How To Create a B2B Marketing Strategy for Uncertain Times
At its core, marketing involves humans–even in B2B marketing, we are still communicating with people as representatives of their organizations. And, as with anything involving human nature, this opens the door to uncertainty and unpredictability. So marketing is by definition an uncertain practice, especially when conducted in an increasingly digitized, rapidly changing world. How then can organizations not only plan for the unexpected, but even turn it into an advantage?
Aventi Group COO and co-founder Sridhar Ramanathan teamed up for an #AventiLive Chat with Kathleen Schaub, formerly Vice President of IDC and currently a strategist advising companies on marketing management. The two discussed how organizations can plan during times of uncertainty–which, as Kathleen pointed out, will only continue to be more prevalent in an increasingly digitized, rapidly changing world. Instead of treating uncertainty as an outlier, she says, companies need to start planning for it as a permanent feature of their B2B marketing strategy.
You can watch the entire #AventiLive Chat here for a more detailed perspective. In the meantime, here’s a high-level overview of the great tips Kathleen and Sridhar discussed on how to mitigate uncertainty by establishing a clear–yet flexible–game plan.
Tip #1: Start with the mission
Kathleen’s first tip to counteract the negative effects of uncertainty is to remain tightly focused on your company’s mission, or “North Star,” as she calls it. When leaders are clear about their priorities, they can depend on their people in the field to make the right decisions. Even if teams lose their way temporarily, having that compass pointing North will always help them reorient and make the right decisions.
Sometimes, however, that North Star needs to be tweaked slightly to accommodate new circumstances. Kathleen used one of her clients as an example, stating that during the pandemic they refocused from getting new customers or leads into simply helping their existing customers get stabilized. In other words, shifting short-term priorities can change your mission, but as long as that change is clearly communicated, you can allow for some elasticity on the ground.
Tip #2: Set tighter milestones–and reassess often
Once you’ve set your mission, you have got to move forward on it, even if it is in a choppier way than the way you’d usually operate. In particular, Kathleen suggested selecting waypoints with shorter timeframes, focusing on taking smaller, smarter, lower-risk steps. These waypoints should be specifically selected to improve your insights and help you make decisions along the way.
This tactic can be especially helpful with event planning, which due to its time- and location-based constraints is notoriously inflexible. Instead of basing decisions on a calendar, as is customary, both Kathleen and Sridhar suggested using pre-set milestones to assess whether and how to proceed with each step of the planning process. That way, your plans are still linked with the project timeline, but can also float independently depending on unseen circumstances.
Tip #3: Make communication clear and frequent
Information changes rapidly during periods of volatility, but leaders can stay ahead of their team’s fears and uncertainty by staying open and honest. Communication builds confidence, which in turn leads to action–and even small steps are better than none.
If you only have a vague idea of the future, says Kathleen, communicate that anyway. Leaders often worry that they shouldn’t say anything because they don’t have all the answers yet, but if they stay in communication and make what they do know as visible as possible, they’ll build confidence in their team and be able to move past changing circumstances.
Even something as simple as short daily stand-ups for the leadership team or weekly messages from the CEO can make a huge difference to the morale and motivation of your team. As a remote workplace, for example, Aventi uses Slack as an online chat/collaboration space where Partners and consultants communicate in real time while not overloading inboxes.
Tip #4: Know your priorities
Similar to tip #1, redefining and focusing on a company’s core mission helps leadership make necessary cuts strategically instead of reactively. When uncertainty happens, the reaction is often to cut back either across the board or wherever it’s easy to do so, e.g. eliminating unnecessary products or services. Haphazard cuts can affect performance in the long run, however, even if they save budget in the short term.
Instead, questions of where to make cuts should be answered based on a careful assessment of urgency vs strategic value. Programs and products that are both strategic and urgent should be funded ASAP, while those that are strategic but not imperative can be delayed until the company is in more stable financial straits. Cuts can be made right away in areas that are neither strategic nor urgent–and, in fact, says Kathleen, “crisis is a great time to get some willpower to cut things that have needed to be cut.”
Tip #5: Eliminate silos and work cross-functionally
Kathleen says that the companies she’s seen do the best at managing uncertainty are the ones who excel at creating cross-functional teams. Silos, she says, are undesirable under normal circumstances, but during times of change, “silos are death.” In these resilient organizations, the executive team meets frequently with representatives from legal, HR, and other departments to make sure everyone is on the same page. Smaller, cross-functional teams like these can make decisions quickly without having to get all parties together and reach a broader consensus.
As an example, Sridhar used an Aventi client that is an HR software company. The CMO got everyone thinking about the buyer’s journey, all the way from sales and marketing to trial signups to conversions to renewals. Instead of looking for complete agreement internally, the company was seeking to understand the customer and how they are going through their journey. Focusing on the customer journey is also great example of a company revisiting their mission and priorities, as discussed in tip #1.
Tip #6: Shift your scenario planning
Uncertain times necessitate a dynamic shift in the scenario planning process. An organization needs to balance longer term plans with emergency triage planning–and get comfortable doing so without a lot of data. Most of the time, says Kathleen, she is a self-proclaimed “data nerd,” but during periods of volatility, a company needs to prioritize based on the data they have.
This does not mean, however, that scenario planning isn’t important. Thinking through different options during periods of stability can eliminate some of the uncertainty when choppier waters hit. Formulating plans B through D is a lot of work, and of course you can’t account for everything–which is why a lot of companies don’t engage in extensive scenario planning.
By allocating resources to scenario planning, you can help mitigate future uncertainty by building resilience into your game plan. Or, as Sridhar pointed out, you can follow the example of prominent communications company Slack—one of the reasons they chose their name was because they felt it was useful for companies to build slack into their business plan because it makes you more resilient.
Tip #7: Look at the bright side
B2B Marketing is a genuinely uncertain arena. We live in a global world, where the sheer number of people, the connections between us, and the pace of our digital transformation is only increasing. This is a fast, complex world, says Kathleen, “and I don’t think anybody with any smarts is going to see this getting any less so.” This is the way things are now, and they are not going back to a slower pace.
Instead of having uncertainty come as a surprise, leaders should see it as a constant–and an opportunity. By setting new, more realistic expectations of change, companies can adapt so it’s not as painful when it does happen. Calendars are going to shift to milestones, budgets should be rented not owned, KPIs can be made quarterly, and missions must be revisited and tweaked as needed. We can take advantage of uncertainty by learning more about agility, resilient supply chains, and building resilience into our systems from the get-go.