You’ve worked tirelessly to plan, produce, and package your B2B product. It’s time to scale the tallest building in your city and announce that it’s ready for big time.
Except that’s not how it works it all, and you know it.
The first most critical step in your B2B marketing strategy is to set a workable and measurable plan, and that’s what I’m going to help you do here.
And it all starts with your customer.
Here’s a quick overview of what you’ll need to do in order to set a B2B marketing strategy that actually works:
- Define your customer and what they want
- Review the competition
- Identify your competitive strengths
- Set your goals
- Choose your channels
- Launch and reassess
And when I get there, I’ll not only describe the different channels you can use in your B2B marketing strategy, but I’ll also tell you why you should or shouldn’t choose them.
Let’s dig in.
The Beginning: Getting Clear About Your Customer
So let’s get this out of the way: we’re word nerds.
We study words, how they affect people, and the systems of thought behind words.
A big chunk of the work we do is to understand how people feel and talk. We want to know what they want, the jobs that products do for them, and why they make the decisions they make. Words, of course, help tell the story at every step of the way.
Words, you see, are crucial to fully understanding your customer. And importantly, the words that they use are more important than the words you use.
Customer Words > Your Words
I only say this because we’re biased in the way we think about marketing and how it works. It’s really common to think that the job of a marketer is to convince. That’s wrong. Our job is to understand and reflect.
Assuming you have a moral compass and a sprinkle of patience, the latter model will create authentic empathy and understanding between you and customers.
What does this have to do with understanding your customers? You have to actually talk to them. When you do, the goal is to understand things like:
- Why do people buy my product?
- What job do they need it to do?
- What do people if they don’t buy my product?
- What are the specific words people use to describe my product?
- If they recommend my product, what do they say?
- What are the obstacles for people to buy?
- How do people shop for products like mine?
- Where do people go for information on products like mine?
The bottom line is that you want need to have a thorough understanding of your ideal customer before you can move on to set any strategy. Pay particular attention to the bolded questions above – they are critical for the rest of your strategy.
Why? Because setting your strategy is all about connecting with the right people.
Review the Competition
The kinds of marketing you do and channels you use will depend on who you’re trying to reach. What you do with those channels will depend on your customers and the competition.
Now, we don’t subscribe to the idea that you should only pursue a market position if it’s completely original and untouched. Blue Ocean is good, but you still have to give people what they want. If a market position is completely unoccupied, it might be a sign that there’s something wrong with it. But we do think positioning is super important.
Why do you need to position effectively? To be remembered and provide value, of course. To occupy a specific space in someone’s mind. If you don’t, you’ll be forgotten because all of this happened just today:
- You saw 362 ads
- 140,000 websites were launched
- 2 million blog posts were published
- 1 billion emails were sent
The point is that there’s a ton of noise out there, and your job in creating your B2B marketing strategy is to successfully cut through the noise. The specific channels and strategy you use will partially be determined by your best options to stand out from the competition.
When you review your competition to sleuth out the best strategy for your business, you’ll be looking for things like:
- Which channels do they use?
- Who are they targeting?
- What do they say and how do they say it?
- What types of media do they use?
- What’s working and not working?
- Where does their traffic come from?
Identify Your Competitive Strengths (and Weaknesses)
Now that you know who your customer is and what your competition is doing to serve and market to your customer, you should have a pretty good idea of your competitive strengths. With this in mind, you’ll create a position for your business.
A position is pretty simple: it answers the question “Why you?”
Everyone’s going to ask it, so you better have a compelling answer. Your answer will naturally lend itself to the topics and messages you choose to cover in your B2B marketing strategy.
And you may say, “do I really need to create a positioning statement?” Definitely not, but if you don’t then your customers and prospects will create one for you. Quick warning though: it’ll be different for each of them, and may totally suck or be inaccurate. Take control of this one.
Often, positioning comes down to a few huge factors:
- Ease of use
- Company identity
So for instance, our positioning statement is “We do the tough, in-depth customer research that other agencies avoid. The result? Marketing that works.” So we’ve differentiated on process and efficacy – just check out our case studies here and here.
Generally speaking, you should only attempt to position on 2-3 factors. One isn’t enough, and beyond 3 is pushing it because it’s too much for anyone to remember (and probably not very believable).
Set Your Goals
We’ve almost reached the part when you can commit your B2B marketing strategy to paper…but we’re not quite there yet.
Don’t worry…we’ll be there soon.
Setting goals is perhaps the most important thing you can do before you start marketing. The reason is that you want to be crystal clear about what you’re trying to accomplish. I often hear people say things like, “We need a social media strategy.” To which I always respond, “Why?”
Instead of choosing channels (which we’ll get to next), it’s critical to understand what you want to achieve in the first place. So rather than setting yourself up for a ton of unfocused work on social media or SEO, lay out the results you want and work backwards from there.
Your goals should be SMART goals, meaning they’re at least somewhat measurable so that you know if you’re headed in the right direction. At a minimum, you should understand things like:
- The amount of leads and sales you need to make a marketing campaign worth your time
- Your available resources to produce the content needed
- Your appetite for brand building and fast v. slow wins
- How your marketing strategy aligns with sales
So when setting a goal, you should understand if it strategically aligns with your business, then get specific about the goal itself. For example:
If you’re not at the stage where you can get quite this granular (like so many of our startup friends!), don’t sweat it. Just keep in mind which of the major levers you want to pull, because you can only optimize for one thing at a time.
Looking at Hubspot’s customer lifecycle model is really helpful here:
To translate, each of the stages really amounts to a specific business outcome that you’re looking to achieve:
- Attract – get more people to see your offer
- Convert – get more people to express direct interest in your offer
- Close – get more people to buy
- Delight – get more people to make repeat purchases and send referrals
As I said, you can only optimize for one of the goals. That’s worth repeating…
You can only optimize for one business outcome at a time.
This is one of the most puzzling and pressing problems to solve in business, and before you pull the trigger on a marketing campaign you should understand which lever to pull. Do you need more traffic? More leads? More sales? More repeat business?
Of course it’s true that optimizing for one will naturally lead to increases in other categories. For example, if you focus on increasing your traffic, you will almost certainly see increases in leads and sales too. But you can only optimize for traffic when you’re focused on that.
Okay…got it? Good. Now you’re ready to move on to the fun part and choose channels and marketing tactics.
Marketing Channels: Making Your B2B Marketing Strategy Real
This is the part you’ve no doubt been waiting for…choosing channels and tactics. I won’t cover every possible marketing channel and tactic here, but if you’d like an encyclopedic look at the subject be sure to read Traction. It’s not a very insightful marketing book, but it’s a great desk reference. Onward.
For the purpose of this article, I’ll focus on digital marketing with the intention of getting visitors, leads and sales.
Since that’s our focus, we can narrow down the channels available. And the cool thing is that the channels align to the different stages of the customer lifecycle above. Keep in mind this isn’t an exhaustive list, but it covers the pillars of any effective B2B marketing strategy.
Your primary marketing channels are (and what they bring):
- Organic search and SEO (visits)
- Search Engine Marketing (visits, leads, and/or sales)
- Social Media (visits)
- Paid Social (visits, leads, and/or sales)
- Email (sales, repeat sales, and/or referrals)
- Content (visits and leads)
- Outbound Sales (leads and sales)
Now let’s have a look at each of the marketing channels to see which will work for you.
Organic Search and SEO
This is usually what people mean when they say they need to get more traffic. Organic search traffic is sent to your site when someone conducts a search on a site like Google, your site comes up in the results, and they click through.
As you may imagine, coming up in a search and getting someone to visit your site is a highly valuable visit as compared to other sources. So the first step in pursuing organic traffic is deciding on the most valuable keywords, then which ones you can realistically rank.
For instance, if you’re selling left-handed ice cream scoops then you’re not in a very competitive niche (although even that search produces 140k results). But if you’re selling project management software, you’re too late to the game to rank for that term as a starting strategy. Instead, you’ll need to look for long tail opportunities.
Here’s a great graphic from Elliance.com to illustrate the long tail:
The implication for SEO is that you’d want to target “project management software for freelancers” rather than just “project management software.” Sure, you’ll get less traffic with longer keywords, but you have a higher likelihood of ranking. As you may have already figured out, the keyword I targeted on this blog post is “B2B marketing strategy,” definitely a long tail keyword.
SEO and organic search traffic should be part of your long term strategy. Once you start to see the benefits of it, it’ll be well worth your time.
Keep in mind, too, that there are technical aspects of SEO as well. Google is more likely to rank your pages if your site loads fast, is easy to index, and if you have things like alt tags on your images. You can see a full rundown of SEO ranking factors on Brian Dean’s fantastic article here.
Do SEO now if: you have the time, energy, and patience to slowly chip away at it. SEO is a crucial part of every inbound campaign and it takes time, so you’d better be committed for a full year before you can expect to see it pay off.
Do NOT do SEO now if: you’re looking for a quick win. Look elsewhere for fast or immediate results.
Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
Let’s say you completely buy into the power of search engine traffic, but you don’t have time to sit on your hands and wait until your site ranks and Google decides to start sending you traffic.
Good news! You can get search traffic immediately. As in zero waiting time.
But of course you have to pay for it. So instead of waiting to be ranked for a particular keyword, you can pay your way in. If it’s a competitive keyword that shows high intent to buy, your bids for the keyword can get pretty pricey. Here’s what a paid search result looks like:
Two other flavors of paid ads through search engines are:
- Display network – ads that show up on relevant content (i.e. a real estate ad shows up on a real estate blog, even though the user didn’t specifically search for it)
- Retargeting – ads that follow your website visitors after they leave your website
Since you’re paying for every click and visit, it’s critical that you use a direct sales or lead gen model. That means you send people to a landing page with the specific intent of getting them closer to a sale, which 100% of the time means getting them to fill out a form at a minimum.
Do SEM if: you have the budget to spend and are willing to closely monitor the results of your paid campaigns. You should also do SEM if time is more valuable than money. That is to say, it’s worth it for you to spend money in order to get faster results. SEM also has the advantage of being an on/off switch: when you turn it on, people will see your offer. That can be a really powerful advantage.
Do NOT do SEM if: you’re deathly afraid of losing money. You’re going to lose money in the process, and the learning process isn’t free with SEM. Be prepared to spend a few months at least a few thousand dollars a month just to find a campaign that works for you with sufficient traffic.
You’ll hear a lot of people say that social media is all about relationships, and they’re all right. I’m in a relationship. My wife and I got married in 2014, and one thing I can tell you about our relationship is that it too requires a lot of time. Every relationship does.
Whether you choose social media depends largely on whether your customers are there. In SEO and SEM, for sure your customers use those channels every day. Maybe not in social media.
Here’s a graphic from Social Media B2B that shows which B2B industries are on social media (you can view the full size graphic here):
As you can see, you probably wouldn’t choose social media as a primary marketing channel if you’re selling energy or chemicals. Other industries, like professional services and software (our fav!), are more active on social media.
Beyond just choosing whether or not to use social media as a marketing channel, you’ll also need to choose which network to focus on. In other words, you won’t have a social media strategy so much as you’ll have a Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn strategy.
For B2B marketers, there’s nothing like LinkedIn. You can laser target prospects and start conversations with them in just a few clicks. It works both as a marketing broadcast tool and as a prospecting and direct sales tool.
Do social media marketing if: your audience is actively engaged with and responsive to social media. You’ll need the time to create relationships, nurture them, and share tremendous amounts of content. If you don’t like to create content, social media allows you the opportunity to share helpful content without being the author.
Do NOT do social media marketing if: you want fast results and a direct selling model. As I emphasized here, social media is largely about developing relationships. You should use a tool like Buffer to painlessly promote your content whenever you hit publish, but that’s quite a bit different than making social media a primary marketing channel.
Remember the whole discussion about how SEM works? Quick recap: someone types in a search, and you, the advertiser, get to show them an ad relevant that search. In this case, the user is specifically looking for something related to your ad in the very moment your ad shows up.
We like to call that intent – that is, we show a relevant ad in a moment when the person has intent to find that exact information. It’s really powerful.
Now write this down: paid social doesn’t work like that.
Rather than surfacing ads based on user intent, paid social targets users based on demographic data, group membership, interests, or any other dimension of information people voluntarily give up.
So for example, if you wanted to show ads to CXOs at Fortune 1500 companies on the West Coast, you could easily do that with LinkedIn. If you wanted to show ads to 35-60 year old women who are members of Facebook’s Knitting Club group, you could do that on Facebook. That group, btw, has 861k likes at the time of publishing this article.
So in short, social media paid ads can be a really good way to target people based on their demographic info, but it’s interruption marketing. That is, when the person sees your ad they weren’t specifically interested in that information when they saw it. You’re interrupting them, like a car commercial on TV. Here’s an example from my Facebook news feed:
I have an Infusionsoft ad in my feed because I’ve visited the site before, and probably because I am interested in related topics and have liked similar pages. Same with Touch of Modern; I was on their site the other day looking at some filet mignon beef jerky. The How to Get Consulting Clients Fast ad, on the other hand, is most likely the result of targeting based strictly on interests and demographics.
Like SEM, paid social ads can run up costs pretty quickly and need to be monitored. We’ve found that clicks from Facebook can be purchased relatively cheaply, but be prepared for low conversion rates even if you’re able to tame and minimize your CPL (cost per lead).
Do use paid social if: you’re prepared to initiate a direct sales or lead gen model. Like SEM, you’re paying for every click, download, contact request, etc., so your goal is either sales or form completions. If you have the budget, this is an especially good way to test marketing campaigns long before you have organic traffic. It’s also a good way to get in front of a highly targeted audience well before you have market awareness.
Do not use paid social if: you got scared when I warned you about reasons not to use SEM. The same logic applies here. There’s going to be cost, failure, and a few weeks or months of trial and error before you find a campaign that sticks.
Email and Marketing Automation
Now this is where the magic happens.
Let’s say you’re using a combination of paid ads and organic traffic. You’re either working really hard to get people to your site, or you’re paying for some visitors to be there. Once you get them to convert into a subscriber, lead, or customer…you’ve done it.
But wait. Have you really?
Email marketing and marketing automation are huge topics in their own right. Just know this: of all of the channels I’ve mentioned, email is the most effective. Now I couldn’t say definitively if it will be the most effective channel for you, but it’s hard to argue with a $38 return for every $1 spent.
I’d be the first to point out that there are lots of problems with this calculation, but the point stands: email just plain works.
If you have a website and do anything else I’ve listed here, it’s imperative that you have some degree of an email strategy. No exceptions. [gets down from his soapbox]
We’re really partial to Hubspot as an email marketing and automation solution, but there are tons of great platforms out there that have advanced features. The beauty and power of a CRM and marketing automation platform is in the hyper targeting. Looking for someone who has visited your pricing page? No problem, we can sell to them over email automatically.
This is where the power of email and marketing automation really come in. Pairing the ability to communicate instantly to someone’s inbox with the ability to observe their behavior and make that communication highly relevant is pretty amazing. Just use your power responsibly.
Email marketing comes in many different flavors – here’s a slide deck I put together with a deeper look at email marketing options. All you really need to know at this point is there are two main types of emails: newsletters and automation emails.
Newsletters are created on an ongoing basis, and automation emails are triggered by specific events. You should really have a plan for both, and you can get email automation as cheap as $1 with this amazing tool.
You should use email marketing if: you have any interest in building a modern, successful B2B business. I don’t see any way you can effectively market your company without it. It’s the most scalable platform with immediate, direct communication.
You should NOT use email marketing if: you like to lose. Who likes to lose?
Hopefully this cliche is old enough that I can safely use it again: “Content is king.”
My only beef with this trite and overused catchphrase is that all marketing has involved content from the beginning of time. [gets down from soapbox again]
What you’re reading now is content marketing. Webinars, ebooks, videos, articles, case studies, white papers – all content marketing. And the purpose of all of them is some combination of:
- Generating search traffic
- Demonstrating your expertise and thought leadership
- Delivering free and scalable value to your audience and their friends
- Creating an understanding of how your company/product is different
- Showing how your product/service works
- Answering commonly asked questions with an in-depth response
Unless you’re doing strictly outbound sales, you can’t have a B2B marketing strategy without some degree of content. No way, totally impossible, can’t be done.
Now, when people say “content marketing” they typically mean blog marketing and promotion of gated content (i.e. content only accessible through a form completion). But content is basically everywhere. It’s the words, pictures, interactive pieces of websites, videos, and more that make up the story of your brand and online presence. Heck, content marketing even includes physical handouts you have at your conference table.
It should also be pointed out that any article content you create is an inseparable part of an effective SEO strategy. So if you choose organic traffic as a key channel, you’re also doing content marketing.
Do content marketing if: you want to control the conversation and information that your audience receives about your market, company, and product. You do want that, right?
Do NOT do content marketing if: you’re not willing to spend 2-10x more time on content than your competitors. If you don’t, your content is going to fall flat because, simply put, it’s almost all been done at this point. To illustrate, this article is well over 20 pages, or 4,200+ words.
I almost left this off the list because it’s not really marketing, but it works a lot like marketing.
Aaron Ross changed the game for many drooling 20-something-meatheads when he wrote Predictable Revenue. It’s a fantastic book and a genius plan that he worked out, and it helped to dramatically grow revenue at Salesforce.
It’s basically a sales tactic because it’s 1-on-1 and requires humans to be involved, but it’s also highly scalable.
It works like this: you create huge lists of qualified prospects and email them directly. Your goal is to get them to respond, then drop them into your sales process. That’s it.
This works really well if it’s expensive to reach your ideal customers and you’re willing to trash the credibility of an email server or three. Be careful, though, because you need a world-class sales process and the appetite to build a giant sales team. Of 20,881 Salesforce employees listed on LinkedIn, 7,038 have “sales” in their title.
Do outbound sales if: you have a well defined and effective sales process. If you have busy, hard-to-reach, ad-blind customers, then this could be a really effective way to drum up business.
Do NOT do outbound sales if: you don’t want to build a sales-heavy organization. Done at scale, outbound sales requires several dedicated sales roles to pre-qualify, qualify, and close prospects.
Setting Your B2B Marketing Strategy
As you can see, your strategy requires lots of homework and conscious, strategic decisions before you can even attempt a campaign, let alone choose your channels.
At a minimum, I suggest getting clear about your customer, reviewing the competition, and setting goals before you begin marketing.
If you’ve already done all of this, update your competitive research to see what new opportunities are available to you in the market. With this in mind, you’ll be ready to craft the B2B marketing strategy that’ll accelerate your growth and help you better connect with customers.