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Let’s rip this off like a Band-Aid.

Here are my B2B marketing predictions for 2021:

  • Trade shows and in-person events won’t come back until Q4 in 2021. And that’s if we’re lucky.

  • The rise of virtual events will result in a digital arms race, and the only way to win will be to have had a highly engaged audience well before the pandemic started.

  • Content will still be king, and marketers will go back to the basics to take advantage of this truth.


Trade Shows

They aren’t coming back anytime soon. Some 2021 events are already virtual. Some Q1 and Q2 events are rescheduled for summer 2021.

The can keeps getting kicked down the road. And while marketers procrastinate, buyers are figuring out how to move forward without trade shows.

It’s time we as marketers turn our attention to helping those buyers via other channels instead of holding our breath waiting to set up shop at an in-person event again.

In March, I wrote, “Many marketers are speculating when trade shows will be back. Summer? Fall? Early 2021?” The question you should be asking now is, “What will we spend our marketing budget on if there are no live events in 2021?” Plan for that scenario. Then, if you’re lucky, you might have an event or two on the calendar in late 2021. But if my prediction is right, you won’t be left scrambling like many marketers are right now.

Virtual Events

EVERYONE will be doing "virtual events." And I mean everyone. It’s already started. I’ve already gotten in the bad habit of registering for several a week and then clicking “dismiss” on my Outlook calendar reminder when the session rolls around.

My inbox is flooded with invites to virtual events, and I’m starting to delete them the same way I do press releases. In the time it took me to type this paragraph, three virtual event invites hit my inbox. I’m not exaggerating (and I’m a fast typer).

Before you hop on the virtual event bandwagon, you’ll need to take a long, hard look at your audience. Not your marketing database, your audience. Because being a successful B2B marketer hinges on getting your content in front of an engaged audience of your buyers. That’s why trade shows used to work so well pre-COVID: they brought the audience to you. But the world we’re in now makes it much harder to engage an audience. Which means you’re going to have to spend some money to engage an audience.

If you are planning to host a virtual event – be it a full-day customer/user conference or a one-off webinar – you’d better have the content to back it up. And the content to follow it up. And the production, planning, and thought leadership expertise to deliver a good experience.


Content, Content, Content

I fear that in 2021, B2B marketers will produce more content but will put up more gates. If form-fills become a go-to KPI in 2021, then we (buyers and marketers alike) are in for some real disappointment.

Find out what your buyers are struggling with. Create content that is about helping them (not about promoting you). Get that content to them without asking for anything in return. Rinse and repeat. That is what good B2B marketing will look like in 2021. It might not be flashy, but it can be effective.

That’s what I mean when I say savvy marketers will rush back to the basics. Less investments in tech, more roll-up-your-sleeves kind of meetings to collaborate cross-functionally to talk about things like attribution models and content topics. Instead of asking “how can we automate more?” marketers will be asking “what are sales reps doing with those leads and how can we help?”

Trade shows have long been a crutch – a way to quickly spend budget and check “marketing” off your to-do list. COVID-19 is forcing us to relearn the basics of B2B marketing. What’s coming in 2021 could be the start of a new era of connecting with buyers in a way that actually helps them buy what we’re selling.


Don’t Wait On Events

Normally my “From The Editor” column relates golf to B2B sales and marketing. But this time, I’ll be sharing a baseball story to inspire marketers not to sit on their hands and wait for trade shows to come back.

At the time I wrote this, my beloved St. Louis Cardinals were on day 15 of not playing baseball. The COVID-19 outbreak that swept through the team came with a personal dose of irony since I wear a St. Louis Cardinals face mask in the office every day.

These masks from Fanatics.com are absolutely my favorite. They wash well, are comfortable, and the straps don’t irritate my ears. 10/10, 5 stars, would highly recommend, #gocardinals.

Anyway, I first considered spending $24.99 on a three-pack of Cardinals face masks in early April. But before I entered my credit card info, I noticed the website had a disclaimer: “Item will be ready to ship in July.”

I thought to myself, “There’s no way I’ll still need these things by July.” Back then, less than 30 days into a work-from-home-shelter-in-place routine, I thought this was a phase.

Whoops.

Not a phase.

I ordered the masks on May 28.

The masks arrived on July 20, and on that same day, I ordered another set.

What changed between early April and when I forked over $24.99 on May 28? I became a living example of one of my favorite statistics cited in Selling To The C-Suite: “At any given time, only 4 percent of your market is actively buying, 40 percent are ready to start looking at options, and 56 percent aren't ready or don't have a current need.”

The pandemic doesn’t change these percentages, it just changes which category a buyer falls into. Look at how quickly I moved through those three categories.

I wasn’t an active buyer in April. The first stage of the buyer’s journey is to “understand current issues,” and at that point, I didn’t have any issues (well, I have plenty of issues, but that’s another column for another day). I had a few plain, uncomfortable face masks, but I thought their use would be short-term, so I was in the 56 percent category.

Gradually, I realized face masks were going to be around for many more months. That’s when I transitioned to the 40 percent category of buyers and was ready to start looking at options.

By the time I became one of the 4 percent of active buyers, Fanatics was still retargeting me with those St. Louis Cardinals face mask ads in my social media feeds.

Don’t sit back and say, “There will be a vaccine in the next few months, and we’ll be back at trade shows in early 2021.” Make sure you’re creating and distributing content and virtual experiences now before your buyers even realize they need what you’re selling.  

Don’t be naïve like I was, waiting to order masks in hopes that I wouldn’t need them. Be proactive and figure out new ways to reach your buyers in 2021.

About the author

Chief Editor, Follow Your Buyer

You might know me as a writer, coach, content marketer, dog lover, editor, golfer, sales strategist, Diet Coke enthusiast, speaker, Allegheny alum, project manager, feminist, networker, or St. Louis Cardinals fan. 

We will not be great by what we accomplish, but by what we help others accomplish.

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Learning to follow your buyer is a change in mindset

A transition from selling buyers on what you do to helping them accomplish what they do.