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B2C Marketing Business Leadership B2B Marketing

Is the B2B/B2C distinction collapsing?

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By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

March 22, 2022 | 7 min read

Business-to-business (B2B) pros market to businesses; their business-to-consumer (B2C) counterparts market to customers. It’s a distinction that feels as old as the industry and sounds almost tautologically true. But is it? We sat down with seven B2B experts from The Drum Network to find out just how much of a gap really remains between the two disciplines.

Two fingers almost touching

B2B leaders on whether their discipline is getting closer than ever to B2C / Shoeib Abolhassani via Unsplash

Is the B2B/B2C distinction collapsing? The question’s been asked before, and usually with a hint of condescension to B2Bers. The implicit story is something like this: B2C marketing whizzes ahead with new technologies and techniques. B2B, lumbering along behind, picks up some useful scraps.

“B2B is sometimes unfairly seen as lagging behind and picking up the techniques later,” says Rafe Blandford of Digitas. “In digital, that’s probably not an entirely unfair thing to say. It’s really come to the forefront in the last couple of years because there’s a blurring of the lines between work and home because of the pandemic; there’s been a technology acceleration in data science and greater use of mobile and web; and people’s expectations have been set by that.”

As work and home blur, we shouldn’t be surprised if customers’ expectations shift, regardless of whether they’re wearing their work hat or their home hat. That shift in customers’ expectations matches a shift in B2Bers’ approaches. For PMG’s Jennifer Pyron, “you couldn’t as a marketer be lazy anymore, so you had to create demand in a whole new way.”

As Adapt Worldwide’s Rawad Jammoul says, there may be a convergence in the digital strategies of B2B and B2C marketers, but “is it just because we as B2B marketers want to copy what B2C is doing out of jealousy? I don’t think so. The reason is that the way B2B customers are buying has completely changed, and that’s forced B2B businesses to think about their go-to-market strategy, giving a bigger role to how they approach their audience.”

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Thankfully, the same technologies that have transformed customers’ expectations are ripe for use by marketers of any stripe. The key difference-makers in B2B are targeting and segmentation technologies. Streaming, Spotify and TikTok (for example) “would always have been thought of as massively wasteful and very expensive channels to use for B2B,” says Eoin Rodgers of TMW Business, “but because we can do very specific targeting and segmentation in those channels now, they’re on the table.”

As 2Heads’ Paul Godwin tells us, the resulting combinations of brand and platform can be surprising – and successful. He tells us of a major aircraft manufacturer struggling to recruit IT graduates in the traditional ways, with graduate days and airshows. Instead, “we started taking them to game shows just so that they could get in among the audience they wanted.”

Beyond ‘boring-to-boring’

B2B marketing is, classically, more costly than its consumer cousins: longer lead times; more resource-intensive; and often more winner-takes-all (when it comes to, say, enterprise software). As a result, B2B marketers “previously focused on demand conversion rather than demand creation,” says Rodgers. Why? By “following data to the point where you see payback, you end up down at the bottom of the funnel and being obsessed with the conversion down there.”

One way to conceptualize an evolution in the rules of engagement is that, aided by new tools, B2Bers are looking more at the whole funnel. The challenge of the moment for B2Bers may be getting the balance right in the attention they pay across that funnel. As The Marketing Practice’s David van Shaick has it, “I think we might end up somewhere a bit bimodal: you need to create attention, fame, reach and emotional impact (exactly the same as B2C) – but you also need to create spaces to be a bit more in-depth and have more of a conversation – which is the old relationship marketing stuff. How you do that in the new distributed world is very interesting.”

Part of getting that balance right means addressing what Rodgers calls the “traditional friction points of B2B: engaging with a salesperson, complex pricing models and lengthy sales engagements.” Software-as-a-service companies have often led this charge by working to “consumerize or productize their B2B offerings to make them look and feel a bit more like consumer products.”

Removing pain points in that way is, essentially, customer experience (CX) work – another learning there is that, says Blandford says, “audiences are going to be on the go, on their mobile devices.” That realization has led to more bounds of progress for the discipline: “All of us have things on our phones that are considered B2B tools. That wasn’t the case even five years ago. That shift has happened pretty quietly, and the advertising around that has been powerful as a new entry point for B2B.”

Collapsing or expanding?

So: is B2B collapsing into B2C? Our panel agrees: there’s clear evidence of convergence, but there remain two disciplines with different demands, albeit on a spectrum. And the gray area between the two poles is better populated than it once was.

But B2B v B2C might not be the best way of capturing that distinction. As Rodgers says, asking, “is the purchaser a business or a company?” isn’t necessarily the best way of finding out where on that spectrum a piece of work falls. The better question, he says, is “how individual is decision-making?”

“Where you are on that spectrum dictates how different or similar to B2C you’re going to be – and which of those tactics and approaches you can adopt based on what’s adjacent to you on that spectrum,” says Rodgers. “It’s not a matter of one size fits all ... the question is, ‘what is the correct customer engagement model for these audiences who are buying these products at these prices in this kind of context?’”

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