With the sudden cancellation of industry events and in-person meetings due to Covid-19, many B2B companies are now scrambling to figure out how they can stay close to customers and prospects. At the same time, customers are grappling with professional and personal challenges: employee safety, business resilience, working from home, perhaps wrangling kids while trying to stay productive.
This situation raises two key questions for B2B marketers: When and how is it appropriate to engage clients and prospects in the short-term, and what will the future of B2B marketing look like on the other side of this crisis?
First, Do No Harm
Every action you take right now as a marketer can and will reflect on your brand, positively or negatively. To protect brand reputation, marketers should partner with their PR colleagues to align on what kind of customer engagement is appropriate. Are you adding value that can help a customer solve a current challenge, or simply pushing a thinly veiled sales message? Understanding how receptive customers will be to certain messages and the timing of outreach is critical to avoid appearing tone deaf or insensitive to their current reality.
For example, B2B companies that rely on marketing automation systems to deliver communications to customers and prospects should evaluate automated email and advertising campaigns for suitability. For certain customers who are especially impacted during this time, companies might even consider putting these automated communications on hold.
Looking Past the Near-Term
Even if a “return to normal” is achieved, the disruptions created by Covid-19 will have lasting effects on the way marketers work and behave long-term that should be anticipated and reckoned with in advance. For many of our clients, re-thinking their strategies for conferences and events will be at or near the top of the list.
Companies have been taking a hard look at conference and event spending relative to ROI for some time now. Not only are there measurement difficulties inherent in these activities, but also the buyer journey has become increasingly influenced by digital experiences and thought leadership.
We are advising our B2B clients to evaluate their efforts in three areas:
1. Virtual Events
As companies grapple with the impact of Covid-19, marketers know that not every aspect of business can be brought to a complete halt. Companies seeking to pivot their communications and marketing approach due to canceled events should consider the following:
- Understand goals and KPIs: Not all events are equal. Some events are pure networking opportunities while others are key lead drivers for sales. Scrutinize the goals and KPIs for specific events and consider the scale of your typical presence and investment to help determine what type of digital activation is needed to drive maximum impact.
- Identify creative opportunities “beyond the booth”: Digital marketing provides unique opportunities for cross-promotion in partnership with customers, vertical media and influencers. In certain industries, trade media now have robust offerings for co-creating content and targeting high value decision-makers before, during and after events. Geo-targeting of attendees at physical events is another effective way to deliver relevant communications to narrow sets of people and maximize ROI on digital spend.
- Think about post-event extensions: Events come and go, but the topics they focus on remain relevant over time. Webinars and other content developed for virtual events can have a second life as assets or even “engagement hubs” to nurture engagement with high-value targets long after an event has ended.
- Catch up on the tech landscape: Today there’s no shortage of platforms for executing virtual events, webinars and other interactive experiences. Even standard enterprise communications tools can be used in creative ways to live-stream, record virtual gatherings and share content with attendees. Unlike physical meetings, these tools can also provide performance data and insights about content interactions, individual engagement and calls to action that can be used to customize post-event nurturing and communications.
2. Ongoing Customer Engagement
Beyond specific events and newsworthy announcements, we recognize that B2B companies will quickly need other ways to fill the void and maintain ongoing interaction with their customers and prospects. We believe that highly relevant and timely communications—not “spray and pray” tactics—will matter now more than ever as customers focus on their most pressing needs for the foreseeable future and filter out the rest.
- Create better personalized content: B2B brands must strive to go beyond static personas and reflect current customer pain points through strategic segmentation, personalized messaging and compelling editorial that speaks to customer pain points.
- Target audiences with more precision: B2B targeting strategies and tools such as Account Based Marketing (ABM) and Predictive Intent Data now enable companies to reach extremely narrow audiences including specific sets of companies and even individual decision-makers across the buyer committee when they are demonstrating potential buying behaviors.
- Embrace martech that fuels creative editorial content: Instead of a one-to-many editorial approach, embrace publishing technologies that enable granular personalization and tailored content experiences to niche audiences.
- Seize the sales enablement role: Marketing has a role to play in not just demand gen but also providing sales teams with vital intel, such as buyer intent signals, what topics and content assets are resonating and even competitor insights that can help sales be better prepared to engage with prospects.
3. Thought Leadership
Longer term, B2B marketers should be thinking about ways to not only adjust but also improve their customer engagement strategies coming out of this period. Because many customer organizations may need to navigate through a period of post-crisis stabilization, we believe companies that can provide valuable insights into their customers’ challenges will earn their attention.
- Find customer insights in the trenches: Engage frontline sales teams and customer relationship managers to uncover what topics most concern current customers and prospects during this period of disruption.
- Focus on elevating thought leaders rather than pure sales promotion: Edelman and LinkedIn’s B2B Thought Leadership Study shows that thought leadership impacts each stage of the buying process. Promoting executive POVs, subject matter experts and solutions to problems rather than just products and corporate messaging can generate higher levels of engagement and mid to low funnel activity.
- Use big picture thinking to condition the marketplace: Many companies focus on chasing down leads with a “last-click” mindset. Fewer invest the effort to earn credibility in the minds of customers and create an environment that stimulates lasting demand. Especially now, timely insights that add value are more likely to resonate with senior decision-makers who are thinking about the highest priority needs of their own business.
We are only just beginning to recognize and respond to the effects of this pandemic on business activity. The duration and severity of Covid-19 will matter greatly in determining the right (and wrong) types of B2B marketing activity. Collaboration and information sharing are essential. We will continue to share what we learn as the situation evolves and shine a light on best-in-class strategies.
Joe Kingsbury is U.S. Managing Director, Business Marketing. Ben Laws is Executive Vice President & Market Lead, West.
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