Skate to Where the Puck is Going: B2B Marketing in an Age of Digital-First Marketing

an ice hockey player gearing up to hit the puck

A very young Wayne Gretzky was taught by his first hockey coach, his father Walter Gretzky, several important lessons. For those who are not hockey fans – Wayne is the all-time leader in NHL scoring and owner of 61 records, most will probably never be broken, and is called by many the greatest hockey player of all time.  “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take” is one lesson. As marketers we know the importance of planning, executing, and measuring the results of campaigns. It’s key to DO and the proverbial saying “talk is cheap” showcases the need for ACTION.

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Wayne’s brilliant hockey game was marked by keen anticipation and playmaking – he recorded more assists than total points (goals and assists) than any other player. He was always thinking, and visualizing several plays AFTER what was unfolding on the ice, while others reacted in real-time to it. “Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been” may be a rather overused quote, but it’s very in true in marketing. We need to react to change, anticipate trends, and be proactive.

The global pandemic significantly accelerated digital transformation. IDC defines digital transformation and maturity as “using information at the center of new business models, leveraging Third Platform technologies (mobile computing, big data and analytics, social media, and cloud computing), creating new customer experiences, and optimizing data-driven decision-making to transform your business”. This has radically transformed marketing, which was already well along on the path of marketing transformation. IDC sees this new relationship between business and technology as “digital-first”. 

We are in the era of digital-first marketing. According to Laurie Buczek, research vice president, IDC CMO Advisory practice “B2B tech buyers are undeniably digital-first and digital always in their buying journey. Leaders in customer-centric marketing will rise to this moment, embracing the role of conductor of the orchestra, designing self-service digital and digital sales experiences across connected channels with connected, personalized content”. Like Wayne Gretzky, who set up countless goals with unparalleled creativity and insight, it’s up to marketing to orchestrate this. This has never been truer in an age of digital-first B2B marketing.

So – using our Wayne Gretzky analogy of skating to where the puck is going – what do CMOs and their teams need to do in an era of digital-first B2B marketing? Five key recommendations:

  • Adopt a digital-first marketing strategy while including hybrid execution and delivery across all campaigns and tactics, understanding where and when to use them. The customer experience (CX) is not entirely digital, with differences based upon demographics and firmographics. Consumption of content is both on-line and off-line, so we need to take that into account.
  • Deliver next-generation customer engagement with content, consistent messaging and value to specific personas, and increased enablement. Marketing must lead CX and the customer journey like never before, in full partnership with sales. The IDC Adaptive Customer Engagement Model is an excellent place to start and showcases the required alignment between sales and marketing, the role of value-based thought leadership and content, and leveraging enablement and world-class orchestration to bring this to fruition.
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  • Curate creative, digital outside-in content delivering value across the customer experience (CX) and journey – with an on-line and off-line experience, delivered in a hybrid approach. As I recently discussed in “Momentum ITSMA Marketing Vision 2022: The Journey to Thought Leadership Marketing Excellence“, thought leadership is valuable across the entire buyers’ journey, and must deliver business value otherwise decision makers will ignore it. Research by LinkedIn showcased a huge increase in the volume of so-called thought leadership content during the pandemic that mostly failed to deliver tangible value. It often focused on what the company wanted to showcase, not what customers and prospects wanted.  Remember the best thought leadership is based upon research that also helps establish the organization as a trusted advisor.
  • Personalize content, create and leverage communities, and develop and execute effective social marketing campaigns and programs – after all Social Media is a key element of the Third Platform! We must find these “watering holes” specific to the target persona(as) and buying segments, and deliver social marketing campaigns, social selling aligned with sales, and participate actively in communities of interest. The “Modern Webinar”, a concept championed by my colleague and friend Mark Bornstein, the Chief “Webinerd” and VP of Marketing at ON24, rose to prominence during the global pandemic. Webinars show no signs of losing value and importance in an age of digital-first marketing.
  • I would be remiss in not mentioning two long-time colleagues Scott Brinker and Howard Dresner (the fathers of Marketing Technology (MarTech) and Business Intelligence (BI), respectively) who taught me the importance and value of combining technology, analytics, and data. We must invest in and optimize MarTech and solutions including analytics/data for data- and insights-driven decision-making. We are in an era of the “marketing technologist”, a concept championed by Brinker.  While not requiring full data sciences competency for everyone, greater data-literacy and comfort w/ BI and MarTech tools and data is required for all marketers in an era of digital-first marketing. Dresner’s concept of the “data leader” is spot-on and data leadership spans all functional areas with data literacy (and programs) and leadership key success factors.

What was once different competencies, even different teams, in a previous era, is converging. We are in an era of next-generation B2B marketing convergence. Marketing has earned a seat at the table, sales and marketing alignment (Account-based marketing, ABM, is a requirement and not an option) is key to being a leader, and we have the most robust marketing playbook ever.  An ever-expanding and maturing portfolio of Marketing Technology (MarTech) brings this to fruition, but we must optimize what we have and implement. Marketing’s time is here to lead the way in this exciting journey!

So – “skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been.” Marketing is a team sport — take your best shot, learn from the experience, and adjust and optimize your orchestration. As I have said at a variety of marketing conferences, events, and webinars in recent times – “It’s a great time to be in B2B marketing – enjoy!” That’s never been truer in an era of digital-first marketing!

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