Marketing is an essential function of any company. It doesn’t matter whether your potential customers are individuals or other businesses. But business-to-business giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, and Oracle know that marketing to other businesses is a complex endeavor: there may be multiple decision-makers and layers of approval involved. But at the end of the day, B2B marketers are still working with humans, not nebulous business entities, so the core principles of marketing hold true.
What is B2B marketing?
B2B marketing, short for business-to-business marketing, refers to the marketing of products or services to other businesses rather than individual consumers. Marketing to the end consumer is known as B2C marketing, and B2C brands include companies like Walmart, Starbucks, or Apple. This distinct target market affects every aspect of a B2B company’s marketing plan—from the initial brand strategy to the lengthy sales cycle.
Within the umbrella category of B2B marketing, there are two approaches: lead-based marketing and account-based marketing.
Lead-based marketing is a broad approach to attracting more customers where messaging is geared toward a wide audience. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re part of a B2B company’s target audience. The lead-based marketing funnel has a very wide top—meaning this approach aims to capture as many leads as possible, no matter how qualified they are as customers. As this large number of leads move down the funnel, only a small percentage may make it through to the bottom of the funnel and convert into paying customers.
Account-based marketing is a tailored approach to high-value B2B customers, where each customer is treated as its own market. Whereas lead-based marketing is a one-size-fits-all approach, an account-based B2B marketing strategy is relationship-based. Each account and buyer’s journey is unique. A B2B company pursuing an account-based marketing tactic targets specific businesses that it wants to turn into customers and pursues them with tailored strategies. In this way, its funnel has a narrower top as potential customers are theoretically already closer to conversion than those coming through a lead-based approach.
B2B vs. B2C marketing: What’s the difference?
The primary difference between B2B and B2C marketing is the audience: B2B sells to businesses, while B2C sells to individual consumers. The fundamentals of marketing remain constant across B2B and B2C marketing, but the specific strategies and tactics differ because the audience is different.
- Decision-makers. Generally speaking, in B2C, one individual makes purchase decisions. In B2B, there are often many people involved in decision-making. Purchase decisions have to be sent up the management chain for approval and may require team input. The effort involved in deciding to purchase a new software for your sales team is generally greater than what’s involved in the decision to buy new eyeglasses.
- Sales cycle. Because there’s only one decision-maker involved, the B2C sales cycle can be quite short. There is, of course, some variance in length—which often correlates to the price point of the item being marketed. The B2B sales cycle is longer, as it normally requires layers of input and approval.
- Brand strategy. B2C branding often speaks to customer emotions. B2B branding, by contrast, appeals to customers’ intellect, using data and formal case studies to show how the product or service is the reliable solution to a real or perceived pain point.
Creating a B2B marketing plan
There is no one-size-fits-all marketing plan that guarantees success for every B2B company. Still, the basics of creating a marketing plan are broadly applicable to most B2B companies.
1. Determine brand positioning
Brand positioning is what helps your product and brand stand out from the competition. Think about what problem your product or service is solving and what makes it unique—in other words, which pain points it addresses and what makes it different from other solutions. This might mean focusing on your superior quality, excellent customer service, ease of implementation, or competitive pricing. If your product has many use cases, you may develop multiple versions of your positioning.
2. Define target audience
Your target audience is your ideal customer. Many attributes could define them: industry, size of the company, locations where they do business, annual revenue, and years in operation. Your target audience likely has a problem that your product or service can solve or a need it can meet.
3. Develop channel strategies
Once you know who your target audience is, you have to figure out how and where to reach them. This is where marketing channels come in.
Marketing channels are ways of distributing content, and they include:
- Social media. LinkedIn is often the most-used social media platform for B2B marketers since it’s a work-focused social network. But B2B marketers may also tap into Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media networks to reach their audiences. Social media is both an organic channel (meaning you don’t have to pay to use it) and a paid channel (meaning you can pay to distribute content beyond your follower base).
- Email. B2B marketers can use email to circulate content and messaging to those who have shared their email with the business. You might initially touch base with a welcome email for new subscribers and follow up with webinar invitations or share new blog posts.
- Paid advertising. B2B marketers can buy advertising on search engines or even run display ads on websites that are relevant to their audiences. For example, a New York City–based digital ad agency could pay for its website to be the #1 result when someone searches “digital ad agencies NYC.”
- Blog. A blog is a channel that doesn’t necessarily do the work of distributing content—but it is a hub of content that a marketer can send potential customers to. There, you can publish everything from SEO-driven content to widen the top of your funnel to product comparisons (you versus the competition) to close a purchase.
4. Create content pieces and assets
Forty-two percent of B2B buyers say they typically consume three to five pieces of content before communicating with sales. For many prospective buyers, these assets are their first meaningful interaction with your brand. The way to stand out is to make sure that you’re offering something genuinely valuable. Common content formats include the following:
- Blog posts are articles that you publish yourself. These can be of varying length and tackle topics related to your business. Executives might author thought leadership blogs to communicate big ideas or share how your brand sees the future. Your product marketing team might author blog posts about recently released features.
- Gated content requires potential buyers to fill out a form before accessing it. Because customers are providing you with something valuable—their contact information, industry, or job title—the content they unlock should be very valuable to them—something above and beyond what’s available on your blog, like a white paper or ebook. Once someone gives you their information, you can use marketing automation to send them a series of emails to nurture the relationship.
- Video and podcasts can help you reach people who might prefer to watch or listen to content rather than read it. These multimedia formats can help nurture relationships with potential customers and move them further along the buyer’s journey.
- Webinars—which are live video events—can function like gated content, as participants are often required to give their email to access.
5. Execute campaign
A campaign is a marketing initiative focused on a central key idea. A typical campaign might begin with the publication of some marquis content like a white paper, which you promote on your social channels, through automated email marketing, and with paid ads. To account for the longer selling cycle of B2B transactions, a campaign of this nature might run from six to nine weeks, and you would prioritize the social channels that your target audience research indicated were most important to your ideal buyer.
For something more involved, like a webinar, you might promote it on social, email, and paid ads for two weeks before the event date, then ramp up email and social the day of the event, and follow up periodically with email content targeted to attendees for the next several days or weeks.
6. Measure and improve
Once your content is live in the wild, you’ll monitor its performance and make decisions about how to maximize its reach. Is your ad creative on LinkedIn not driving the amount of traffic you expected? You might adjust the creative and see if it improves performance.
B2B marketing best practices
Although B2B customers are companies rather than individuals, it’s important to remember:
- Through analytics and well-crafted marketing, B2B purchase decisions can be predicted, measured, and improved upon.
- Everything starts with your audience. Develop a deep understanding of their motivations, their pain points, and the things they care about most.
- The decision to buy is a journey. Thoughtfully design each phase to keep potential customers engaged as they move through your marketing funnel.
- Monitor performance and iterate until you find what really works.
Ultimately, decision-makers are still humans. Speak to them as such.