10 Lessons from 2020: How a chaotic year impacted B2B marketing

By Chuck Leddy

The year 2020 seemed like a decade of immense changes rolled into a single, crazy “annus horribilis” (Latin for “12 difficult months”). In the first two months of 2020, we all followed news about the devastating outbreaks of COVID-19 in China and Italy. In March, the pandemic hit the U.S. with full impact, forcing the closure of businesses, the cancellation of events, and making nearly everyone work (and do almost everything else) from home via digital channels.

The “new normal” of 2020 meant staying home, doing Zoom meetings, learning remotely, wearing masks, and more. The year also saw widespread social justice movements in the streets of every major city, as well as fervor for political changes at every level of government. Brands were also pulled into these social tumults, being forced to take sides and define their values in a context of accelerating social change. As we look back, what were the key lessons and trends 2020 brought for marketing?

#1 Digital transformation accelerated. As both organizations and individuals shifted to doing everything from home via digital tools, organizations that had invested in digital transformation before the pandemic tended to outperform their more flat-footed rivals. Scaling up digital ways of working became urgent for marketing teams, as did scaling up digital customer engagement, as live events and bricks-and-mortar retail were closed down. Investments in digital capabilities accelerated during the early months of the pandemic, when organizations realized that digital-first engagement was 2020’s “new normal” at a time of social distancing.

#2 Brand strategy and messaging must be “change-ready.” The month of March 2020 felt like a year, largely because organizations and individuals were suddenly forced to pivot to new ways of working, living, learning, and doing everything. Brand strategies and content plans that were fine in February would become completely inappropriate and out-of-context in March (the most damning phrases used to describe flat-footed brands in March were “tone-deaf” and “out-of-touch”). Many savvy brands simply pressed the “pause” button and burned the midnight oil to re-work and adapt their marketing strategy for the “new normal” of March and beyond.

#3 Adapting to remote work takes both new technological capabilities and new skill sets. What 2020 highlighted most of all was the need for “change-readiness” or agility at both the organizational and individual level. B2B marketers had to learn how to work well and collaborate remotely, from home, while marketing leaders had to learn new ways of leading and motivating teams in a context where “face-to-face check-ins” over coffee or lunch were no longer feasible. Working from home, with Zoom meetings, introduced new features to marketing teams, including kids, pets, and hyper-casual meeting attire (sweatpants, anyone?). B2B marketers adapted surprisingly well to virtual events and digital-first (digital-only) approaches to engaging customers.

#4 Customers embraced digital channels faster than ever. The customer buying journey has always been a complex one combining offline and online touchpoints. In 2020, those offline touchpoints, the live events and live meetings that once built strong emotional connections for brands, were unavailable. Customer engagement had to happen through digital/virtual channels only. The amount of online traffic grew significantly beginning in March, 2020 and throughout the pandemic, as people shopped, worked, did banking, streamed entertainment, Zoomed, researched, and did nearly everything else online. And as more customers did more of everything digitally, brands and B2B marketers were forced to follow suit (see lesson #1 above).

#5 Data and strong data management became marketing’s essential foundation. Digital channels allow B2B marketers to better track customer engagement, using aggregated data to better target and personalize messaging. The ability to access and leverage customer data has always been important, but 2020 served to accelerate ongoing trends towards data-driven marketing and data management maturity. Not only is the rapid growth of digital channels making it easier to collect more data, but more technologies are emerging (such as Oracle DataFox and Infinity) to automate the collection and leveraging of this customer data. The big challenge B2B marketers face is around leveraging available data at scale to drive better, more personalized marketing, which will require the adoption of automation/AI.

#6 ABM is here to stay. Account-based marketing, which is a B2B approach that concentrates marketing resources of people, processes, and technology around pre-defined, key accounts, was a major trend before 2020, but it’s been accelerated. The vast majority of B2B marketing departments, 92% as of today and still growing, have at least one ABM program/initiative ongoing, according to research from Salesforce. Why is ABM growing so rapidly? Because it works to deliver ROI and lifetime account value. What are the big challenges to ABM? No surprise — the need for solid data and mature data management, as well as careful account selection criteria.

#7 More privacy protections. Here’s another trend that’s been accelerated as more people do more things online. Existing privacy regulations, such as GDPR and California’s recent data privacy law, continue to impact how B2B marketers engage with customers. In 2020, Google and other platforms introduced new, privacy-driven changes around tracking and the use of cookies, which have also impacted how marketers engage customers. These privacy-expanding trends will surely continue.

#8 Virtual events will remain, but won’t replace live events. The year 2020 has shown that virtual engagement such as Zoom meetings and online events are great, but can’t replicate the emotional resonance and connective power of in-person communication. While virtual events are cheaper, save travel expense, and promote convenience, the power of face-to-face human interaction has been hard-wired into our human brains for millenia. We’ll continue to use virtual technologies, but 2020 has taught us the unreplaceable power of face-to-face communication.

#9 Wellness is a business imperative. Stress and mental health concerns have been a constant part of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on all of us. During 2020, organizations have increasingly prioritized employee wellness as a foundation for productivity. Companies have been more flexible with work schedules, have offered virtual wellness events so employees can socialize and unwind, have recommended regular check-ins between managers and employees, and promoted more exercise, meditation, or other approaches to wellness. Here at Sojourn, we introduced a bit of all of the above with great engagement from our teams!

#10 Agility and flexibility remain paramount, at the organizational and individual levels. Constant change was the watchword for 2020. We must be adaptable, whether to new ways of working, new marketing technologies like AI, or to shifting customer behaviors. Change-readiness is a muscle that we all need to flex, and it needs to be baked into our mindsets, our tech stacks, and our marketing strategies from here on.

Does your B2B marketing organization need help in adapting to change? We can help with data management and/or marketing operations maturity, strategic guidance, and much more. Reach out to us here.

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