Steve Lucas, strategic adviser at Adobe, is taking that a step further with a concept called “business-to-everyone” (B2E) marketing.
Speaking at the Adobe Summit in March, Lucas suggested that focusing specifically on the consumer or business decision maker is becoming an antiquated approach in a digitally connected world. With most customer purchase decisions influenced by messages received both at home and work, it is time to start engaging customers in a common way and from a single platform, he said.
While the B2E idea stirred some initial controversy, many industry professionals think Lucas may be onto something.
“Whether it’s business-to-business or business-to-consumer, we are all selling to people,” said Megan Heuer, vice president of research for the Sirius Decisions product line within Forrester. “In that vein, there is actually a lot the IT person needs to be thinking about.”
Finding Common Ground
Most B2B buyers have been conditioned by their personal experiences to expect all brands to reach them with messages that look and feel consumer-ish and speak to them as individuals, Heuer told CMO.com.
The challenge is that in B2B organizations, most IT systems aren’t tuned that way. Infrastructure has been designed to track individuals as leads, she said, or to look at generalized views of accounts. But it’s not enough. IT also needs to help B2B organizations make the critical link between individual people, the accounts they’re part of, and the context of their buying group within the account.
“Unlike B2C, if you treat a B2B buyer as a totally independent entity, you’ll struggle to engage them in a meaningful way,” Heuer said. “Years of data show that B2B purchases are getting more complex and involve more stakeholders than ever before in decision making, especially with big-ticket investments. While you have to engage a person in B2B, that person is part of a buying group and has specific needs related to the role they’re playing in that group.”
With just a contact name or account information, B2B companies “completely miss out on the context they need to engage all the right individual customers in the context of the journey they’re on, who is on the journey with them, and their needs throughout that journey,” she added. “Technology that helps link customers to buying group context is what makes the B2E concept succeed in B2B.”
But accomplishing that can also come with numerous IT hurdles, analysts said.
“At the data management and workflow automation levels, there are commonalities in functional requirements between B2B and B2C,” said Gerry Murray, research director for IDC. “Both models can require similar martech capabilities, but they place very different workload demands on different parts of the infrastructure.”
The specificity of workloads makes it difficult for a single solution to optimize in both directions, he told CMO.com. “Additionally, most companies that sell to both B2B and B2C set up separate business units with separate martech budgets, staff, and processes,” he said.
Changes Across The Stack
According to Heuer, the key to successfully tearing down the walls between B2B and B2C infrastructure will be to make changes across the software stack with security and privacy underlying everything.
For example, she said, IT organizations will need to have B2E-specific data strategies that not only look at how companies collectively amass, aggregate, and analyze customer information, but the tools they will use for storing, sharing, and gaining permission to use it as well. They’ll also need to deploy technology to support individual engagement and hyper-personalization at scale and in context of a shared buying group journey.
Depending on the organization’s goals, this would likely involve deploying a combination of technologies for tracking and engaging with customers across multiple touch points, including customer relationship management, customer experience management, customer intelligence management, as well as various content, experience optimization, and marketing automation tools, Heuer said.
“There are multiple pieces that are critical to being able to understand where that customer is in their journey with you,” she said. “That’s what I believe will be challenging for many organizations because they aren’t accustomed to understanding and engaging with B2B customers at scale and in a personalized way, the way B2C customers expect today.”
Lines Blur Between Sales And Marketing
Analysts also noted the B2E approach could affect how organizations operate internally. For example, sales and marketing will need to be on the same page more than they ever have.
“The lines between B2B and B2C marketing have been blurring for a long time, but so have the lines between marketing and sales,” said Rebecca Wettemann, senior vice president of research at Nuclear Research.
Wettemann maintained that traditional sales funnels, which have been used for decades to structure sales activities and forecast sales pipelines, are dying because of customer buying behavior. Prospects now get their information from a much wider variety of online and real-world sources, which can disintermediate salespeople. At the same time, customer experience (CX) expectations and the growth of cloud subscription models have forced salespeople to sell continually. And the volume of electronic communications targeting both B2B and B2C buyers has reduced the ability of salespeople to cut through the noise and influence the buying process.
All of this suggests salespeople must address prospects in more sophisticated and subtle ways by embracing technology platforms and tools that allow them to gain a single view of both B2B and B2C buyers, analyze resulting data, and automate customer engagement, Wettemann told CMO.com.
“Integration is the big challenge here with the traditional handoffs between marketing and sales going away and more B2B sales happening without physical sales assistance,” she said.
Not For Every Company?
Not all analysts are completely convinced, though, that most organizations will have to contend with B2E on any level in the near future.
“B2E is definitely not for everyone,” IDC’s Murray said. “…Just because you market to businesses and consumers doesn’t [mean] that a single approach is optimal. Even within the two categories there are vast differences in marketing practices.”
For example, Murray noted that Adobe sells creative solutions to everyone but sells marketing solutions only to upper midmarket and large enterprises–not SMBs or consumers. He said there may be cases where its brand strength on the consumer side influences business buyers, but in other industries he sees it as “irrelevant.”
“Business travelers build up loyalty points they use for vacations, but travel and hospitality providers market to them as consumers, not business buyers,” he said.
Putting Technology To Work
Still, some analysts do see the potential for making B2E worthwhile and real, especially given advances in automated technology, such as artificial intelligence and increasing affordability of such solutions.
“The technology is available,” Heuer said. “Now it’s just a question of organizations investing in it because they believe consumer-like experiences are what they need to deliver. Most B2B buyers I speak to say they respond to those approaches. Is it a completely new concept? No. Are we finally able to deliver it at a reasonable cost? Yes. That’s been the missing link.”