The transformation of the B2B marketplace has accelerated rapidly over the past year and millennials have emerged as key powerbrokers in B2B buying decisions, according to recent research by Merkle B2B.
The Drum, in association with Merkle B2B, recently hosted a pair of B2B4Breakfast panel sessions highlighting the importance of millennials in contemporary B2B conversations. In the second panel session, It's all about the customer: Why B2B is leapfrogging B2C, The Drum’s US editor Kenneth Hein led a discussion on targeting within B2B, with John Travis, vice-president of brand marketing at Adobe, Tejal Patel, digital marketing director at Cisco, and Michael McLaren, Merkle B2B’s global chief executive officer.
Patel opened the conversation, discussing the main impact of the pandemic on B2B professionals. “The acceleration that's happened over the last year has enabled B2B marketing to catch up with B2C,” she said. “Organizations have had to rethink how they operate from top to bottom. Physical events, for example, used to be the bread-and-butter of B2B marketing and then, suddenly, we had to adjust and learn how to build an alternative experience for customers within digital channels.”
“Of course, every business was trying to do the same thing, so the challenge became standing out from the crowd, being more targeted and thinking carefully about how you were responding to the changing needs of your target audience. Traditionally, B2B messaging has focused heavily on product information, but things have evolved recently to speak more to the emotions of the individual influencers and decision-makers involved in a B2B purchase.”
Travis agreed that the gap between the techniques used in B2C and B2B is starting to blur. “As B2B marketers, we're getting much more savvy in terms of data and customer insights,” he said. “Before the pandemic, B2C marketers were perhaps a bit more advanced in understanding the importance of behaviour, of emotion, in buying decisions. In 2021, B2B is asking more questions about its target audience. Not just ‘what do they need?’ but also what are they, as individuals, worried about? What do they care about? How are they being influenced?”
Rise of the millennial
Last year, Merkle B2B and B2B International, published a major piece of research into the global B2B marketplace, “Architecting the Ultimate B2B Customer Experience,” based on more than 3,500 interviews. B2B clients were asked to relive and evaluate their path to purchase, pinpoint what worked well and what didn’t, and identify the pain points in their journey. A key finding of the research was that, even where a millennial is not the lead decision maker in a purchase, firms are highly likely to seek input from millennials as users before any major B2B buying decision.
McLaren of Merkle B2B said: “We have a new audience of influential millennials and Gen Z executives who are very confident in their ability to navigate digital ecosystems. They're using social channels to gather opinions, they're using their online research to get the information they need and they're moving deeper and deeper into the purchase process before they actually identify themselves to the vendor.
“On average, they’ll research a purchase for longer than their Gen X and Baby Boomer counterparts, but they’re also more likely to move through to a purchase without any non-digital interaction with the vendor. That represents a profound change from where we were just a few years ago and I think the shift is going to be permanent.”
So, how can B2B marketers respond to these shifting customer demands? According to Patel, one impact of more millennials being involved in B2B decisions has been a rise in the use of influencer marketing. She said: “Working with influencers and micro influencers is something that’s relatively new for us at Cisco, but we’re already noticing some fantastic engagement in some of those channels. Millennials and Generation Z are engaging with this kind of content as consumers in their own lives so, increasingly, they have the same expectations when it comes to informing their B2B buying decisions.”
Travis believes the events of the last 18 months have opened the eyes of B2B marketers to what is possible: “When the first lockdown happened in March 2020, we were four weeks out from our annual Adobe Summit in Las Vegas, one of the largest digital summits in the world, which normally attracts 15,000 to 20,000 people from all over the world. We had under a month to turn that into an online virtual event.
“One year later, we’ve just done our second virtual summit. This time, we were able to stage 400 different sessions, which generated a total of more than 20 million video views. We had 55,000 people participating actively in chats during our sessions. As a B2B marketer, I find that extraordinarily encouraging. This horrible pandemic we've gone through has opened up a new era of creativity and opportunity for marketers and I think we can feel very optimistic about the future.”
To watch the full ‘It's all about the customer: Why B2B is leapfrogging B2C’ panel session, click here.