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19.08.2020 By Michelle Maggs, EVP of Global Technology Practice, Current Global

Businesses Must Pivot from B2B Events to Fuel the Sales Pipeline

Photographic image that is looking down on a group of around 100 people at a business event. It may be a networking conference. They are all wearing name badges. There are tables with information for people to pick up and read.

When Nassim Nicholas Taleb published his book on the Black Swan theory in 2007, I suspect that no one imagined two such events would happen in the space of just over a decade:

The 2008 crash opened everyone’s eyes to the fragility of the credit system, forcing a fundamental re-evaluation of global financial interdependencies, risk and sustainability.

COVID-19 is, however, forcing a global re-imagining on an unprecedented scale. From supply chains and labor management, to digital transformation and fundamental working practices, and more, every corner of business and commerce has been deeply impacted.

From a B2B marketing and communications perspective, the pandemic is creating significant near-term disruption in supporting lead generation. The immediate priority is clearly to help reboot business and feed the sales pipeline. But the crisis also creates a unique window to rethink and reinvent. Necessity, as they say, is the mother invention. We should seize this opportunity to put aside any ‘sacred cows’ or perceived wisdom, and critically examine the marcomms mix.

What we’ve done before is almost certainly not going to be what we do in the future.

Traditional In-Person Sales Channel Disrupted

COVID-19 has reshaped B2B marketing, with traditionally relied upon physical events and conferences – such as customer and partner events, trade shows, even smaller scale experiential activations – among the most disrupted activities. Events typically play a significant role in the overall marketing mix, with 97% of B2B marketers saying that in-person events have a major impact on achieving business outcomes (Bizzabo, 2019).

However, most events have either shifted to virtual experiences or been postponed to 2021. More than 1,180 B2B tradeshows have been cancelled/postponed in the US this year, with 229 rescheduled for later in 2020 and 235 pushed to 2021, according to Exhibition World. This significant shift away from in-person events and conferences is forcing marketers and sales teams to rethink how they drive pipeline activity and maintain relationships with customers and prospects.

The Increasing Role of Social in B2B Sales

While we can’t count on the expected trade show circuit this year, other channels are increasing in prioritization and effectiveness for engaging customers and prospects. Social media has become a powerful tool for building brand awareness, sharing content and connecting with existing and potential customers. In fact, according to Articulate, social media successfully reaches B2B decision makers, with 84% of C-level and VP-level buyers influenced by social media when purchasing. It’s also the most popular B2B marketing tactic with 83% of marketers using it.

B2B companies on average rate digital interactions as two to three times more important to their customers as traditional sales interactions looking forward, according to a recent McKinsey study. The findings go on to state that the shift in the importance of digital interactions is reflected in customer behaviors. When researching products, customers’ preference for digitally enabled sales interactions has jumped significantly, with suppliers’ mobile apps and social media or online communities showing their sharpest increases since 2019.

Four Considerations to Shake-Up the Marcomm Mix

With these findings in mind amidst a pandemic-driven shift in marketing, it’s more important than ever for B2B companies to have a robust digital and social media strategy as part of their integrated communications efforts and to replace the role of in-person sales interactions.

Consider these activities when pivoting marketing spend away from events in order to further fuel the sales pipeline:

 

  1. Conduct a social media audit and refine the social media strategy.

B2B marketers should conduct an audit of relevant online mentions about their brand, industry and competitors across social media channels. These findings, coupled with an assessment of owned social media channels and competitor channels, can help marketers uncover opportunities and hurdles that need to be addressed in order to better communicate about their brand, products and offerings.

The findings from the audit can help refine the company’s social media strategy and presence in a way that optimizes user engagement and better serves the audience’s needs and behaviors. An audit also can help clarify the role of each social channel, types of content shared and followers to engage with, as well as posting frequency and direction for real-time community engagement.

 

  1. Revisit LinkedIn and consider activating a thought leadership program.

We all recognize LinkedIn as a prime channel for thought leadership, as users can curate their own professional footprint and bolster their employer’s reputation. LinkedIn data shows that, on average, individuals have 10x the reach that a company page does and is the social network of choice among the B2B community, making it an ideal platform for lead generation.

An effective LinkedIn program should begin with a review of a company’s executive leadership team and subject matter experts’ presence on the platform. Do they use LinkedIn? If so, how? Are they regular blog contributors that cross-promote content on LinkedIn? Have they built an impressive following on the platform? Armed with this audit, brands can create LinkedIn-specific editorial programs for key executives and SMEs, leveraging their personal networks to share a steady cadence of long-form content (“articles”) and timely short-form posts (“newsfeed updates”) in order to engage core audience groups and build reputation. Content can be shared with the SMEs’ connections and distributed across the company’s social channels for increased visibility.

Beyond thought leadership content publishing for executives, companies should consider LinkedIn Sales Navigator to focus on the right targets, stay up-to-date on what’s happening with accounts, and build trust with prospects and customers. LinkedIn Sales Navigator taps into the power of LinkedIn’s 630M+ member network to help sales professionals generate more leads through modern selling. On average, sales professionals see a 7% higher win rate when using Sales Navigator to close deals and 33% larger deals when using the tool to connect with decision makers.

 

  1. Explore smart and engaging forms of content.

With fewer opportunities for face-to-face engagement, digital content has to be compelling enough to capture attention and informative enough to push customers and prospects through the sales funnel. Brands should consider experimenting with different content types and formats in order to differentiate and drive action.

  • Webinars/Virtual Events: Several companies have had great success hosting their own virtual events including webinars and panel discussions amid the pandemic. Featuring executives or key SMEs to offer deep dive perspectives and/or panel discussions with industry peers, customers, etc. on relevant industry topics are proven effective in terms of attendance and engagement. To maximize the investment, virtual events or webinars should be promoted across a company’s owned platforms (social media, website, e-newsletter, etc.) and offered available for replay on its website.
  • Video: A top spending category for companies looking to reallocate live event budgets is rich media. Over the past three years there has been a steady growth in the number of B2B marketers investing in video, with a 21% jump YoY from 2019 to 2020, according to a survey conducted by Wpromote. In this survey, 75% of B2B marketers say they are investing in video, 67% report that video drives leads, and nearly half report that it drives revenue. Video is an effective storytelling platform that can be used to enhance a variety of content – e.g. executive perspectives on a recent news announcement or customer partnership; an animated video that shows how a new technology solution works; a visual manifestation of a customer case study. Further, an audit and overhaul of one’s YouTube channel would be a smart exercise during this time.
  • Podcasts: Podcasts offer a unique opportunity to directly reach an audience that is actively engaged and eager to learn. They come in many formats, from one talking head to an interview/interaction platform with several guests. We recommend companies create a series of podcast episodes, focused on specific industry-relevant topics that align with upcoming company announcements, content, industry trends or societal issues. Promoted through owned channels including social media, the podcasts serve as a platform where audiences, including customers, leads and media, can tune in to learn the latest in a quick-hitting news analysis format. Alternatively to launching their own podcast, brands also can sponsor an existing podcast that targets desired audiences.
  • E-newsletters: Email marketing, including e-newsletters, is a highly effective digital marketing strategy for directly reaching customers and prospects. A regularly published e-newsletter enables marketers to consistently reach audiences while also extending the shelf life of the company’s content, including blogs, press releases, studies, LinkedIn thought leadership articles, reflections on industry or societal trends, podcast episodes and virtual event/webinar registration CTAs. The option to ‘opt in’ to receive these newsletters also serves as a form of lead-gen. Companies can also sponsor key industry/media newsletters, linking back to “hero” pieces of their own content.
  1. Fuel efforts with paid.

Implementing paid media is one of the most effective ways to directly reach audiences, increase awareness and drive consideration through highly-targeted ads. There are several tactics to consider including:

  • Lead generation campaign (LinkedIn) – Take advantage of LinkedIn’s advanced business-related targeting to drive awareness and consideration among priority audiences through various lead generation tactics such as LinkedIn Lead Gen Forms and LinkedIn Sponsored InMail. In addition, we also suggest implementing retargeting and conversion tracking, which allows a brand to retarget users who have visited a website and share lower funnel content to continue to drive interest and consideration.
  • Brand awareness/thought leadership campaign (LinkedIn, Twitter) – Leverage one of Twitter’s core strengths – real-time engagement – by promoting tweets such as Website Cards and Promoted Videos driving to websites during key virtual events to reach target audiences while they are engaging with contextually relevant content. Also consider promoting in-feed sponsored content on Twitter or LinkedIn to reach audiences while they are in a business mindset.

The Future of B2B Marketing

As we continue to navigate the challenges of today, we should experiment with different ways of engaging with target audiences in the absence of the usual “go-to” in-person events. Taking this time to: 1) get the social “house” in order, 2) maximize LinkedIn, 3) create compelling new content and 4) ensure that content is seen by the audiences that matter through targeted paid campaigns will help fuel lead generation and lay a strong foundation of social and content marketing heading into 2021.

Further, in this period of uncertainty, disruption and change, companies should turn to their trusted communications agency partners to help think through the strategic pivots that will help maximize marcomm investments and drive business outcomes in unexpected ways. Companies should expect their agencies to deliver data-driven insights around storytelling opportunities given today’s climate; proactive, predictive and forward-looking comms strategies for the second half of 2020 and beyond; and novel, creative methods for engaging desired audiences in ways that will compel them to act and propel the business or brand forward.

 

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