With 2020 being a rollercoaster for every type of business, whether they flourished or struggled, many B2B marketers are looking ahead to 2021 to build new, robust strategies. While there is still much uncertainty on the horizon, it’s still important to create a clear 2021 marketing strategy. Here, we’ll explore what we expect to see in B2B marketing strategies for next year.
But first, let’s do a quick recap of what we saw in 2020.
Quick recap of 2020 trends
As you all know, the year started off pretty strong and the economy was great. However, with the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns, travel restrictions, event cancellations, and overall fear of an economic downturn created havoc for a lot of companies. In late March and early April, we saw a rash of companies cancel their entire marketing programs, pause all ads, and furlough employees. While this may have been a necessary business tactic for some companies to survive, it did end up stalling out lead generation which caused a further strain on the business.
In April and May, we saw a shift to focus on content marketing and inbound lead generation campaigns. As leaders started to see that we were in for the long haul of uncertainty, they looked to marketing channels that worked and were safe for their employees and their prospects (especially since anything in-person like tradeshows or networking events were canceled). For many companies, a solid B2B website design and digital marketing plan suddenly became imperative. In addition to an influx of companies looking to revamp or rework websites, we witnessed a greater desire to create thought leadership and educational articles. The only issue with the new focus on content marketing is that it’s a long-term strategy, not a quick results campaign.
From June on through the rest of the year, companies started looking for more creative ways to reach their target audience. With most companies being remote, they couldn’t cold-call the office, and dropping in was completely out of the question. Instead of meeting new prospects in person on a tradeshow floor, they had to settle for virtual conferences and tradeshows – which let’s be honest, the conference and tradeshow hosts are still working out the many kinks of a virtual event. Sales teams began to put more pressure on marketing for other ways to generate leads and B2B website leads became more valuable internally.
Many B2B companies have shifted resources to inbound marketing (or assigned more value to it) and are contemplating tactics to reach a new audience. Things like outbound email campaigns, purchasing lists, account-based marketing campaigns, and paid search ads are being considered more often by companies that previously relied on tradeshows and in-person sales. All of these shifts make sense when looking at the current marketing landscape.
Now, let’s take a look at what B2B marketers can expect or should consider when drafting their 2021 strategy.
Focus on flexibility and adaptability
Savvy B2B marketers always have a solid Plan A and often a Plan B. But in 2021, we need to have a Plan A, B, C, D, up to Z. We should all be prepared for the unexpected as we don’t know what will happen. Marketing strategies often have an element of adaptability and flexibility woven into them, but now the strategies must be completely agile.
We can no longer draft and execute a strategy designed for the next six months. In the next year, we can draft a strategy for the next six months, but it’s crucial that we continually check in on the strategy, at a minimum of monthly, and revise or update as needed. This is typically not an optimal strategy, but just staying profitable until the next month can be a fine goal until we are beyond the pandemic.
Innovate and test
What has worked in the past doesn’t necessarily work now and may never work again. The overall business culture has shifted, in some cases for the better, and it’s important to recognize those changes and act accordingly.
For example, most companies plan on keeping at least a percentage of workers remote for the near future and possibly long-term. As such, a large portion of workers are moving away from their home office. Because of this, future in-person networking and speaking events may not draw your target market.
A key element of future marketing strategies will heavily invest in innovation and testing. Innovation does not mean jumping on the latest trend or trying everything out there. It means carefully looking at your target market, where they are, what they need, what their pain points are and finding creative or new ways to reach them. Testing is a close friend of innovation. Just like in science, marketing should be testing out new theories – will a blog work? Should we purchase a list? Is it a good idea to speak at a virtual conference? If something new works or doesn’t work, continue testing to see if it can work better or if it should be shelved.
Ramp up inbound efforts
B2B firms should craft an inbound marketing strategy – period. Inbound marketing is a proven source of attracting, nurturing, and converting leads online. While B2B companies that were already doing inbound marketing prior to the pandemic saw dips here and there in leads, they still saw leads coming in. If your ideal prospect is looking for the services or products you sell, don’t you want them to find you?
At the very least, think of this. With a somewhat distributed workforce, if a VP of Finance needs new accounting software that incorporates more forecasting features, won’t they start with a search online? If you sell this type of software, do you want your competitor to be the first company the VP contacts?
Incorporate more outbound strategies
While you want your B2B website to show up when prospects are searching for your products and services, what about your target market that may not be searching right now but may need your products or services? What about prospects that are currently working with your competitor but are dissatisfied and don’t know they have other options?
While outbound marketing strategies may have a bad rap as seeming spammy or aggressive or annoying, they can be a useful component of a B2B marketing strategy, particularly now. Most of your prospects are and will be distracted by non-work issues in the coming months and year. Whether it’s helping children distance learn, worrying about relatives, trying to arrange the next grocery delivery, or trying to arrange home improvement projects while working from home – distraction is the new norm. They may not be able to allocate a few hours to finding a new vendor even if their current vendor is underperforming. Also, test timing of outbound efforts. Working parents may be working at odd hours of the day when your message may be more likely to be read.
Outbound strategies that are mindful and targeted (this is crucial) will help to fill in gaps and generate more top- and mid-funnel leads for your sales team. The only caveat is that the message of these campaigns MUST be brief, respectful, and helpful. If you don’t offer a prospect something helpful right out of the gate – you will never convert them.
Nurture each lead
I’m not saying it happens at every company, but some companies have struggled with managing the existing leads. Instead of focusing on the contacts they have already generated, they continue looking for new contacts. In too many cases, we’ve seen notes on a lead that simply say “Reached out, no response.” We get it, leads can go silent. But if 75% or more of your leads are non-responsive, you need to change your nurturing strategy.
In the coming year, we expect to see a sharper focus on what is happening with each and every lead, especially in businesses with slimmer margins. When drafting a new marketing strategy, focus not just on lead generation, but on thoughtful lead nurturing. This is NOT automation. No matter how much time you put into planning out automated lead nurturing and how much personalization you try to incorporate, it is obvious that it is automated.
B2B firms should be turning away from automated lead nurturing and focus on individualized nurturing. The most effective lead nurturing strategies approach each lead as unique. The goal of lead nurturing is to get to a “yes” or a “not right now.” At some point, get an answer from a prospect—“no response” is unacceptable.
Prioritize client retention
We know that business development has a quota and a pipeline to manage. However, for many B2B firms, they make the most revenue from long-term partnerships. A focus on client retention should be a no-brainer but it often falls to the service delivery or customer support team to retain clients – rather than the sales and marketing teams.
We predict that client retention will take up a bigger spot on the marketing agenda in the coming year. In addition to lead generation and lead nurturing campaigns, B2B marketing teams need to craft client nurturing programs. Keeping clients engaged and even upselling existing customers will be seen as a proactive strategy – rather than a reactive – strategy.
Perform market research
We’ve seen huge culture shifts and changing expectations in the last few months. Companies that are marketing with the “business as usual” attitude are flopping and don’t know why. The companies that are clearly paying attention and adapting to what their prospects need and want are flourishing. These companies are doing more than paying attention. They are actively engaging and researching.
In the coming year, market research and social listening will be a growth area for B2B companies. B2C companies already embraced these tactics, but B2B firms have been slower to adapt, thinking they know their client and who the decision maker is. Whether it’s a larger scale, formal market research project or smaller, less formal social listening tactics, B2B brands need to start paying attention to the people behind the companies they are marketing to and what resonates with them on a personal level. People buy products and services, not companies.
Exciting times are ahead
There is a lot of doom, gloom and uncertainty – which is being amplified by news outlets on all sides. It’s easy to get sucked in and believe that we should bunker down and wait it out. However, sitting back and watching won’t help your company succeed or thrive in the coming year.
We contest that out of all the turmoil will come exciting changes and innovation. With less time commuting, people will have time for other activities. With virtual conference technology, future conferences may be a hybrid of virtual and in-person – allowing the attendee audience to be larger. With more client meetings turning into video calls, client relationships will be stronger and more personal – yes, we saw your son dancing in the background during our strategy call.