Why B2B marketing campaigns are outdated for complex sales

It is one of the most familiar marketing concepts. But it is also one of the most outdated.

The campaign.

In many B2B companies, short-term campaigns are still the modus operandi. You define a target group and a campaign theme. You plan a series of campaign steps. First a white paper, followed by an email, then a webinar or a product demo. You execute the campaign as planned, often over a period of weeks. You pray that prospects will enter your funnel and walk out on the other side, into the arms of your sales colleagues. Once the campaign has ended, you create a dashboard with views, downloads and leads. Time to move on to the next campaign!

It is the marketing equivalent of speed dating: you hope to get quick results, and with a bit of luck, that’s what happens. But it usually takes much longer to reach a mutual understanding – certainly in the case of complex B2B purchase processes which require months if not years.

Sorry, the campaign has ended

The problem with B2B marketing campaigns is that they follow your company’s calendar. Not your customer’s.

Imagine you’re someone that you’re trying to reach with your campaign. You notice a white paper that looks interesting. The title of the white paper exactly describes the problem that you’re struggling with in your company. You download the white paper. One week later, you receive an e-mail invitation for a webinar about the same topic. But you’re too busy that week, so you skip the webinar. Then it goes silent. Until a few leeks later, from the same company, you receive a series of e-mails about a different topic. Just when you were planning to look into the topic that initially caught your attention. Sorry, the previous campaign has ended!

Author Ardath Albee summarizes the problem well in her book Digital Relevance (2015):

The quick-cycle nature of campaigns has trained [B2B] marketers to get bored with the tale theyre telling, just when prospects are starting to get interested.

Albee urges B2B marketers to kill the campaign, and she’s right. It’s an inside-out construct, invented by marketers – an attempt to reduce an often long and erratic buyer journey to a series of pre-defined steps. It’s an approach that can be effective, in the rare instance that your customer follows those pre-defined steps when you want them to. But most often, your customers will follow their own path – not the one you laid out for them.

It’s time for B2B marketing to reinvent itself. In a series of two blog posts, I’ll explore how we can transform B2B marketing from a campaign-driven discipline into a discipline that is aligned with your customer’s buyer journey.

In this first blog post: what’s wrong with a campaign-driven approach and what’s the alternative?

The shortcomings of a campaign-driven approach

I already described the first shortcoming: short-term campaigns have a fixed starting point and end point, but B2B buyer journeys often last many months or even years. This creates a disconnect between marketers and buyers – a disconnect that keeps growing. Research by Sirius Decisions shows that companies reported a 24 percent increase in the length of their sales cycles between 2012 and 2014. The length of the average sales cycle is now more than eight months. How many of your campaigns last more than eight months?

Average sales cycle
Source: Sirius Decisions, 2014

The decision-making process in companies is getting more complicated as well: on average, more than five stakeholders now have to sign off a purchase (CEB, 2013). On average, those stakeholders use six different channels to inform themselves before arriving at a decision. No wonder that 65 per cent of them get frustrated by inconsistent experiences along their journey (McKinsey, 2015).

A campaign-driven approach to B2B marketing has more shortcomings:

1. Campaigns create a disconnect between marketing and sales

Short-term campaigns create short-term spikes in the number of generated leads. But what salespeople want is a continuous supply of new leads, and continuous support in building relationships. As long as marketers continue to operate in campaigns, salespeople all too often draw a blank with their marketing colleagues.

2. Campaigns make marketers blind to long-term effects

Campaigns often focus on short-term results. The goal is to generate as many leads as possible, as soon as possible. But trust and relationships take time to build. That’s why you need to stay focused on the acculumative effect of all your efforts – instead of chasing quick results that don’t bear fruit in the long run. Research by Carlo Kicksen (2015) shows that brand associations, built over time, are more important in B2B marketing than is commonly thought.

3. Campaigns put focus on the wrong Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

If your time horizon doesn’t reach beyond the end date of your campaign, your attention is automatically directed to short-term results that you can easily measure. Views, clicks, downloads. But that’s not what marketing is about. Marketing is about generating sales. That is also what senior executives expect from your marketing department: a quantifiable contribution to revenue. This calls for a different kind of KPI, beyond the time horizon of a campaign. (More about this in part 2).

From a campaign-driven to a continuous approach

What’s the alternative to a campaign-driven approach?

First, let’s get rid of the assumption that large groups of buyers follow the same path at the same time. One company may be researching solutions to a certain problem in May, the other in August. If your campaign calendar only addresses their needs in May, but not in August, you run the risk of missing a potential customer. And if you’re trying to rush a potential customer through your funnel within two weeks while there are five stakeholders involved in the purchase process, your chances of success are not very high either.

A long and complex buying journey calls for a continuous instead of a campaign-driven approach. A continuous approach runs across the entire buyer journey. Not as a series of disjointed speed dates, but like a relationship you build over time, with different stakeholders who are involved in the purchase process. Step by step, keeping the overall experience from your buyer’s perspective in mind.

Taking a continuous approach doesn’t mean you should bombard your customers with content all the time. Instead, tailor your approach to the individual needs of your (potential) customers in a particular phase of their journey, at a particular point in time. Shift your focus from your campaign calendar to the customer’s calendar.

B2B marketing continuum
Source: Ardath Albee, 2015

Technology is not a magical enabler

Most companies already have the technology in place to enable such an approach. But marketing automation is mostly used as an e-mail engine – not as a tool that allows you to make sense of what people are doing across channels, and to adjust your approach accordingly.

What most B2B companies really need, is a change in mindset – which is really not about technology at all. Impactful B2B marketing starts with the intention to understand people. Not with a desire to bombard them with content.

Was your latest white paper downloaded by a lot of people? And are you ready to fire your next automated follow-up e-mail? Why don’t you call some of those people instead? Not to pitch your product. But to ask questions. To learn what goes on in the minds of those faceless people in your marketing database. To discover how you could help them in a way that you hadnt thought of yet. 

That’s exactly the approach I took when I was working at a small B2B software and services provider, a couple of years ago. For days in a row, I called people in our marketing database. To get a better understanding of their daily struggles. I learned more from those conversations than from any dashboard I have ever seen in my marketing career.

Why a continuous approach is worth the effort

How does your company benefit from following a continuous approach instead of a campaign-driven approach?

To summarize:

1. You lose fewer potential customers

The organization exploring your products and services in August, receives just as much attention as the organization doing so in May.  And the potential customer who spends six months orientating, receives just as much attention as the one who, within a month, knows what he wants.

2. Marketing and sales collaborate more closely

A continuous marketing approach is better aligned to the way your sales colleagues work. They’ll get a continuous influx of new leads and continuous support in building relationships. (Potential) customers will experience fewer gaps and inconsistencies in their interactions with your company.

3. Marketings long-term impact becomes visible

The campaign calendar no longer dictates the reporting of results. Short-term KPIs are still important (are we heading in the right direction?), but long-term KPIs become much more important (are we contributing to revenue?). That’s exactly what marketing needs to be taking seriously in the boardroom.

The advantages are clear. But developing a continuous marketing approach can be hard. Often such an organizational change is short-lived. New tools are purchased. New channels are used. But the traditional mindset lives on, fundamentally unchanged. Campaigns keep dictating the agenda.

How to make the shift from a campaign-driven to a continuous approach? Read more in part 2 of this series.