6 ways B2B brands can stay ahead of the competition in 2019

Earnest's strategy and planning partner Paul Hewerdine takes a punt on what this year may have in store for the movers and shakers in B2B marketing

1. B2B marketers will realise that advertising doesn't change behaviour - experiences do

This is no ‘death-of-advertising’ prediction. Ads still have their place, especially for building awareness. But with trust in ads at an all-time low, and response rates nosediving, B2B marketers are realising that first-hand experiences are a far more powerful way to change perceptions and drive consideration.

So, expect to see more brands craft events and experiences – creating environments and spaces where they can educate, inspire and entertain their customers and prospects, or just show off new products in new ways. Whatever form the experience takes, chances are it’ll be far more persuasive than a series of banner ads in winning hearts and minds.

2. Challenger marketing will become a recognised thing

The 'challenger sale' has been pushed hard for a while now, as brands try to elevate their sales teams from mere floggers to trusted advisers (with varying degrees of success). The fact is, buyers want vendors to challenge them on how they do business. They want partners who can help them find new ways to solve their problems – and make buying easy.

And that calls for challenger marketing to do the heavy lifting. For me, that means ditching the lazy assumptions and cartoonish, half-baked buyer personas. It’s about getting under the skin of what really matters to customers and prospects. It’s about having a point of view. Maybe even a provocative one. It’s about showing them how you can change their world (or at least a part of it) and fix their problems in new ways.

And if you can’t do that, bear in mind the following…

3. ‘Most-useful’ brands will trump ‘thought-leaders’

Exec: We need to reposition our brand as a thought-leader in our space.

Marketing: Okay – we’ll speak to the thought-leaders in the business to nail our point of view.

Exec: That might be tricky. I don’t think we have any actual thought-leaders.

Marketing: Err…

Exec: Look, just see what our competition are saying and then say something more thought-provoking.

It seems 80% of all brands now want to be thought-leaders. Trouble is, many of them just aren’t cut out for it. Which explains all the rehashed ‘visionary’ content that pretty much says the same thing in different ways. That doesn’t just make it hard for buyers to tell one brand from another. It’s just not helpful.

In 2019, more brands will realise that being the most useful guys in town puts them in a far better position competitively.

For me being useful means playing an active role in helping potential buyers make the right calls for their business. Helping them learn and upskill. Guiding them on the products that are right for them (being as objective as possible). Giving them all the support they need to convince other stakeholders in their business. Arming them with the ammo to prove the business case. And generally just being there whenever they’ve got questions. By doing so, they’ll see off the pseudo thought-leaders every day.

4. The devil won’t be in the data, but how you use it

Marketing’s new-fangled obsession with data is a healthy one. But what’s unhealthy is losing sight of the fact that data is a means to an end.

My guess is there are three types of marketer today: those with very little data or understanding; those with tonnes of data and very little understanding; and those with some data and lots of understanding (the minority, unfortunately).

But 2019 could be the year that all changes. With the panic about getting match-fit for GDPR behind us, I predict we’re entering a new era of data savviness. Where marketers have been forced to scrutinise the data they hold and why they hold it. Where they’ve realised that board-level stakeholders won’t put up with marketing dashboards that don’t give a sense of ROI, brand-health or pipeline – or the levers that really matter.

Hopefully we’ll see more meaningful analysis come out of marketing – recommendations that people can actually act on, rather than just raw data. And that’ll go a long way to bolstering marketing’s credibility.

5. The brands that grow will be those that realise who and what they’re actually competing with

Ask yourself honestly: do you really know your competition? Sure, you can look at all the Gartner Magic Quadrants and multitude of other analyst reports you like – but what about all the competitors they don’t name?

There’s a lot of other things you’re competing with too. The biggest being apathy: the ‘let’s-do-nothing’. Recent research by Aberdeen Group found 53% of buyers delay decisions on at least half of purchases. Gulp.

Then there’s all the other things you’re battling against for budget. A CTO told me recently that while they know they need to invest in lots of new tech over the next three years, the biggest thing they’re wrestling with is in which order to make those investments. So, you may think you’re competing with others in your direct category for budget this year – but you could also be competing with a load of other vendors outside of your category. Remember, if you can be the brand that helps that CTO navigate that mess and work out how to prioritise their investment, it’ll put you in really good stead.

Next up, you’re competing with the best experience from all other walks of life. If your marketing, online experience or customer service suck, chances are people won’t cut you much slack, just because you’re a B2B brand.

And the final one: the battle for people’s attention. Because let’s face it, people are busy. And not just with work stuff. So always assume your marketing is going to be ignored – then work out how to really earn people’s attention. As one of my esteemed colleagues says: ‘Just do something interesting’. Because if what you’re doing doesn’t interest you, it’s a safe bet your audience will switch off too.

6. Giant leaps forward will come by doing something different

Expect to see more B2B brands step out of their comfort zone. Doing the same-old isn’t enough these days. And doing the same as everyone else, will if you’re lucky just get your similar results to everyone else. You know the formulaic content marketing initiatives. The ABM-by-numbers programmes. The ever-more ineffective online ad campaigns.

Something different is needed. In a word: experimentation. And I don’t just mean A/B testing email subject lines. I mean being bold and allocating 10% of your budget to trying something new. Something you or your competitors have never done before. Something your audience has never seen before. Because rather than getting a 0.01% increase in responses, you could end up with ten times the response of your competitors. By all means, dedicate 90% of your budget to raising the bar on all the stuff you normally do – but earmark 10% to innovation. Genuine innovation. Tell the business. Invite ideas. Be brave and try something different. Sure, there’s a little risk involved, but it’s a calculated risk. And besides, the far bigger risk is playing it safe and doing the same as everyone else.

The B2B Marketing UK Agencies Benchmarking Report 2019

This year's league table features a record-breaking 95 agencies, and is chock-full of analysis, commentary and interview with the agencies themselves and on the state of the market.

Found out the UK's top B2B marketing agencies

The B2B Marketing UK Agencies Benchmarking Report 2019