A people-focus is the single most powerful differentiator between B2B organizations who struggle and those who repeatedly succeed.
If you are sci-fi film buff, Charlton Heston’s desperate plea, “Soylent Green is people!” from theclassic movie (it’s dark, overwrought and partially in fun) is something today’s marketers should note. Your return on investment is dependent on people because people are essential to the modern B2B marketing strategy that actually drives real ROI.
I’m launching this thread because of a combination of client observations, conversations I’ve been having with rising stars, developments in AI and recent announcements from certain tech companies regarding their own learnings about marketing’s impact on earnings and business health. It’s become clear to me that personnel challenges remain a basic, stubborn impediment still keeping many companies from making substantive, scalable marketing progress. There are two core elements at issue:
- How much work it takes to build sustainable performance improvement?
- What role people play in delivering on that?
‘ROI is people!’
If you believe, with respect to your marketing performance, that the people on your teams are essentially interchangeable, then maybe your performance status quo will do. On the other hand, if you suspect, as I do, that people remain key to disproportionate success, then your management probably needs to put people higher on its list of priorities. Given the complexity and comprehensiveness of modern B2B approaches like account-based marketing, I believe that people-focus could be the single most powerful differentiator between those who struggle and those who repeatedly succeed.
Here are four essential reasons why B2B continues to fail at marketing:
#1 – B2B is fundamentally different
It took a long time for marketing to become a “thing” in B2B. Large deal sizes and small deal volumes don’t lend themselves to a B2C approach heavily weighted towards awareness and promotion—the idea of breakthrough “campaigns” as the major key to success. While big ad spending is out of reach for most B2B companies, once tech innovation gave us websites and email, the cost of entry dropped and the door was opened for all of us to begin figuring out a B2B marketing model. Although some fundamental principles apply to all marketing, much about B2B is so profoundly different than managing it should, by now, have become very different too. No one who studies our industry can dispute that marketing is delivering substantial competitive advantage at many B2B companies, even without huge paid media spending. But unlike the experts who focus on raising the ratio of program-to-people spend, my contention here is that it’s the people associated with those companies who are delivering much of the performance difference. I believe that, given the nature of B2B marketing, treating extended teams as interchangeable is a recipe for disaster. I believe that to succeed at B2B marketing today, you need to be constantly attentive to the care and feeding of your people, because they, more than anything else, will be your fundamental drivers of progress.
#2 – B2B marketing isn’t ‘one’ thing
Leading training organization, the Pragmatic Institute, has long focused on a training framework comprising 37 specific areas of expertise within the B2B “family” of marketing-infused roles (product, field, etc.). Though not all of these are essential to your progress, the list does provide a sense of the task diversity you’ll want to build towards to achieve truly sustainable marketing excellence. And simply having the capabilities alone won’t get you fully there either because the secret sauce is how well you integrate them into a coherent strategy and repeatable process – how well can you make sure these elements function effectively together. B2B marketing is a set of complex connected processes. Major gaps between essential elements create points of failure that bring down performance of the whole. If you fail to close those gaps—or allow them to open again—the system begins to fail. By the time management recognizes the effect, it’s damn hard to get things running smoothly again. For example, turning off a major activity like demand gen, even for a relatively short period, could mean you lose the people who ran for you. Turning the flame back on could take years.
#3 – B2B excellence takes time
Like many industries, B2B marketing can’t yet count on higher education as a source of ready skill. Even if, for example, schools were turning out MarTech stack experts, where would the content come to flow through those delivery systems? It takes time for content people to get a handle on things like the differentiators of your company’s offerings and the nature of your audience. Furthermore, given that each company’s realities differ, it takes time for a new hire to learn the internal cultural and organizational “playbooks.” The bottom line is that great marketing capability can’t happen overnight. It requires you to have many skills in place and sustained practice over time. Just like in professional sports, even if you only hire proven superstars at every position (and none of us has that luxury), it takes time for teams to gel. How crazy, then, that so many companies still engage in practices that devalue experience and undermine continuity.
#4 – We’re still treating marketing as a cost center
Investopedia defines a cost center as “a department within an organization that does not directly add to profit but still costs the organization money to operate”. Even today, many B2B companies are still making the mistake of treating marketing that way – as something that’s easily paused or even cut – with “little downside.” I suspect this is why we see today’s brightest and best marketers doing their utmost to stay ahead of the game. They jump from company to company, not because they want to keep starting over, but because they’re trying to take greater control of their destinies. What’s “best” for today’s young marketers, the ones you need, will be defined by a combination of how the industry treats them and how they react to that. If we’re not building and managing our plans to make our employees excited about their futures with us, then we deserve to keep losing them. If we expect to develop marketing as a competitive weapon, we need to chart a growth course for marketers that delivers for them.
So what can and should CMOs do about it?
Since delivering B2B marketing improvement requires a concerted focus on both highly specialized individual skills and remarkable team cohesion, organizations that are unable to invest their energies accordingly—like those who continue to look for quick fixes to difficult challenges—will simply never achieve the impact many of today’s teams are consistently delivering. More and more, I’m seeing that success is about the people and their teams.
- Tune your marketing engine – Commitment to people will help you win the race. If you hire a CMO to “fix” marketing, but your marketing engine hasn’t been built, you’ll need to resource him accordingly. If you think you’ve got the engine, but it’s not firing on all cylinders, you’ll need to change your allocations to ensure it can be tuned up. If all you ask for is a flashy paint job – a new tagline, campaign or website – that might get you back to the starting line, but you still aren’t going to win many races. In today’s B2B, the marketing engine has become a competitive advantage for those who’ve paid attention to it already. If you want to join them, you’ll need to adjust your expectations and make commitments to your people so that, in return, they can personally commit to and deliver sustainable performance for you.
- Martech is shelfware if you don’t know how to use it. Don’t take shortcuts on enablement. You can easily build sparkly tactical outputs by spending a lot of money on outsourced collateral services. You too can buy the event presence, the swag and the same flashy videos as the latest high-flying startup. And then what? To make the same splash next year, you’ll have to spend that or more, again. Even worse, you can buy all the elements of the latest martech stack and easily find yourself with plenty of hefty annual contracts but few people who know what’s needed to effectively leverage all that functionality. Contrast this with doing the hard work of carefully evaluating your challenges and then solving the root causes in a sustainable fashion. Maybe not as sexy, but much better over time. Structure and incentivize your teams to get these things fixed. Train them both in specific technical skills and higher-level/meta-skills like how to assess capacity needs, how to work across the organization and how to effectively partner with third parties who can offer expertise that accelerates and complements your own.
- Don’t go it alone; work with the right partners to scale and sustain success. There are tons of great sayings out there about teamwork. One of my favorites sets up a risky dichotomy for this discussion. It tells us: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” My experience has been that to build a B2B engine, what you need is substantial contributions at both the individual and team levels. Individuals get you part of way. Internal scale can get you a giant step further. But even when I worked for some of the largest, most profitable companies in the tech world, I never could assemble all the capabilities I needed by only looking inward. To make big things happen more quickly, I’ve always looked to great partnerships across different types of boundaries. I’ve depended both on temporary assistance and semi-permanent third-party teams alike. Experience has taught me that successful partnering is itself a skill that needs to be built and fostered among your teams. If you’re like many newer organizations – you’ve got a culture populated by go-getter self-starters – in these situations, it may be difficult to acknowledge that professional help could get you to a better place faster. As management, you need to make sure this option is pointed out and rendered available. And don’t stop there. Internal teams need guidance on articulating requirements, selecting providers and working effectively across boundaries. To make progress with fewer mistakes at all possible speed, you need to partner with organizations who can support you at critical points along the journey. Choose with care and then commit with the same spirit of collaboration you should be looking to foster with every team.
Yes, great people are essential to B2B marketing success
No matter how powerful the tools of B2B marketing become, it’s very likely that expectations will always overshadow them. That’s just human nature. Working with more than 1,300 B2B tech companies, at TechTarget we’ve come to realize that growing the people within marketing teams has never been more critical to our clients’ long-term success. The more holistic the solution, the higher the expectations, the truer this is. That’s why I believe there’s never been a better time to make sure you’re investing properly in the individuals and teams, across all boundaries. From where I sit, all signs point to the reality that people have never been more essential to building the high-performance marketing engine every company needs to win. I think you should keep people at the core of your plans moving forward