It’s been a rough year, and there are still almost three months to go. Even so, it’s not too early to start looking back at some of the B2B marketing lessons learned, particularly considering the changes B2B marketers and buyers have made in response to the pandemic.

From hastening digital transformation, to canceling in-person events, to changing marketing and advertising strategies (and the technologies associated with them), we’ll review what we’ve learned over the course of this very unusual year.

Digital transformation at warp speed

If there’s one key takeaway that emerges from 2020, it should be that the pace of digital transformation has accelerated for most companies.

Way back in 2018 (a.k.a., the “before times”), McKinsey reported that 92% of companies felt their business models needed to change because of digitization. This kind of change takes time, and in the post-pandemic world many businesses were slow to embrace new technologies and the institutional changes they entailed.

All that changed in March of this year, when the disruption caused by the pandemic forced a rapid change in the way B2B marketers and buyers did business. Here are some key ways businesses are adapting to our new virtual normal:

  • Remote work: Many companies shifted to working remotely back in March, with 51% indicating their company was already prepared to enable remote work. But while certain industry sectors like technology and business services were well-equipped, others like manufacturing and healthcare had to scramble to develop remote-working infrastructure on the fly.
  • Reduced marketing budgets: By May, companies had begun to shift their B2B marketing strategies and reduce their marketing spend, with McKinsey reporting that over 60% of B2B decision makers reduced their firm’s marketing budget because of COVID-19. Less outbound marketing means fewer leads and puts more pressure on sales and marketing teams who are already stretched thin.

Source: McKinsey

  • Evaporating sales channels: Some of the key sales channels that B2B marketers used to connect with buyers before the pandemic—like in-person events and meetings—disappeared practically overnight, forcing companies to scramble to replace them with virtual events that relied on web-based platforms and solutions.
  • Virtual customer experience (CX): Improving customer experience, already at the forefront of digital transformation initiatives for many B2B companies, has become crucial to maintaining connections and delivering appropriate messaging in this newly fragmented post-COVID-19 environment. Data unification is what drives good customer experience, but achieving this at scale and in real-time takes technology. Specifically, AI technologies are needed to meet the speed and precision necessary to deliver top-notch CX.

A remote workforce, the evaporation of traditional sales and marketing channels, and the need to maintain consistent, personalized and timely communication with customers and prospects are propelling companies onto an accelerated path to digital transformation.

Sales and marketing teams must be aligned

Aligning sales and marketing teams was an emerging trend before the pandemic and it’s even more important now.

With budgets tight and marketing dollars reduced, sales and marketing teams must become proficient at remote collaboration to ensure their messaging resonates with customers and prospects, and that less time is wasted on unqualified prospects.

The lesson here is about good communication, but also about focusing on what’s important. Where once a high volume of leads may have driven both teams, now filling the funnel with prospects that don’t amount to deals is too much of a risk. As many companies continue to work remotely, technology will be the driving force behind ensuring these two teams communicate throughout the entire lifecycle of the buying process.

Sales and marketing enablement software, ABM platforms, and customer data platforms are all examples of how companies can stitch together their prospect and customer data to (remotely) empower sales and marketing alignment. Collaboration tools like Slack and G Suite are also important to facilitate communication.

Must-have tools for the post-pandemic tech stack

And speaking of tools, the post-pandemic tech stack for B2B marketers probably looks a lot like the pre-pandemic tech stack. The big difference? Now is the time to invest in platforms and solutions you may have been considering (or postponing) in the past.

Here are some tools to consider, inspired by some of the categories illustrated by entrants in the 2019 MarTech Stackie awards.

  • Planning Tools: Planning tools range from HubSpot to Slack to Google Drive. They facilitate collaboration, communication and planning. They can also include competitive analysis and marketing planning platforms (think MOZ and SEMrush).
  • Creative Tools: Creative equals content and vice versa. Tools in this category could include Adobe, MS Office, and InVision, but also publishing platforms like WordPress, HubSpot and Box.
  • Engagement Tools: There’s some crossover with Creative here, with tools like HubSpot and WordPress enabling user engagement. There are also more robust tools (e.g., Invoca, Terminus, and Genesys) that facilitate engagement. Social media and marketing channels fall soundly within the engagement category too—Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube are some examples.
  • Measurement Tools: Measurement and analytics tools are needed to tie everything together and understand what marketing and sales initiatives are driving growth. Tools in this category include Google Analytics, Mixpanel, Quip for Salesforce, and Adobe DTM.

In case you’re wondering, the winner of the 2019 Stackie Awards was Airstream, manufacturer of travel trailers and touring coaches. Airstream visualized their tech stack as a journey through the woods. They started with planning tools like Zoom and HubSpot and ended with measurement tools including Google Analytics and Hotjar.

Airstream’s visualized tech stack was the 2019 Stackie award winner—Source: Chiefmartec.com

More humanization (and authenticity) in B2B messaging

The final lesson learned from our 2020 retrospective is about the importance of humanization during times of crisis. In May, McKinsey published a COVID-19 response checklist for B2B marketers. The checklist advises organizations to be cognizant of the current situation—the post-pandemic environment is constantly changing. Your messaging should adapt to this reality.

Mapping industry demand, tracking daily sales, and monitoring results should be part of this process, but it’s also important to understand how your product or solution aligns with the immediate needs of your customers.

Conclusion

The good news for B2B marketers is that buyers are still considering purchases, even during COVID-19. In May, eMarketer reported that 22% of US B2B buyers were continuing purchases they’d started prior to the pandemic and 31% had started looking for new solutions.

Remember, even before COVID-19, B2B buyers were behaving more like B2C consumers. They’re completing much of the B2B buying journey on their own. They respond to transparency in pricing and they expect a fast response to their inquiries and issues. To this end, providing high-quality content and information can help inform purchase decisions. Buyers also need easy access to support via a variety of digital touchpoints. This last point is incredibly important during a time when buyers and sellers are only able to connect virtually.