The B2B struggle: Why are marketers still under pressure to prove their value?

Marketing Week research sponsored by Omobono examines how B2B marketers can start driving business strategy instead of merely being told to execute it.

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The UK’s business to business (B2B) marketers are slowly managing to impress on their leadership the importance of marketing to overall company health, but there remains a great deal of work to do. That was the finding of exclusive research conducted by Marketing Week and sponsored by Omobono, a creative and marketing technology company for the B2B sector.

Nearly two-fifths of the UK’s B2B marketers (39%) feel marketing is seen as very important by their organisation and a further 33% as fairly important. Fewer than a tenth of respondents claim it is seen as unimportant.

Progress has been made over the past two years, with 63% of respondents remarking that there has been an increase in confidence in the role marketing plays in B2B success. That said, during a roundtable to discuss the findings, B2B executives unanimously agreed that getting recognition and sponsorship of marketing strategies from decision makers remained an uphill battle.

“The difference between business to consumer (B2C) and B2B marketing is that, in the former, the management gets why you’re doing it. In B2B it’s about convincing the sales guy that people don’t just buy based on a list of functionalities,” said Colin Lewis, CMO, OpenJaw Technologies.

Omobono’s chairman and founder, Francesca Brosan, agrees, noting that the drawn-out sales process also has a lot to do with the B2B marketer’s struggle: “In B2B you have a longer sales cycle and a smaller group of customers that you’re selling to. How do you keep that relationship going? Sales people tend to feel as though they’re the ones keeping that relationship going, independent of what marketing does. But they’re not acknowledging that marketing gets them in the room in the first place.”

b2b marketing

Not all B2B companies are laggards when it comes to accepting the impact of marketing. “Our main aim is to increase brand awareness and leads. We are [venture capital-]funded so marketing is the driving force of the company,” claimed Chandni Trehan, marketing manager at email security platform Tessian.

Roland van Breukelen, marketing director at SAP Hybris, meanwhile, spoke of a need “to change the dynamic in the relationship” between marketing and other functions in B2B brands, noting that marketing “is often seen as subservient, but I want us to be perceived as peers”.

READ MORE: Why there is ‘no excuse for misalignment’ between marketing and sales

Yet, as Vistaprint head of UK marketing Oliver Harcourt pointed out, in the end it tends to come down to numbers: “If marketing has a more commercial impact on the business then they have a seat at the table.”

Indeed, while the research finds that B2B marketing departments are influential as a rule, with 64% of respondents agreeing, more than a third (36%) say they are only somewhat or not very influential. Measuring business impact is their biggest challenge, with internal sell-in a close second (23% and 20% respectively). Commercial proof points are becoming increasingly important in the B2B marketer’s arsenal.

The attribution challenge

Executives at the roundtable noted that they find themselves in something of a ‘catch 22’ situation. On the one hand, measurement and attribution is absolutely vital to embedding marketing as pivotal to success, but it also suffers from ‘Cinderella’ syndrome.

Jonathon Palmer, head of global strategy at Omobono, explained: “Clients simply don’t have time to measure a project after we complete it. Pressures of time mean they look at the numbers but also haven’t taken the time to find out what defines success up front. How are they going to measure that? It’s pushed to the back.”

I do want people who are passionate about marketing but I also want them to be passionate about the business.

Zoe Jones, DCM

Again, the length of sales cycle seems to be a major roadblock: “It’s the driver. In B2C you get a hit every minute. I’d get a text every hour to say what worked and what didn’t,” said OpenJaw’s Lewis, describing his time in consumer marketing.

Meanwhile, Lauren Bigland, head of marketing at LoopMe, admitted: “Tracking and so on are a cost that marketers have to pay for and I find that quite a challenge. The money I spend on tracking I could actually spend on doing an activation.”

Hesitancy to engage with attribution is down to more than just time or allocation of funds. The ability to get meaningful and accurate representation of marketing effectiveness appears limited, according to the survey results. More than half of respondents are not very confident or only somewhat confident (57%) they have accurate figures when measuring return on investment. In the same vein, only 5% say they are very confident.

b2b challenge

“In the past we were short-term focused when we looked at attribution,” Vistaprint’s Harcourt admitted. “We were only looking at what drove the sale. We have realised over time that we’re very transactional and we need to build a brand and a relationship. We need to evolve our marketing into short- and long-term goals, commercial and brand goals. Things like search have fantastic data and there’s a lot of confidence but other channels are far newer and there’s very little data.”

Critically, Marketing Week’s research shows that the needle has hardly moved when it comes to confidence in ROI measurement. Only 12% of respondents believe there has been a large increase in confidence over the last two years, while 43% have experienced no change at all.

“The problems are sophisticated,” said Lewis. “For some it’s a discussion around where the demand is coming from and that can be a grey area because a sale might only happen once every three months. I’m not sure that attribution is a great use of my time but there is a spectrum of need.”

Changing channels

The dizzying array of channels available to marketers in general may be responsible for the ongoing attribution debate. Attendees at the roundtable felt that B2B sectors lagged behind their B2C counterparts in being able to exploit marketing channels to their fullest. “We’re not leveraging digital as much as B2C companies are,” explained Prachi Prasad, learning and development partner at Vodafone, but she added: “It has shifted in terms of producing more webinars, videos and podcasts rather than just sponsoring an event.”

“The customer journey is so different [in B2B and B2C],” added LoopMe’s Bigland. “We have a very active social media platform but I don’t think we generate sales from it. As a consumer marketer you can see that sales have been driven [from social] but in B2B it’s interesting but it’s not a key sales driver. The customer journey defines where we have to grow skills.”

Attribution

The research indicates that B2B marketers are starting to explore a wider range of tools and platforms. Respondents say that two years ago, email marketing dominated as the channel they found the most effective (58%) followed by developing their corporate website (36%) and content marketing (35%).

Fast-forward to today and content marketing has dramatically leapfrogged email marketing (58% to 41%) and the scores for online video and podcasts are 2.5 times higher (35%). Interestingly, despite Bigland’s belief that social media isn’t a key sales driver, it is still viewed as an effective channel by 39% of respondents.

READ MORE: How to use email marketing effectively

Inevitably, though, it is an effective marketing mix that really delivers and B2B is no exception. Jon Brooks, head of marketing at Reed Specialist Recruitment, said: “When all we do is email, we may only get a small retention rate. When we call them, that rate goes up quite a bit and when we meet with them, it goes up a lot.

“On email we can control, attribute and get lots of information but [its effect is] smaller than creating materials that support our consultants in a meeting. We can’t track how long that client has looked at that material but you have to say there’s still a lot of value in it.”

B2B marketing has a reputation for being ‘hands-on’, valuing the personal touch. However much it adopts new technologies, it’s clear that personal contact is still important.

Zoe Jones, marketing and insight director at Digital Cinema Media, said: “Face-to-face is a huge part of our strategy. We’re in the cinema business with venues all over the UK and we spend a lot of time and effort on experience, creating exciting content and events, but it still has to live up to that experience.”

Customer focus

Ultimately, all attendees agreed that the work that goes into adapting to new channels and measuring performance are a means to an end: focusing on the customer. For Tessian’s Trehan, it isn’t just important – it’s a key driver of business: “Customer experience is really important. Everything we do is down to word of mouth.”

For some, customer experience is the missing link whose absence has made marketing more of an uphill challenge than it needed to be. “Marketing can help with setting customer expectations which impacts customer experience. There was a disconnect between what we thought we were selling versus what clients were actually getting from us,” Reed Specialist Recruitment’s Brooks admitted.

Survey respondents agree with the sentiment of executives around the table. A minority (18%) say customer experience is barely or not embedded at all, while it is increasing in importance for the vast majority (74%). Emma Raw, assistant director of digital marketing at EY, added: “It is now becoming a core focus. There has been an attitude [in B2B] that you’re speaking to a business and not a person. We need to think of these people as people.”

Marketing can help with setting customer expectations which impacts customer experience.

Jon Brooks, Reed Specialist Recruitment

The enthusiasm for experience isn’t without its challenges. “Trying to change out of old models has a huge impact on short-term commercial aspects. When you look at net promoter score you see the metrics catch up and make up for that deficit. It needs a bit of patience,” warned Vistaprint’s Harcourt.

Ownership of the customer experience may also be hindering marketers’ progress in effecting change, as 66% think sales at least partially owns it, while customer services also has a strong showing at 52%.

“We have lengthy sales engagements and people who have been with us for 30 years. We see experience in a different way and we’re an essential part of setting that expectation. Our funnel should feed into [sales’] funnel, which should eventually feed into a services funnel. I’m hoping we see a shift away from a sales funnel to an end-to-end funnel,” states SAP’s van Breukelen

Skills shortage

It’s all very well to say B2B marketers should be working with all the tools available but in the past, finding marketers with the skills to either use technologies or operate in a B2B culture has been challenging.

“People going into the marketing profession aren’t being taught about the B2B sector, let alone the subsets of it,” LoopMe’s Bigland complained. The right skills are critical because, as OpenJaw’s Lewis put it: “If you don’t understand segmentation marketing you’re not going to be able to convince the boss. If you don’t have the fundamentals, you’ll struggle.”

Of the 568 B2B marketers in Marketing Week’s survey, 91% are confident that on some level their teams have the skill set needed for the future. The largest proportion are only fairly confident (53%) however, which indicates that it’s an ongoing challenge.

b2b skills

Marketing may well be subject to the same paradigm shifts as any other profession, as standard educational routes and work experience shift. “If you look at any reports on the future of work, some new entrants are going to have so many careers over the next 15 years, so the skill to change from one to the other will be important.” DCM’s Jones added.

“I don’t look for people who are marketing-trained. I just look for talent. I do want people who are passionate about marketing but I also want them to be passionate about the business.”

Do you want to celebrate the impact of B2B marketing? Enter the B2B category in Marketing Week’s Masters of Marketing Awards, which are open for entries until this Friday (18 May). For more information and to enter go to www.festivalofmarketing.com/masters 

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Comments
  • Julian Pratt 16 May 2018 at 9:35 am

    “39% feel marketing is seen as very important by their organisation and a further 33% as fairly important.”

    Considering *marketing* is how businesses “understand, stimulate and satisfy customer demand profitably” – wtf are the rest of them doing?

    Marketing IS your business. The rest is just overheads.

  • Simon Carter 16 May 2018 at 11:57 am

    As usual it comes back to the definition of “Marketing”.

    In B2C it tends to be a more commercial role, with P&L and trading responsibility – this is much less common in B2B. Likewise, B2C brands (usually) have larger budgets, so their marketers are taken more seriously, as they are investing big sums on behalf of the business. In B2B, Marketing can “hide” (or can be forgotten), as it has less bearing on day-to-day trading, and its long-term impact on the brand is often forgotten in the heat of battle.

    B2B brands where the leadership team are more enlightened… and/or B2B Marketers who have the gravitas to get their head stuck into everything from helping the macho sales people sell more effectively, to helping the CFO know where to invest, to helping the CEO to build the profile of their business – all help put B2B Marketers on the radar.

    The sad truth is that all of this is much easier with B2C brands… so in many ways, a Marketer who has succeeded in B2B will have demonstrated broader tenacity, greater resilience and is better armed for the world, than someone has had it all their own way in an enlightened B2C brand…

  • Francesca Brosan 25 May 2018 at 7:27 pm

    Thanks for the comments Julian/Simon. As you say Simon, the sad truth is that marketing is still something that many organisations struggle to get their heads around. As one respondent put it” Still very myopic view of what the customer wants. More aligned to what we can sell them.” Sadly that comment wasn’t uncharacteristic. But B2B marketers in B2C organisations tell us that marketing is better viewed in their organisations (55% vs 43% for pure-play B2B agree that marketing is ‘very important’). Register at http://www.omobono.com/www2018 if you’d like to see the full research.

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