B2B Digital Finally Wakes Up: 3 Rules for Keeping Ahead of the Pack

It started about five months ago. I was sitting on the campus of a large, very successful business-to-business company when I first heard it. “Our website, and our whole digital ecosystem – it’s just not good enough.” As someone who is brought in to improve digital for companies, I could only agree, and we began to have a conversation about what was wrong, how it could be fixed, and the effect that a change could have on the brand. I walked out of the meeting thinking, “It’s great to see a B2B company that gets it.”

Then it happened again, about two weeks later, with almost the same words. “Our whole digital ecosystem just makes us look out of date. And it’s terrible.” Chalking it up to coincidence, I bemusedly went through a similar conversation about how to improve digital across the board. But that wasn’t it. Like some kind of Groundhog Day, I have heard the same thing from no fewer than five companies. So what’s going on here?

In some ways this feels really familiar. It’s not the first time we’ve seen an industry realize what is missing from digital. One of the most memorable shifts came in 2004, as entertainment companies realized that the best way to promote TV was not with websites that looked like online newspapers, but rather (gasp) with a property that looked televisual. The industry went from status quo to a mad rush, and I was lucky enough to be at the forefront of the movement. In a few short years our company had created the video players for ESPN, ABC, NBC, Nickelodeon, South Park, the Olympics, Starz, and many others, picking up three Emmys in the process.

It’s a classic tipping point scenario; nearly every business looks at their competition to decide how they measure up. And if the competition’s stuff looks terrible, it’s really easy to ignore the quality of your own. Particularly in digital, there is an overwhelming temptation to stay within one’s own industry. Why? There is a lack of understanding around the Web and digital that causes some marketers to treat it as an odd combination of unnerving and unimportant. Thus it’s important to remember Rule #1:

1. Think Outside the Category. Know the kind of experiences that your customers are having every day and assume their expectations for your products are similar.

I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s about damn time that this trend hit B2B. Business-focused digital properties have generally seemed to be predicated upon one flawed truth: when their customers leave their job at the end of the day, they unplug and store themselves in a closet where they experience nothing before returning to work the next morning. Think this sounds far-fetched? I can’t think of any other explanation for why digital in B2B has been so uninspired, confusing, and poorly designed in this golden age of user experience. No matter what your job might be, you’re a consumer when you are not working, and experiences like buying from Zappos, using a PS4, installing a Nest, or turning to the Starbucks app daily provide a window into the possibilities. I recently came across a good article detailing the value of responsive design for business-to-business, and that’s just one of many best practices that’s being missed.

It’s equally easy to see why so many B2B companies are waking up. There are some disruptive forces in the industry, and when you look at how well companies like Salesforce or Square change the way businesses have conversations, it has driven conglomerates like GE to get serious about digital properties. These are the companies who were willing to reinvent, illustrating Rule #2:

2. Be First. First mover advantage is huge, and amplifies any marketing spend. You get to define where the category is moving, and that alone is going to make a difference in the mind of your customers. In short, fortune favors the bold.

The data behind this is pretty interesting, as we see how many are piling in for the “me too” effect:


This chart, however, shows intent to spend, and for all of the reasons above, many B2B marketers don’t know how to spend. They are nervous about doing something that skews too consumer-heavy and coming off like the 40-year-old in skinny jeans – uncool and inauthentic. I had a great question recently in one of my recurring B2B meetings: “We sell a service – how are we going to make that look interesting on the Web?” My favorite example at the moment is Accenture, and how they’ve shifted their airport advertising. It’s a classic embodiment of Rule #3:

3. Borrow the Cool. You don’t have to do cool stuff to associate yourself with cool stuff. Accenture doesn’t sell anything tangible, but their clients do. They are shameless about co-opting their interesting client businesses to make their business seem not just quantitatively innovative, but qualitatively better. (Now it would be much more effective with a stronger tie-in with the Web, but it looks like Accenture has some work to do as well.)

Within this current B2B gold rush, we’re seeing a wide variety of companies – from software, private equity, and venture capital to manufacturing and automotive – looking to get ahead of an already in-process trend. We’re also seeing companies within these sectors who are not moving, and they’ll get caught flatfooted. Because with each of these recurring meetings I take part in, the biggest question of all for companies is: When are you ready to stop talking about change, make it actionable, and give it the priority to get it done?

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