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Podcast: The impact of COVID-19 on B2B marketers’ careers

By Stacey Danheiser and Dr Simon Kelly, Principals, Shake Marketing

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the B2B marketing industry. According to research, 69% of B2B marketing functions have changed their marketing approach by returning to basics such as communication, value add, relevancy and empathy.

So today, we’re joined by Stacey Danheiser and Dr. Simon Kelly, Principals of Shake Marketing Group, and co- authors of the book Value-ology and forthcoming book Stand Out Marketing. They’re here to share their expert advice on how B2B marketing roles have been impacted by the pandemic and how they may evolve in the new era of work.

1. To begin with, please could you introduce yourself to our listeners? Stacey, we’ll begin with you.

(01:10) Yes, absolutely. Well, firstly, thanks so much for having us on the show today. I’m Stacey Danheiser, the Founder and CEO of Shake Marketing Group located in South Florida in the US. We help B2B organisations become more customer centric and focused through customer research, value proposition development, and customer centric marketing strategies. Prior to founding Shake Marketing, I spent fourteen years leading a variety of corporate marketing functions for several Fortune 500 companies in both B2B and B2C.

2. And Simon, how about you? Could you give us an introduction and let us know a little bit about your background and your current role?

(01:51) Yes sure, thanks for having me. I’m also a Principal of Shake Marketing, where I help primarily B2B organisations grow, by helping them develop powerful value propositions to help them stand out in their marketplaces for their customers and ahead of their competitors. I’m based here in the UK, and I’m a lecturer in marketing and sales at the University of York. In the past, I’ve led B2B marketing at BT, and I’ve worked in the US running North American marketing at Level 3 Communications, which is where Stacey and I met.

3. And do you think customer expectations and behaviours have changed fundamentally for good because of the pandemic, and how is this impacting the role of the B2B marketeer and the work that they do?

(02:46) Well, that’s a great question, and it’s a question we started contemplating just a few weeks into the pandemic when we were hearing all about this ‘new normal’. So, it triggered us to want to do some research, to find out more about what marketing, sales leaders and practitioners lives were like, to understand the changes in customer expectations that we were witnessing and how they saw the future.

To a large extent, I think our findings amplified the need to go back to marketing basics. Customers have become even more intolerant because they’re on the screens all the time to irrelevant communications from companies, which has amplified the need for companies to develop communications, products and solutions that are relevant and differentiated, as you mentioned in the introduction. And so, this means that marketers need to deeply understand what customers value, both from an emotional and rational perspective.

During this time, we also witnessed the rise of Black Lives Matter and other movements, which many marketing leaders we’ve worked with and spoken to believe has put a premium on authenticity, meaning you’ve got to walk the talk. For example, a VP of a FinTech marketing company we spoke to said, “Gone are the days where you can just slap something on a website without living it any longer.” There was a particularly well documented case about a social media marketing manager for a university in the UK who left his job, because he believed they were portraying their support for Black Lives Matter, which had no substantial basis.

4. Stacey, how has the crisis led marketeers to re-evaluate and reconfigure their marketing strategies?

(04:44) Well in our conversations with marketers and just working with clients, we’ve found that there are three big areas that marketers have shifted.

The first is around tone and messaging, 73% of the marketers that we surveyed said that they had updated their messaging to reflect new sentiments and customer themes. It’s really forced B2B companies to recognise, not only how organisations are reacting during this time, but also the individuals within those organisations and how they’re feeling. So, for example, work suddenly merged with home life for many of us, which means trying to find a balance between being on video calls for work and then helping kids in the background with their online schooling.

The second is this marketing and sales approach. So, since sales has not been able to meet face-to-face with customers, this really put a premium on marketing to help drive customer engagement and conversations. At the beginning, this really just meant moving everything from face-to-face, offline events and tactics into a digital format with a much bigger focus on social media for example, and there’s basically a need to continue that creativity. How will marketing and sales evolve? How do you build the relationships in a virtual environment for example? So, all of that will continue to evolve.

And then the third area is around new products and services. So, 40% of the marketers that we talked to said that they had developed a new pricing or packaging strategy. Some of it was just being creative with financial terms and being more lenient, potentially spacing out payments over several months versus requiring upfront deposits, as well as packaging different features of their product set and creating either a new product, or just pulling things in and highlighting features that may have been underrepresented or not as important before the pandemic.

On the other side, 33% of the folks we talked to said that they had launched a new product or repositioned an existing one. So, we saw this happen a little bit more quickly in B2C organisations. Specifically, in the US, restaurants started offering their famous cocktails in a to-go container in an effort to bring in some revenue, but also give customers access to their beloved margaritas while they sat at home.

5. Taking all these changes into consideration, do you think that the basics of marketing will still hold true in the new era of work or will they need to be revised to ensure that businesses are able to thrive?

(07:25) Yes, as Simon mentioned, we think the pandemic has just amplified the need for marketing basics. We typically work with clients that have skipped part of building the foundations, in a seven-step framework, let’s say step seven is execution, a lot of marketers start with step seven. This means they don’t do any customer research before developing products or launching new marketing campaigns. They don’t test messaging, they treat every customer segment the same, instead of understanding what makes them different.

So, really this is amplified during this time. Building a solid foundation and having a marketing platform that is solid within that company is going to be even more critical and customers will rely more heavily on relevant content, communications and interactions as Simon mentioned. Especially in B2B, they’ve been tolerant for a long-time receiving stuff that’s irrelevant. This just means that marketing’s job is going to be growing even bigger and more important. So, you can’t just produce one piece of content that is expected to talk to five different departments and five different types of decision makers. You really must understand the nuances of each of these audiences and then create content that is relevant to help each buyer get educated and move forward in that journey.

6. Do you think that there’s been a shift from the reactive firefighting which we saw at the beginning of the pandemic to a more strategic, long-term thinking within marketing teams?

(09:06) Yes, we’ve seen marketing start to be more strategic and proactive. At the beginning, it was very reactive, pushing out we’re here for you messaging or getting everything moved online, but there’s still room for improvement. For example, only 22% of the marketers that we talked to said that they had done any real customer research, and this led to a sea of the same problems, where everyone was saying the same things about working from home, we’re in this together or we’re here for you. And when you first received a couple of these emails from companies, that might’ve been a nice gesture or sentiment, but when you got the twelfth or the fifteenth email, you just started deleting it, and this is leading customers to tune out and putting a premium on relevant communications.

7. And how will customer value change and impact the tactics that marketers use?

(09:59) B2B customers have long been frustrated with vendors and salespeople not listening to them or understanding their needs. So, now is the time to dig deeper and understand what’s changed in the customer’s world and how your company can deliver value.

On the tactical side, the first is really recognising that digital fatigue is real. So, customers and employees are just tired of being on video calls all day. It really hasn’t made anyone excited to sit through another eight-hour virtual event or concert, and yet I keep getting invited to two-day events that feature forty plus speakers. And on the one hand, that’s great because it’s now a global audience, you have access to people or events that you might not have previously had access to. But on the other hand, a two day back-to-back eight-hour event is just unrealistic in today’s business climate.

So, this is going to force marketers to become more creative, to cut through the noise to keep somebody engaged on a webinar. How do you make things more interactive and fun? Marketing specifically has been specialised and siloed over the last several years that the tactics don’t always seem integrated or cohesive. So, remember, the customer is interacting with your brand in a variety of formats from the web, to virtual events, to sales presentations and customer service calls. And all of this really needs to feel seamless and like it’s coming from the same company.

8. Simon, do you have any examples of brands who have done this effectively?

(11:27) Yes, so from my perspective, we’re all very familiar with some of the type of examples that Stacey talked about in the B2C world in our private lives. From gin distillers that flipped to producing hand sanitisersclothing companies making face masks, and there’s a real funky paint colour matching service that you can get by touching a pen against any particular wall and matching it to a colour, which was part of the growth of home improvements during lockdown.

And some of the things we’ve seen in B2B are quite interesting, although they’re not always a direct correlation in size and agility. For example, IBM quickly developed six key offers that stood out for their customers in this time as the most relevant for the COVID world, and now including turning up services for the first time for organisations that have never worked remotely before. Palo Alto Networks is an American cloud company, and they quickly developed a resource centre to help customers to move into working in post-COVID environments to help with flexible working.

In terms of development of a brand-new offer. I also like an example that we found in the US that a company called Chappell who are a software company that track movements in big marketing events, using QR codes, et cetera. Well, they quickly developed a solution for a Boston construction company to help them track who was coming in and out of the key construction sites. It’s called Health Screener and that showed a great deal of agility. I think the warning here is for every company we saw moving with agility to respond to new needs, we found a frustrated marketeer working in a company where they knew customers wanted new solutions, but the company just couldn’t get out of each other’s way to get the new solution over the line, because it was just too cumbersome.

9. What do you think have been the key challenges for B2B marketeers’ as we transitioned through this pandemic?

(13:43) As we’ve hinted at, the challenges faced by B2B marketeers would have been very different depending on which sector they were in or which segments they serve. So, they would have found that the customers had got dramatically different fortunes at different ends of the extremes.

We can contrast, for example, the airline industry, which obviously came to a very rapid shutdown with organisations that provide technology like cloud services or video communications technology. And this contrast obviously mirrored on the supply side. Now, unfortunately, some people were furloughed, including people we know. For example, a marketeer that we know worked in an agency whose core business was serving UK pubs, a friend who actually looked after the trade side for a paint company, which just shows you that, you can’t take everything as being in one lump because while there was a boom in home decorating, obviously all the sort of building sites and the trade side of the companies work just came to a grinding halt.

So, while the B2C business grew, the B2B business was shut down almost overnight. So, if you serve more than one different customer, sector or segment, gone are the days of treating them all the same, and this amplifies the need for better segmentation and treating customers differently. As Stacey said earlier, we found that three main things came through, that companies started refreshing the messages, companies now need to focus more on being relevant and authentic to customers which could involve developing new offers, and finally, to focus more on customers value. I think that for individual marketeers, they probably need to be a lot more flexible about the roles that they would consider taking on and maybe move to create more skillsets.

10. What do you think will be the main obstacles for marketeers over the next year or so, as we continue to navigate through the current crisis?

(15:57) I think depending where they’re at, again you could contrast, but one of them could be budget. We met one person who said their company was going back to zero based budgets, which as you probably know, is a situation where you have to bid for every single pound or dollar that you’re looking to get to help take marketing initiatives forward, which is just a reflection that some organisations could be struggling. The other obstacle we think we’ll face is often what happens to marketeers, is they just get driven to try to deliver lots and lots of activity. You know, there’s activity illusion whereby the more you do the more you must be being productive. And they’ve had a lot of demands placed on them because as Stacey said, it’s harder for the salespeople to meet face-to-face with the customers, so they’re looking for more and more tactics to be developed. So, trying to step away from that and becoming more strategic is going to be the challenge.

11. Stacey, which skills do you think will be most important to ensure a successful career in B2B marketing in the future?

(17:09) Well, this is a great question, and one that is near and dear to our hearts as we’ve spent the last year researching and writing a book called Stand Out Marketing, which is due out in December about this very topic. So, we cover in this book five key competencies that marketers should seek to develop to get ahead and help their companies stand out.

They represent an acronym for value as that’s really the primary role of the marketer’s job, to create and communicate value for customers:

  • So, the first one is visionary. Having your pulse on the broader business environment to develop new products, insights, and ways of doing business.
  • The second one is activator. This is a bit broader than just the standard execution where marketing typically lives. This involves getting buy-in to initiatives and being the force that activates the team to help drive growth.
  • The third one is learner. Everything is changing all the time, so learning is an ongoing process. Whether that’s learning a new skill, like how to do Google Ads, learning about your competition or the changing world of your customers. This is really a mindset and something that we feel strongly that marketers need to continue to grow.
  • The fourth one is usefulness which is really about being relevant, practical, and differentiated in the programs, communications and products that are being launched and obviously you can’t really be useful unless you have your pulse again on the customer. So, that kind of ties back to being constantly in tune.
  • And then the last is evaluator. This is what’s working and what’s not, what insights can be found. There’s a plethora of data out there. A lot of technology and companies that are talking about big data and intent data, but really the skillset here is about how you evaluate that data and what you’re going to do with it. How do you interpret it? And then how do you take action against it?

Great, thanks Stacey. So, it’s obvious that marketeers need to look at their skill sets just to make sure that they’re covering as many bases as possible.

Click here to pre-order their new book, Stand-out Marketing
 

12. How can marketers go about effectively upskilling to learn or demonstrate some of these key traits that you just mentioned?

(19:24) Yes, well, for one, listening to podcasts like this are helpful to continue to upskill and learn new things. We’re going to have a deeper dive podcast with Hays to go into the competencies and give you guys some action items around each of those, but for now we really urge marketers to do some self-reflection and understand where they may have gaps. There’s always room for improvement and many marketers just don’t always want to admit that.

So, we have conversations with marketing professionals all the time and on the surface, they’ll say, yes, we’re doing all of this, everything looks great and everything is working well but if you peel back the onion, one layer down, there’s a lot of depth missing there. So, I think, part one is just really being self-aware and doing some reflection as to what is most important to them. Where do they really want to see their career go? And then developing a framework and a plan to get there.

13. And Simon, do you think certain marketing roles will become more important in this new era of work?

(20:28) Well, I think point number one here is, as we’ve probably already drawn out is the good news. If there can be any good news in this day and age, it’s the overall role of marketing seems to have been elevated in B2B as a result of the pandemic. Well, we’ve always found that marketing is more than just marketing communications or increasingly digital marketing communications. And what really surprised us in our interviews was the kind of organisations who were saying, “What we’re seeing now is much more than just events because we can’t have face-to-face events anymore. I mean, it’s just rarely some of the big blue chips that were saying that to us.

So, now’s the time for marketing departments to elevate themselves above just collateral and events and to become more than just the colouring in any department. So, go beyond tactical execution to a more strategic place where marketing drives what customers you serve, in what marketplaces, with what products and services and crucially with what competitive advantage.

So, while in the short-term companies like Hays, saw a big uptake in demand for digital skills as more marketing moved online, also seeing jobs like project management, becoming more to the fore as some of the leaders we actually spoke to held the view that maybe there’s going to be a need for more generalists, as projects come together quickly to deliver specific new propositions or campaigns. We’d also say that if you’re in an execution role, just elevate yourself and don’t just execute. For example, if you’re the social media marketing manager, think about the overall strategy you’re trying to deliver against. Think about what’s relevant and specific to your customer because if you don’t, you could be in trouble.

14. I’m just moving on to the last question now, which is something that we ask all our guests. If you had one piece of advice to help our listeners navigate their careers through the pandemic and beyond, what would that be?

(22:39) Well, I think keep your eyes and ears open to how things are developing. Make time for yourself to develop new skills and competencies in tune with these trends. Step out of your comfort zone and ask for assignments that will test you.

In B2B marketing, it seems to be more and more the case, especially in bigger companies that if you’re going to start in a very narrow silo role, like say digital communications, but you’ve got an aspiration to become a Vice President or a CMO, you’ve got to be able to demonstrate strategic understanding.

So, as I said earlier, apply that kind of thinking to your role as of today, give yourself time to learn and don’t use all your time executing. Also working in companies of different sizes can also broaden your competencies because contrasting with working in a big company, if you’re the marketing guy in an SME, you might be it. So, you got a full spectrum of the roles you’ve got to develop and deliver against.

15. Finally, the same question to you too Stacey. If you had one piece of advice to help listeners navigate their careers throughout the crisis and beyond what would that be?

(23:53) Yes, well, I will end with a story. So, one of the companies that I worked for had a lot of ‘Type A’ personalities. When we would develop a marketing campaign, everyone would want to share their opinion on the messaging, look and feel. Product management, inside sales, field sales, brand marketing, everyone would sit around the table and basically argue about what was most important to the customer. This was very frustrating and unproductive as everyone had a different perspective.

So, one time my team decided to bring in a third-party resource that specialised in customer research for our industry. And after they shared their key findings related to customer sentiments and motivations and goals, do you know what happened? Everyone stopped talking. They were all wrong. And it was a very important lesson for me that when you have real unbiased customer feedback, nobody can argue with it, after all you are not your customer.

So, my advice is really to earn yourself a seat at the table by presenting real customer input. You know, the data is good as we’ve talked about, but you need to have conversations with real customers to make it even better, and to be able to deliver growth constantly, reiterate on your marketing programs and be successful.

About the authors

Stacey Danheiser is CEO and founder of Shake Marketing. She is also CEO and Course Creator for Customer Value Link.

Dr Simon Kelly is President of Shake Marketing, and was formerly Marketing Director (SVP) of British Telecom. He is also Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Sheffield Business School, and Lecturer in Marketing and Sales at University of York.

Both Stacey and Simon are co-authors of the book Value-ology and forthcoming book Stand Out Marketing.

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