Defining B2B Marketing Success in a Post-Digital Era

New skill sets and an agile approach to marketing are fueling the transformation process

By Michael J. McDermott

Dan Page Collection/

Technology has driven tremendous change in marketing circles and across society at large during the first two decades of the 21st century. Initially, the impact of the digital age was most evident in B2C precincts, but the same forces quickly spread to B2B sectors. The good news for B2B marketers is that, as challenging as it's been to keep pace with technology-driven change to date, they've done a pretty good job of it. The bad news? They haven't even scratched the surface.

As much change as they have absorbed the past 20 years or so, B2B CMOs and brand managers need to brace for even more profound change wrought by technology. Accenture predicts that the breathtaking pace of technological change is close to a tipping point that will usher in a new reality, which it has dubbed the "post-digital era." Global spending by businesses on digital transformation, pegged at $1.25 trillion in 2019, will soar to $1.97 trillion by 2022, according to the IDC.

At that point, more than 60 percent of global GDP will be digitized, and growth in every industry will be driven by digitally enhanced offerings, operations, and relationships. Digital technology alone will no longer qualify as a competitive differentiator. Marketing success in the post-digital era will require new skill sets and new ways of thinking, and that comes on top of the substantial list of challenges B2B marketers already face, ranging from content marketing to data analytics.

Darwinism is at play in the B2B world, and only the most adaptable will survive, says Steve Gershik, CMO at inRiver, a provider of product management information tools. In a recent inRiver survey of international B2B decision makers across all major vertical markets, 71 percent of respondents said they face more competition today than they did five years ago.

"B2B marketers, product sales managers, and sales engineers must start to embrace adaptive merchandising; that is, being flexible and nimble in creating product experiences for their customers, keeping the rules of Darwinism in mind," Gershik says. Doing so involves juggling an increasing number of channels, as well. More than half of U.S. B2B business leaders said that making sure product content meets all standards and formats for a new market or channel is the most challenging aspect of product launches, Gershik adds.


Accounting for Human Capital

Marketing is at the center of the coming maelstrom, pushed and pulled by technological change. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), for example, are vastly increasing the reach and capabilities of marketing automation, but that's creating an entirely new set of challenges on the human capital side.

According to McKinsey, demand for higher cognitive skills such as creativity, critical thinking, decision making, and complex information processing will grow by 19 percent in the U.S. through 2030.

As the Accenture report points out, the next wave of technology will make it possible for products and services to be deeply customized — a process it calls "individualization" — and delivered instantly on demand. Leading B2B marketing organizations are keenly aware of these developments and the skill sets required to capitalize on them. For many B2B firms, the process of transformation to adapt to the post-digital age is already underway.

"With consumption preferences constantly changing and clients more willing to trade personal information for better products and experiences, marketers must continuously learn new tools and techniques to gather critical insights and deliver on their brand promise," says Ed Hatch, VP of marketing transformation and operations at IBM. "We, as marketers, seek deep relationships with people, where they gain something of value from us based on their personal hopes, wants, needs, and consumption methods."


Curiosity and Flexibility Are Key

Hatch believes emerging technologies are turning marketers into data scientists who leverage ML and AI to gain insights from the explosion of data now available. At the same time, data and client-insight tools are giving marketers license to be more creative than ever before by enabling them to test and run experiments to validate ideas. "It is no longer about driving awareness around your brand or providing a journey for a client to purchase your product," he says. "It is not about making a single sale; it is about creatively developing a long-term partnership."

Toward that end, IBM is transforming its marketing organization in three key ways. First, it's putting the customer at the center of everything it does. Second, it's working to be on the forefront of using technology to create better experiences for customers. Third, it's embracing the concept of agile marketing.

IBM adopted the NPS (Net Promoter Score) system for measuring customer feedback so it can listen and respond. "We are incredibly data-driven, so we are constantly optimizing in order to anticipate our customers' needs and deliver [on them]," Hatch says.

Deploying an agile approach, Hatch says, IBM employees work in small interdisciplinary teams that enable marketers to share expertise daily, "while creating delightful experiences that can continually change based on our clients' feedback. Marketing and client advocacy go hand in hand. Marketing being fully agile is critical, with the ability to deliver, test, measure, and iterate providing limitless learning and opportunities to constantly provide better offerings, and to deliver greater client satisfaction."

At Molex, a manufacturer of electronic, electrical, and fiber optic interconnection systems, digital transformation projects are underway throughout the business, with marketing playing a crucial role. Akin to IBM, Molex relies on new skill sets and an agile approach to anchor the transformation process.

Curiosity and flexibility are the most important attributes Brian Krause, VP of global marketing and communications at Molex, looks for in marketing candidates these days. The marketing organization recently went through a restructuring to become more agile, driving a need for employees with the flexibility, mindset, and knowledge-base to do several different tasks.

"There are no more siloed definitions of roles," Krause says. "We are focused on keeping things flowing through marketing, identifying the resources that are going to work best, and getting people on and off projects as quickly as possible so they can move on to the next one. Speed and agility are critical."


Visibility Helps Marketers See the Light

Internal competition for resources is intense at most B2B organizations, so driving visibility is an important part of a marketing leader's job, Krause says. It starts with choosing initiatives clearly designed to help customers — including channel partners, sales partners, or other business units — meet their key objectives. "Then you have to get visibility," he says. "You can talk all you want about the value marketing is bringing to the business, but it resonates with the C-suite if they can see it coming from your business partners."

By way of example, Krause points to the customer-centric approach Molex's marketing department has adopted for website creation. "We're developing sites that are much more interactive and function as customer learning centers, rather than force-feeding them specific product information," he says. As customers go down the funnel, Molex learns more about them, increasing its ability to nurture customers through each stage and creating new up-sell and cross-sell opportunities.

When Krause recently accompanied a division president and the company's CEO on a visit to one of Molex's biggest customers — a $3 billion-a-year distributor of electronic components — the division president asked a customer team member what she thought of the Molex website. "I hold my breath whenever they ask a question like that, but she gushed about how responsive and useful the site is now and said she considers it the best in the industry," Krause says. "In terms of visibility for marketing, you can't beat having your CEO in the room for something like that."

Jeff Schmitz, CMO at Zebra Technologies, a provider of technology solutions for retail, manufacturing, healthcare, and transportation companies, among other industries, also stresses the growing importance of marketing visibility in the coming post-digital age. He believes it will help marketers play a more vital role in engineering transformation within their organizations.

"Company leadership needs to build a common vision and culture. They also need to ensure their teams can execute on that vision," he says. Zebra has established its vision around what it calls enterprise asset intelligence, which Schmitz describes as having "every asset and worker on the edge visible, connected, and optimally utilized. Our marketers are helping deliver industry-tailored, end-to-end solutions that intelligently connect people, assets, and data to help customers make business-critical decisions."


New Balance

The key to ensuring marketing's place at the table through the transformation into the post-digital era is being the voice of the customer, something that's always been an important part of the marketer's role, says Clayton Ruebensaal, EVP of global B2B marketing at American Express. "Exceptional marketers should be able to understand trends in culture and technology better than their competitors. This valuable perspective leads to competitive advantage in products, services, channel strategies, and innovation."

To be successful in a post-digital age, businesses must engage customers with personal, relevant, and memorable experiences, both human and digital, Ruebensaal says. This highlights one challenge B2B marketers currently face that is likely to intensify in the post-digital era: striking a balance between automation and the human touch.

"The minute marketing automation or AI becomes less personal rather than more, then it's time to find another tool for the job."
— Matt Ferguson, EVP and managing director at Mower

Recognizing triggers that help American Express marketers know when to personalize versus when to create shared brand experiences is a challenge they keep top-of-mind. "In a world of personalization, we need to strike a balance between connecting with the individual while at the same time activating a brand's total customer base through shared experiences to build a shared understanding of what the brand means for everyone," Ruebensaal says.

Striking the right balance between automation and the human touch is a subject Andrea Brimmer, chief marketing and PR officer at Ally Financial, is particularly passionate about. "Marketing is still a business of the heart, and the best brands still connect on deep emotional levels," she says. "While automation can help process and speed, it should never replace the intuition of a great marketer. The challenge going forward is how to get the best of each. Finding skill sets that understand technology and creative, and the intersection and balance between both, will become increasingly important in marketing."

Matt Ferguson, EVP and managing director at agency Mower, stresses that AI and marketing automation should be viewed simply as tools for creating real human connection. "At its core, marketing automation should be informed by real information from real people," he says. "It's just a tool for tailoring communications for particular audiences and segments, making them more personal, and taking a load off overtaxed sales and customer service people." He adds, "The minute marketing automation or AI becomes less personal rather than more, then it's time to find another tool for the job."


B2B Marketing As Core

While the changes are likely to manifest in different ways, most B2B brands expect marketing to be core within their organizations in a post-digital era. "In many companies, marketing is leading the transformation simply because of the digital processes that they've worked with and are already up on their sites," Krause says, adding that Molex recently hired a chief digital officer to drive transformation projects across the entire company.

"Our CMO is the instrument of change for the company and the marketing function," says IBM's Hatch. "Leveraging data and insight to enable rapid iteration of our offerings and client engagement strategies puts marketing at the center of value creation. In today's world, there is not a business activity that marketing does not lead or influence."

As Amex's Ruebensaal wryly observes, the leadership role in transformation to the post-digital era is marketing's to lose. "If marketing departments continue to struggle with how to articulate and prove the value of our investments, our future will be rocky," he says. "If we can explain and prove the value of these investments, our future is bright. The ball is in our court."



You must be logged in to submit a comment.