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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.