What is B2B marketing?

Marketing is all about inspiring action. Your job is to communicate the value of your product or service in a way that motivates people to learn more, start a trial, or make a purchase. But exactly who those customers are can change what your marketing looks like — business-to-business (B2B) marketing requires a slightly different approach than business-to-consumer (B2C) marketing.

Business buyers tend to follow a longer and more complicated path to purchase than individual consumers. Research shows that the majority of organizations take at least three months to reach a purchase decision. Business buyers typically have to gather input from multiple people internally, consider factors such as integration and data security, and evaluate return on investment (ROI) for the purchase. As a B2B marketer, you need to know what this process looks like for your ideal customer and tailor your efforts to each phase of their buying journey.

Before you create your marketing plan, you need to understand the nuances of B2B marketing. That way, you can build a strategy that effectively reaches prospective customers on the right channels — with messaging that will resonate best.

The history of B2B marketing

Early B2B marketing was called "industrial marketing" up until the 1990s. It was driven primarily by sales teams. Few B2B organizations had marketing departments to generate leads and nurture prospects through the sales funnel. Instead, sales teams relied on cold calling, direct mail, trade shows, or advertising in trade publications to reach potential customers. They built personal relationships with prospects in order to influence them to buy.

In the 1990s, the proliferation of the internet altered the landscape. Businesses were able to reach prospective customers online — via advertising, email marketing, and other digital marketing tactics. But even with these new ways to reach customers, the long and complex sales process combined with a lack of advanced digital marketing tools meant that sales continued to serve a primary role in the buyer journey. The goal for B2B marketers at the time was to generate leads and refer prospects to the sales team. From there, sales would guide buyers through the rest of the process.

This marketing-to-sales handoff structure still exists in many enterprises. But B2B marketing teams now play a more active role in delivering quality leads. Today, buyers want to research (or even purchase solutions independently) before interacting with a salesperson. So as a B2B marketer, you need a strategy for differentiating your business online and engaging with potential buyers when they first begin to research solutions and products.

How does B2B marketing differ from B2C marketing?

B2B marketing today looks a lot like B2C marketing. Both invest in the same fundamentals — generating brand awareness, making data-rich decisions that inform digital tactics, and using personalization to engage potential customers.

But B2B and B2C approaches also have differences:

B2B marketing

B2C marketing

Target audience

Organizations of a certain size and industry as well as specific individuals within the company

Individuals of a certain demographic, for example age or location

Personalization

Considers an individual's job title and authority within the organization (e.g., user vs. decision-maker) as well as stage in the buyer journey

Considers individual demographics and previous engagement with the brand

Buyer need

Educational content, capabilities, proof of ROI, ongoing assistance

Emotional appeal and discounts

Calls to action

Typically call for a prospect to download content, join a product demo, sign up for a free trial, or request to be contacted by a sales person

Typically call for an immediate purchase — but can also include other CTAs like a newsletter signup or free trial

Sales cycle

Longer — many marketing touchpoints before a purchase is made

Shorter — few marketing touchpoints before a purchase is made

Of course, there are exceptions. Consumer marketing strategies for large and expensive items (vehicles, for example) might resemble B2B tactics — more touchpoints, more educational content, and calls to action that do not ask for an immediate purchase. Similarly, organizations that sell consumer goods to other businesses such as office supplies or cleaning supplies might follow a B2C-like approach.

How do I create a successful B2B marketing strategy?

A marketing strategy defines business goals you will support and the work you will do to achieve marketing initiatives and objectives. Because the B2B buying journey can be complex, it is important to gain a deep understanding of your typical buyer and the steps they take to reach a purchase decision. These details inform the messaging, channels, and tactics that you select.

Follow these steps to create an effective B2B marketing strategy:

Start with goals
Marketing goals define exactly what you want to achieve within a certain timeframe and set the direction of your work. These must relate to specific business-level objectives — so you can ensure your work contributes to overall company success. Typically marketing goals are centered around brand awareness, customer acquisition, and retention.

Know your customer
Familiarize yourself with your company's ideal customer. Refer to your personas to identify firmographics such as company size and industry. And determine the needs and pain points of both decision-makers and end users within the organization. For example, decision-makers might be more concerned about security and price while users care about specific functionality.

Document the buyer journey
Map the journey your typical customer takes when making a purchase. Traditionally, the buyer's journey is broken down into four phases:

  • Awareness: Prospects have a problem to solve but may not know your company or product exists.

  • Consideration: Prospects become aware of your product and are curious if it can solve their problems.

  • Conversion: Prospects want to make a purchase are ready to decide which company to purchase from.

  • Loyalty: Customers have made a purchase and may require incentives to maintain and grow their account.

Within each phase, you need to know the prospect's behavior. What information are they seeking? What will motivate them to move to the next phase? What might block them? These answers will help you determine which channels, tactics, and messaging to include in your strategy. Your organization might already have this mapped out. If not, work with sales and customer success teams, conduct external research, or talk to customers directly if you can.

The B2B buyer journey will not always be linear. You will likely need to engage buyers multiple times within each phase of the journey. You may also find that a prospective customer seems close to making a decision only to loop in a new stakeholder at their organization — resetting the need for more time and information.

Solidify your messaging
Craft messages that will resonate with prospects during each phase. For example, buyers during the awareness phase are typically researching a specific problem. Messaging should focus on the benefits of using your product. You can tailor key points to show how it meets the needs of both users and decision-makers.

Map tactics and channels to each buyer journey phase
Determine the marketing mix you will use to reach buyers. Some channels and tactics may be better suited for one phase over another. For example, thought leadership content is typically developed for prospects in the awareness phase, whereas account-based retargeting ads are designed for repeat website visitors.

Here is a simplified buyer's journey for a software product mapped to marketing tactics:

Buyer journey phase

Buyer's action

Information needed

Marketing content and tactics

Awareness

The buyer has a problem to solve but may not know your solution exists. They research their problem and how to solve it.

Information about the problem they are facing, drawbacks of not solving it, ideas for how to solve it.

Content:

  • Blog posts

  • White papers

  • Ebooks

  • Infographics

Promotion tactics:

  • Paid search

  • Organic search

  • Social media ads

Consideration

The buyer makes a list of tools to explore and gets stakeholder buy-in to proceed. They may test solutions at this point — signing up for a trial account or attending product demos.

How your solution solves specific problems, its benefits, and outcomes.

Content:

  • How-to guides

  • Product demo videos

  • Product comparison charts

Promotion tactics:

  • Retargeting ads

  • Social media ads

  • Email campaigns

Conversion

The buyer narrows down their list and asks detailed questions about features and use cases. Finally, they will make a decision.

Product details — features, pricing, data security, and integrations

Content:

  • Case studies

  • Customer testimonials

  • Pricing information

Promotion tactics:

  • Retargeting ads

  • Email

Loyalty

After a purchase, buyers look for support — getting started, training their team, and making the most of the tool.

Support and ongoing guidance

Content:

  • Support articles

  • Tutorial videos

  • Product announcements

Promotion tactics:

  • Email

  • Organic social media

  • In-app notifications

Other tactics:

  • 1:1 support calls

  • Team training

Tracking and adjusting your B2B marketing efforts

Maximizing the results of your B2B marketing strategy requires constant adjustment. Digital marketing is fairly straightforward to measure — you can attribute leads, conversions, and website traffic to specific campaigns. If a tactic or channel is not yielding the results you expect, reallocate your resources towards those that are.

But once you add in a buyer's offline behaviors (information received by word-of-mouth or the tendency to switch from a mobile device to a desktop) it becomes more difficult to measure every action within the sales funnel. Focus on the key performance indicators (KPIs) that matter most to your company and be nimble — experiment with different channels, messages, and tactics.

Keeping track of the high-level strategy and all the detailed tactics can be challenging. Sophisticated B2B marketing teams use roadmapping software to show how their campaigns and daily work connect to top-level goals. Once you are able to visualize a plan and monitor its progress, you can better evaluate what is working and what is not.


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