Is B2B Marketing at Risk of Obsolescence?

Technology Populism and Social Computing are two big ideas that Forrester coined to describe the unstoppable impact of technology on business process, business people, and purchasing.  Briefly, for those unfamiliar, the defintions are:

Technology Populism – An adoption trend led by a technology-native workforce that self-provisions collaborative tools, information sources, and human networks — requiring minimal or no ongoing support from a central IT organization.

Social Computing – A social structure in which technology puts power in communities, not institutions. (Similarly, the Groundswell is a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations.) 

Both ideas talk about how technology puts power in the hands of individuals — buyer or worker — and that traditional control over technology and information — byIT or corporations — will decrease as  a result. I think both ideas are important for marketers to grasp because those who brush aside the idea that a groundswell of social activity has — and will continue to have — little impact on business will soon find themselves on the path of the dinosaurs and dodo birds.  Social computing and tech populism are only two factors forcing B2B marketers to take a hard look at their role in the world.  In the first of a four part series on Forrester’s Interactive Marketing Professional blog, I talked about the forces I see at work pushing marketing toward a diminished position inside the companies they serve if they don’t take steps to mitigate these forces now:

Will B2B Marketing Become Obsolete? (Part I) – October 22, 2008

Today marks the beginning of my 8th year at Forrester and my 4th year researching B2B marketing. I’d like to use this anniversary to start a blog conversation about what I see happening in B2B marketing and to think about what’s next. And, frankly, I am concerned about the future of the business marketing profession.  In particular, for those of us marketing high technology products and services.

First of all, I see four macro trends working against increasing marketing’s future value.  In brief they are:

1) Commoditization: software as a service, open source, service-oriented architectures and a number of similar trends make it easier to enter a market and more difficult to differentiate products on features and capabilities alone. As a result, marketers need to work harder to understand, attract, and engage an audience. And it takes multiple touches to involve prospects in conversation and figure out if they are ready for sales to contact.

2) Consumerism and the social groundswell: Buyers are more likely to use information from associates than from institutional sources, like marketing messages and sales people, when purchasing. We found proof of this recently at Forrester when we surveyed business decision makers this year and found 36% of the 2187 who buy networking products and 34% of the 2148 who buy security solutions turn to peers (word of mouth) when researching what to buy. Peers were the #1information source picked in both survey samples. Social computing also establishes more open and authentic communication that will fundamentally change how marketing works – no longer will marketers be able to “spin” product problems or customers concerns away. Look at Dell or Comcast for examples of this.

3) Ad avoidance translates to sales call avoidance. Consumers are really good at avoiding ads. Technology only helps them do this. Tivo lets prospects skip commercials, spam blockers keep email clean, and pop-up blockers keep online ads away. This behavior spills over into the business world where busy buyers turn to the Web to get information while avoiding phone and sales calls until they are further in the buying process.

4) Globalization: Besides needing to address customers in fragmented regional markets, marketers are beginning to face offshore skill competition. Not only do marketers outsource their brains to interactive, ad, and PR agencies, but now outsourcing practices like lead generation and telemarketing are starting to bleed over into core campaign design and execution functions.

Unfortunately, I see marketers focus take a narrow view that causes them to miss seeing the impact of these trends looming ahead. When I ask B2B marketers, “What is marketing’s charter or mission at your company?,” most often I hear “We generate demand.”  This goal is very hard to measure. Why? Because most B2B products are highly-considered sales involving a sales force or indirect channel where marketing gets caught in the middle or brushed to the side. Marketers who simply want to know which tactics work best and which statistics matter fail to see beyond the front of the funnel. Without this broader perspective, marketing will become obsolete as the Web, blogosphere, and social networks let businesses connect buyers directly with product development and bypass marketing all together.

So what should marketers do to avoid this fate?  I’d like to hear from you on this topic.  Feel free to comment or contact me. I will be posting more thoughts on this topic over the next couple of weeks. (Hint: managing demand, not generating it, is a key discipline B2B marketers must improve.)  But I’d like your thoughts first.  What should B2B marketers do to become more relevant to the business and avoid becoming obsolete?

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