Ten things we learned in 2012

It’s very easy in December to look at the 12 months just gone and describe it as a ‘landmark year’ but I think the in the case of 2012, that’s...

It’s very easy in December to look at the 12 months just gone and describe it as a ‘landmark year’ but I think the in the case of 2012, that’s an attribution that is full justified. So much has happened in the world, both good and bad, that in the future it will genuinely be recognised as a key milestone, for a great many reasons. But what have been the significant developments in the world of B2B marketing? What have we learned, and more importantly, how will that impact on what we do and behave in the year ahead? Here are my essential takeaways from 2012.

1. Creative is not dead yet – storytelling is its salvation
In the battle for intellectual airtime, creative has been losing out to data in recent years – big time. The technology vendors appeared to be winning the battle, succeeding in shifting our attention to numbers and analytics, away from the images and text-based messages, which made up the communications in the first place. However, the notion of ‘storytelling’ has done much to counter the contention that B2B creative is a spent force, providing new impetus to old disciplines, and making creative sexy again. But is storytelling something genuinely new, or is it – as one commentator contended – just as case of the emperor’s new clothes? My feeling is that of course there’s more than an element of reinvention here, but its also a new perspective on the current conundrum facing B2B marketers, which frames the issues in a contemporary setting. And for me, that makes it pretty compelling.

2. Social media enters the ‘trough of disillusionment
The trajectory of social media over the past four years has been fascinating to plot. Back in 2008, it was going to change all of our lives; completely, totally and utterly. By 2010, we were warning those not doing it that they risked extinction. By 2012, we were starting to wonder what all the fuss had been about. Whilst on the one hand, social is allowing B2B brands to communicate with certain niche audiences extremely effectively, it remains a minority channel, and one for whom marketers find it almost impossible to demonstrate ROI on. Consequently, to say the gloss has fallen off is an understatement in the extreme. Be that as it may, social media remains a highly potent channel, but marketers and brands must work much harder to make it pay back.

3. SEO is dead – long live content!
The various updates that Google made to its search algorithms in 2012 finally allowed good content to overtake SEO ‘dark arts’ and behind-the-scenes jiggery-pokery to become the key to success in the search engine results pages. “About time too,” you’re probably saying; and you’re right. Of course good content should trump clever machinations by search consultants to fool the search engines into ranking one site above another. It’s been heading this way for a while, but 2012 appeared to mark the tipping point. At last, we have a meritocracy in search results, and this sets up a huge opportunity and change for B2B brands with regard to content. Put simply: ‘if you create it, they will come’. (Well, they will if it’s any good…)

4. B2B can punch above its weight for sponsorship – without embarrassing itself
As Atos and Cisco both showed in 2012, just the right associations, pitched in the right way, through the right channels, B2B brands can make Olympics sponsorship work superbly well – without the need for cringe-worthy advertising on endless repeat. Unlike, of course, the likes of P&G, who pummelled us into antipathy during the commercial breaks. It didn’t exactly do the broadcasters any favours either. Has anyone ever told them that less is more? In the post Tivo and Sky Plus world, ITV's business model seems increasingly misaligned with people’s tastes and preferences.

5. Apple’s lead in mobile devices looks unlikely to last
How fickle we all are. And never so fickle as when it comes to that ultimate small object of desire: the mobile device. It is hard to countenance the pace of change in this fast-moving market. First, formerly ubiquitous Nokia falls from grace; then Blackberry implodes spectacularly. Although it arguably evented the category, and will remain dominant for the time being, Apple’s lead as the premium brand in the tablet market doesn’t look likely to last long, with Samsung, Kindle and others all gunning for it, offering pretty much the same devices at a significantly more competitive price. The good news for B2B brands is this looks set to truly open up the mobile market… but things could all change again, so just remember to stay neutral when it comes to operating systems and platforms. If you’re not thinking mobile already, now would be a good time to start.

6. The days of text-based content look numbered
Whitepapers, ebooks, reports… the B2B world is increasingly awash with free downloadable content, designed to help push you gradually towards that complex business purchase… if you don’t fall asleep whilst reading it, of course. This year, the role of video as a means of grabbing the attention of casual web visitors and serious prospects alike was confirmed again and again, with video becoming the defacto content engagement tool. Of course, there will continue to a role for detailed, indepth content resources, which help buyers make complex decisions at the final stage of the process, but brands must balance this with more accessible, dynamic content, which has a lightness of touch and even a sense of wit to draw people in.  

7. You can’t engineer social habits
It’s pleasing to note that, no matter how good the technology, no matter how compelling the all-round proposition, no matter how good the data, and no matter often you tell them to do something, that you can’t force people to change their social habits. That’s the lesson from Google Plus’s attempts to ingratiate itself onto the global social space, which was met with widespread indifference – in the Western World at least, where adoption rates remained sluggish despite highly aggressive plugging on search results. In the developing world, however, it’s true to say that Google Plus is having much greater success, with adoption rates of 25 per cent plus in countries like China, Brazil and Turkey. But the extent to which this consumer landgrab and battle with Facebook ultimately impacts on business social activity, and upsets the increasingly dominant LinkedIn, remain to be seen.

8. Rumours of the demise of offline marketing has been greatly exaggerated
Offline channels, such as exhibitions, telemarketing and DM, were supposed to have been killed off by the credit crunch, but in recent months appear to have been making something of a comeback. The truth is that they never really went away – and as marketing becomes more and more digital and virtual, the power of something real, tangible or personal become even more obvious. Anecdotal evidence suggests that even the humble customer magazine is back in fashion, with brands realising that there’s nothing like the combined interruption of direct mail, plus gravitas of a magazine to make prospects sit up and take notice. Is it time to go retro?

9. Marketing technology is becoming the key battleground
The charmingly fragmented of B2B marketing technology looks set to become a thing of the past, as big global technology vendors eye up a space that is ripe for consolidation. This means the diverse and disparate array of vendors and solution providers will be marshalled into far more coherent landscape through a splurge of acquisitions. Not only that, it will also mean marketers may have to make some tough decisions about which platforms they stick with and which the abandon, as different platforms are built into monolithic competitive offerings.

10. B2B marketers just aren’t that interested in revenue
“Show me the money.” That’s the call to arms that B2B marketers are conspicuously and resolutely failing to answer, no matter how vociferously they are asked, and no matter how much peril their job appears to be in if they fail to comply. Time and time again research this year has demonstrated both that marketing managers at the coal face, and marketing directors at the strategic level, are simply not able to focus revenue to the exclusion of everything else. The proponents of Revenue Performance Management (RPM) may have to accept that B2B marketing can never just be about the money: there will always be little things like ‘brand’ that get in the way.