Q&A with SapientRazorfish B2B Expert Rob Howl

Senior director of strategy, Rob Howl, talks about convergence, noting its impact on the future of business-to-business marketing.
Digital Business Strategy

Are business and consumer marketing converging?

In a connected economy, the merger of physical and digital buying experiences into one is accelerating as buyers move seamlessly between on- and offline environments to assess, evaluate and buy products as diverse as office supplies and professional services to factory automation and jet engines. But business buyers are also consumers — something that dramatically impacts their B2B purchasing expectations. To understand how this and other emerging trends are affecting business marketers, we asked Rob Howl, senior director of strategy at Razorfish, to weigh in on the convergence question.

A lot has been written about the convergence of B2B and B2C. What type of consumer marketing tactics should B2B marketers be adopting? Which should be the highest priority?    

Given the generational shift currently underway, B2B marketers are targeting an increasing number of Millennials. In fact, Google estimates nearly half of B2B researchers today are Millennials. Marketers need to pay astute attention to this trend since this generation consumes information and media differently than prior generations across the web, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 70 percent of these millennial buyers use video to inform the B2B research process, often viewing more than 30 minutes of YouTube content during a typical research cycle. Meeting this audience on their own turf, armed with crisp, engaging, and informative content should be the aim for every B2B marketer.  

B2B marketers must also be skilled at fusing customer intent within the buyer’s operational context. In the B2B arena, this task is far more complex due to the need to satisfy a diverse set of stakeholders around the buyer's table. Successfully marketing to such an environment requires a concrete, data-driven understanding of each business buyer’s needs and behaviors — from discovery and conversion to post-sales support — and the value proposition to support them. The B2B marketing challenge becomes even more demanding when you consider many of the techniques that have been used to attain business advantage now only achieve competitive parity. B2B marketers should use this fact to justify the need for additional investments. 

Harnessing one’s brand advocates has been a very successful tactic for many big consumer marketers, for example, The North Face, Nike, Apple, Netflix and scores of other consumer brands. Should advocacy marketing be high priority to the B2B marketer as well?  

The short answer is ‘yes’ simply because the number one buying criteria for business buyers remains, “Where have you done similar work, for people like us?” In the business community, this is commonly known as ‘reference selling’ which typically occurs in a one-to-one sales environment. Now, getting input from one’s business peers through a one-to-many forum has proven to be both relevant and enormously cost effective due to its broader reach. 

“Advocacy marketing, also known as word of mouth, is often called marketing’s oldest yet most effective tool.”

B2B advocacy marketers face a more complex situation than their consumer counterparts — given that their buyers span disciplines as diverse as engineering, product management, and supply chain to procurement and finance. Creating brand advocates in this context means delivering exceptional experiences to each stakeholder, especially to those with outsized influence. In many organizations more people are empowered to say ‘no’ than ‘yes’ which means addressing the needs of each becomes increasingly important, before and after the sale. Advocacy marketing, also known as word-of-mouth, is often called marketing’s oldest, yet most effective tool. Hence, it is a technique business marketers can’t ignore. And in a digital world, marketers have more tools than ever to empower their brand advocates. 

Imagine the CEO of a B2B professional services firm deciding to double the CMO’s budget. Where would you advise those dollars go for a company that has historically limited its marketing budget to lead generation?  

I’d strongly consider applying this marketing windfall into customer retention. The cost to acquire a B2B customer is significant when you consider sales cycles often span 12 to 24 months, or even longer. Put another way, a mere 5 percent increase in customer retention can drive a 25-100 percent increase in profitability. The business case for investing in retention is even greater when you leverage the good will of retained customers to acquire new customers. Retention and acquisition have a natural synergy, yet many marketers consider them distinct activities. By bringing them together, under a single initiative or program, marketers can garner much higher ROI than if they manage them separately.

Another area that often lacks adequate investment is customer journey mapping. When hunting for new customers on a budget of any size, B2B marketers need to be keenly aware of the opportunities and moments that influence the buying decision. Understanding the journey informs the messages and the medium to reach your desired audience, and focuses resources on the moments that matter.

I would also invest in B2B mobile marketing, given that nearly half of business buyers use their smartphones for research (Google estimates that from 2013 to 2015 usage increased by 91% across the entire journey, not just in the research phase). Focusing on mobile audiences has become increasingly important in the on-the-go world of B2B purchasing. 

“Another area that often lacks adequate investment is customer journey mapping. When hunting for new customers on a budget of any size, B2B marketers need to be keenly aware of the opportunities and moments that influence the buying decision. ”

What should B2B marketers be doing about the rise of the connected economy, which is accelerating with the Internet of Things? While the press seems to focus on consumer examples, isn’t the opportunity for smart products even larger in the B2B space? 

The opportunities for B2B marketers in the connected economy are huge. Winning marketers will use connectivity to address pain points and inefficiencies, reduce support and maintenance costs, and improve uptime; high performers will find ways to combine all three. Connectivity opportunities are arising everywhere for B2B marketers, especially in automated replenishment, performance optimization, and predictive maintenance. For example, General Electric, which now dubs itself “the world’s premier digital industrial company,” leads the way with real-time and predictive solutions across healthcare, industrial, and aerospace verticals. By empowering their customers with data, they unlock new opportunities for revenue generation and retention every day.  Fastenal just put its 50,000th smart vending machine into the field and John Deere tractors now come loaded with smart sensors. With 20 billion connected objects estimated to be in use by 2020, we’re quickly moving past the prologue of the connected economy story.

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