Digital transformation in B2B continued apace in 2020. By the way, if you’re after a great B2B case study, Econsultancy published a piece back in September by Guy Magrath, former CDO at Electrocomponents plc, about the digital transformation of RS Components.

But what do the experts foresee in 2021 in B2B marketing and commerce? We asked Guy Magrath, as well as Econsultancy author and agency new biz expert Ben Potter, and our own marketing manager, Thea Luca.

Here’s what they had to say…

Content fatigue calls for competitive differentiation

Thea Luca, Marketing Manager, Econsultancy:

The move to exclusively digital campaign delivery has led to an increase in user content fatigue and information overdose, with companies competing for the same audience attention as well as space. This very busy online landscape is also driving an increase in media costs, so careful campaign strategy planning, particularly when it comes to creative concepts and format delivery (video marketing, short format content etc) will be crucial in ensuring competitive differentiation. ABM is also seen as one of the main strategic paths in digital, ensuring a scalable but more personal approach to reaching and engaging with your audience.

Automation backlash (of sorts) in outbound prospecting

Ben Potter, business development adviser and Non-Exec

For me, the pandemic shone a light on an aspect of B2B marketing which is tough at the best of times: outbound prospecting.

Whilst automation tools are great for efficiency, they’re not so good on empathy. LinkedIn was awash with complaints of sales emails and connection requests sent by tone deaf salespeople, reliant on technology, with a ‘throw enough mud at the wall and some of will stick’ attitude. Not good in ‘normal’ times, wholly inappropriate with a country in lock down and prospects facing quite different problems – professional and personal – than those listed in the salesperson’s near-useless personas.

As we head into 2021, an automation backlash is perhaps a touch strong. But with demand for businesses to demonstrate a (genuine) social conscience, greater sustainability and an all-round more human approach to marketing, this must filter right the way down to outbound communications.

We’ve some tough times ahead. Business developers and marketers must ask how they can add value from the very first interaction. They must help others ahead of helping themselves. This places the emphasis on research and tailored messaging, relevant and timely to each prospect. Self-serving sales messages, delivered at scale, will find cut-through even harder next year.

It’s a welcome wake-up call and step in the right direction but not necessarily for automation tools where truly customised messages (beyond ‘Dear NAME’) are difficult to execute at scale.

Simplification of the value chain as manufacturers ask ‘should we go direct?’

Guy Magrath, non-exec director and digital consultant

In B2B the established business model for manufacturers of products is to service the very large customers direct and use distributors to service the long tail of smaller ones. Post-Covid, manufacturers are re-looking at this model as many of the distributors are offline (shed based) and during the last year they have had limited access to the customer. Many are now asking ‘should we go direct?’.

On top of this, B2B buyers are wanting to self-serve online themselves and not see a sales person (up 10% to 66% – Forrester). Manufacturers are sceptical of Amazon where over 50% of product searches are conducted due to lack of data given back to them by Amazon and the high chance of product replication if it sells well.

The other key outlet is the search networks (predominantly Google). Question – do you think manufacturers will take the plunge and shake up the established model and start going direct – giving them both market share gains and margin gains by not paying the distributors share? With customers self serving more and seeing the manufacture’s site as the oracle for accurate information on their product is this transition inevitable? On top of this there is the added benefit of data insights, owning your brand message and gaining a pipeline of new customers.

Personalised cross-platform journeys still the holy grail

Thea Luca, Econsultancy:

When it comes to tech, achieving a single customer view still sits highly as our holy grail, but there are a great many challenges, including processes and complex integrations that require lengthy timescales for delivery. But the goal is to put the customer first and provide personalised journeys from a birds-eye view perspective, looking holistically at their brand engagement cross-platforms and channels.

Continuity of supply chains – stock will be king

Guy Magrath, non-exec director and digital consultant

The Covid shock and Brexit will result in global supply chains being disrupted. Stock will become a real differentiator like it did when we rapidly came out of the 2009/2010 financial crisis.

B2B retailers will have a tricky balance between stabilising the balance sheet, stocking down multi-outlet sites as demand reduces through waves of lockdowns, getting hold of stock in a disrupted global supply chain versus fulfilling demand quickly once the green shoots of recovery return. Those will a centralised distribution model and a strong digital presence will have a significant advantage.

Virtual events delivery set to continue

Thea Luca, Econsultancy:

2020 has opened a wide range of possibilities for virtual briefings, webinars and roundtables and much more, with global reach at a low cost when compared to face-to-face events. Even as we gradually look forward to a return to normal, there is for sure a great potential within this previously untapped opportunity of digital events delivery, so hopefully we’ll see this trend only increasing and companies coming up with a mix of creative deliveries.

B2B and B2C priorities converge – CX and data

Ben Davis, Editor, Econsultancy:

For a few years now, business customer expectations have been informed increasingly by consumer experiences. The growth of Amazon Business could perhaps be seen as one manifestation of this trend. I think it’s therefore useful to look at some of Econsultancy’s other 2021 predictions pieces and to pick out general trends pertinent to both B2C and B2B.

The first is, predictably, customer experience in the round. As Steffan Aquarone, CEO of Paygora, says, “Whilst customer experience should be something everyone in the organisation obsesses over, there are potentially calls for 2021 to see customer experience develop as a functional specialism within businesses.”

Aquarone adds that “Brands that succeed in customer experience often make a number of facilities available to customers so they can self-serve – any time, any place.” The demand for self-serve and for quick and easy ordering and support will only increase.

Looking at user experience more specifically, this could be a big year for B2B brands who truly understand the link between SEO and UX. Google intends to roll out its Page Experience update, meaning that the speed, responsiveness and stability of webpages will greater influence their ranking. Marketing departments that prioritise both these specialisms may see strong growth in web traffic.

Lastly, data strategies were placed under the microscope in 2020. Andrew Hood, Founder and CEO at Lynchpin analytics firm says the year “exposed for many the lack of critical foundations in place for many data strategies. Some businesses that needed to get on top of leading indicators as markets were disrupted quickly found that accurate and consistent data was either not in place or easily accessible at the right levels of decision making.”

“For many,” he adds, “[this] has pushed data strategy back to the top of the agenda for 2021, and with the changes in compliance and tools it’s an ideal time to be revisiting what the key use cases are, for now and the future, and focusing efforts in on those.”

In B2B, this re-focus on data strategies may be as simple as a rationalisation of first-party data, understanding what is actually useful and how it can be used, or as complex as implementing new martech to allow for known customers to be delivered relevant messaging across channels.

Head to Econsultancy’s B2B hub for guides on account-based marketing, B2B content and social strategy, and B2B customer journey mapping.