As we approach the end of 2016, it’s time to take a look at B2B marketing trends that will emerge in the coming year. Continuing a pattern from previous years, 2017 will see the ongoing evolution of many B2B marketing trends and some new concepts will become more mainstream.
Trends become best practices, best practices become mainstays
Over the last decade, there has been an emergence of key B2B strategies, tactics and tools that have been growing in popularity. The truth is, things like digital, mobile, social, marketing technology and content marketing are now mainstays—not trends. These one-time trends have redefined the landscape and had an enormous impact on how we approach B2B marketing. We now live in a digital, social, mobile and technology-enabled world that thrives on content. This is the modern marketing landscape.
With that said, these mainstays continue to evolve and spur their own trends. And there are certainly many new(er) trends that are likely to make their presence known in 2017. Some are simply the natural evolution of staples in our marketing strategies, while others underscore the changing role of B2B marketing and the continued presence of new and advanced marketing technology.
So what trends will have the biggest impact? Here’s a list of seven B2B marketing trends to watch in 2017.
1. A customer-centered approach to everything
We live in the age of the customer, and while our B2C counterparts figured this out a while ago, B2B firms have also recognized that customer experience (CX) and a customer-centered everything approach to doing business—wins. Today’s B2B buyers are increasingly influenced by their consumer experiences and have come to expect similar experiences in their professional lives.
According to Walker Information’s Customers 2020: The Future of B-to-B Customer Experience, by the year 2020 customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator. This has huge implications, not just for how firms market and sell, but also how they deliver their services and products, and also how they nurture existing client relationships. Unfortunately, only 23% of B2B marketers have a customer-centric—vs. a channel- or product-centric—organizational structure. In 2017, we’ll likely see the rest of the 77% start to make major inroads with adopting a customer-centric strategy and an internal infrastructure to support it.
2. Account-based marketing
Account-based marketing (ABM) has been a hot topic in B2B marketing this year and will likely start to gain widespread adoption in 2017. For B2B firms with long, complex sales cycles that often involve many stakeholders and are typically high-value in nature, ABM represents arguably a more effective way to generate new business than “inbound” approaches to demand generation. While demand generation focuses on targeting specific personas or client types, ABM is hyper-focused on targeting specific contacts at specific companies with which a firm wants to do business or is already engaged. It’s been described as fishing with a spear, as opposed to fishing with a net.
Research from Demandbase found that when firms leveraged ABM, it resulted in a 285% higher close rate for targeted enterprise accounts, and a 166% higher close rate for mid-market accounts. Also, at the heart of an ABM strategy is a close collaboration and alignment with a firm’s sales and business development efforts. As both marketing ROI and sales alignment are becoming primary drivers, more firms will jump on the ABM movement in 2017.
3. Maturing and evolving content marketing programs
Content marketing is indeed a mainstay of a modern marketing strategy. The latest research from Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs found that 89% of B2B marketers are using content marketing and 70% plan to create more content in 2017 than they did in 2016. But in spite of the widespread adoption of content marketing, only 22% of B2B marketers say their organizations are either very or extremely effective at it.
However, there is a silver lining—62% report that their organizations are much more or somewhat more successful with their overall content marketing approach compared to one year ago. In 2017, the way many firms leverage content marketing will take a leap forward—evolving into much more strategic, sustainable, measureable and effective programs.
Here are some of the content marketing specific trends to look for in 2017:
- Prioritization of having a documented content marketing strategy
- Less focus on quantity; more focus on quality, target-specific content
- Integration of content marketing into ABM and other sales-driven activities
- Particular priority given to demonstrating ROI, inclusion in multi-touch attribution measurement (see #7)
- Diversification of content formats to include a broader mix including more video, podcasts, interactive content, etc.
- More sophisticated technology infrastructure to support programs
- Increasing reliance on paid amplification to boost distribution
- More attention given to contributor marketing and native advertising to support program goals (see #4)
4. Widespread interest in native advertising
As mentioned above, there will continue to be a significant shift towards increased reliance on paid methods of amplification, and native advertising represents one of those methods. Native advertising is not the same thing as content marketing, but it’s best described as a form of paid media that where the ad, post or article blends into the context of the (native) content surroundings. And it can be a highly effective means of generating exposure, as B2B publishers actually outperform all other verticals four to one on native advertising.
For many B2B firms, sponsored posts on LinkedIn might be their foray into native advertising, but there are many native advertising opportunities available to B2B marketers including Forbes BrandVoice, Business Insider, Sharethrough and Buzzfeed, as well as a growing number of industry-specific publications. While many larger firms have already experimented and succeeded with native advertising, in 2017 look for much more widespread interest from B2B marketers.
5. Video, live streaming video and more video
Video has been hot for a while, but in 2017 look for it to achieve blazing status as firms already using video will double down, and others will get off the bench. What’s the cause of this explosion? Video—done well—is engaging and generates ROI. A study from HubSpot found that video was the most thoroughly consumed content format. In fact, four times as many consumers prefer digestible video content over text and 59% of senior executives agree that if both text and video are available on the same topic on the same page, they prefer to watch the video.
We’ve seen short-form video become more prominent in the B2B space with many firms creating brand videos, client testimonials and video blogs. But in 2017, we’ll also see more firms invest in long-form video content as well, including the creation of video shows and series such as Intel’s Meet the Makers mini-documentary series. And now with live streaming tools such as Twitter-owned Periscope, Facebook Live, Livestream, Ustream and newly released Instagram Live Video, marketers have the ability to easily broadcast live events as well. This opens up virtually endless possibilities for showcasing live events, product demonstrations, Q&A panels and “behind the scenes” tours. Whether short-form, long-form or streaming, video will no doubt play a bigger role in many 2017 B2B marketing plans.
6. Employer branding and recruitment marketing
For many B2B firms—especially those who provide services—finding, attracting and retaining top talent is one of the biggest challenges they face. According to PWC’s 19th Annual Global CEO Survey, 73% of CEOs are concerned about the availability of key skills. This isn’t a new issue and human resources professionals have been focused on employer branding, employee engagement and talent acquisition strategies for years. But as the war for talent intensifies, these initiatives have become an even bigger priority (62% of global talent leaders say employer branding is their biggest priority for 2016) and firms are starting to turn to marketing for help.
Marketing and HR collaboration makes complete sense, as many of HR’s objectives align perfectly with marketing’s skill set. While the audience and “product” are obviously much different, the principles of employer branding and recruitment marketing are innately strategic marketing principles. Adding to that, these initiatives are most effectively accomplished leveraging the best of the modern marketing playbook, and who better to task than the marketing team. As such, 2017 will see a trend towards more marketing involvement with employer branding and recruitment marketing activities, and HR initiatives will appear in many B2B marketing plans and budgets.
7. Multi-touch marketing attribution
For many B2B firms, marketing has long been viewed as more of a support service, rather than a revenue generator. But times are changing, and marketing teams are under increasing pressure not only to demonstrate their impact on the bottom line, but also provide analytical insights to defend marketing initiatives (and budget). Marketing attribution is the process of tying specific marketing campaigns and initiatives (or touchpoints) to specific closed deals and revenue. While multi-touch attribution has been leveraged by large enterprises for quite some time, many small and mid-market firms have had a difficult time making attribution work. But look for that to change in 2017.
As more firms are creating closed-loop, integrated marketing and sales systems and better aligning their teams, such measurement will become easier to perform. The growing use of targeted, account-based marketing strategies (see #2) will also make attribution and forecasting not only possible, but also more precise. Thankfully, there are also a growing number of helpful marketing attribution tools such as BrightFunnel and Bizable available for B2B marketers. Whether automated, manual, or a combination of the two, look for marketing attribution to play a bigger role in B2B marketing in the year ahead.
Chasing next practices, not fads
There are certainly a slew of other B2B marketing trends that will also likely pick up steam in 2017 and a whole bunch fads will come and go too. Savvy B2B marketers (and their firm leaders) are not interested in chasing fads, but instead are looking for “next practices” that are most likely to move the needle for their firm’s marketing and business development efforts. This list, while admittedly not comprehensive, provides a look at some B2B marketing trends to consider and watch in the year ahead.
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