“In 2018, forces that have been roiling for the past several years will coalesce to spark a B2B marketing renaissance.” —Forrester, October 2017.

by Mark Eardley (@mdeardley) Isn’t it great when people agree with your thinking? You pitch a concept and somebody says, “You know what? That’s so totally total! We can so up-gear with that!” Or words to that effect… It’s even better when your thinking gets endorsed by a heavyweight such as American research company, Forrester.

In my previous MarkLives column, I ended by saying that a golden age in B2B had already dawned. Even though I might have jumped the Forrester gun a bit, I was still chuffed when reading its report, Predictions 2018: Digital Disruption Is The New Normal For B2B Marketing.

A renaissance in B2B

The report is boldly bullish in its intro about how the coming year will herald nothing less than a renaissance. A revival, a reawakening, a resurrection.

Put like that, it all sounds a bit like those ancient fertility narratives that mirrored the changing seasons: the ailing king (in this case, B2B) slowly dies in his ruined land and autumn decays into winter. He then healthily returns as spring blooms to summer and his once-blighted lands are rejuvenated. A renaissance.

To be fair, Forrester goes on to describe this metamorphosis more prosaically. It bullet-points B2B’s three key reanimators in its precis of predictions for 2018:

  • B2B marketers will put customers at the core of their purpose
  • B2B marketing will redefine its charter to better engage the new business consumer
  • B2B marketers will prioritise operational excellence

It’s about bloody time…

In my first MarkLives column last year, I looked at why B2B marketing has declined into such shameful irrelevance within the organisations it’s supposed to serve. To save time, I’ll bullet-point those three reasons:

  • B2B marketers have so little customer-contact that they have zero customer-insight
  • They have totally relinquished their responsibility for governing customer experience (CX)
  • Operationally, they’ve relegated themselves to organising the year-end party and golf-days

I also made the gun-jumping point that any direct, attributable effect upon sales and margins has been allowed — by marketers themselves, mind you — to become so negligible that their voice carries no corporate authority.

In the eyes of the C-suite, low achievement has fostered low expectation. In far too many B2B enterprises, marketing isn’t even supposed to have any significant commercial impact on the business.

Acting on Forrester’s insights

With its stated intent to “Challenge Thinking. Lead Change”, Forrester certainly hits some bullseyes.

I like some of its thinking about what needs to change. And change in ways that mean the widely dilapidated discipline of B2B finally awakes from its self-induced coma and once more fulfils its responsibility to attract and retain profitable customers.

Its report deserves credit for the bullseyes it does hit. That’s why I’m reviewing it and recommending it as worthwhile reading.

Although it might not say it in so many words — and reading between many words of jargony marketing-speak — Forrester’s advocating that B2B marketers must change focus in order to:

  • Understand how customers expect your organisation to advance the success of theirs
  • Accept total responsibility for ensuring those expectations are matched by experiences

Perhaps try walking before you attempt pole-vaulting…

Ensuring that expectations are consistently fulfilled by experiences definitely sets marketers on the right path towards creating sales and protecting margins. It’s a winning strategy. Unfortunately, in terms of implementing that strategy, the report suggests deploying tactics that are maybe a bridge too far in terms of their complexity and sophistication.

For example, at the bottom end of the complexity scale, there’s some pretty basic tactical advice about using buyer personae and journey maps to guide customer engagement strategies. However, following this sound suggestion will be pointless unless marketers have first identified all the people who influence and make buying decisions.

The simple task of then mapping personae to a buying decision cycle (‘journey map’) will be equally pointless until the reasons that inform influencers’ decisions have been qualified, quantified and ratified. You might have plenty of demographic info on the influencers, but do you know what motivates them to support a buying decision?

For a moment, let’s assume marketers have got those fundamental customer-centric insights spot-on. Which is really fab because they can put all that insight ‘at the core of their purpose’. And that means the undoubtedly crucial task of mapping personae, motivators and engagement-channels to the cycle is about as difficult as painting by numbers.

But — and I’m afraid it’s a big ‘But’ — if you don’t know the numbers, you can’t paint the picture. You’re daubing in the dark.

When reading the report, some marketers might miss the vital point that becoming customer-centric is the hard part; once you’re there, being customer-centric is the easy part.

For the budding pole-vaulters

Further up the scale of complex tactics, one of Forrester’s predictions is certain to strike a chord for all marketers who reckon they’re ready to vault the pole. It concerns an extension of artificial intelligence (AI) in B2B. Forrester believes that in 2018 B2B marketers will need to be adept at deploying “intelligent agents”:

“Intelligent agents (IAs) — in the form of virtual assistants and chatbots — are most often used to help existing customers solve problems without engaging more expensive human agents.”

This is going to be the sweetest music for the legions of marketers who would happily stick pins in their eyes rather than leave their ivory towers to engage buying-decision influencers. For those shy-aways, there’s a neat techno solution. Forrester says you can buy and deploy machines to guard the fortifications between you and the people who create your company’s sales and margins. It even lists a few vendors who will defend you.

In reality, the most likely effect of rushing to embrace such techno-wizardry is that it will exacerbate B2B’s headlong decline: ‘Customers? Don’t worry about them. The bots have got ’em covered.’

A renaissance in B2B? Steady, tiger…

I’m encouraged that an organisation of Forrester’s calibre is championing a return to understanding customers and acting on that knowledge to generate sales and reinforce margins. But let’s not kid ourselves: this is nothing new. B2B marketers should never have allowed customers to become anything other than the core of their purpose. But they did.

In terms of a renaissance, hopefully, what was once discarded, washed up and left for dead has undergone a sea change and is about to come back to vibrant life.


Mark EardleyMark Eardley (@mdeardley) advises B2B companies on how to govern their marketing to attract and retain profitable customers; several of his clients have grown to become market leaders. He and Charlie Stewart have written Business-to-Business Marketing: A Step-by-Step Guide (Penguin Random House), which offers practical, actionable advice on how to make marketing make money. His monthly “Back2Basics” column covers how B2B companies and their agencies should manage their marketing.

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