I remember when they called it Trade Marketing. And Industrial Marketing. And then BTB. Now it’s B2B. Whatever we call it, it’s about marketing to buyers who are buying on behalf of companies. And they’re not the same as consumers. That is to say they are still human, but in this part of their lives, they’re at work and spending their company’s money. In many cases, they are professional buyers. This changes various things: mainly they need to be seen to be getting the best value for money for the organisation i.e. selecting, briefing and managing suppliers who will deliver a high-quality product or service reliably and consistently at a competitive price. B2B buyers want to look good to the boss, the Board and/or the shareholders. It follows that B2B Digital marketers need to find and engage these buyers, using appropriate digital platforms and creating a favourable environment for the sales force to go out there and sell into. As we know, Digital has changed everything in marketing. B2B is no exception.

In fact B2B is not just one way of doing business which can quickly be learned; indeed every B2B market is different. During my career I’ve helped to sell detergents to retailers and wholesalers, agrochemicals to farmers, photocopiers to office managers, commercial vehicles to fleet managers and Studio/ Post-Production services to independent TV producers. Each of these assignments has offered me a fascinating exposure to an individual B2B market with its own unique elements. Unlike some marketing consultants, I have always found B2B interesting; sure, the budgets are smaller but so are the target audiences and the various members of the decision maker unit (DMU) each have their own responsibilities and motivations which makes targeting and engagement particularly challenging; and satisfying when you get it right.

I recently chaired a discussion at Econsultancy‘s Digital Cream event (for senior client-side digital people – by invitation only). The subject was: B2B Digital Marketing.The debate was lively and the participants were engaged and generous in sharing their B2B Digital experiences, good and bad (although the event was held under ‘Chatham House Rules’ so I won’t be naming individuals or organisations).

The biggest (perhaps predictable) challenge was lack of senior management buy-in/ support and especially budget for Digital Marketing activities. Many of the ‘Business To Business digital specialists’ who attended felt outnumbered in their organisations and in some cases almost like pariahs even within the marketing department; the Sales Director would often prefer to have more glossy brochures to give out (or a higher spec company Ford Mondeo for the reps!) while the Finance Director is often deeply suspicious of Social Media and the resources it consumes. There is a certain amount of resistance to Digital in many of these B2B organisations. Yet these companies do, nevertheless, employ these digital specialists; perhaps because they feel they must these days (!?).

Most attendees said the uptake of digital has been slower in B2B than in B2C and several pointed out that B2B senior managers tend to be older and more traditionally-minded, i.e. more conservative and set in their ways than their B2C counterparts (especially FMCG). These B2B bosses have grown up throughout their (successful) careers with specialist trade magazines, brochures/ direct mail, exhibitions/ trade shows and the sales force (assisted by the occasional outbound ‘courtesy phone call’) so that opening up to social media, search, mobile (and even email) doesn’t always come naturally to them.

Several companies stated confidently that they have their Analytics tools configured to measure a range of ‘successful outcomes’. They are measuring their performance regularly and systematically against a number of KPIs. These companies also seem to be allowing budget (and time) to test. Moreover several said they take great care to monitor customer satisfaction (via Net Promoter Score – NPS- and other KPIs) and are sensitive to fluctuations/ trends.

Others are less sophisticated, especially smaller companies (SMEs) often led by a dominant founder/s who ‘will probably turn to digital only when things start going wrong’!. There definitely seems to be a tendency to stay within ‘the senior management comfort zone’ which in many cases means offline. One excuse given for lack of measurement of Digital Marketing was the long lead-times between ‘lead’ and ‘sale’ within many B2B markets. A related issue is the difficulty inherent in B2B Attribution Modelling (especially factors relating to lead development/ conversion by dealers/ the sales force).

There was much lively discussion about Social Media for B2B. Most participants agreed that Twitter could play a useful role (especially to amplify/ increase the reach of other content). Several however found Twitter impractical as a proactive tool because senior management/ the Legal Department insists on approving all posts (destroying their immediacy/ relevance). Social Listening (especially monitoring Twitter) is increasingly used by Customer Service. Blogging was agreed by everyone to be a good idea, especially as a way of establishing and maintaining a position of ‘thought leadership’ (including supporting the efforts of the Sales guys during a protracted B2B decision-making process). However when asked whether CEOs were disciplined and reliable at writing their piece on time and on strategy, several participants were observed to roll their eyes…In reality, either in-house marketing /corporate affairs/PR people or external agencies generally identify suitable ‘hot’ topics to blog about and then draft the blog posts but all CEOs/ MDs insist on tweaking and signing them off (naturally enough) which in itself can cause delays and often makes posting sporadic. In the UK, Facebook is still seen as mainly a B2C platform (in contrast to the situation in the US) and most believe LinkedIn is now firmly established as ‘the social network for business’. Several participants said that LinkedIn Groups play a key part in their B2B marketing success. Two participants (from large B2B marketing companies) have a published Social Media Policy which they believe is a practice other organisations will increasingly follow in pursuit of transparency and to build trust with all stakeholders.

One participant suggested that “Digital is converging with offline and B2B is converging with B2C” but this proved controversial and the overall consensus was that Digital B2B would be a distinct discipline/ channel for the foreseeable future, with its own challenges and opportunities.

So: how similar is B2B Digital Marketing to B2C Digital Marketing? To slightly misquote ex-Liverpool, Newcastle and England footballer Kevin Keegan, “It’s much the same, except that it’s completely different.”

Nice one Kev. Vive la différence!