When IT firm Antavo, a provider of technology for corporate loyalty programmes, polled potential clients earlier this year and asked them if they were planning to upgrade their schemes, 90% said that they were.
That was 21 percentage points up on the equivalent figure from Antavo’s 2022 survey. Yet, despite their apparent keenness to buy new IT, they’ve generally been slow to make such purchases, reports the firm’s marketing director, Eva Bacsi.
“The decision-making process has gotten longer and customers are more cautious about investing in technology that needs planning and resources, because of the expected downturn,” she says.
Why new marketing campaigns need to start now
B2B marketing teams can’t afford to get complacent, then, especially as the economy continues to falter. The International Monetary Fund’s latest World Economic Outlook report forecasts that global GDP growth will decline from an already disappointing 3% this year to 2.9% in 2024, for instance.
“It’s never been more important for B2B marketers to be talking to customers – and as soon as possible,” stresses Richard Cook, founder and MD of Champion Communications, a B2B marketing agency. “Your buyers are in a state of ongoing chaos. They’re looking to make decisions that are potentially quite risky and they can’t afford to get them wrong, because their rivals will probably get them right.”
The consensus among marketing chiefs is that now – not two or three months hence – is the time to talk to B2B buyers, who often look to vendors to help them optimise their spending, mitigate risk and seek out a precious competitive advantage.
This isn’t just good news for marketing teams. Research evidence indicates that buyers benefit too. A study by McKinsey & Co suggests that firms seeking an edge over their competition are more likely to achieve that by continuing to invest in certain functions during a downturn.
For its part, Antavo remains committed to investing in marketing and product development despite the deceleration in sales.
“We’ve seen before that downturns happen and new business slows,” Bacsi says. “But then things recover and, if we don’t keep moving and talking to customers, we won’t be in the right place to succeed when demand returns.”
What buyers want from B2B vendors
In Q1 2024, Antavo will publish its annual Global Customer Loyalty Report, which is based on data insights derived from the 300 million transactions completed on the firm’s platform and interviews with 600 business leaders. Such research helps the company to build relationships with existing and potential clients, while also giving it useful information about the problems they’re facing.
“It’s vital for us to maintain an educational tone to the content we put out, rather than sending a hard sales message,” Bacsi says. “This work helps us to understand where the gaps are in the market and then develop messages and features that meet those needs.”
IT services firm Equal Experts is refining and targeting its marketing messages in a similar way, as its head of global marketing, Samantha Dixon, explains.
“We do see budget constraints, but we also see nervousness about not being able to keep pace with progress, especially in things such as data, sustainability and AI,” she says. “We’re looking to maximise the return on our marketing investment by focusing on channels such as digital, but also on technologies that we know address those pain points.”
Why marketing requires longer lead times than before
Early planning also helps firms to make the most of their marketing expenditure, says Dixon, who adds: “Obviously, budgets are constrained from a marketing perspective, so now we’re taking time to plan digital investment and how we shift our messaging for those platforms.”
Kunal Mehta is global head of marketing, communications and brand at dsm-firmenich, a health and nutrition firm. He explains that his company is focused on “solutions-based marketing”, which is based on understanding customers’ problems and providing bespoke solutions, rather than leading with a particular product or feature. By its nature, this sort of marketing takes longer, so the work needs to start earlier.
“This is about focusing on how we can help, leading the way and helping customers to stay ahead of the curve. Then we follow this up with messaging from the sales team,” Mehta says.
Longer sales cycles necessitate a fundamentally different kind of marketing engagement, according to Cook.
“If you put yourself into your buyer’s shoes, they’re working remotely and the person in the vendor’s business development team is also working remotely. There are fewer opportunities for face-to-face meetings,” he says. “The buyer is increasingly reliant on information from B2B vendors. But, at the same time, there’s so much more of it to sift through. Marketing leaders need to show empathy and understanding – those relationships have never been more important.”
Modern marketing is based on relationships
Not all this engagement will translate into sales, of course, but the work is still valuable, Cook stresses.
“Even if the customer isn’t ready to do business, having the conversation means that you’re able to learn and build a relationship,” he says. “That helps to refine your thinking and planning.”
At dsm firmenich, the company’s goal in engaging with customers through early marketing is to serve as a trusted guide to them in uncertain times.
“We need to stay ahead of the curve to show customers what’s coming next and how it can help to address their challenges,” Mehta says. “Whether you’re talking about sustainability or how AI might be used in our industry, customers are looking to us as a beacon to lead them – and that’s exciting.”