Marketing to businesses requires a distinct set of skills, processes and methodologies compared with marketing to individual consumers. Business-to-business (B2B) marketing strategies target unique buyer personas along a modified customer journey.
Whether you’re familiar with business-to-consumer (B2C) marketing or you’re approaching B2B marketing from a fresh perspective, this comprehensive guide will help you not only frame your thinking, but also begin to develop engaging strategies that will work for your brand.
What Is B2B Digital Marketing?
B2B digital marketing refers to the practice of marketing products and services to other organizations via online channels. In today’s complex and competitive marketplace, B2B marketing strategies often target multiple personas within an industry.
B2B marketing efforts tend to focus primarily on how products and services will impact the target company’s revenue. Because business buyers are highly concerned with return on investment, B2B marketing materials usually concentrate on providing the target audience with factual information, as opposed to emotional appeals.
B2B marketers may develop content for all kinds of business buyers, from sole proprietors to decision-makers at large corporations. Effective B2B marketers make a point to learn as much as they can about their audience’s needs. Trust plays an important role in these efforts. The ability to quickly establish thought leadership is a crucial skill for B2B marketers.
B2B vs. B2C Digital Marketing
As their names suggest, B2B and B2C marketing strategies target different audiences:
- B2B businesses sell products and services directly to decision-makers at a particular set of businesses. Examples of common B2B services include software-as-a-service (SaaS) products and outsourced HR services.
- B2C businesses sell products or services to consumers. Common examples include retail products and home services.
While B2B and B2C marketers often use the same tools and technical best practices, there are many crucial differences in these strategies. B2C marketers can often target a wider audience than B2B marketers. For example, a B2C retail company that sells shoes might target men who play team sports.
B2B marketers, on the other hand, must target more specific decision-makers. For example, a B2B company might target business decision-makers who need a solution that can help them lower their daily operating costs. That means that B2B buyer personas usually have very specific job titles.
In addition, B2B sales cycles tend to be much longer than B2C buyer journeys. B2C consumers may see an ad and then immediately make a purchase. Thanks to one-click shopping options, consumers can make impulse purchases with very little consideration. This is not the case for B2B customers, who are usually beholden to departmental budgets as well as the input of other decision-makers. In some cases, the B2B sales cycle can take several months to complete. As a result, B2B marketers need robust customer management tools to nurture and convert leads.
Ultimately, B2B and B2C customers have very different motivations. Consumers want and need products and services that fulfill their individual needs and wants. B2B customers, on the other hand, want to improve their business. Decision-makers at larger enterprises may not have a personal investment in the business beyond their direct job performance. At the end of the day, both types of customers are people with unique needs, but marketers need to follow distinct strategies when targeting one or the other.
Here are some quick differences between B2B and B2C marketing:
- B2B offerings are intended to improve a business’s operations and, ultimately, the company’s bottom line.
- B2C offerings seek to improve the customer’s life in some way or satisfy a need.
- B2B products and services tend to be more expensive.
- B2C products and services are usually more affordable, though they can carry a hefty price tag.
- B2B marketing materials tend to be informational and they rely on sales teams to close deals.
- B2C marketing materials often appeal to shoppers’ emotions.
It’s also important to keep in mind that many businesses blur the line between B2B and B2C products. In some cases, companies will market different versions of their products to consumers and businesses. For example, a furniture company might sell its office furniture to both end-consumers and businesses.
How B2B Marketing Works
Before we dive into how companies use B2B digital marketing strategies, it’s important to have a general understanding of how B2B marketing works at a high level. With any effort, the first step is to generate brand awareness. After all, it’s hard to sell a product that no one has heard of before. Companies spread brand awareness through digital channels such as social media, email, pay-per-click (PPC) ads and traditional advertising.
The next step is to nurture leads through engaging content. Digital marketing assets like blog articles, white papers and case studies demonstrate the value of products and services and help the target audience understand the “why” and “how” of the offerings.
B2B marketers often work with sales teams to nurture customer relationships and build trust. Sales demos and trial periods are common tactics used to win the trust of customers. B2B brands usually want to maintain strong relationships because they can continue to sell new products and services to existing customers over the long term.
If you’re ready to see some examples of B2B marketing in action, feel free to jump to the bottom of this article. Next, we’ll examine how B2B marketers use online and offline tactics to appeal to their customers as well as the best channels for achieving business goals.
B2B Digital Marketing Automation
B2B companies are busy. That’s obvious. But that doesn’t mean marketing efforts should fall by the wayside. Marketing automation offers an opportunity to prioritize marketing strategies without the manual backend of work that can be tedious and time-consuming. It gives businesses the leverage they need to stay in contact with customers and generate leads on a regular basis. B2B marketing automation reduces repetitive tasks and personalizes the customer journey, ultimately saving you time and money while also improving the customer experience.
Just as B2B and B2C general marketing differs, automation efforts must be tailored to fit the needs of the target market. Both share the same end result, creating automated messages, but the approach to achieving this is different. B2C marketing automation focuses on personalizing each message. B2B digital marketing automation is designed to gain potential clients and increase conversion rate with educational information.
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Understanding the B2B Sales Funnel
Every B2B company must have a firm understanding of its sales funnel — the path prospects take from becoming aware of the brand to finally converting to paying customers. But keep in mind that sales funnels do not appear spontaneously. Rather, it takes skilled marketers and salespeople to structure a funnel that meets strategic objectives and reduces friction along the customer’s journey.
The typical B2B sales funnel consists of five stages:
- Brand awareness.
- Customer consideration.
- Brand preference.
- Purchase decision.
- Brand loyalty.
By visualizing this funnel, B2B companies can identify where customers are losing interest and leaving the funnel. Then, marketers can determine how best to remove barriers and help customers move from one stage of the funnel to the next. This process will occur continuously as customer needs change, as competitors disrupt the market and as the company’s products and services evolve. Sales funnel optimization is an ongoing process that requires a keen understanding of buyer personas and the market in which they operate.
Top of Funnel: Generating Leads
When B2B customers enter a company’s sales funnel, they’re unlikely to know much about the brand. The lead generation process begins when prospects click on an ad, find a blog article through organic search, come across a social media post or hear a referral from a colleague or associate.
At this stage in the funnel, the customer may or may not yet understand their pain point and how the company can help them. Keep in mind that the top of the funnel contains the greatest number of prospects. Rather than designing a funnel to pull in as many prospects as possible, it should be structured to pull in the prospects who are most likely to convert to the next stage of the funnel. Therefore, marketing content such as blogs should aim to help prospects understand the issue at hand and provide a preview of the potential solution. At this stage, the company begins to establish trust, authority and thought leadership.
Downloadable assets like eBooks and white papers can help move prospects from the top of the funnel to the middle. Gated content encourages prospects to exchange their contact information for a meaty piece of content that begins to answer questions around their pain point. Their information should go into a customer relationship management (CRM) platform where the marketing and sales teams can begin to track the relationship.
Middle of Funnel: Nurturing Leads
Once prospects are in a CRM system, the company can then target them with content that appeals directly to their unique needs and pain points. Companies with long sales cycles will avoid going for the direct sale as soon as possible because they don’t want to risk scaring away prospects. Remember, many B2B products and services carry a hefty price tag. Prospects need time to do their research, consult with their teams and make their decision.
Lead nurturing practices continue to build trust and establish the company as a leader. At this stage of the funnel, it’s all about customer education. For example, a company might get prospects to sign up for a newsletter where they publish stories about ongoing trends and current events related to their industry. This content will help to pull prospects back to the company’s website where they will encounter more marketing materials.
This stage of the funnel can take the longest time to complete. It could take weeks or months for prospects to convert at this stage, so it’s important to optimize the content they receive. Marketers should continually test their content to determine what information prospects need before they’re willing to reach out to the sales team.
Middle of Funnel: Building Customer Relationships
Not all prospects will continue moving down the funnel, and that’s OK, because once potential customers approach the sales team, it takes more work and resources to convert them into paying customers.
For example, let’s say that a company sells a SaaS solution that, when adopted, becomes a crucial part of the target business’s operations. Making a purchase is a huge decision for the customer. It may be one of the most significant decisions their business makes all year. Therefore, the decision-makers need to be convinced and assured that they’re making the right choice. They’re not just buying a product one time, after all. They’re also forming a long-term relationship with the seller.
This is where sales demos and meetings play a huge role. Meeting face-to-face with customers is an essential part of the sales process. But content still has a role to play, too. At this stage of the funnel, marketers can create in-depth technical white papers, one-pagers and slide decks to help the sales team close the deal.
Bottom of Funnel: Conversion
Closing the sale is not the end of the relationship. Once a commitment has been secured, the company not only needs to deliver on its promises, but also maintain a close relationship with the customer to ensure they have a positive experience. Follow-up calls and meetings may be necessary to ensure the client is satisfied with their purchase.
Once again, the marketing team can leverage content to keep clients happy and engaged. For example, email content can help to keep clients up to date on new features, upcoming trends and more. Over time, as the relationship develops, the marketing and sales teams can encourage existing clients to make additional purchases or refer the company to their colleagues. Retaining clients is usually more profitable than making new ones, so it’s important to maintain a strong connection with customers after they’ve converted.
What Is the Role of Traditional Marketing?
Though we’re discussing digital marketing in this guide, we cannot ignore traditional marketing efforts. While business buyers are likely to conduct most of their research online, traditional media still has a role to play. In fact, some of the most successful B2B marketing strategies incorporate both traditional and digital channels, allowing marketers to nurture leads in a more natural and comprehensive way.
Some common forms of offline B2B marketing include:
- Direct mail: In an environment where decision-makers are bombarded with cold emails every day, direct mail can cut through the noise. And it’s not just about mailing brochures. B2B marketers may send out freebies like branded office supplies or chocolates to endear themselves to new and existing customers.
- Print ads: While most print ads these days target retail consumers, there’s also room for B2B material. Print ads in business magazines and strategically placed billboards can be an effective way to grab the attention of business decision-makers. Anyone who has been to Silicon Valley knows that most of the billboards around the San Jose airport are targeted at tech company stakeholders.
- Events: In-person and virtual events are excellent venues for making personal connections with decision-makers. Events are a great way to obtain contact information that marketers can use later to nurture leads with digital content.
Aligning digital and traditional marketing efforts allows B2B brands to connect with their customers across every stage of the buyer’s journey.
The Most Popular B2B Digital Marketing Channels
An effective B2B digital marketing strategy leverages any channel that a potential customer might use to learn more about a specific product, service or pain point. When attracting a particular buyer persona, B2B marketers should know which channels will make the most impact. Both B2B and B2C customers tend to move between several channels throughout the decision-making process.
Remember, a B2B audience is still made up of people who use social media, email and other communication channels. A company’s inbound marketing strategy should be aware of which channels are likely to attract, qualify and convert customers.
Let’s take a look at seven of the most popular B2B marketing channels:
- Content marketing: By creating and distributing digital content, a B2B business can generate brand awareness, improve search engine rankings and generate audience interest. Content marketing is one of the most effective ways to generate and nurture leads.
- Email marketing: Email marketing is one of the most popular ways to reach potential customers because it allows a B2B marketer to put targeted, personalized messages directly in front of qualified prospects.
- Paid search: PPC advertising makes it easier for B2B prospects to find the information they’re looking for. Because PPC ads tend to be highly visible, they attract prospects and help them to convert to paying customers.
- SEO: Search engine optimization helps to maximize the likelihood of prospects finding and clicking on your website when searching for a solution to their pain points. By outranking their competitors, companies show that they are industry leaders.
- Social media marketing: B2B customers expect brands to have a presence on popular social media channels. This type of marketing content helps to give brands a personality that customers can relate to.
- Webinars/Video: Live and pre-recorded video represent some of the most engaging forms of digital content. Videos help customers get the information they need while getting to know the brand a little better.
- Event marketing: In-person and virtual events are powerful ways to engage B2B customers. Events not only give customers a chance to learn about a company’s offerings, but also provide prospects with an opportunity to network and engage with their peers.
Generating Leads Through Engaging Content
We’ve seen how content plays an important role at each stage of the buyer’s journey. We’ve also discussed how content gets distributed through various digital channels. Now, let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular content types:
- Blogs: SEO blogs are an excellent way to attract readers at the top of the sales funnel. Not only do blogs help your website rank more highly in search results, but they also provide your target audience with high-level information about relevant topics. Blogs can provide immediate value to readers looking for solutions to their problems. A good internal linking strategy can also encourage readers to explore the company’s website further.
- eBooks and white papers: After browsing through a company’s website, interested prospects may want to learn more about a specific topic. That’s where larger assets like eBooks and white papers come into play. A downloadable eBook allows companies to collect reader information while providing a valuable asset prospects can use to make their purchasing decisions. An eBook should be supported by blogs and social media posts to ensure readers can find it.
- Infographics: Another great top-of-funnel asset, infographics provide prospects with a quick bite of information. As the name suggests, infographics usually offer engaging statistics and easily digestible information. Plus, visually appealing infographics can catch readers’ eyes while scrolling through their social media feeds.
- Podcasts: Audio content has been booming in recent years. People consume podcasts to stay up to date on the latest industry trends and hear insights from thought leaders. Plus, podcasts provide a way for company leaders to make a personal connection with new and existing customers.
- Videos: Both short- and long-form videos can engage readers and keep them interested in learning more about a company. Videos can be informational, providing details about specific topics, or more entertaining, such as a recorded interview between industry leaders. Plus, live videos provide a venue for prospects to ask questions and build a sense of community.
B2B marketers need to use a combination of these content types to engage their target audience at various stages of the sales funnel. Therefore, it is essential to align communications so that customers don’t receive redundant messaging.
B2B Digital Marketing in 2021
Getting behind the latest digital marketing trends can transform your business and put you miles ahead of your competitors. If your B2B brand is currently looking to improve a marketing campaign, improve lead generation and increase brand awareness, we suggest trying out the following trends in your digital marketing strategy:
1. Marketing Automation Adoption
As previously noted, marketing automation tools can make your B2B marketing efforts efficient, cost effective and revolutionary. Research by Forrester states that marketing automation spend is expected to increase to $25 billion by 2023 around the world, so adopting this B2B marketing channel trend can keep you ahead of the curve into the future of tech in marketing.
2. Artificial Intelligence for Customer Experience
Honing in on CX has never been more important. A marketing strategy that understands the usefulness of artificial intelligence has leverage to reach more customers and free up more time for human resources. Chatbots, for example, can be used in place of traditional customer service efforts.
Did you know that there are over two million active podcasts circulating the digital sphere? Trends show that this will only increase, as just three years ago, there were only 500,000 podcasts. With so many people tuning in to listen, now’s a great opportunity to consider adding this medium to your B2B digital marketing strategy. Podcasts offer a new way to increase brand awareness and connect with your target audience in a deeper, more personal way than ever before.
4. Social Media Marketing
Most people you know have a presence on at least one social media platform. Using your social channels as leverage in your B2B marketing strategy can put you in direct contact with potential and current customers. Any creative marketing effort on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok could go viral, putting your brand at top of mind for hundreds, thousands or even millions of the 4.48 billion social media users around the globe.
There’s plenty more where that came from. Check out this feature we dedicated to the top 12 B2B marketing trends we think you should know about and implement in your digital strategy:
Bringing Everything Together: B2B Digital Marketing Strategies and Examples
B2B digital marketing strategies can take on many different forms. In this section, we’ll take a look at a few real-life examples that show just how diverse digital marketing efforts can be. Remember, just because a company is selling products and services to another company does not mean its marketing needs to be boring.
General Electric SIGNA Masters Webinar Series
In 2020, GE Healthcare pivoted away from in-person events and hosted a series of webinars to help medical decision-makers learn more about magnetic resonance enterography technology. These webinars, hosted by an MRI specialist, provided viewers with in-depth educational content to help them understand more about GE’s innovative technology.
This campaign also included a virtual exhibit of the company’s latest products. The live scanning demonstrations gave viewers an opportunity to see the products in action, ask questions and learn more about how these products might fit into their existing workflows.
Microsoft Azure Information Hub
Microsoft’s cloud computing platform Azure has an extensive library of content to help prospective and current customers learn about the product. The information hub provides readers with everything they need to know about Azure’s costs, features and cybersecurity functions.
The hub also delivers social proof of the service’s effectiveness. Company logos and case studies provide the reader with real-life examples of how other companies have used Azure to support their business needs. Importantly, Microsoft’s marketing team leverages social media channels like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube to spread brand awareness and connect with customers on a more personal level.
Cisco Enterprise Networks Resource Center
Cisco helps prospective B2B customers to learn more about their products and services via an interactive digital resource center. Among blog articles and how-to guides, customers can also view infographics and case studies.
Plus, Cisco provides assessment tools to help the reader narrow down their focus and gain a better understanding of how Cisco solutions can help them perform better. By answering a series of questions, B2B buyers can see what their competitors are doing to solve similar issues and then get a personalized recommendation on next steps. Not only does this keep prospects engaged, but it also provides the Cisco sales team with the information they need to have a productive conversation with their customers.
Each of the above examples shows that B2B digital marketing strategies rely heavily on several channels to convert customers. Relying on a single avenue of communication not only reduces visibility into customer needs, but might also exclude customer segments altogether. The most effective B2B marketing strategies use a combination of content, brand outreach and tailoring of the sales funnel to attract, nurture and convert prospects into loyal customers.
Interested in learning more? Get your free copy of “The Definitive B2B Content Marketing Guide” to discover how to tie your content to specific commercial objectives and more.
Editor’s Note: Updated September 2021