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How B2Bs can embrace a retail model to survive

Technology & Data

How B2Bs can embrace a retail model to survive


Consumers have embraced online shopping like never before and while retailers have rapidly transformed to make the most of the opportunities, their B2B counterparts have a lot of catching up to do. Marketers facing the challenge of digital enablement must look to process, people and platform changes to embrace the new digital marketplace, writes Fabian Di Marco.

In 2020 many B2B businesses relied on sales, trade events and third-party introducers for building brand awareness and driving growth. The marketing spend was largely geared towards supporting these teams and events. For the most part, this approach would have been fine. There was no pressing need to consider digitalisation – until the coronavirus pandemic hit and suddenly the world went through a rapid, widespread digital transformation. 

As trade shows, face-to-face meetings and sales events were jettisoned, the new digital marketplace appeared almost overnight. This has left many B2B businesses in traditional industries like transport and logistics, manufacturing and agriculture struggling to navigate the new digital environment.

The year that lit the digital disruption fuse

Just four years ago, Deloitte predicted that traditional industries and businesses were on a ‘long fuse’ to the point where digital disruption would have an impact. By contrast, ‘short fuse’ industries such as real estate could expect to see disruption in the industry immediately.

These predictions were made long before COVID-19 hit, which not only rapidly sped up the burning fuse, it also increased the ‘bang’ of disruption. Businesses that had already started on a digital transformation journey were better placed to adapt and turn the negative into a positive. There’s the example of FoodByUs, a B2B-only food marketplace that supplied restaurants and cafes, which opened its platform to consumers during the crisis while eateries were closed or had trade severely restricted.

Business-to-Business to Consumer (B2B2C) businesses, like FoodByUs, that had already started their enterprise resource planning journey were better able to manage the supply chain, set up an online store and, in some cases, even pivot to Direct to Customer (DTC). However, those that hadn’t invested in their transformation journey faced a huge challenge. Consider hardware supply businesses that had to bring large, complex wholesale product catalogues into a digital platform for retail stores suddenly selling everything online.

The marketers in industries where digital transformation and digital marketing have been ‘non-core’ are faced with the necessity of change. They must come to grips with the challenge of manoeuvring their organisation to be digitally enabled. 

To do it, they face making process, people and platform changes that come with embracing the new digital landscape. If they can make it work, they stand to reap the benefits of lower cost of acquisition, new revenue channels and increased market share. As McKinsey has said: for B2B businesses, COVID-19 is the digital inflection point that has forever changed sales and marketing.

Finding the way to make process changes

In order to develop leads and grow sales in the new digital environment, B2B marketers must consider new ways of finding, engaging and converting prospects. Where businesses had traditionally relied on sales or reputation to drive enquiries, marketers must now look at new approaches that leverage internal teams and external opportunities differently. 

One method is Account Based Marketing (ABM) where marketing and sales departments concentrate their efforts on a narrow, specific group of target companies. Marketers can leverage tools like LinkedIn to identify key stakeholders within those organisations, produce some content to engage them and drive interest. Sales can share the journey, engaging the potential customer at different touchpoints through both digital and offline channels. ABM is more suited to enterprises with multiple stakeholders. 

ABM also requires sales and marketing to work collaboratively and for both teams to be enabled by a platform that allows for this kind of targeting and nurturing. Businesses new to digital marketing and growth are unlikely to have the capabilities or appetite to make such a process and platform switch so soon.

Another valuable approach is to be tactical. As a marketer, there are ways to run the lead generation process outside of the limitations of the existing platforms, or that don’t require as much digital capability maturity from other internal stakeholders. Try suggestions such as creating a webinar linked to email-gated content, creating a high-converting homepage that speaks to customer problems or making a compelling exclusive digital offer to lure potential clients.

Regardless of the tactic, there will be a few hurdles marketers from non-core digital organisations face when they look to explore digital processes, new products or new platforms. These obstacles might be a lack of financial support or resource prioritisation. There is also one fundamental requirement of a marketer in this type of organisation: making the necessary cultural changes.

Making the people and culture change

B2B companies that haven’t traditionally invested much into digital marketing, relying instead on previously strong sales relationships or third-party channels, may find it difficult to convince the decision makers. Without a precedent of success, and with the bias of ‘this is how it’s always been done’, marketers may face a natural resistance to change.

Not having the support of the organisation, means attempts to roll out anything of critical impact will be futile. This is especially so if the organisation is sales or product-oriented. To begin influencing the internal culture to follow a new digital path to growing the business, start with a ‘Proof of Concept’ project. 

Demonstrate to the executive leadership team, how to do one thing well with a reasonable but controlled budget that can help the business grow. Whether it’s generating leads through a virtual Q&A, or selling a product DTC instead of through wholesale partners, do one thing that shows how it could scale and grow, in a financially validated and feasible way, with the right support. 

How to make the platform digital-friendly

Marketers in organisations with a low level of digital infrastructure face the very real problem of a lack of technology and technical expertise to embrace digital marketing, It might be a simple email marketing campaign to drive referrals, or an update to the website to add analytics or dynamic phone numbers for attribution, but it can’t be done yet.

However, there are always things that can be improved. Start with a hygiene project that establishes a foundational, clean beginning. There’s a basic checklist to run through for this: scale 1-5, with 5 being a confident yes and 1 being a confident no.

  1. Is the website accessible and mobile friendly?
  2. Can it be refreshed with new content and forms without requiring digital support?
  3. Can SEO elements like meta titles, URLs and header tags be easily updated?
  4. Can a list of all customers be created digitally and securely and can it be accessed with email marketing software?
  5. Can the email marketing platform easily create new emails and segment by customer?
  6. Is there a view of customers by their lead stage in the sales pipeline and what marketing activity drove them there?
  7. Is there a report to easily gauge how well marketing activity is performing against the leads in the lead stage of the sales pipeline?

Any areas that score less than 4 require attention to achieve the basic capability a B2B marketer would need in order to drive attributable, new growth to the business.

Key steps to embrace digital transformation

Start with your customers: Build segments and targets. Spend time speaking to customers and decision makers, understanding their purchase motivations, behaviours and frustrations. Find out where they spend their time online. The sales or customer service staff are a great place to start, but they will carry some bias, so try to speak directly to customers.

Have the leadership team on board: Get the leadership team on board and include other stakeholders. In these industries, customer service, sales teams and accounts teams are invaluable, not only because of the in-depth knowledge they have but because of their ability to increase or reduce friction. The more they feel like they’re being heard and included in new initiatives, the more likely they’ll help champion them.

Develop a Proof of Concept: Find one hypothesis to test and run an experiment to assess the results. It might be trying to leverage social media and a lead generation magnet like a webinar to drive leads. Or trying to sell one product online to existing customers as a way to validate the opportunity in going DTC.

Find the GAP and a plan for success: If the Proof of Concept proves valid, what next? With proof in hand and leadership on side, develop a ‘Future State’ – an ideal world for the business to operate digitally. Then, run a ‘Current State’ assessment – a view of processes, people and platforms as they stand. This defines the gap between where you are today and where you want to be and is the first step in building a plan and roadmap with justification to move forward.


Fabian Di Marco is the MD and head of strategy at digital strategy and marketing consultancy firm, TZU & Co.

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash.


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