Digital Marketing and COVID-19: A Short-Term and Long-Term Strategy for B2Bs

Sam Swiech, Content Marketing Manager Written by Sam Swiech, Content Marketing Manager

Marketers, like everyone, were blindsided by the pandemic. New research from LinkedIn suggests that B2Bs in particular were more likely than B2Cs to have had their marketing budgets reduced while simultaneously facing more pressure to invest in short-term tactical marketing.

Throughout the pandemic, businesses confined to a mostly online existence funneled more resources into their web presence to keep marketing momentum going. B2Bs accustomed to spending thousands on trade shows, conferences, and other in-person channels have shifted that spend to online channels to keep pipelines full.

Interestingly, the same research that found B2Bs to be in generally worse shape budget-wise also concluded that B2Bs are more confident than B2Cs about the future. Why?

As LinkedIn put it in their write-up,“[t]hey’re embracing the opportunity for greater cross-functional collaboration, exploring new routes to market, and helping to drive a shift in perceptions of marketing’s role.”

That's Latin for adapting. And one area where “cross-functional collaboration” and “exploring new routes to market” converge to demonstrate that adaptation is digital marketing.

Companies are pouring resources into their digital presence in reaction to the constraints of the pandemic. Marketing content is flowing. Webinars are everywhere. And in most industries, it’s expected that the engagement habits formed throughout the pandemic will stick—making this shift to digital permanent to some degree.

Here, we offer a clear and simple look at what’s known about the pandemic’s effect on B2B marketing, and how digital marketing offers an opportunity to sustain growth—and get more from your marketing budget—in both the short and long term.

We also offer a few practical tips for either getting started with—or optimizing—an existing digital marketing program in the current environment.

Table of contents

First, a quick look at what research is revealing about the state of B2B marketing right now.

Marketers expect the greater role of digital marketing to be permanent

A CMO survey that looked into the effects of COVID-19 among marketing leaders in June 2020 found that the largest group of respondents believed that the value of digital experiences as they relate to customer behavior would likely never return to pre-pandemic levels.

customer behavior1
Source: COVID-19 and the State of Marketing, The CMO Survey — June 2020

“The return to normalcy’ is not expected to occur for 6-12 months, with sizable segments of the marketers predicting 1-2 years. Only ‘increased value placed on digital experiences’ is expected to ‘never return’ to pre-pandemic days, indicating this is viewed as a permanent change.” – CMO

A similar McKinsey & Company survey concluded that “pandemic-induced patterns” seen across B2B sales and marketing practices were “likely to become permanent.”

But the concept of a “post-pandemic” future is itself misleading. It implies there will be a satisfying “end” to the pandemic where we can put it behind us and return to life as it was before. A straight-up return to the pre-pandemic world is looking increasingly unlikely. Some of the changes the pandemic forced upon us are, well, good changes in general. Many of us will likely hold onto them if they continue to offer benefits even after the pandemic subsides.

Therefore, the shift to digital marketing isn’t simply an interim measure to keep businesses moving until we can all “get past this.” It's a critical long-term strategy for navigating a protracted period of unease and hesitation as we fumble our way to a future that looks more like the past—with some changes made permanent.

And once we get there, even this early research suggests that the convenience and ease of digital interactions will continue to play a larger part in B2B commerce than it did before the crisis.

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Most B2B interactions have moved online—and it’s exactly what customers say they want

A recent McKinsey & Company study looking at B2Bs and COVID-19 confirms the obvious: more B2B interactions are taking place online. More interestingly, ~70-80% of B2B decision-makers say they actually prefer remote interaction or digital self-service compared to in-person interactions.

Why? According to the report, respondents cited “ease of scheduling,” “savings on travel expenses,” and “safety” as the top motivators for preferring digital.

In its study summary, McKinsey & Company put it plainly:

“...the shift to digital and remote engagement has been embraced by decision-makers in all countries surveyed worldwide. B2B sales leaders have moved from being 'forced' to adopt digital in reaction to the widespread shutdowns in the early stages of COVID-19 to a growing conviction that digital is the way to go.”

With more B2B interactions happening online and receiving a generally warm welcome, B2Bs have an opportunity to score a competitive advantage by laying down the digital paths their prospects are now accustomed to and increasingly asking for.

To create those paths, companies need a website that offers that self-service experience prospects are looking for no matter where they are in the buying journey

  • Are they simply educating themselves about a problem you solve? Your site should be there with an in-depth article that answers their questions and guides their thinking
  • Are they comparing vendors and need to know what makes you different? Your site should give them all the tools and information they need to convince themselves you're the best choice.

In short, your company website should serve its function as a 24/7 marketing and sales engine—presenting the right resources (in the form of articles, emails, videos, guides, demos, etc.,) at the right time.

This also happens to be the definition of an effective inbound marketing program: high-quality content offered conveniently at every stage of the funnel, presented on a fast, user-friendly website designed specifically to attract, convert, and nurture qualified leads into the warm embrace of the sales team.

(By the way, this is exactly what we do for B2Bs across a range of industries. Talk to us about building such a program for your organization.)

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Marketing budgets are surprisingly stable and marketers are seizing the opportunity to get a competitive advantage

Despite the hit to employment that reduced headcount in many marketing and sales departments, CMO’s June survey found that of the 274 B2B and B2C leaders surveyed, the largest segment experienced “no change in their overall marketing budgets during the pandemic.”

In fact, CMO revealed a 5% overall increase in spending across digital and non-digital budgets over the first couple of months of the pandemic.

  • B2B respondents in product-oriented companies reported an average budget increase of +2.82%.
  • Those in B2B service companies reported an average increase of +8.74%.

A similar study conducted by Merkle, which surveyed 400 marketers in large US and UK companies, found that over half (52%) reported increasing their marketing budgets since the outbreak. Notably, respondents selected “trying new marketing technologies or features” as their top tactical priority.

Although marketing departments are typically among the first to receive cuts in tough times, these findings align with decades of research suggesting that the somewhat counterintuitive move to invest in advertising and marketing during economic recessions capitalizes on an opportunity to increase market share and be better positioned when conditions improve.

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Here are a few helpful ways to think about digital marketing right now

Whether you’re already invested in digital marketing or considering it for the first time, here are a few important ways to think about it in terms of cold, hard business value.

Relative cost-effectiveness and ROI

Digital marketing has helped many companies bring down marketing expenses and cost-per-lead. (Read our case study to learn how we reduced cost-per-lead for a B2B company by 80% over four years with a significant portion of that reduction in just the first year.)

Digital marketers have proudly touted ROI advantages since the start, but these arguments have only become stronger as the technologies and tools that power digital marketing have evolved to become incredibly good at a few important things:

  1. Making it easy to present your brand, its message, and your products and services in convenient, attractive formats for consumption (via websites, email, content publishing, etc.).
  2. Making it possible to create “evergreen” marketing assets that pay dividends in the traffic and leads they generate. (Content that ranks more or less permanently in organic search results continues to attract and convert leads for years.)
  3. Making it possible to reach new prospects that may have never found you had you not actively gotten in front of them (with cold email, social ads, search ads, etc.).
  4. Making it possible to squeeze immense value from each advertising dollar (thanks to precise audience targeting and the ability to optimize campaigns).

In short, a lot of money has been invested in creating a large and growing ecosystem of incredibly powerful marketing tools that do many things today that simply could never have been done before—all in service of making each marketing dollar return that much more in business value.

Alignment with current behaviors

Thanks to the pandemic, customers, prospects, and leads are “more online” these days. We’ve been forced onto our screens and down those digital paths companies have carved out for us as we seek answers to questions and solutions to problems that ultimately lead us to products and services.

It’s more important than ever to establish or strengthen those paths for your own business so you can attract and convert a healthy share of that influx of traffic.

While years ago, company websites offered little more than forms and phone numbers, new tools have since made online engagement more inviting and human. “Conversational marketing” has emerged as a category in itself, offering things like chat and text capabilities that remove friction and compel more people to engage online.

The opportunity costs of not investing when competitors do

Another motivator for digital marketing investment is the opportunity cost of inaction. If any meaningful number of your prospects do start their buying journey online, and your competition isn’t investing in digital, you have everything to gain from simply stepping in to grab the unclaimed opportunity.

Likewise, if digital competition is fierce, you have everything to lose by not fighting for the attention of prospects as hard as your competitors are. Always remember what Wayne Gretzky (might have) said: “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take!”

What’s more, the tragedy of losing business opportunities by not “doing” digital marketing doesn’t call attention to itself. There’s no report that tells you how much business you lost to competitors because you decided not to invest in outdoing them in a given digital channel. Power is silently ceded to those who make investments in higher quality content, better-optimized ad campaigns, and more functional websites.

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6 steps to consider for a successful pivot to digital

There's a lot of advice for "pivoting to digital" flying around the web right now. Here are six recommendations that are hopefully as practical/actionable as possible.

1. Refresh your website to make it function better as the 24-hour marketing engine it ought to be

In “normal” times, it’s easy for companies to put off what’s assumed to be an expensive, headache-inducing website project. Now that the pandemic has turned websites into the front door for many businesses, companies are finally getting around to the website projects that have been shelved for years.

It’s time to ask:

  • Is my current site unwieldy and hard to use?
  • Is my current site optimized both for users and Google’s search algorithm?
  • Does my current site stack up visually and functionally within my industry?
  • And most importantly: Is my current site functioning as a marketing and sales tool should? (i.e. is it attracting, converting, and nurturing leads in line with my goals?)

After evaluating the current state of your website, you or a marketing firm may often find a number of quick-and-easy “low-hanging fruit” improvements that could, for example, boost conversion rates on pages that already receive considerable traffic. Simply adding appropriate calls-to-action and tweaking the layout of the page so it adheres to UX best practices can make a dramatic improvement.

Search ad campaigns (Google Ads) also frequently lend themselves to quick-win improvements that have an outsized impact on ROI. Are you paying to send ad traffic to your “normal” site pages?  If so, you’d likely get much better results by creating a series of specific landing pages that offer highly targeted messages that align with the ads they are tied to and are highly optimized for conversion.

An evaluation may also reveal opportunities that require more significant changes but are well worth the effort based on the business value they’d likely return.

Maybe the site is deprecated and requires a total overhaul on a platform that delivers better speed, performance, and ease of use. Here, a new website built with your goals in mind will save your team the time they’re currently sinking into the current site and return value far exceeding the costs to build it in the leads it helps convert and nurture.

(It’s also important to note that a new website doesn’t have to be the beastly project it once used to be. Taking a growth-driven design approach, for example, offers a more agile process that starts with a smaller “launchpad” site, and grows from there based on performance and user data.)

These days, the growth and popularity of tools like HubSpot suggest that many B2Bs are moving away from their siloed website and marketing technology stacks and investing in end-to-end platforms that roll website management and marketing management into a single, convenient system:

  • There’s a CMS for building and managing the website.
  • There’s an email tool for creating, sending, and reporting on email campaigns.
  • There’s a blog tool for publishing and tracking content performance.
  • There’s a social media tool for publishing posts and managing ads.
  • There’s a homegrown CRM and full integration with Salesforce.
  • There are reporting capabilities that capture performance data and make it actionable.

The list goes on. 

In the case of HubSpot and platforms like it, all of these systems integrate with one another to make marketing more effective and make life easier for those responsible for growth, customer success, and every other related function. In 2021, an integrated end-to-end marketing platform will almost always deliver many times its cost in ROI no matter how much or how little marketing flows through it. 

Talk to us about understanding the relative advantages of such a system for your company based on what you’re using now and the goals you’d like to achieve.

2. Arm your salespeople with the digital tools and information they need to be successful no matter how they engage with leads

Without a robust CRM (one that salespeople are actually inclined to use), as well as sales collateral and other tools salespeople need to facilitate outreach and turn conversations into deals, sales teams simply don’t have everything they could have to be successful.

Here, marketing and sales should come together to understand what each needs from the other to make both functions work better together:

  • Circle the fall-off points in the sales process and create a wealth of sales collateral to prevent lost deals. 
  • Use marketing and sales automation to put those resources in the hands of leads without adding an operational burden to the team. 
  • Establish robust reporting so both sides can know what’s working well so you can do more of that.

3. Create or enhance your account-based marketing (ABM) strategy

With B2B buyers across many industries undoubtedly taking a more “defensive posture” during the pandemic (i.e. not buying so much), ABM has found newfound importance for generating and nurturing leads at high-priority accounts. 

An account-based strategy is especially well-suited for this period as it serves to unite marketing and sales around common goals and lends itself to leading with empathetic messages, which may be doubly important (and effective) at the moment.

Here are a few practical tips to consider no matter if you’re starting from scratch or improving on an existing ABM strategy:

  1. Develop COVID-specific messaging/positioning. Gather as many resources internally as you can to hone in on how an industry or specific account and individuals within it have or will be affected by the pandemic and how your company can help.
  2. Re-think your channels if the budget is tight. The pandemic has had an unequal effect on advertising costs across industries. Some have been flooded with competition and seen costs increase while others have paired back their spend. If costs have increased to a point of being untenable, consider cheaper channels or switch to social selling.
  3. Build up and integrate more social proof into your campaigns. Collect and insert as much social proof as possible that speaks to the problems and goals you’re focusing your ABM campaign around. Social proof (case studies and testimonials) has been demonstrated to be one of the most compelling elements of the kinds of campaigns most B2Bs deploy. As social psychologist Solomon Asch discovered in his often-cited conformity experiments back in the 1950s, signals of social proof go right to our lizard brain and press all the right buttons to get us wanting what others have. With relevant social proof at hand, you’ll have an easier time showing buyers how you benefit them during tough times.

Whether you’re already doing ABM or not, it’s also a good time to consider whether you have the tools required to maximize the success of your campaigns.

For example, there are many cold email systems and physical mail services that, when given the right dose of creativity and thoughtfulness, can cut through the noise and make a strong impression. Platforms like HubSpot also enable you to create “smart content” that can be used to personalize campaigns based on who’s looking at it.

4. Host webinars and offer them on-demand

High-quality webinars have always been effective at educating prospects on B2B products and services. Registrations are a great conversion point and the format of a website facilitates a back-and-forth—encouraging the audience to ask questions and get answers in real-time. It’s a much more “human” experience than scrolling through a white paper. And promoting the recordings afterward to watch on-demand gives them evergreen power as lead magnets.

If you’re looking to activate or ramp up a webinar program, keep in mind that some of the best webinars re-tool content that already exists, such as guides, case studies, and other “premium” content. Webinars can also be used for product demos, how-tos, and troubleshooting guides. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make it work.

Since audiences are mostly glued to their seats at home, many have time to listen to what marketers have to say if it’s delivering value. That in itself demonstrates the enormous opportunity to reach an attentive audience through a live event while passively generating leads through the on-demand offer afterward.

Keep in mind though: since this is one of many articles now urging marketers to “do webinars” during the pandemic, people are likely getting bombarded with even more webinar invitations than before Covid. Given this, it’s all the more important to ensure your presentations are high-quality and aligned with your audience's actual informational needs. Host webinars your audience simply can’t find elsewhere, and can’t do without right now.

5. Create outstanding content

Quality and alignment aren’t just important for webinars. It should guide all the content you create.

Survey data gathered in the early days of the pandemic suggest there was a decline in short-term buying intent given the chaos and uncertainty of the moment. Over time, however, there have been indications that businesses have relaxed their posture (and their grip on their checkbooks).

This, of course, likely varies by industry. It’s up to you to know your prospects’ position given the circumstances and tailor your content and expectations accordingly.

Admittedly, the suggestion to “create outstanding content” offers nothing new that hasn’t been said a million times already. Marketers in 2021 realize the importance of producing effective content, ensuring it captures the attention of prospects and motivates them to do something. The hard part, like always, is committing to the work that’s required to create content that people don’t just consume, but act on.

This point is important enough to linger on just a minute longer. When we say “quality content” we’re talking about the confluence of four factors: clarity, concision, depth, and engagement. As the internet expands with an endless glut of “content” it’s important that every minute spent creating something new passes a few simple questions:

    • Is it clear? Are you getting your points across completely and without the reader experiencing issues?
    • Is it concise? Are you getting points across without fluff? Are you writing to inform effectively?
  • Is it appropriately deep? Are you breaking new ground with what you’re saying without going overboard and into the weeds?
  • Is it engaging and motivating? Are you exciting the reader with your ideas? Are you conveying the value of this information? Does the information motivate them to do something?

If your prospects are hesitant to buy right now, focus on creating content at the top of the funnel to generate awareness and fill your pipeline with opportunities you can close when budgets thaw.

If you’re struggling with content ideas, realize that each new challenge or point of uncertainty presented by the pandemic is another topic for you to address. Take full advantage of the opportunity.

6. Realize the heightened, sustainable value of SEO

Optimizing your core web pages and creating a corpus of high-quality content that ranks high in search results for keywords and queries your prospects search for is one of the most sustainable marketing activities available today. Here are some general reasons why SEO is so powerful compared to other channels:

    • The results are more permanent and deliver “evergreen” value. Depending on the value of the keyword you rank for, the benefits of your site ranking on the first page of Google for it will outlast the investment in SEO you made to earn that position. This is the primary difference between SEO and advertising, where results only last as long as you’re paying for them. In short, cementing a high rank in search pays dividends well into the future—often indefinitely.
  • Success in SEO often compounds. The more keywords and keyword phrases your site ranks high for in search, the more perceived “authority” you can expect Google to place on your site. Over time, this success builds on itself, making it easier and more likely to rank for keywords in the future—especially those that are highly competitive and difficult for small “content-immature” sites.
  • The results of SEO are measurable (and therefore easy to optimize). With the right tracking tools powering your website, traffic and leads can be traced back to specific pages and the keywords those pages rank for. This level of measurability enables you to see what’s working, what’s not, and where to focus your effort and resources based on the queries your top-converting audience is searching for. 

Of course, realizing the benefits of search engine marketing is one thing. Acting on that realization is another. While there’s a lot that goes into planning and executing an SEO project as part of a broader digital marketing program, the steps very often boil down to the following:

  1. Audit: Evaluate your website and its content to identify current search positions for high-value keywords.
  2. Research: Conduct keyword research to identify which keywords you should be trying to rank for.
  3. Plan and implement: Make necessary website improvements and create content aimed at ranking for those keywords.
  4. Measure, maintain, and optimize: Create a process for tracking positions and acting on those insights to sustain and grow reach.

Again, none of this is simple work and often requires a lot of planning, spreadsheets, brainstorming, testing, time, and access to some pretty expensive SEO tools. 

We’ve made all those investments and routinely wrap all of this planning into a report with the option to execute on it. Talk to us about getting a comprehensive SEO evaluation and strategy plan. 

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Some clear thoughts on budgeting for digital marketing right now

Okay, you get it—digital marketing is important right now and will be probably forever. Next question: what’s it cost and what can I expect in terms of results? Of course, there’s no satisfying answer. It depends!

If you have the budget for digital marketing but are uncertain whether it's worth the investment at this time, a comparison to trade show costs and ROI may be useful. 

Trade show vs. digital marketing economics

There are a few “trade show versus web marketing” articles floating around the web, but to be honest, they overcomplicate things and get the costs wrong.

Here’s a more realistic no-nonsense breakdown of how trade shows and digital marketing economics stack against each other in concrete terms. 

Okay. Imagine presenting a booth at a typical trade show (I’m using rough average numbers, but plug anything in and do the math.)

  • There are 5,000 attendees.
  • It lasts three days.
  • You buy the decent booth package and net 300 leads over three days.
  • 90 of those leads (30%) are determined to be qualified.
  • With fees and everything else that goes into the show, you’re looking at $20,000 plus $15,000 in total staff time for a grand total of $35,000.
  • Multiply those numbers by three trade shows a year for an annual budget of $105,000, a total of 900 leads generated, and 270 qualified leads generated.

That’s ~$117 per lead and ~$389 per qualified lead.

Now compare these figures against the costs and ROI of a digital marketing investment that includes a strategy assessment, new website, and ongoing campaign work.

  • You hire a digital marketing agency to conduct a comprehensive strategy assessment and get a plan in place: $5,000*
  • They plan, design, and build a brand new website on HubSpot CMS. Their service fees are $35,000*
  • You pay $3,240/year for HubSpot CMS Pro (the website platform) and $9,600/year for Marketing Pro (the marketing tech stack)
  • You put a monthly retainer in place with the firm to execute campaigns on said site, which for the first year, leads to an annual expense of $40,000*.
  • Grand total marketing investment that year: $92,840. 
  • You achieve:
    • 50,000* website visitors annually
    • At a 3.27% conversion rate, you net 1,635 leads.
    • 38%* are qualified: 621

That’s ~$57 per lead and ~$150 per qualified lead.

*The service fee, website traffic, and lead quality inputs used to create this example are based on aggregated data from our own B2B clients. 

†HubSpot fee inputs based on HubSpot’s pricing page.

‡The conversion rate input is based on aggregated B2B conversion rate data from GeckoBoard.

To recap:

For the price of two typical trade shows, you can establish a digital marketing program that converts more leads for less money.

Rather than spending a few days soaking up a mixed bag of leads in front of a booth, the website serves as a 24/7/365 trade show booth on steroids. It not only has more information, functionality, and exposure than a booth, but it attracts prospects who are actively seeking solutions to problems, thereby improving lead quality overall.

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Some final thoughts and next steps

The pandemic has clearly changed the ways we work and buy. Some of those changes will almost certainly be permanent. For B2Bs whose customers navigate a sales cycle, the pandemic has shifted the ways they market their business. Some of the “doors” into that sales cycle—the ones that exist in physical space—have closed for now. To make up for it, the digital doorways have gotten larger, and will likely stay that way.

The pandemic has presented a time to reset and refocus marketing strategies for a future that, despite being more or less defined by uncertainty, will almost certainly be more digital.

Now is the time to make a strategic investment in that future by starting or growing a digital marketing program. No matter when this pandemic is “over,” you should emerge with a resilient marketing program that can weather uncertainty.

If you’re struggling to know exactly where to start, here’s a brief playbook of next steps to consider. 

And by the way—you don’t have to go this alone. (Honestly, you probably shouldn’t.) With the help of an agency, you can develop a detailed, flexible strategy and bring it to life successfully. If you’d like, we can help you with this. Contact us today.

  1. Take stock of your current digital presence to get a general sense of the opportunity in front of you. Is your website delivering you leads? Do you even like your website? More importantly, do your customers like it? Is it clear that your competitors are investing in digital marketing—and seizing opportunities—that you currently aren’t?

  2. Determine how much, if anything, you can do internally to bring a digital marketing program to life. Do you have the human resources to create or radically improve your approach to digital marketing? If you’re thinking about hiring employees to do it, have you considered the relative costs and value of in-house marketing professionals versus agencies? If not, check out our guide tackling this very question as objectively as we possibly can.

  3. Connect with a digital marketing agency that can help you develop a strategy and execute it. No matter how much or how little you decide to manage digital marketing in-house, an experienced agency can help you think about things you’re not thinking about, introduce best practices, and draw on what they know works to set you up for success with a comprehensive strategy.

If that’s where your company is at, drop us a line and we’ll schedule some time to talk about developing just such a strategy for your organization.

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Photo by Tomáš Hustoles from Burst

Topics: Sales & Marketing Strategies

Sam Swiech, Content Marketing Manager Sam Swiech, Content Marketing Manager

Sam Swiech has worked in the digital marketing industry for 7 years, developing expertise in content strategy, content writing, and copywriting. Outside of the office, he enjoys cooking, travel, and modular synthesizers.