The B2B Digital Marketing Playbook – Aaron Marks

Your success with email marketing lies in providing helpful, useful content that aligns to what your target personas need.  B2B marketing expert Aaron Marks explains how putting out content catered towards our ideal customers, and providing them with the information they need, will translate to success in all your marketing.

 

Rich: My guest today has nearly two decades of marketing leadership experience, focused on digital and inbound marketing. From commercializing high profile VC back startups to driving measurable growth at Fortune 500 companies, he has helped companies of all sizes strategize and deliver marketing success.

He has translated this experience into practical and actionable insights for numerous audiences, including speaking at conferences, serving as a podcast guest, writing guest articles, and even serving as a faculty member at training institutions. Today we’re going to look at how to market your B2B services online with Aaron Marks. Aaron, welcome to the podcast.

Aaron: Hey, Rich, how are you? Thanks for having me.

Rich: I’m doing great. Let’s start with some basics. How does B2B, or business to business, differ from B2C, business to consumer, when it comes to sales and marketing, in your opinion?

Aaron: I love this question. Because I think there’s actually two pieces to it. I think B2B sales and marketing people want to claim that it is more different in many ways than it actually is. I forget exactly where I read it, but one of my favorite things I’ve read is that ultimately, it’s business to human, whether you’re B2B or B2C, right? You are selling to a human. And I think people forget that, right? So that’s one side of the coin.

The other side of the coin though that is really different, I think, rarely are B2C purchases as complex, as high dollar value, have as many decision makers. That’s not always true, but very rarely is that the case. When you’re buying a new TV, for example, you might do some research. You might have to bring your wife or significant other into that conversation. But when you’re buying a $75,000 widget or signing a $200,000 bill of materials, it’s a much different buying process in B2B, with a lot more decision makers who all have different interests, who all have different needs to be fulfilled in the buying process. So I think that’s the two sides of the coin in a nutshell.

Rich: That makes a lot of sense. And we talked before about the fact that sometimes consumer sales can be complex. And we were talking about the fact that finding senior living can be a very complex conversation, where getting swag for your company t-shirts obviously is a simpler decision. But in general, when we’re thinking about B2B, we are thinking about complex sales, long sales cycles, and like you said, multiple decision makers.

So if we’re marketing a B2B company, what are some of the things that you recommend we focus on?

Aaron: Yeah, it’s a great question. And I think to the framework that we use with our clients, which is the same framework I’ve used throughout my career, which is there’s a couple pieces that go into this.

One of my favorite ways to think about how do you do marketing strategy, how do you plan to do B2B marketing, is an organization formally known as Serious Decisions – now is owned by Forester – created what they call their ‘marketing plan on a page framework’. It’s a complex framework. It’s designed for enterprises. But when I work with smaller businesses, the way I distill it down is this. Your marketing plan starts with your business objectives. And I think sometimes that’s forgotten, right?

Marketing’s job isn’t just to drive sales and marketing. It’s ultimately a support function for the business. So what is the business trying to accomplish? If you map that, plus an understanding of your customers. And what I mean by that again, I think I said earlier, is not the companies you’re selling to, but the actual humans, the buyers you’re selling to. What do they need? What are their goals? What are their objectives? How can you solve them? What content do you need to create for all of that? Those two pieces, understanding your buyers, plus understanding what you’re trying to accomplish for the business with what your business does, all of that stuff. So coupled together, that really answers the question.

So I know that’s not a direct answer, but the answer is, it varies. And it should vary based on what you’re trying to do as a business and who you’re selling to.

Rich: Earlier you mentioned that there could be multiple decision makers. So I guess one question I would have is, how do we know who’s going to be involved in the decision making? And then how do we create a strategy so that we’re addressing each one of their needs?

Aaron: That’s the perfect question. So knowing for sure who’s going to be involved, it’s going to vary company to company. And you sell to a big business and there’s probably a lot more decision makers and a lot more levels of decision making. I think of my time at Wesco Distribution Fortune 500 company, and a purchase of above a certain dollar value had to go all the way up to a CFO at a company of $8,000 people. And the function I was in made those investments. So that’s interesting. So company size, all of those things go into it.

Ultimately, I think where businesses should start is, what are the handful of most important people that you expect will be part of that process? And that requires some research to understand your customers. If you don’t have that knowledge, if you’ve never sold into that segment before, that means going to their websites, figuring out who are the people in these organizations you’re trying to sell to. And you should do this even if you know your customers. What does it look like? What is the typical org structure? Who is going to play what? Who’s going to be an influencer versus who’s going to be a decision maker versus a blocker.

SaaS companies, for example, see IT as a blocker a lot. Especially marketing tech and FinTech and some of those things. It can be a blocker as an example, right? So figuring that out. And I normally recommend when you’re getting started, own a small to mid-size business and you don’t have a lot of marketing investment, you identify two to three of those ideal buyers you think will be involved in your process. And you create buyer personas.

A persona is a fictitious representation of that actual individual. And that’s what’s different from a lot of this, is you’re really trying to give a name to that person and understand what makes them tick, where they came from, and all of that kind of stuff.

And that’s the process that I normally would go through is who are those two to three most important. Do the research, understand them a little bit. See what’s publicly out there as well from a surveys and things like that, perspective reports. And then draft some buyer personas as a starting place.

Rich: Once we know who we think are going to be people involved. Maybe it’s a CFO, maybe it’s somebody lower on the totem pole, maybe it’s a frontline person as well. Do you have a singular process or are there multiple ways of going about creating the content or creating whatever we need to do to ultimately win them over, or at least start them down this customer journey? Because on the show we talk a lot about the customer journey, but really, we’re talking about a customer journey two or three, that might intertwine like a strand of DNA or something like that. So as you’re thinking about trying to reach out to these or get in front of these companies, how are you creating the content that addresses their needs?

Aaron: Yeah, that’s a really great question. And that’s really the difference in a lot of times between marketing this successful and marketing that’s not, is making sure you’re actually creating content that’s valuable.

I call that process ‘content mapping.’ So if you think of the journey that your customer overall goes through or the funnel that you want to take your customer through. Each of those buyers you want to take them through an awareness stage, where they’re aware that they have a problem. A consideration stage, that’s in the middle of your funnel, that’s where they’re considering solutions to that problem. And a decision stage, where they actually start to evaluate who they’re going to buy from, who they’re going to decide who to buy from.

One of my favorite resources that I go to time and time again to help with this process, is if you Google ‘JESS3’, it’s a big-name marketing agency who have been around for a long time. ‘JESS3 content grid’, they’ve actually created this really amazing content grid that shows you basically based on the stage of the journey and also their goals, from ‘I’m bored at work’ to ‘I’m trying to narrow down to really specific solution’, what types of content work at each. And then you can actually use that as a framework for saying, okay, at the awareness stage we think that this person is going to need some blog content. So you can build that map out.

The other thing that supplements this that I think is really important is, gosh, I see too many people that create content that doesn’t get consumed. So you want to create the content that people need, but you want to make sure there’s an SEO lens on it. The ultimate goal is that your content gets found and gets found when people go out and search on Google. And that SEO lens is really important.

So in the context of all this content, you need to use a tool like Ahrefs, Moz, SEMrush, whatever your preferred tool is. And they have free trials and free versions of all these. Go figure out what are the keywords that people would research from an SEO perspective that align to that content, and then try to make sure that your content is optimized for that.

So those are the two pieces. Again, really thinking through all the types of content on the journey you need to take them. And I like to use a guide for that, and I think that JESS3 is a really great resource for that. And then mapping that as well to what they might search for to make sure you’re supporting that.

Rich: Are there different types of content for different phases of the journey? Obviously, there are. But do you come at it like when it’s just awareness versus some different types of content that would be when somebody’s really at that decision-making point, they’re going to choose us or they’re going to choose the competitor? Do you have any strategies around that piece?

Aaron: I do. And I like this question because I think companies are either really strong at top of funnel or bottom of funnel, is often what I run into. That awareness stage they’re either really good at and not the rest, or the decision stage they’re really good at and not the rest.

I work a lot with more tech and industrial businesses, manufacturers, things like that, who often excel at the bottom of the funnel, actually. But that’s what your question is about, right? Is what’s really important at the bottom of the funnel? Eat the bottom of the funnel, yes. Talking about your products, spec sheets, data sheets, demos, whatever it might be depending on the vertical you’re in. That stuff is really important. But actually what really compels people to buy and what motivates people psychologically, is what other people have done, what other people are doing.

And that’s where I think things like case studies are something that’s really overlooked. I actually love case studies, and it’s something I push a lot of clients I work with to do early, who have that existing customer base. Because they’re great about talking about their product often in my experience, but talking about the value or, in psychology terms ‘social proof’, is really important. I think that, testimonials, showing people that your stuff works, that it’s proven, that it’s trusted, that the people rely upon it. I think coupled with your standard data sheets, feature guides, pricing guides, that’s really valuable.

The other thing I’ll mention that I think can be really powerful at this stage is calculators, widgets, ROI calculators. Buyers today are really self-serve. They really don’t like to talk to salespeople, and they don’t want to be convinced and persuaded of value. And that’s true everywhere across virtually all B2B buyers. Because we’ve gotten used to the internet and Amazon and things like that. And so any sort of widget where people can self-serve and calculate ROI, calculate potential ROI, that’s enormously valuable at that bottom of the journey as well.

Rich: So it seems like at the top of the journey and maybe the middle of the journey, we’re paying a lot of attention to SEO. Because really, we’re just trying to get in front of people. And as they move down the sales funnel, as we look at it that way, then at that point SEO, it’s not that it’s not important, but it may be a little bit less important. Because hopefully we’ve already developed that relationship with them.

And so I’m thinking about these case studies. Do you normally put them on the website, or do you put them behind some sort of maybe email registration or contact form? Is there a right or wrong way to do that?

Aaron: I have a strong opinion that you shouldn’t gate case studies, the question you’re asking, behind a forum. I think the sweet spot for gating is around the middle of the funnel. The top of the funnel awareness content. it’s not really fair to make someone give you their contact information for a blog post. And at the bottom of the funnel, this is content that’s serving your purpose. It’s not serving the buyer’s content.

So I see this a lot, the data sheets, things like that are gated. And in my mind, you’re just creating friction for the buyer. I believe that there’s two things that should drive whether or not you get content, the uniqueness of it and the valuable of it. If it’s not really unique and it’s not really valuable, if they can get it from somewhere else or it’s important but it’s more serving your purpose than theirs, those are reasons I wouldn’t gate it. So I’d be very hesitant to do that.

Because imagine that being the reason that somebody doesn’t download your case study and ends up considering a competitor instead. I get the idea. I love gating, even though it is falling out of favor in some circles. I think in the right place it’s really valuable. But only when you’ve got something that’s really going to help this person do their job and not just help this person do the research. That’s really annoying. 

Rich: We’ve talked a lot about content, SEO, and so forth. And that was more on the search standpoint. I’m wondering now when it comes to social media, that’s not a place where a lot of people think of B2B. It feels like such a B2C play instead. But obviously there’s LinkedIn, obviously there’s YouTube, and to a less degree there’s Twitter. So I’m just wondering, what role do you recommend that some of those business-friendly platforms play in the B2B process?

Aaron: I’m going to answer this a little roundabout way, but it’s a great question. I don’t think for most small to mid-size businesses that are B2B, high ticket stuff, complex buying decisions, that social media is going to be necessarily a super high ROI, clear cut ROI, especially organic social platform. But there’s a lot of data out there. There’s been a lot of research.

I think we actually talked about this when we initially talked. LinkedIn’s B2B Institute, which I’m a big fan of, has done a lot of research. And the key data point to remember is when you’re marketing to your audience, 95% of those buyers at any given time are not in market, they’re not looking to buy, only maybe 5% are. And often my experience is, those visiting your websites, an even a smaller percentage than 5%.

Your job as a marketer, I really have come to believe, is not to pull people down the funnel, like we say. It’s to keep yourself top of mind, to make sure that they are… LinkedIn’s term is ‘mentally available’. Make sure that they remember you, so when they bring themselves into market, they remember your brand and come back to you.

And so to me, that’s the value of social media and that’s the value of a lot of foundational – as one of my mentors used to call it, “table stakes” marketing things. That it’s like, hey, are you probably going to see huge ROI on LinkedIn? No. Are you going to hear anecdotal stories about how it played a role? Yeah.

I work with a professional services client who leaned into Instagram. And I actually pushed back on that a little bit, and fully on board with it. Now we’ve closed a couple of deals where they didn’t originate from Instagram, it wasn’t their first touch in marketing speak. It wasn’t their last touch before they signed up. But they’ve been told, what engaged me was your Instagram content, and I found that and it kept you top of mind. We’ve heard that a couple of times now from prospects. Is that easy to measure in any way? It’s not. But these are buyers, even more so this is a company that sells to attorneys. So you think about the complexity in that. Attorneys are like the epitome of busy. I only want to engage with you when I need you, right? Otherwise, go away, I don’t want to talk to sales.

So then your job is to keep yourself top of mind in a not annoying way. And if you can do that, when they decide they want to buy from you, then you’re top of mind. And that to me is probably the single biggest value driver that social media has. Is that opportunity to stay in front of your prospects. Will they forget about you and move on with their lives after they do a little bit of research and then six months from then come back and say, oh yeah, what was that company’s name?

Rich: Is there a strategy that you have around LinkedIn, both organic as well as the paid side?

Aaron: That’s a good question. A couple of thoughts on that. Organic LinkedIn, I think what’s really important and I actually think this is generally true as a smaller brand on social media. If you’re not Apple, if you’re not Tesla, some hip company – and there are B2B brands that are like that as well. There’s Microsoft and Apple’s kind of a B2B brand, and there’s Oracle and things like that, that people follow HubSpot for us marketers and salespeople. If you’re not one of those, people aren’t going to proactively follow you. You need to give them a reason to do it.

A lot of brands fall into the trap of only talking about their own business, and maybe having the occasional holiday message and things like that. The problem is, that’s not a reason for you to fill up my feed with your content. What is, is when you’re providing insights that are valuable to me as your buyer persona. So again, this is about understanding that persona and what content they’re interested in that goes potentially beyond your business.

Again, thinking about that legal vertical where I worked with a company that provides some really high-ticket services to attorneys. That’s pretty unique, but you can’t just talk about what we offer. You can talk about, so they’re in the tech space, what are tech trends impacting the legal industry? What are things that are happening there as a manufacturing business? Let’s say you’re serving a construction space. Just talking about what you do is not enough. What are the trends in construction? What’s happening next year? If you can provide those types of resources that interest your persona, are aligned with the type of stuff they read every day, now you can become a trusted source and earn followership.

So I think that’s overall my strategy is to balance out anything you publish on social media about yourself, promoting yourself, sharing your own content that’s educational, with other resources that your personas would find valuable in the industry. So that’s the organic side.

On the paid side, LinkedIn, any PPC strategies tends to be a little different for everyone. So I don’t have something I could say is a one size fits all strategy. I think the way I tend to think of LinkedIn as this. LinkedIn is the most expensive advertising platform of the kind of big three between Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Or at least most of the time it is. Experiment, make sure that’s true for your business. But what LinkedIn excels at is getting incredibly precise with reaching the specific buyers you want to reach. You can’t do that consistently with B2B with Google or Facebook. You can’t, because LinkedIn has data on job titles and everything else.

The flip side of that though is, there’s no intense signals really on LinkedIn. So you can’t say, hey, let’s target people who are most likely in market for a product. You can get really precise with a buyer persona you can’t get in market. That’s what Google Ads is for. Because you can say, hey, if they’re searching these keywords, they’re probably looking with a high level of intent to buy or consider buying.

So I think of LinkedIn a lot as a channel for sharing content from a pay per click perspective for driving brand visibility, brand engagement. I tend to think mostly top to middle funnel. Where LinkedIn can be valuable is retargeting those people who have engaged with your brand. That isn’t to say that it’s necessarily the best, right? But that’s where you could get bottom of funnel. But otherwise, I think really a good focus for LinkedIn tends to be what can we do at the top to mid-funnel to reach our audience.

Rich: And we touched on this briefly earlier. But once we get people to our website, whether it’s gated content or they just want to sign up for a newsletter, they’re on our email list. What are some of the tactics that B2B companies can use to really maximize your email marketing?

Aaron: So I think there’s a couple pieces to this. I think one is the list building. And I think two is, the emails that you’re sending. List building is tough, right? People are very hesitant to give out their email address, which was why I leaned so strongly into my belief about gating when you gate and when you don’t. That is transactional, right? Me giving you my email, I know what’s coming. I know that I’m getting emails from you. I might even have a sales rep reaching out to me depending on your business.

So you’ve got to give value whenever you’re trying to get people into your database, be it through gated assets that are valuable, or even the number one thing that I see on every website is ‘contact us’, which is great for capturing the bottom of funnel. The number two most common form I see on a website is ‘subscribe to our newsletter’. Normally that’s buried, just say ‘subscribe to newsletter’. And having worked a whole bunch of companies that have that, you get one submission a month maybe, and it’s a spammy Gmail.

If you can put a value proposition around that signup, give the newsletter a title, give it a compelling reason. A creative title doesn’t have to be super witty, but just something that makes it more captivating than a newsletter. Our construction pulse, right? So going back to that manufacturing example. The construction pulse, construction title, something creative. Sign up and once a month we’ll share content on the latest trends and happenings in the industry. Which I think that value proposition in doing that, is valuable.

Another just quick tip that I found really interesting as an exercise is, when you’re on a page that has a high bounce rate, a high percentage of people come to it and they leave it, or you’re looking at a page on your website like that, consider testing a pop-up on that page. The prompts people, same thing. Your newsletter, you’re a value proposition, require only an email address. Nothing else. Maybe you validate to make sure it’s a work email, because we’re talking B2B here, but that’s it. And you’ll start to see that a decent percentage of people who will leave your website will at least become in your database.

I think everything we just talked about translates into the second piece. Which is be thoughtful about your personas. What do they need? This all comes back to buyer personas. What do they need? What are their goals? How do you help them solve them? Don’t spam them. And share of content, be valuable in content.

So I remember when I was in-house at Wesco, there was a particular business that sent emails every single day that was just a promotional email. They were a B2B e-commerce business. Every single day they sent out a new promotion email to a hundred thousand contacts. They had all purchased, they had not acquired. The open rate was 2%. And when I came in, I was charged to change that. And there was so much pushback. You know what happened? We did eventually stop sending to that list every day. We moved to once every two weeks. Literally no impact on sales, literally none.

Your goal isn’t to just bombard people. That’s why spam filters exist. That’s why Google has a promotions tab that all that junk gets filtered into. Your goal is to be helpful. And if you can share content and be helpful and really align and give stuff that your personas need, that’s when you’re going to be successful with email marketing.

Rich: Awesome. Aaron, this has been a lot of great advice for the B2B marketers out there. If people want to learn more, want to learn more about you and your company, where can we send them online?

Aaron: Yeah, absolutely. So where we always start as a free assessment, right? You come to our website. We don’t know if there’s a fit. You tell us your problem, we’ll help you actually dive in. That’s a one-on-one time between us. There’s a big button right on our website at www.aspiremarketing.group. You can go there and book an assessment and learn more about us.

Rich: Awesome. Aaron, thanks so much for sharing your expertise with us today.

Aaron: Absolutely, Rich. A pleasure.

Show Notes: 

Aaron Marks and his team help to bring full spectrum marketing services to smaller B2B businesses to help fuel their growth. Check out their website to learn more, or to reach out for a free assessment.

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.