It was common for technology industry leaders in business-to-business (B2B), to spend at least 80% of their time traveling and working with clients. They would constantly be looking for qualified leads and new prospects through face-to–face interactions, taking potential clients along to sporting events, and meeting them at annual conferences. Ironically, despite the industry’s high tech nature, little science or technology was involved in the creation of pipelines and closing deals.

The global pandemic has caused the same seller to travel less or none at all. They now have more time but still need to meet their quotas for the quarter. Although the salesperson might be eager to travel more as the world changes to a new normal and clients are keen to have them back, it’s not clear if they will allow vendors to visit as often as corporations allow. B2B decision-makers prefer digital self-service or remote human interaction to more than 70%.

This environment is challenging. How can a B2B seller find new customers with problems that they can solve, when customers aren’t interested in returning to the old ways of doing business?

A new Era for B2B Sales

The old methods of demand generation won’t work in the always-online era.

A new, digital era of B2B sales and marketing is upon us. It’s driven by corporate customer demand for online access to their suppliers’ offerings and expertise. Taking advantage of this shift is challenging because it requires moving from deeply embedded B2B sales and marketing models to data-driven, digitally powered partnerships between sales, marketing and analytics.

The rewards of digital demand generation – a pivotal piece of the B2B digital transformation puzzle – can be significant.

Clarify your Sales Target

Traditional demand generation efforts are built upon understanding customer segments and their underserved needs. Effective B2B demand generation efforts go further by clarifying the roles of decision makers and influencers in authorising suppliers, adopting supplier offers and co-developing solutions or operational improvements with suppliers.

We’ve found that depicting decision making roles in some form of flowchart or diagram is a best practice for understanding decision making in different buying and use situations, prioritising targets and providing role-relevant content. The key to success is to make sure that all the decision makers and influencers are unambiguous, their specific roles are clarified (e.g. who sets the specs, chooses the vendor, approves the budget) and the sequence of activities are well understood.

This sort of information is rarely captured in customer databases, and quantitative research is an ineffective tool for understanding the nuances of who has decision making or influencing power in different situations. Therefore, you will need to interview your own sales team, intermediaries and different customer stakeholders. A structured approach that starts with a few key customers and extends interviews over time to additional customers across a range of segments or industries is often the best way to better understand decision making.

Capture attention

Initial supplier interaction is crucial because it starts a process of engagement with multiple decision makers and influencers. Attention capture must provide sufficient relevance for the initial contact to involve others at their company. To break through the noise, effective B2B demand generators tailor attention-grabbing efforts to the target’s context.

For target decision makers who are actively seeking information, B2B companies can deploy:

Always-on marketing including SEO/SEM, retargeting and website optimisation to capture the attention of those who are seeking a product, service or solution.

Thought leadership marketing through content sharing is effective for seekers looking for information but who have not yet zeroed in on the solution they require.
To reach decision makers who are not in search mode, but will respond to an idea with the potential to move the needle, B2B can deploy:

Omni-channel marketing (social, email, online and offline, etc.) and experiences targeted to segment profiles based on some combination of profession, function, industry or online behaviour that indicates they may be willing to respond.

Account-based marketing that supplements many omni-channel tools with sales-force involvement when information responders’ organisational roles (e.g. laboratory director) and specific company, rather than profession, function or industry are the best indicators of their willingness to respond.

Identifying information seekers is a relatively easy task that can be accomplished by observing their online behaviour and whether they move rapidly to searching for solutions or become involved in thought leadership content. Responders take more time and diligence to find through repeated test-and-learn experiments that target a selected group. A single experiment is not sufficient because one must determine whether it is the media, the message or the recipient that is inhibiting response.

Cultivate interest

An effective cultivation pathway lies at the heart of most successful demand generation strategies. It provides the content and experiences that enable you to surmount barriers to purchase. The best pathways focus the prospect on what’s important to them while allowing them to move at their own pace.

This should not be confused with simply providing a lot of content and information. Presented with excessive or inappropriate content, prospects can easily become distracted and never engage with the content that will drive them to purchase.

A high level of personalisation based on the customer’s challenge or opportunity as well as their business context and role in decision making is required for effective cultivation. There are two basic approaches.

When there is insufficient data for personalisation, allow the customer to choose the path by identifying the challenge and the context they are most interested in. This usually comes in the form of a menu of introductory information or guides to content they will find most useful and relevant based on prior research into the segment or industry needs.

When campaigns can be personalised (particularly in the case of existing customers), a technique called next best move is advisable. Based on the customer profile and their entry point in the experience, a tailored piece of content is served to them. As consumers engage with the content, the quality of the content customisation improves, based on an (often AI-assisted) ongoing series of testing-and-learning experiments.

Convert to action

In B2B, disintermediation via call centre or ecommerce options can create conflict with valued channel partners as well as damage relationship-building among salespeople wary of losing bonus payouts and diminishing influence. Suppliers must balance the advantages of a direct, online customer buying relationship with the need for intermediary or sales team support to service the target market. Three best practices have emerged:

Harmonising offers, incentives and rewards across channels to avoid privileging one channel over others and ensure that internal sales teams remain motivated.

Synchronising online and personal interactions to make experiences seamless for the customer and empower sales team and channel partners.

Integrating ecommerce’s role into a customer support system by adapting it for poorly served customers, product lines, regions or segments and ensuring that other channels can reap a share of the rewards.