B2B Marketing ProTips: Marketing trends to look for in 2016

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As 2015 draws to a close, many of us are reflecting on the past year and what we learned. For B2B marketers, it’s also time to look ahead to 2016 and make decisions about what we’ll be investing in, and what we’ll no longer budget for.

As the field and importance of B2B marketing continues to evolve quickly, there are new tactics to consider every year. It can be a challenge for marketers to determine which new tools and technologies are ripe for their use, which are too unproven to undertake yet, and which have passed their sell-by date.

So, what’s in store for 2016? Here’s what we think are the key trends, based on our conversations and work with about 50 B2B companies over the course of 2015 and heading into 2016.

1) Continuing Increase in Digital Marketing Spending

Over the past few years, we’ve seen an upward trend in spending by B2B companies when it comes to digital marketing. We believe this trend will continue in 2016, and we’re not alone in that view. According to The Kapost Blog, spending on digital marketing might increase by as much as 35 percent next year.

Why the surge? Many small and mid-sized B2B companies were slower to adopt digital marketing, and it’s only recently that marketers for this sector are catching up. Traditionally, most of the budget for such companies were spent on trade shows, travel for face to face sales meetings, and attending seminars.

But recent studies, including one from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, showed that even B2B companies are moving towards mobile, data analytics and social media.

Mobile is an interesting trend. We hear from some B2B companies that they think they don’t need to be mobile, since fewer than 10 percent of their traffic comes from mobile audiences. However, it’s not so much an audience problem as it is a Google “problem” – the search giant tends to penalize companies who don’t have responsive sites, burying them lower in search results pages.

So for B2B companies to stay visible, no matter how mobile their audience is, they still need to pay attention to this trend and make their sites more mobile and user friendly.

2) Better, More Sophisticated Content Marketing Strategies

Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs recently released the results of a survey among over 3,500 B2B marketers. The summary report, called “2016 B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends Report“ revealed that the biggest trend for 2016 is content marketing.

More than 88 percent of respondents are already using content marketing in their companies. This makes sense, for in B2B it’s the content that demonstrates a company’s expertise and thought leadership, and is the primary tool for marketing.

The challenge is that a lot of content is mediocre at best. Think about your own inbox and social media feeds – you’re inundated with content and emails that only rarely have content that is compelling to you.

So content marketing will continue to be a hot trend, but we hope we’ll see more sophisticated and intelligent content, where the topics are picked for select audiences and are thoughtfully developed to deliver high value to readers.

3) Increase in Use of Strategic Social Media

B2B companies were also slow to adopt social media, for good reason. If your audience wasn’t on social media in 2012, then it didn’t make sense for your company to be on social media in 2012. However, that’s changing now for several reasons:

  1. With the advent of CASL legislation in Canada to govern email marketing, companies can no longer use email marketing as the only tool to bring visitors to their sites. Instead, they’re moving to social.
  2. The decision-making cohort in B2B companies is gradually changing. The Millennials, who are the largest users of social media, are moving into decision-making roles within their companies. So B2B businesses need to access those decision-makers digitally, and social is a key way to do that.
  3. LinkedIn has grown tremendously as a B2B networking tool. If you’re a B2B services business, you can bet your prospects are using LinkedIn to find and qualify potential consultants and business service providers.
  4. Even if your audience isn’t on social media in a significant way, Google uses social signals as a component of their algorithm for calculating search engine rankings. Every company wants to rank highly for their priority keywords, and one way they can boost their rankings is to use social media.

4) Conversion Optimization

It’s true that B2B companies are now catching up when it comes to using online advertising and social media to drive traffic to their sites. They’re also learning what works and what doesn’t, leading to more success in boosting their traffic numbers. But they’re now seeing that even if they drive a lot of traffic to their sites, that traffic doesn’t necessarily mean much if the visitors to the site aren’t being converted into buying customers.

According to the 2016 B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends Report, lead generation is the number one concern for most marketers (consistent with last year’s report). We see this objective in our own work with B2B companies as well.

But the recipe for effective lead generation is more complicated that many people perceive. There are two parts to lead generation: drive traffic to site (or event), and then convert traffic to leads. Companies have been focusing on the first part of the recipe. We think 2016 will be the year where they shift their attention to the second part of the recipe and pay more attention to calls to action and other ways to engage visitors. It’s often better for companies to spend more of their budget on converting leads, rather than just creating more content to drive more traffic.

5) Increase in E-commerce Sales

E-commerce for B2B companies is exploding. According to a recent study by Forrester Research, B2B e-commerce sales could exceed $1 trillion by 2020. For some companies, e-commerce is irrelevant – for example those who produce large and complex custom-built machinery, or those who deliver sophisticated professional services.

However, for those B2B companies who make smaller-ticket items, e-commerce gives them a competitive edge. Plus, manufacturers today are trying to bypass distributors and go straight to the end user; e-commerce is one way for them to make that happen.

It boils down to the “customer experience,” according to Business 2 Community. Company buyers today are influenced by their own, real-life experiences as consumers, which they want translated into their professional lives. After all, if they can order a book or at the click of a button, why can’t ordering 10 office chairs or 100 reams of paper be just as easy?

B2B marketers must find ways to apply this initiative and give their customers a seamless experience that’s aligned with their brand’s strategy and promise.

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As with every prediction list, there’s bound to be some hits and misses in my list above. Many trends will surprise us in the coming year, and perhaps some of the trends we’ve identified above will take longer to come to fruition.

What are the trends you’re seeing?

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Lisa Shepherd

Lisa Shepherd

Lisa Shepherd is the author of two books on B2B marketing (The Radical Sales Shift and Market Smart). She is founder of The Mezzanine Group , a B2B marketing company based in Toronto that has worked with over 200 B2B companies in the last decade. Lisa is a frequent public speaker on B2B marketing strategy and execution and was the youngest female CEO to appear on the Profit 100.