Each year I’ve taken inventory of the major trends emerging within our B2B marketing agency practice and with the crazy year that was 2020, the new year requires even greater focus on what’s ahead. Some of the marketing predictions and trends I’ve shared in the past include:
- Video content and live video
- AI and Machine Learning
- Voice engagement and Podcasts
- B2B Influencer Marketing
- Content Marketing
- Chatbots and Conversational Selling
- Customer Experience
- Visual and Interactive Content
- Live, Interactive Video
- Voice Search
- AI/Machine Learning/Chatbots
- Influencer Marketing 2.0
- Purpose Driven Brands and Gen Z
It’s interesting to see things like Video, Voice, AI and influencer marketing persist each year. The fact is, when it comes to B2B marketing trends, the world is moving fast and while marketing innovation hasn’t slowed, there are still fundamental shifts in B2B buyer preferences for information discovery, consumption and engagement that have not yet been implemented by the majority of marketers yet. As a result, a lot of the “trends” we’ll see a focus on in 2021 are not particularly new, just not evolved.
The chaos of 2020 created some important shifts including 80% or more of the sales cycle happening in digital (Forrester) and impacting B2B verticals in very different ways. The uncertainty caused 50% of buyers to hold off on purchases (Harvard Business Review) but with Tech and Telecom least affected (eMarketer) that also meant an opportunity, especially for those B2B marketers that understand the new normal of go-to-market strategies is here to stay (McKinsey).
So, with all that’s changed in 2020 due to the pandemic as well as political, economic, and social uncertainty, what are the major trends B2B marketers need to be aware of for success in 2021? Here are 7 that stand out:
With an “epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions”, 70% of respondents to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer study said brand trust is more important today than it was in the past. Part of the problem is that globally, CEO credibility is at an all-time low and changing expectations create an opportunity to create that trust. 86% from the Edelman study think CEOs should speak out publicly about societal challenges and some are doing that. For example, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella shared an email he sent to Microsoft employees expressing gratitude and the steps Microsoft is taking to support customers and the community as a long form blog post on LinkedIn. We saw an increase in the number of CEOs communicating in this way and the continuation of that trend in 2021 will help regain both CEO and brand credibility.
Building trust in B2B brands goes beyond CEOs of course and marketers would do well to take inventory of what current perceptions are of the brand and ensure marketing strategies and customer engagement are aligned around creating promises and experiences that strengthen credibility.
One major impact of 2020 for B2B marketers was a shift to a digital-centric approach when it comes to marketing and sales. Because of the pandemic, the virtual loss of field marketing, outside sales and in-person events created a massive shift to virtual events and online information discovery, consumption and engagement for buyers. B2B marketers had to make significant changes from legacy tactics to digital. As a result, there’s been a big wake-up call to move B2B marketing to digital formats and according to research by Singular, 76% of marketing leaders say that digital transformation in marketing technology is their most critical focus for 2021 (Forbes).
According to Gartner’s Buyer Enablement Survey, more than 3 out of 4 people said the latest B2B purchase journey was very complicated. The challenges brought by 2020 have created even more complexities for marketers and buyers alike and that spells an opportunity to double down on optimizing experiences. Customer Experience is a priority, but so is employee experience and any experience created through the content and media published by a brand. It’s no longer enough to simply inform audiences with information.
In 2021 B2B brands will focus on authenticity in their communications and make substantial efforts to better empathize with buyers, be “more human” and add emotion to their marketing strategy.
“2021 will call on brands to authentically infuse empathy and emotion into their brand strategy, and I cannot think of a more appropriate time to build those emotional connections with customers and cultivate relationships,” Jennifer Chase, SVP and Head of Marketing at SAS (Forbes).
As the majority of B2B buyers have shifted to digital channels, B2B marketers must understand the expectations that drive information discovery, consumption and engagement experiences and then optimize accordingly.
The challenges of 2020 forced B2B marketers to re-evaluate everything from their core offering to their approach to marketing. 94% of respondents to the Content Marketing Institute B2B Content Marketing Trends Report said that they had to adapt their content marketing strategy because of the pandemic. These pivots during the pandemic have driven some important changes in business and marketing strategies. Many of those changes will persist as most CMOs feel that their go-to-market models in reaction to 2020 will continue for the next 12 months or more. (McKinsey)
Areas of greater focus include:
- More emphasis on marketing ROI – With slimmer marketing budgets, marketers have become more accountable to the business impact of their efforts. Greater ROI focus has impacted everything from strategies to tactics to measurement to technology and processes.
- Retention marketing – According to Harvard Business Review, a 5% increase in customer retention can deliver up to 95% increase in profits. With 2020 budgets on hold and uncertainty about when they will open up in the new year, keeping current customers is more important than ever and that trend will continue in 2021.
- Virtual events – Effective virtual events offer both livestreamed content on a schedule as well as on-demand video and online networking. At the same time, webinars and virtual events spiked in 2020, but people are looking for more. Zoom fatigue has set in and Lori Wizdo from Forrester thinks that physical events will rebound but with a new digital dimension. This will create some new opportunities in 2021 for hybrid event models for customer engagement.
- Social purpose/cause marketing – According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, in 2020 65% of consumers said they are looking for brands that reflect their values. 43% said they’ll switch loyalties if companies don’t align with their beliefs. And 63% of Americans believe that brands that issue a statement in support of racial equity need to follow up with concrete action. Consumer expectations extend to B2B brands and there’s plenty of research supporting the importance of Millenial and GenZ preferences for what a brand stands for. The events of 2020 have made brand positioning on social causes even more important in 2021.
B2B Marketing Tactics
- Influencer Marketing – The influencer marketing industry was worth $8 billion in 2019, and it is estimated to grow to $15 billion over the next two years. Our research into B2B influencer marketing has revealed that collaborating on content with industry experts helps improve customer engagement and marketing effectiveness in three key areas:
1. Trust: 77% of B2B marketers say they believe that prospective customers rely on advice from industry experts.
2. Experience: 77% agree that influencer marketing improves customer and prospect experience with the brand.
3. Performance: 63% say their marketing would have better results if it included a B2B influencer marketing program.
- Content Marketing – 83% of marketers surveyed for a report by the Content Marketing Institute said publishing content that provides value to their customers contributed significantly to the success of their content marketing efforts.
- SEO – Search engines (56%) are more trusted than traditional media (53%), owned (41%) or social media (35%). Edelman Trust Barometer.
- Video – 70% of the B2B buyers watch product videos as a part of their research. Cisco estimates that by 2022, online videos will make up more than 82% of all consumer internet traffic. Research from Google has indicated that 70% of B2B buyers and researchers are watching videos throughout the buying journey.
- Podcasts & voice – Voice engagement is on the rise from accessing information on mobile devices and smart speakers to formats for information consumption like podcasts and the new audio-only social network, Clubhouse. Audio and voice will continue to be a trend for information discovery, consumption and engagement in 2021.
- Episodic Content – One of the content trends we’ve found to be gaining momentum within our own content marketing practice is “shows” and packaging episodic content as seasons. There are longstanding episodic B2B content examples like Moz’s Whiteboard Friday. We walk the talk at TopRank with episodic content through the Break Free B2B Marketing series and the Inside B2B Influence show.
- Personalization – The loss of cookies and the move to first party data creates new opportunities for personalization in B2B marketing. Buyers do expect more meaningful, useful content experiences and personalization will only grow in importance to deliver on those expectations.
- Interactive Tools and Content – According to Demand Gen Report research, interactive content is 23% more effective at educating buyers than static content. A good example is this Salesforce ROI calculator and in 2021, delivering engaging content experiences and driving greater marketing performance means more of this kind of tool.
- Learning Hubs for Leads – While not exactly new, the attraction to cross-train and advance skills is greater than ever. To meet that need, B2B brands are increasingly investing in learning hubs where audiences can exchange their contact information for access to rich educational resources. Examples include HubSpot Academy, SEMRush and many more.
- Email and Marketing Automation – Email’s one to one connection continues to be important. 84% of respondents to a SmartInsights study have implemented email as a marketing tactic. What different in 2021 is a greater focus on storytelling, personalization and more informal content vs. explicit sales offers.
- ABM – A great example of a B2B marketing trend that has been on many lists over the past few years is ABM. There are very vocal advocates for ABM but it still has not as much momentum as other disciplines when it comes to active implementation. However, past research from SmartInsights reveals ABM is a top priority for B2B marketers (46%) compared to video (41%), influencer marketing (38%) and AI (38%).
- Agile Marketing – Continuous improvement in marketing is as important as ever, especially after a year like 2020. According to CMI, 94% of B2B marketers said they had to change their content marketing during the pandemic. 80% of those that adopted a more agile content marketing strategy felt it was effective (Forbes/CMG Partners). And according to research from Merkle, 85% of marketers plan to increase agile usage in the next two years.
It’s been reported in the past in a study by Oktopost that 80% of B2B leads are generated from LinkedIn. It’s hard to argue that any other social network is more important than LinkedIn for B2B marketers. LinkedIn provides an incredible opportunity for everything from building brand thought leadership to specific prospect targeting through organic content and networking as well as their evolving advertising and sales solutions. In 2021 will continue to be the leading community for B2B marketing opportunities. (LinkedIn is a client of TopRank Marketing)
AI and Chatbots
Research from Salesforce found that 80% of business buyers expect real-time responses from brands they interact with and the digital first approach most B2B marketers are taking in 2021 means AI technologies like chatbots and virtual assistants will become a part of the mix. As far as AI and machine learning overall, the expectations of modern buyers requires processing huge amounts of data to deliver personalized experiences across platforms and channels. To do that, two-thirds of B2B marketers are currently planning, evaluating, or implementing AI for marketing or sales initiatives.
Nearly 10 years ago I published a book called Optimize: How to Attract and Engage More Customers by Integrating SEO, Social Media and Content Marketing. One of the key concepts from the book was the model we use to stay current with what customer preferences are for the information they need during their journey. Understanding buyer preferences for information discovery, consumption and engagement will reveal all the trends you need to know in order to deliver relevant and actionable marketing that best serves the customers that will grow your business.
While it’s tempting to chase shiny objects with trends posts, as I reviewed the major trends for 2021, I found that the discovery, consumption and engagement model to be just as true and useful today as it was 10 years ago. 2020 caused business customers to change their behaviors in significant ways and those B2B marketers that stay tuned in to information preferences will know what strategies, tactics and technologies they need to focus on.