B2B Marketing Perceptions
I’ve spent much of the first part of this year speaking with executives, practitioners, “thought leaders” and vendors alike. To say that there is a consistent theme arising in these conversations is a gross understatement. The topic is always the same and starts with a question – ‘what do you think about the state of B2B marketing’? I ask with genuine curiosity, as it’s the space I’ve called home for more than a decade. I’ve built businesses centered around it, we’ve helped thousands of clients embrace or better wield it, and yet, something feels just… not quite right.
There’s a caution in the air, a caution created by mistrust and fueled by frustration. The space is weary. If you speak to folks for a few minutes longer that weary fades quickly into resentment, a response to waves of empty promises (often on the tongues of marketing vendors), that crash on wanton shores devoid of result.
Falling Into the Ocean
There’s a great song by one of my favorite bands (bear with me). The song is essentially a condemnation of the State of California, specifically L.A., and in it the singer talks about the pending earthquake that has haunted residents for decades now. California and its dubious fault locations seem to all but guarantee the state will eventually drift off into the Pacific – much to the singer’s delight. But Why? Why would anyone wish their home state to break free from its moorings and float aimlessly into the ocean, leaving its inhabitants suddenly adrift from their former norm?
There seems to be a delicate relationship with the things we love. On one hand, they hold a special place in our hearts that can never be substituted, but at the same time the rent on that location is high. We expect more from the things we hold dear, as if we deserve repayment for our investment of vulnerability and trust. ‘Learn to swim’ is a repeated lyric in this song, a threatening indictment of this forsaken love and for what the band sees as self-deprecating behavior that all but guarantees a coming retribution.
/The only way to fix it is to flush it all away/
/Learn to swim, see you down in Arizona Bay/
In the same way that this song seeks to reconcile the imbalance we feel when that which we hold dear seems to betray us, so goes this post.
I love B2B marketing. But I’m starting not to recognize it any longer, and based on my conversations in the industry, I’m not alone. Marketing genius is everywhere. You experience it on a daily basis with messages that break through our noise flooded, content-saturated lives. And yet when it happens, it goes completely unnoticed for the tactic that it is and instead routes directly to the center of our brain that controls ‘wow’. It’s interesting, it’s engaging, it’s no longer something to be perceived for its attempt to influence – it simply influences.
The “Trend Effect” on B2B Marketing
At its very core, marketing is innovation – but technology has introduced an ever-quickening cycle of deprecation. What stands out today, will not be what stands out tomorrow. By the time all of the ‘experts’ productize and promote today’s latest fad, not only is it ineffective, but in fact it often bears a negative impact on your efforts due to the fact that now everyone is conducting the same formulaic, brand dampening activity. There are few examples of this as powerful as the state of content marketing.
The content promise advertised the notion that the buyer could be educated and stimulated by helpful information, curated by the seller, for the purposes of guiding the buying journey. Of course, suddenly every marketer became a content marketer and as a result of the accompanying martech wave, also a technologist. What this revolution came to yield was fatigue, a general malaise as the buyer was flooded with cookie-cutter content driven by unrelenting workflow steps that transformed a seemingly harmless form fill into an inbox avalanche.
So, no big deal, right? Just focus on innovation and don’t copy what everyone else is doing and we should be good right? Well, that sounds like a great maxim to adhere to but in fact it’s not exactly realistic. Why?
Continuing Education in B2B Marketing
I’ll let you in on a bit of an industry secret, most marketers didn’t go to school for marketing. If they had, the learnings wouldn’t have exactly been overwhelmingly relevant anyway. You might quickly dismiss that and simply cite that perhaps marketing feels a lot like engineering, where post-academic experience actually means much more than diplomas. After all, these skillsets are evolving so quickly, academia simply can’t keep up. That second part is true, but unlike engineering, marketing literally has NO meaningful accreditations by which to measure its talent. Amazing when you consider the amount of money spent annually on marketing.
On top of the fact that marketing really has no agreed upon means to define its profession, marketing has largely been a place to ‘end up’. Marketers come from sales and communications and operations and creative disciplines – and they just kind of ‘figure it out’. Figure it out through the lens of that particular company or role that is. Because the vast majority of marketers simply learn on the job, their skills lack portability and extendibility. Ask any marketing executive and they are sure to share a story about how they once hired that “Rockstar” who turned out to be anything but.
In fact, environment plays a huge role in defining the skills of a marketing practitioner. You see rip and replace happening from a tech perspective because of this. The technology is swapped, not because of lacking functionality, but due to lacking comfort on the part of the practitioner. Marketing tends to default to “how” things get done, rather than “why”, or “what” that activity yielded. This has become known collectively as marketing operations and it’s either an absolutely critically integrated component of marketing performance, or a complete waste of time that becomes a scapegoat for a lack thereof. I wish I could say the former was the norm.
B2B Marketing, a Catalyst for Success?
Due to these complexities, marketing has become a function of feast, not a recipe for eliminating famine. An investment in good times and an expense in bad, it’s almost a guarantee that in each economic downturn, marketing will the first to be cut. And yet, when you speak to organizations who have cracked the code on marketing performance, they don’t see things that way. They see marketing as the catalyst of success. In times of struggle, they actually double down on marketing. They know it’s yield will serve as the catalyst to reversing field. These are also the organizations that have allowed marketing the space to thrive. They know and respect the science that goes into marketing, but they don’t allow its creativity to be limited by such. And perhaps that’s the key ingredient that we’ve long forgotten. The ingredient of balance.
Without creativity, marketing is a race to the bottom, a commodity to be bought and sold.
Buyer mindshare however will never be a commodity.
Influencing a sale is a function of interest and trust. As B2B marketers, that’s ultimately the mission we’ve signed up for. To my point about balance however, we ultimately can’t allow the pendulum to swing too far toward the right side of the brain either. After all, marketing must equate to revenue. That is, if it’s ever to fully be recognized as the profession it is. This is where the vast amounts of technology that have poured into the space are not only useful, but critical. The underpinning of creativity must be the ability to measure that creative influence on the buyer and ultimately the revenue line. We’ve allowed these two fundamentals to fall out of balance time and time again and the results are ‘random acts of marketing’ fueled not by what we should do, but by what can be done.
Learning to Swim
In the last recession, the collective death rattle of the marketing profession was the demand for a seat at the revenue table. Yet, here we sit, a decade into the marketing revolution, still struggling to prove marketing’s worth. The dashboards reflecting marketing’s contribution are contentious, with teams fighting over credit, data accuracy and even the validity of marketing influence as a “thing”.
The real question is, What will the next bump in the road bring?
Since 2008, marketing’s coffers have never been replenished. In fact, marketing budgets continue to be the most volatile of the lot. Not to mention, marketing leadership boasts the shortest tenure of any C-Suite position. Perhaps the only way to fix it, truly is to flush it all away.
And yet, there are glimmers of hope against the backdrop of struggle. Executives, proactively picking up the torch of quality over quantity, insist that marketing demonstrate not only its value, but its criticality to overall business performance.
The most unique outlook common to high performing marketing teams is their understanding of the diverse skillsets that must be represented in a best-in-class marketing team. Rather than representing a place to end up, these teams are comprised of professionals, constructed with an enormous amount of intentionality. Creatives, writers, data architects, operations specialists all woven together by a strong leader who understands that their role is just as much about guiding and educating their peers as it is guiding and educating their buyers.
The edict of these champions of performance? Aligning marketing outcomes with organizational objectives. Something our Chief Strategy Officer wrote about here. Marketing isn’t content simply to prove activity, they are laser focused on providing value.
Of course, the question always looms large, is it already too late? Has marketing already spent all of its revolutionary currency or will we pull it together right when it matters most? Will we self-correct and redeem ourselves as professionals or will the big one finally wipe the slate clean. Either way, the wave of change is coming. Learn to swim.
Meet Justin Gray
Justin is a serial entrepreneur and the CEO and founder of LeadMD, the world’s largest revenue operations agency having implemented over half of the Marketo user base. Justin has made a career of launching successful companies and scaling them, with successful exits of over 200MM+ in the last decade. Justin’s latest endeavor launched in 2016 when he co-founded Six Bricks an online learning startup designed to combat employee and customer churn through experience-based education. Over the past 10 years, Justin has emerged as a strong voice for entrepreneurship, marketing and culture. As a recognized speaker, Justin has been published over 350 times in industry publications and holds his own column, Tribal Knowledge in Inc., while writing for Entrepreneur, Tech Crunch and others. Justin and his wife Jennifer met over marketing and three years later welcomed their son, Grayson, into the world in April of 2017.