What Questions lead to Better B2B Marketing?
What strategies and approaches lead to better marketing? Exploring and implementing techniques from various disciplines has revealed that many of them can be seamlessly applied to B2B marketing with impressive success. In this article, we will examine three key areas: the significance of employing effective B2B marketing techniques, the importance of adapting to changing needs in the field, and how to enhance marketing outcomes by embracing a dynamic approach.
Learning how other professionals do their work has led me to try techniques from lots of other disciplines. And I’ve discovered that the majority can be applied to B2B Marketing with remarkable ease and great success.
1 – How to do it better?
This question has always been hovering in the background of my work, through a variety of B2B Marketing roles. Like most of us, I’ve tried all the standard answers, with varying results.
“Work harder and faster”
It only works as a short-term solution. Repeat it too often and it cuts productivity. Run it for too long and it reduces bandwidth or causes burnout.
“Work more hours.”
Whether you do this by adding more staff or by sub-contracting, this increases resource costs. That’s fine if you have the headcount or budget, but in many situations it’s simply not an option.
“Get better technology.”
The problem with any new technology is that while you’re setting it up, you have two systems running in parallel. That means more complexity which leads to higher resource costs and – if deadlines are inflexible – reduces bandwidth as well.
Initially, these experiences caused frustration. Ultimately, they led me to better questions.
2 – How to get better results?
I have deliberately looked outside my own department and industry, to learn how other professionals handle similar issues.
Scott Page’s course “Model Thinking” (via Coursera / University of Michigan) is a terrific resource for Marketers in any industry. Scott takes the premise that “conceptual models are an aid to structured thinking and better decision-making”. Extend that line of thought and you arrive at: “collecting a toolbox of models relevant to your discipline enables you to tackle a wider variety of situations more easily”. Nice.
Insights from Manufacturing
Achieving maximum productivity from fixed resources is an issue that the manufacturing industry successfully addressed decades ago. Methods like Total Quality Management, the Toyota Production System, Zero Waste, Just-in-Time, Lean Management and other initiatives are rich sources of inspiration for B2B Marketing.
The PDCA cycle
W. Edwards Deming’s PDCA (“plan – do – check – adjust”) approach ensures a closed loop which is great for gaining insights. From there, it’s feels natural to follow up with Kaizen – the principle of continual improvement – and to create a learning organisation.
Minimum Viable Product
Concepts such as MVP and the Business Model Canvas have already found their way into product marketing, but these approaches also offer good ways to enhance rapid implementation and iteration in field marketing and lead generation.
From my time in the software industry I’ve observed concepts like Rapid Application Development (RAD) and more recently, Agile practices from collaboration with internet agencies. I’ve evaluated SCRUM for marketing but in practice I prefer KanBan boards for project planning and co-ordinating Marketing resources.
For me, the next step was intuitive: to start developing my own models. In practice that means taking a problem-solving idea and turning it into a tool that can be re-used to deliver consistent results.
3 – How do we win sales?
The standard ‘military strategy’ texts* are fascinating, but I find them hard to apply to Marketing because the military premise is a Zero-Sum game. The fact that one team Wins means the other Loses. And that’s where, for me at least, the relevance for Marketing and Sales evaporates.
I think it’s more accurate (and useful) to view markets as ecosystems in which multiple groups interact and co-operate at the same time. (With competition as a side effect.) In this context, the goal is to gain and hold a better position on a continuum from ‘survive’ to ‘thrive’. The most sensible, direct path to the goal is by delivering customer satisfaction. Doing this successfully has the side effect of holding out competitors. By contrast, deliberate direct reaction against competitors is a non-productive use of resources.
That being so, you might be surprised when I say that one of the most useful sources for marketing ideas is the biography of USAF Pilot John Boyd (“The Fighter Pilot who changed the art of war” by Robert Coram). After all, it’s hard to describe an aerial dogfight as anything other than a Zero-Sum game.
And yet that’s how I learned about the “observe-orient-decide-act” loop. The importance of achieving a shorter, faster cycle time is that you can respond more easily to changing situations. Today I apply OODA principles to Marketing strategy and planning processes.
* Texts like: Machiavelli, “The Prince”; Clausewitz, “On War”; Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”; Musashi Myamoto,“The Book of Five Rings”; etc.
4 – How to apply OODA Loops?
I first applied OODA Loops as an online marketing manager at SAP AG. I challenged the team to completely re-think and re-design the way we implemented email marketing projects. The result? We cut staff resource and delivery time per project in half. Doubling productivity meant marketing gained twice as much feedback from the customers. As a result, we gained a whole lot of new insights which we used to improve offers and click results. We subsequently went on to create Campaign Playbooks and further optimise process design.
One of the key issues facing B2B Marketers to day is the rate at which everything around us is changing. In practice, marketing must triangulate. Outwards to Customers. Internally, towards management and to sales. This ensures alignment of proposed marketing actions with business objectives. One of the most valuable exercises is to run a quick reality check and verify that yesterday’s objectives still apply today.
The next step is to verify whether the path we’ve been following so far is still the most effective route. I’ve found that, even when business Goals remain stable over the mid- to long-term, changes to the external conditions might dictate a change in route or method. Once this is clear, you can re-define the Milestones along the way and then move on to the next level of planning detail.
On any given day of the week, there’s usually a lot more to do than available resources will allow. Which means prioritising the options, so you can make choices. When priorities do indeed become clear, it’s much easier to flip resources from one activity to another in response to evolving situations. There are inevitably some things that have ‘urgent’ status, but I’ve learned that its vitally important to allocate sufficient resource to ensure the ‘important’ issues get done.
This where all the productivity methods above kick in: from manufacturing and software industry, from other departments or disciplines. The core ideas are: to reduce the scope of the solution to match the scale of the problem; to define small, quick projects; test and gain insights; review and learn; repeat the cycle.
5 – How to manage changing needs?
In B2B marketing it means assessing:
- which direction the market is moving – and how fast
- which marketing capabilities we must develop to keep pace
- which steps we’re taking this quarter to design, build and deliver those capabilities.
Both questions are generic, but they serve as useful examples. In both cases, the ‘better method’ comprises a combination of three elements: firstly dynamic navigation, then rapid implementation and lastly return on innovation. The ways these ideas are actually designed and implemented are 100% company-specific.
The increasing pace of Change
In many hi-tech B2B markets, Customer needs and expectations are evolving faster than the Supplier’s ability to keep pace. There is enormous pressure for investment goods manufacturers to develop and deliver new functionality while simultaneously reducing Time to Market.
In practice, many Marketing teams continue to review strategy and budgets annually. They are generally equipped with a slow and labour-intensive ‘map-and-compass’ approach to strategy that is hopelessly inadequate for today’s needs.
I believe that the Marketing strategy and planning process of the future must operate on much shorter cycles (the OODA principle). Increasing the frequency of strategy planning to Quarterly reviews is a reasonable target; ad hoc updates should also be manageable for specific products / markets.
What Marketers today actually need is a dynamic approach to business navigation that allows them to re-set their destination quickly and with minimum effort. That means Marketers need a lightweight approach to strategy that can be implemented quickly. The strategy review process that I’ve developed aims for a one-day turnaround. The result of the exercise is a validation of the goals and a plan that identifies how resources will be re-allocated to address changes in circumstances or priorities.
6 – How to adapt faster?
The ability to make strategic decisions quickly must be followed by the ability to implement swiftly. And here, most Marketers hit two major issues.
Strategy: little and often
The first issue is that, once completed, the annual marketing strategy document is often put on the shelf and ignored. In real life, Marketing is driven by the calendar. And for many companies that means a well-known cycle of Trade Fairs and lead generation campaigns, punctuated by seasonal highs and lows in activity. There’s so much Daily Business that it kills the ability to deliver long-term objectives.
What’s missing is a framework for assessing projects based on Value to the Business. And that sense of Value must look beyond just ‘budget’ to include a realistic assessment of the staff skills, the available system resources, and data quality.
Treating staff as a sunk cost completely ignores the key asset in B2B Marketing. It’s People who create Value for the Customer and the business. And yet, as I heard again recently in conversation with a marketing VP: “running a Blog doesn’t cost us anything”.
Yes, I know that the activity doesn’t require budget because it’s done in-house. But the use of staff time does carry an opportunity cost. The question that optimises the use of that skillset is: “which activity will generate the most value for the customer and the business?” The answer may well be “running a Blog”, but the awareness that each article requires x hours of research and copywriting, helps focus attention on Content priorities and Customer information needs.
Criteria for Decision-Making
The second issue is the ability to devote resources to ‘important’ issues rather than ‘urgent’ ones. I know many Marketing teams that are proud of their reputation for being quick, flexible and willing to take on any challenge thrown their way. The downside is that additional projects are frequently added to the workload at short notice. There is seldom any evaluation of the opportunity cost because the assumption is that marketing will handle the extra workload (somehow). In this reality, marketing is dominated by Daily Business and seldom has time to consider the longer-term view.
Nevertheless, Marketing must develop a clear sense of its assets and skills, of their associated costs and how they are combined to generate value for the business. This view enables marketing to present its primary internal stakeholders (management and sales) with strategic options, tactical choices and professional recommendations.
Having a solid basis for recommending against marginal projects (i.e. a polite way of saying ‘no’) is essential if marketing is to get out of the Daily Business and create space – in the sense of time and resources – to tackle the really important long-term issues of building infrastructures and capabilities that support business objectives.
Return on Innovation
The critical issue for manufacturers is not whether they can keep one step ahead of their competitor, but whether they can respond fast enough to satisfy the rapidly evolving business needs of their customers – who are in turn driven by their customers changing needs.**
If none of the incumbents can respond as fast as Customers want, the market may in fact, be open for disruptors to create completely new business models (ecosystem collapse).
Clearly what marketers need here is not just resources to handle the Daily Business, but the vision, method and sufficient resources to tackle significant changes to internal processes, infrastructures and capabilities, as well. To achieve those goals, you must define a dedicated Innovation Budget.
Let’s be realistic. If a Marketing team has focussed exclusively on Daily Business for the last three years, then building missing infrastructures and accelerating to the speed of light is unlikely to happen within a single quarter.
The advantage of the long-term view
Nevertheless – or perhaps because of that – there are huge advantages to taking a long-term view and defining projects that extend beyond the scope of the current budget cycle.
Budget that is ‘spent’ or ‘consumed’ can never generate a return. This why I don’t like the “use it or lose it” attitude to budget. If you think of budget as a disposable-but-renewable resource, it will just get spent. The only way to get a ‘Return on Investment’ is to make a conscious decision to invest – and for me, that means having a longer-term purpose in mind.
By defining an Innovation Budget and applying it to initiatives that address long-term business objectives, the CMO gains a new and very positive set of subjects to communicate with stakeholders in sales and management.
Where does B2B marketing go next?
In many B2B sectors, customer needs (driven in turn by end-user needs) may be changing faster than suppliers’ Marketing teams can actually keep up. In this situation, Marketing needs to figure out how it will create the capabilities that enable it to keep pace with future customer needs. And it needs to start planning right now, this quarter, because delivery may well take several quarters to implement.
Concrete steps that Marketers can take to address this include:
- allocating an innovation budget to long-term business objectives
- adopting dynamic navigation methods to prioritise capabilities
- using rapid implementation techniques to deliver them.
The best way for Marketers to get ready for the future, is to leverage the time and resources available in the current financial year.
The best time to start, is now
Working with a CMO or Marketing team to find “a better way to do B2B Marketing” begins with identifying the ‘better questions’ that describe their specific business issues, and enable us to explore new solutions.
For example, we might focus attention on finding ways to get better B2B Marketing results from relatively fixed resources. Once the question is qualified like this, several answers unfold naturally. When the resources are fixed, three ways to get a different result are:
- re-define the goal,
- re-allocate the resources,
- re-design the processes.
Or we might examine Time-to-Market, or Lead Generation, or collaboration with the Sales team, integration of online marketing systems with CRM and ERP systems … in each case, the path to better solutions begins with finding better questions.