Illustration: Topp Yimgrimm/iStock Illustration: Topp Yimgrimm/iStock

Every year, I see a shift in how business-to-business company leaders think about marketing. Typically, my colleagues and I talk to a couple of hundred B2B company owners and executives from January to December.

We learn an incredible amount from these discussions—they’re the basis for the new services we launch. We talk with business owners of small B2B companies (sometimes pre-revenue) and others who are beyond the $100 million mark. There’s usually a surprising consistency among these business people. In particular, there’s been a gradual evolution underway in their ideas about what role marketing should have in their businesses and what they expect from it, as well as in how they execute it and measure success.

In 2015, I saw a growing sophistication in how B2B companies approach marketing and understand how to integrate it with their other business functions. Here are the top five themes in business-to-business marketing that we heard from small and mid-sized B2B companies this year.

Marketing must be integrated with sales

Most B2B companies have had a sales team or department in place for many years, but marketing is often a new function within these businesses. So when they embark on putting marketing in place, firms often want to approach it as a silo, or as lightly related to sales. That’s understandable, since just getting a marketing function off the ground is a vital, and sufficiently challenging first step.

But sales and marketing at B2B companies are intricately interwoven. When the two work closely together, they accomplish far more than the sum of their parts. While marketing is great at raising awareness and generating leads, it will never be a powerhouse for closing complex services deals. Sale people are essential in getting a customer from ‘consideration’ to ‘deal,’ particularly for service companies.

In 2015 we saw more understanding of the need for strong sales teams to make marketing investments pay off, and for marketing investments to be made in order for sales teams to achieve their goals. This increasing integration suggests we’re getting closer to The Revenue Generation Department, a combined function that I believe will replace distinct sales and marketing departments at B2B companies in the future.

Brand does matter in B2B

A lot of B2B companies are beginning to pay attention to their brands, a trend that started in early 2014 and accelerated in 2015.

During the tough years of 2008–2011 many B2B companies didn’t have any money for niceties like their corporate image or public brand. But the last few years have brought improved financial health (except in oil and gas), and many companies are now investing in improving their external image, from logo to website to collateral.

Increased brand activity puts pressure on the rest of the companies in the B2B space, who may not have made similar investments but now are realizing they must do so in order to appear competitive. With so many buyers going online to evaluate new suppliers and solution-providers, a company that hasn’t upgraded its image in the last decade runs the risk of being over-looked in favour of companies who appear more with the times.

Measurement matters, but it takes time and systems

CEOs love to ask about marketing returns and score carding: “When will this marketing stuff pay off?” “How will we measure success?” “How much ROI can we expect?” When we first start looking at what role marketing can play in a business, these are usually the first things I hear from business owners.

They’re great questions for B2B companies to be contemplating, but they aren’t quick and easy to answer or achieve. For companies who don’t have a CRM in place, it’s extremely difficult to measure marketing ROI. The vast majority of Chief Marketing Officers that I interviewed for my last book, The Radical Sales Shift, agreed that it takes three to five years to build a robust marketing machine that delivers measurable returns for companies. It’s a serious journey.

More executives this year had an appreciation for the journey to marketing ROI, and of the need to have systems and processes in place in order to measure it.

Hey, this social media thing kind of works!

When I made a presentation to a group of business owners in 2011, all they wanted to hear about was social media. We told them not to waste their time.

Our audience was shocked, and in truth it was a scary statement to make—social media was the flavour-of-the-month. But back then, it didn’t provide consistent results and there were more important things for most B2B companies to focus on.

Times have changed. Today, social media does matter, and it does work. There are a few reasons for its increased prominence:

1. We’re living in a post-CASL world. After Canada’s anti-spam legislation came into effect in 2014, companies could no longer simply email anyone they liked. Companies now need social media to raise awareness of their news, products and services.
2. Tools like LinkedIn have grown in use. While the audiences were relatively small in 2011, they’re now extensive, and these social media platforms are accepted as legitimate business tools by the mainstream.
3. Google likes social media. Every company needs to be findable and highly ranked by Google, so it makes sense to care about what Google cares about. The search engine’s algorithm evaluates traffic partly on the basis of social media.

But social media still comes with a caveat: It’s important to have the right expectations. Social media isn’t necessarily about generating leads when it comes to B2B companies. Often it’s about generating contacts and connections, which will lead to relationships, which will lead to opportunities, which will lead to deals. We’ve had several clients experience a connection through LinkedIn that—after a period of time and nurturing—leads to a strategic partnership. And while there haven’t been many of these examples so far, just one for a company can mean millions in business.

“We have to be strategic with our marketing”

Many B2B companies have been tactical or ad-hoc with their marketing over the past few years: they’ve undertaken a number of projects, initiatives, activities or campaigns. But they don’t have a plan, a focus or a set of goals with marketing.

Over time, that approach leaves them feeling like they’re not accomplishing much with marketing, and they aren’t getting any stronger or better as time goes by. Competitors who approach marketing in a more strategic way are outpacing their industry peers.

If there’s one overwhelming trend we’ve heard this year, it’s that B2B companies feel it’s time to get strategic with their marketing.

• • • • •

As we head into 2016, I’m looking forward to seeing which of these themes will grow, and which will shift. Because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that by this time next year, there will be a whole new set of trends to contemplate.

Lisa Shepherd is author of the new book The Radical Sales Shift: 20 Lessons from 20 Leaders on How to Use Marketing to Grow Sales in B2B Companies and president of The Mezzanine Group, a business-to-business strategy and marketing company based in Toronto. She has been the youngest female CEO on PROFIT’s Ranking of Canada’s Fastest Growing Companies and is a frequent public speaker on B2B marketing strategy and execution.


What marketing trends did you notice in 2015? Let us know by commenting below.

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