By Abby Sorensen, Chief Editor
For the time being, B2B marketers can't achieve lead gen goals by setting up shop on a trade show floor. Many marketers are speculating when trade shows will be back. Summer? Fall? Early 2021?
Marketers wondering when they'll be able to spend budget again on trade shows are asking the wrong question. What we should be asking is, "In a post-COVID-19 world when B2B trade shows resume, will buyers have moved on to less expensive and more efficient ways to navigate the buyer's journey?"
The answer is a resounding "yes."
The buyer's journey had started shifting to a mostly anonymous digital experience long before a global epidemic grounded planes and shuttered exhibit halls. Yet even as buying groups worked more and more through digital channels to reach consensus, many marketers clung to the familiarity and operational ease of in-person events.
This is a watershed moment for B2B marketers to reallocate marketing budgets to better align with the buyer's journey. Marketers in a wide variety of industries are starting to appreciate what the Follow Your Buyer method explains as the need to "appeal to your buyer's preferences for absorbing content and distribute it where your buyers are likely to be."
How We Got Here
Before the COVID-19 crisis, the B2B world wasn't talking enough about how unbalanced marketing budgets were. It was an unspoken but common reality that B2B marketers were spending 40, 60, even 90 percent of their marketing budgets on events. The event industry ballooned to a multi-billion-dollar global force. VC dollars started flowing not just to companies exhibiting at events, but also to the events themselves. In Las Vegas, revenue from rooms, conference space, and event food and beverage spend unthinkably started outpacing gaming revenue. When a new event burst onto the scene, marketers felt they "had to" be there.
But behind the scenes, the event industry was starting to cater to suppliers instead of helping buyers. Exhibitors started being able to buy stage time. Published attendee registration fees were waived en masse. Some events even started covering travel expenses for attendees in exchange for a required number of pre-scheduled meetings with exhibitors. Venues caught on to the burgeoning event craze and upped the prices on minimum space and hotel room requirements, forcing event hosts to pass the costs to exhibitors (and ultimately to attendees). Events started packaging other ways to reach their massive lists of poorly maintained names as exhibitors saw diminishing returns on leads generated despite increasing booth and sponsorship costs.
Buyers started finding more value congregating in hallways with peers than sitting through vendor sales pitches billed as "education sessions" or walking the show floor. Decision-makers started staying back in the office in favor of sending junior team members to suffer through stale boxed lunches and nights on the road.
And this is why, over the last decade, "It's no surprise or secret that many marketers loathe the trade show circuit but have considered it a necessary evil. It's historically been too scary of a thought to not show up," explains Matt Heinz, president and founder of Heinz Marketing. This is how it became "normal" to spend the majority of marketing dollars on events while investments in digital strategies like content were put on the backburner as exhibit space, travel, and other hard costs dominated marketing spends. This is how marketers felt forced to go through the motions instead of feeling empowered as a strategic function of a company's long-term growth plan.
"This is not an opportunity to take advantage of a dangerous and scary situation, let me be clear," says Heinz. "This is an opportunity to rethink our go-to-market strategies, to practice some exponential thinking, to reinvent how we create, deliver, and build on the value that's very much needed."
This opportunity can elevate the importance of B2B marketers within their organizations. B2B marketers found themselves trapped aboard the fast-moving event bandwagon and felt there was never an opportunity to jump off safely. Then came the COVID-19 crisis, which forced the event train to grind to a sudden halt, meaning marketers are faced with an unprecedented moment to change how they reach buyers during the buyer's journey.
Adapting To A New Normal Won't Be Easy, But It's Necessary
Your buyers very much need help to navigate their buyer's journeys. This was a reality many marketers ignored prior to COVID-19 as they tried to force buyers through their seller's journey. Marketers might want to wait and see which trade shows will be rescheduled, but the new reality means they have to adapt to how their customers buy. And they have to adapt now, long before travel advisories are lifted and conferences are back on the calendar. Adapting won't be easy, especially for marketers with larger shares of their budgets tied up in events. But it is possible.
Trade shows are relatively easy to execute compared to a more diverse digital content strategy. That's why it's easy to see why so many B2B commercial teams love trade shows. As we wrote in "B2B Content Marketing Is The New & Improved Trade Show Floor," trade shows used to be a safe bet. It's relatively easy to run through the trade show checklist: Determine what event to attend, determine who will attend, book the travel, ship the booth, set up the booth, scan the badges, tear down the booth, ship the booth back to the office, and repeat.
In a marketing playbook largely reliant on trade shows, the buyers come to you. It's much harder to go to your buyers (or rather, to follow your buyers, as we like to say). It's harder to answer the question, "What topics should our content marketing strategy focus on?" versus "What date do we need to ship our booth by?" It's harder to decide, "What content engagement metrics are most important, and how do we collect that data?" versus "How many badge scans did we get from that event?"
And while a digital content strategy might be more challenging to implement and execute, it's absolutely necessary if you want to thrive as a B2B marketer during and after the COVID-19 crisis.
Content Marketing Is The New Normal
The new normal for B2B marketers will mean a more balanced investment strategy where your brand reaches buyers through more diverse channels. Content will largely take the place of your trade show booth. Instead of dabbling on your company blog page in between events, you'll need to construct a robust content creation and distribution strategy. Instead of exhibiting at a dozen events, you’ll focus on the one or two that are most effective.
Companies who have already started to do that are not panicked about how they'll fill their funnel amid trade show cancelations. Companies that are still heavily reliant on trade shows will need to ramp up content creation and distribution strategies now, as in today.
Saying "content marketing is the new normal" doesn't mean creating a few blog posts a month for your company website. We're talking about a sophisticated content strategy that takes full advantage of the power of behavioral analytics to identify purchasing intent. We spelled out what this ideal content strategy would look like months before the first COVID-19 case was discovered. You can read the full version in "Imagining An Ideal Application Of Behavioral Analytics In B2B Content Marketing."
Here's what that new normal will look like for marketers who are willing to adapt:
A behavioral analytics-based marketing strategy requires a mix of good content, cross-functional collaboration, the right vendor partners, a robust set of seamlessly integrated systems to manage data, insight into your competitors' share of voice, and patience.
Once those align, the best marketing teams will operate like a well-oiled machine that can guide a lead throughout every stage of the buyer's journey. That process might look something like this in a perfect marketing world:
- A prospect would download your content (or your competitor's content), which would automatically capture 100 percent accurate demographic, firmographic, event, and contextual data.
- That data would seamlessly integrate with your CRM and lead scoring system.
- Your marketing automation system would kick in and nurture that lead, delivering related and helpful content that precisely aligns with the prospect's stage in the buyer's journey.
- Along the way, intent signals from prospects would trigger you to expedite passing that lead to sales when a group of decision makers shows collective interest and increased activity.
- As a result, the sales team would have a plethora of highly qualified leads that would be easier to close, thus enabling marketing teams to prove real growth and tangible ROI.
As more B2B marketers uncover the true potential of content marketing, trade shows will become less and less important as a lead generation tool. As one talent agent told The Hollywood Reporter about the shift to digital platforms amid the COVID-19 crisis, "We've seen things like that in business in general all the time. You're forced into doing something that's not the regular practice. It ends up saving dollars, it ends up yielding a similar result, and then people go, 'Oh my God, why weren't we doing this before?'"
It's easy to understand why so many B2B marketers spent so much of their budgets on events before. And we hope that one small silver lining from this current crisis will be the emergence of a new generation of B2B marketers who are empowered and elevated by the results they'll start to show from effective content marketing.