4 Scary Facts to Shake Up Your B2B Online Marketing Strategy

Like a good B2B online marketing challenge? I hope so, because the massive contraction in the count and type of business buyers over the past year promises a highly competitive future for B2B marketing online.

Last month, while doing a deep dive into the online behavior of U.S. business buyers using comScore Plan Metrix, I found came across four scary facts for any B2B marketer that hasn’t been keeping a close eye on target audience trends:

  1. The total number of U.S. Internet users involved in the business buying process shrank 25% over the past year (January, 2010 versus January 2010).
  2. The decline was greatest among those that make up the highest quality leads for B2B online marketing campaigns – the count of those who approve business purchases shrank 34% over the same period.
  3. The decline in business buyers was nearly 7x greater than the decline in total U.S. employed Internet users over the same period.
  4. These findings are independent of company size – the count of business buyers at small (<100 employees) and mid- to large-sized companies fell by virtually the same percentage

On B2B Marketing - Online Business Buyers Decline

(…This is the point where veteran B2B marketers start getting that slightly queasy feeling in the pits of their stomachs, a sensation that comes with the dawning realization that something very big has happened…)

First reaction…that 5% year-over-year drop in quality B2B sales leads doesn’t look so bad any more, right? Maybe your team and agency are doing a much better job than you initially thought? While these facts can certainly help put last year’s online B2B marketing campaign performance in the proper context, that’s only part of the story.

The more important point here is what theseĀ  facts suggest for the future. Most B2B marketers have seen smaller average (initial) purchase sizes and longer sales cycles during the current recession – those are a given as companies reduce budgets, become more interested in test programs than long-term commitments, and scrutinize important purchases more carefully. Although an improving economic environment will loosen-up budgets to some extent, recession-driven changes to the business buying process will be with us for years to come. Here are some specific changes and implications for your B2B online marketing strategy over the next few years.

Smaller pool of top quality sales leads with purchasing authority

Over the last year, more than one-third of your potential high quality B2B sales leads disappeared from the market, and they’re not coming back anytime soon. While this obviously varied somewhat by industry, companies consolidated purchasing authority to control costs during the protracted downturn and there’s no sign (yet) that this consolidation is slowing. A huge growth opportunity requiring fast action is the only thing powerful enough to force decentralization of purchasing authority. Slow but steady economic growth won’t do it.

Implication: B2B lead quality is critical, and boosting lead volumes without a close eye on quality will only generate false hope and wasted effort. Find, and invest in, true business purchase decision makers.

More competition in the B2B online “market”

Economic signals, and what I’ve been hearing from B2B marketers at a number of conferences, suggest that the worst of the recession may be over, business buying interest is picking up and marketing budgets are starting to grow (or, at least, have stopped shrinking). This is when it starts to get ugly as more marketing dollars chase a much smaller pool of prospects.

Implication: Get ready for higher costs per (quality) lead from B2B search marketing, social media and, eventually, online display advertising. If high quality creative and landing page optimization didn’t seem that important in the past, now is the time to focus on these areas to drive the highest volume of the right traffic to your key landing pages and maximize conversions.

Don’t expect (unadjusted) continuous improvement

For B2B online marketing today, the market is taking two steps back regardless of whether or not you’re taking one, two or three steps forward. If you haven’t been keeping a close eye on size and activity of your target buyer audience over the past year, it’s very likely that both you and your leadership team are somewhat frustrated by an apparent inability to make consistent, incremental improvements in quality lead volume and cost per lead. Gains are simply going to be more difficult to see.

Implication: To get a reliable handle on online B2B marketing campaign performance in this environment, you need some way to adjust results to reflect the underlying online population and opportunity. Companies with larger target audiences (and larger budgets) can use comScore Plan Metrix or Nielsen NetRatings to adjust campaign performance by changes in the underlying online target population. Alternatively, you can use competitive benchmarking (e.g., create an index of competitor web sites) or talk with others in your industry to get a sense of the trends they’re seeing. Regardless, driving improvement in B2B online marketing campaigns requires looking at more than just the month-over-month change in your internal metrics.

Increased importance of retention marketing

Web site traffic is great. Quality leads are even better. But how well do your marketing programs both attract and consistently maintain the interest of your target audience? In this environment, the last thing you want is to have a higher cost per lead AND pay multiple times to keep that lead engaged.

Implication: We’re about to see the golden age of B2B demand generation systems in companies which make it a priority to understand how to truly combine demand gen system capabilities with valuable content to support relationships with prospects and existing customers. The technology is just a starting point, though. It’s about the relationship.

What do you think? Given the four facts above, how do you see your B2B online marketing strategy – or that of your clients – evolving today and over the next several years?