of all searches will be voice searches by 2020, as consumers and B2B buyers increasingly turn to virtual digital assistants to help navigate what they need. There have been some wild predictions about how talking to a smart speaker, smartphone or PC will quickly automate buying decisions, removing the consideration phase altogether and encouraging people to simply go with what their AI assistant recommends. In fact, recent research suggests most people aren’t asking digital assistants to make any purchases at all for them. The real impact that voice search will have on the buying journey is likely to be more subtle. It will change the nature of search queries, change the types of content that search algorithms push up their results listings, and change the way that audiences engage with that content.

Voice search queries tend to be significantly longer and more specific than queries typed into a search engine. If you’re a B2B marketer looking to build the visibility and authority of your content that means you’ll need to go deep – producing authoritative answers to specific questions that can provide the detail to match these increasingly detailed requests. Snackable topline summaries of an issue are far less likely to deliver the specificity that voice search queries demand.

The format of the content will matter too. It will be a mistake to assume that, just because people are speaking to search engines, they want to be spoken back to in response. Most voice searches still take place on devices with screens attached (smartphones and PCs), and as smart speakers are integrated with connected TVs, they will increasingly display relevant information on even larger screens. However, audio content will definitely increase in value – not least because the algorithms running virtual digital assistants are likely to prioritize a seamless experience for their users when they can. B2B buyers are already signaling that marketers should pay more attention to audio formats like podcasts, described by 64% of buyers as a valuable content format in the upper stages of the funnel, and webinars, described as the most valuable form of content by 48% of buyers in the consideration phase. The visibility and influence of these content formats will only grow in a voice search world.

We’ll stop obsessing about video formats – and create better video content instead

86% of professionals say they are more likely to watch video that’s relevant to their job

75% say they are more likely to watch video that references their specific industry

86% of C-suites are happy to watch video between 30 seconds and two minutes long

Source: LinkedIn, The Science of Breakthrough B2B Video, 2018

You only have to glance at your LinkedIn feed to realize that the last 6 months have seen a rapid pivot to video in B2B marketing. Over the next two years, we’ll see a rapid evolution in B2B video marketing strategies as our thinking about this form of content catches up with the amount of video that we’re producing.

Up to now, much of the conversation around video marketing has been dominated by formats: do branded videos need to be 6 seconds, 15 seconds or longer? Should they be vertical or horizontal? Does video need to be streamed live to be engaging? Do you need a VR or 360 video strategy? These are symptoms of the point that we’ve reached in the lifecycle of video content. There’s a lot of it competing for audiences’ attention and marketers are desperately seeking magic formats that can cut through and provide a shortcut to engagement.

This conversation will move on quickly. The fact is that no video format matches the importance of video quality in driving engagement. Length matters far less than how relevant and engaging the content is. The question of whether someone has to rotate their smartphone for the best viewing experience can’t hold a candle to picture quality and tight editing when it comes to how likely people are to engage. And building a brand around thought-leadership video content fuels standout and credibility far more effectively than streaming live.

Formats won’t give you the shortcut to video engagement – but mastery of the basics of storyboarding, editing and earning sustained attention through value will. Producing standout video content requires resources – but above all, it requires time and commitment. Marketers have come to realize the importance of investing in quality when it comes to written blog posts. We’ll get to the same realization very quickly when it comes to B2B video content.

Marketers will have time to learn new skills incrementally

No discussion of the future of marketing would be complete without some angst about how marketers’ existing skillset will become rapidly redundant, and we’ll need to quickly retrain as AI experts, data scientists or VR production experts to survive. That’s the conclusion that people jump to after they’ve been listening to the ‘fast-lane’ style of commentary on marketing’s future, where formats are declared dead on a regular basis and anybody over the age of 40 is already past their sell-by date for contributing to marketing strategy.

The real future of marketing, though, is more about incremental change than revolution. It’s best navigated not by discarding the skills that you have but by adding to them and applying them in different ways. As a smart B2B marketer, you’ll be perfectly capable of using the AI tools that are increasingly available to plan, target and optimize campaigns. As a visual marketer, you’ll be able to train your creative curiosity on how to make consistently engaging video content, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll enjoy taking advantage of the growing range of editing platforms and tools to produce quality B2B video content by yourself, in-house. If you can write informative and engaging blog posts, then you can host informative and engaging podcasts and webinars, or write great, tight scripts for 3-minute video explorations of very specific topics. And as an emotionally intelligent, intuitive person who can build great working relationships across teams, you’ll be ideally suited to the rapid integration of sales and marketing teams.

The future of B2B marketing is simpler than we often make out – and it’s far more exciting as a result. It will require you to change, learn and develop – but only in ways that you’re more than capable of. Here’s to embracing that future over the next few years.