Sardine fishing in a storm: How B2B marketing will change after the pandemic

20th May 2020

B2B marketers must use the current disruption to shift their habits and focus on more effective ways of working and communicating.

The ground has shifted. We’ve spent the last six weeks trying to find our feet and now we are just starting to lift our heads.

As we peer towards the horizon, we can see a global recession looming. It is not yet clear how big it will be or what damage it will wreak but we’ll be competing in a different market. Part of our job as marketers will be to figure out what the path to growth looks like in the post-pandemic era.

So, having wiped my crystal ball down with appropriate antiseptic cleaner, here are a few early thoughts on what changes we might see in B2B marketing communications.


Rolling micro-segmentation

French philosopher Eric Cantona once said: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” (He made the comment at a press conference, having just learned he would do 120 hours’ community service for jumping over the hoardings and kung-fu kicking a fan during a football match.)

Many column inches have since been devoted to what Monsieur Cantona meant by this. To me, if he meant anything, he meant that people go where the action is. They will search where they expect to find reward.

For the longest time, B2B segmentation has been crude, based on industry, geography and some simple firmographics like revenue. Before the crisis, we were starting to see that change. More marketers are making use of behavioural data to create predictive models that build segments based on customer needs.

The crisis will accelerate this trend. For many marketers, the patterns of growth and spending in their market will have shifted. Some companies will thrive, many others will struggle; the right companies to target will have changed. To borrow Eric’s analogy, it will be a different set of vessels that have a surfeit of fish to feast on. So how do we figure out which boats to follow and where to get the best fish-nosh now?

The one thing we can be sure of is that there will continue to be volatility, driven by uncertainty about the future. We will have continued disruption, lasting changes in consumer behaviour, the threat of returning to lockdown at a moment’s notice. The seas in which we hunt our proverbial fishing trawlers will remain choppy. This fast-changing scenario suits a rolling approach to segmentation, where small segments are created regularly and refreshed as contextual factors change.

“Our communications since coronavirus began have had more immediacy. We all seem to be a bit more down-to-earth and I hope we keep hold of this.”

We can now target based on more nuanced data, with tailored value propositions to match. It might become more productive to segment on a business’s personality: the demographic make-up of its customers, for example, or its digital maturity.

Many will already have lead queues generated in their CRM from intent-based data sources. These feeds are of limited efficacy alone – the opportunity is to combine this type of data with better qualitative insight. To identify the right time and place to join the conversation, and to have an operating model that can act on the intelligence swiftly and effectively.

It is of course entirely possible that Eric was just having a laugh, but the point about modern methods of sardine hunting stands, I think.

Caveat emptor

For all but the smallest purchases, buying something in a B2B context has never been simple. For the next two years at least, it seems reasonable to conclude it will be even harder.

We have a good idea from the excellent research by Challenger Group that the more people you involve in a decision, the less likely it is one will ever be made. Anecdotally, it’s well established that the biggest competitor in any complex sale is ‘do nothing’. This inertia is only likely to increase as businesses naturally scrutinise any commitment more closely.

Gartner have for some time been talking about ‘buyer enablement’ as a category. I like the term because it puts the focus on the customer, and now it seems pertinent. For Gartner, buyer enablement means helping buyers complete discrete jobs in the buying process. Buyers will need relevant details and clear value cases to share with their peers and convince everyone that what they are suggesting is a safe bet.

It also has implications for the type of propositions we develop. Buyers are likely to act on problems of the right shape: big enough to be important but tractable enough to deliver tangible results within a year. It’s an idea called the ‘minimum viable problem’, developed here by Bob Apollo of consultancy Inflexion-Point, and it seems a particularly useful concept in the current environment.

No more thought leadership

Our communications since coronavirus began have had more immediacy. We all seem to be a bit more down-to-earth and I hope we keep hold of this. If it’s acceptable to have your child interrupt your video call, it’s acceptable to say it like it is, without bombast.

I think we are putting aside the concept of thought leadership, which now seems somewhat pompous in its ambition. We have replaced it with helpfulness, utility, connecting with people, offering them something of value, entertaining them. This is liberating for anyone in the communications game. Suddenly it’s OK not to have a didactic ‘message’ in every communication; it’s enough for it to be useful, or empathetic, or just fun.

Rhiannon Prothero, VP of EMEA marketing at ServiceNow, put it well in the first episode of the ‘Inside B2B’ podcast we recently recorded with Marketing Week. She claimed the crisis has forced B2B marketers towards a greater empathy. We’ve always been good at saying ‘here’s what we have’, now we’re having to ask ‘what do you need?’ and ‘how can we get creative with you to solve your specific problem?’.

The king is dead, long live the queen

It was Bill Gates in 1996 who apparently first coined the phrase ‘content is king’. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean marketing content, but since then it’s become a well-worn cliché.

There’s so much marketing content out there now and, crucially, there’s only so much any sane person can take in their week – no matter how digitally transformed their working practices. The basic laws of supply and demand mean it is harder to compete on content alone (if that were ever sensible).

I would like to propose a different ‘C’ to take its place on the throne: context. In a volatile market that’s increasingly data-rich, the opportunity is there to really embrace contextual factors in the way we design, plan and create our communications. I’m not the first, or the second, or even in the first 100 people to suggest this. But most of the discussion to date has focused on B2C advertising and it is fascinating to apply it in a B2B context.

In his Guardian article, Richard Shotton explains that we tend to underestimate the importance of context due to a psychological trait known as the ‘fundamental attribution error’, which “refers to the widespread, but mistaken, belief that people’s character is more important in explaining their behaviour than the context of their decision”.

Which takes us back to our starting point. We’ve always segmented on ‘character’ (size, sector, personas) but now have the opportunity to target based on context. And the context of a business decision is rich: what’s happening in the market right then, what’s the current buzz topic, what’s the company culture, the office politics.

In a volatile, uncertain world, being able to combine quantitative and qualitative data with relevance and immediacy in your communications might be a recipe for our times.

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