The world of business-to-business communication has always been conducted face-to-face. Until, that is, a global pandemic hit and everything changed. James Bloor looks at what’s next for the B2B environment.
Until the recent events of 2020, most business-to-business communication was stuck in the analogue era of face-to-face interaction. It was a world of in-person meetings, networking events and endless conferences, exhibitions and trade fairs.
But as I’m writing this, all of these, except for perhaps the smallest of meetings and events, aren't going to be happening with any frequency for perhaps another year. The world has changed. And no organisation wants to be known as the source of a new outbreak.
Whilst this is a big problem for many, it’s also a big opportunity
An optimist might think of 2020 as a global experiment, giving us the opportunity to pause, restock and make positive lasting change.
Good businesses have an innate ability to adapt quickly but do so within clear boundaries and only respond creatively when confronted by unexpected, often unwelcome events. Businesses often talk about innovating, but in truth, many of them aren’t very good at it until they’re forced into action.
A recent report from Rory Sutherland, entitled ‘The Objectivity Trap: On the biases and misconceptions that cause us all to undervalue B2B marketing’, introduced a concept that business decision-making has become so caught up in the pretence of efficiency that it has created a model for decision-taking which was creatively limiting. One where the only decisions allowed are those in pursuit of a predefined goal with pre-existing evidence of likely success, and where perfect measurement was possible in retrospect. Sutherland argues that this makes it almost impossible to experiment more widely since, by definition, there is rarely any evidence in support of doing something significantly new.
Amongst other things, perhaps this goes some way to explain why ‘working from home’ hasn’t been so prevalent until now, despite the prior existence of laptops, the Internet, VOIP phones and webcams.
What now for face-to-face in business-to-business?
Face-to-face is the traditional way of doing business. It’s so ingrained in our society that it’s the expected norm, it’s how things have always been done. But it isn't very efficient.
I’ve been surprised a few times during the last few months by the reluctance of some businesses to accept, even temporarily, a break away from the norm. To me, it feels like an opportunity missed not to have used the last six months to try something new in your business, even if you go back to what you were doing afterwards. There seems to be little to gain from stubbornly persisting with the traditional way; you might never get a better opportunity to drive innovation in your business.
Take a typical sales meeting; putting the time and rising costs of travel to one side for a moment, typically we’re only travelling to meet a small handful of people at a time. When such meetings are online, yes, there are disadvantages, but there’s plenty of upside too. A wider group of people can attend when there are no constraints on space. Timings are easier as there’s no travel time. Our collective carbon footprint is reduced. There is never a shortage of meeting rooms. Often, online meetings are less hierarchical.
And how about the world of conferences? I don’t think anyone can argue that the personal touch of a physical conference is lost when moved online but, again, there’s plenty of upside.
Now the world has undergone a crash-course on Zoom and Teams, won’t we all expect future physical events to be streamed online and available ‘on-demand’ afterwards? Your 1,000 person conference in London, requiring everyone to travel to and from the venue on a specific day and time, is suddenly a 200,000 person global online conference that your audience can watch live or on-demand.
Is 2020 the year when businesses wake up to digital transformation, rather than digital reinventionof analogue standards?
And, perhaps, 2020 is the year where B2B marketers begin to rely a little bit less on data, and a little bit more on alchemy?
In the post-Covid world, B2B marketers could experiment with wider audiences, particularly in digital media where a large audience often costs no more than a small one. A probabilistic ‘broad target’ approach might well deliver better longer-term outcomes than a narrow focus on pre-defined audiences.
Peter Weinberg, Global Head, Marketing Development of LinkedIn explains why it pays to take a wider, more probabilistic approach to B2B marketing in his recent article ‘Quantum Marketing’.
In the article, he explains how the marketing directors of tomorrow work somewhere else today. Quite simply, people change jobs over time.
It’s why hyper-targeted B2B tactics, including some forms of account-based marketing, are, by definition, not capable of driving long-term growth. Hyper-targeting is short-term because it excludes future buyers.
Broad-scale targeting may appear wasteful, until it uncovers a completely new source of revenue that you wouldn’t have realised otherwise.
There's a trade-off between knowing your customer and targeting them, versus spreading the net a bit wider and seeing what transpires. In times of crisis, it’s tempting to play it too safe.