Has the World of B2B Marketing Changed Forever?

In a discussion about work-from-home a few days ago, a friend of mine suggested to me that this crisis is “going to change everything” about the way we’ll work going forward. He went on to describe what so many of us fortunate enough to have jobs that easily converted to a home office have experienced: an exponential increase in video conferencing; notable increases in text, chat — and yes, good ol’ phone calls; and even (at times) the feeling of high levels of engagement and increased productivity. 

Anthropologists, human behavior scientists and organizational experts will no doubt spend decades studying this health crisis to document its real results and the lasting impacts on human behaviors at home and at work. Were we more efficient? Did the era of the in-office job shift in some dramatic way?

Good questions. The same might be asked about whether B2B marketing will fundamentally change. After many months of digital-only marketing and interaction with customers, will we fundamentally change the way we execute marketing strategies, either out of anxiety or the belief we can now do most everything and achieve desired results digitally?

B2B Marketers Are Learning to Adapt

B2B marketing professionals are an adaptable, resilient bunch. In just a few months, we’ve witnessed marketers from every industry quickly convert trade shows and conferences from in-person to online. Shout out to B2BMarketing for converting their two-day, more than 70-speaker Ignite conference from Chicago to online in less than a month! And to Crown Equipment and Adobe for creating their own virtual events. To Honeywell Intelligrated and Emerson for continuing to engage audiences in live action through digital media. To MarketingProfs and Content Marketing Institute for expanding their list of free, online resources. The list goes on and on as marketing professionals pivot their strategies to continue to engage and educate audiences worldwide. 

In addition to live, digital formats, marketers have become even more diligent and focused on the performance of their online marketing spend, dialing in channel selection and maximizing conversion rates, whether due to an increased need for lead generation or absolute assurance that reduced budgets are being maximized. 

Companies are moving quickly to build the next generation of digital tools that deliver guided and unguided online interactions with their products and software. Some are creating video tours of facilities and special capability areas normally reserved for in-person visits.

Is this the next major wave of digital, a Digital 3.0 of sorts? Is in-person, in the actual physical sense, all but over?

Can Digital Experiences Supplant In-Person Engagement?

When I consider the idea of digital marketing mostly replacing the role of physical, in-person interaction moving forward, I’m reminded of an excerpt (see below) from Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (Cacioppo and Patrick). As the authors considered whether digital connections might fulfill some of our physiological needs for social interaction, their research concluded the opposite. They characterized on-screen communications as “single-stranded,” devoid of physical texture, and a problem for communication (and B2B marketing and sales!).

“Most face-to-face encounters in real life allow us to communicate through even more subliminal cues — body chemistry, body language, action semantics, mimicry — in addition to words and gestures. Once again, the mind that seeks to connect is first about the body and leaving the body behind can make human connections less satisfying.”

Less satisfying. I have a hard time imagining a B2B marketing world filled only with digital interactions that our human nature will reject as less satisfying. I admit I do see an extended period where we will be decidedly more guarded and cautious about how we create in-person experiences. But alas, the B2B transaction, from the first moment of awareness to the final decision, is inherently personal. Ultimately, human interactions build trust and develop the healthy, personal relationships that deliver business results. Research tells us that some aspect of those relationships must include physical, face-to-face interaction, so the scales will eventually tilt back to include a healthy (and safe) mix of in-person events.

How Will In-Person Interactions Re-emerge?

While we learn more about the risks of large-scale interactions and how to mitigate them, there will be openings for smaller, more controlled environments where you can somewhat manage the audience make-up and subsequent conversations. A few examples include: hosted customer forums and advisory councils; invitation-only technology and product conferences for customers, prospects and media; mobile tours and pop-ups. 

I, for one, can’t wait. As I stare out the bedroom window in my makeshift office, waiting for my next video conference, I feel (dare I say, crave) the need for the human, face-to-face interactions that must be part of the B2B marketing mix if we are to achieve the best outcomes. 

Here’s to a time in the not-too-distant-future where we get back to a balanced approach. One where digital media excites, engages and fascinates — facilitating, not replacing, the human interactions that drive business. 

Hang in there.