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Supporting image for B2B Digital Marketing: Finding Your Audience Online  – James Soto
B2B Digital Marketing: Finding Your Audience Online – James Soto
The Agents of Change

Does your B2B pass the “marketing readiness” test? – James Soto

Why is B2B marketing important? Creating quality content allows you to establish your business’s brand and positional, as well as allows you to connect with your target audience and show your authority and credibility in your market.  But as B2B marketing expert James Soto will attest, the B2B buying cycle is much longer than it is for B2C, and customer expectation is different, so you need to make sure you’re adjusting for that throughout your process.


Rich: As founder and CEO of Industrial, one of North America’s top B2B marketing agencies, my next guest brings 17+ years of experience and perspective from working with iconic industrial brands, media, and trade organizations, to help them address the challenges they face in this new era of disruptive business models, generational change, digital marketing transformation and industry 4.0. I’m looking forward to diving into B2B marketing with James Soto. James, welcome to the show.

James: Hey, thanks for having me, Rich.

Rich: We obviously have talked once before. We did an interview with you and it was right after the twisters hit Nashville, Tennessee impacted your business. I just want to kind of check in with you. How’s everything going on the rebuilding right now?

James: Yeah, we are. We’re still going through it. But you know, for the most part we feel super fortunate and you know, we’re back to business.

Rich: That’s awesome. That’s good to hear. So I’m curious, what led you to focus on B2B companies when it comes to marketing?

James: Well, focusing on a market in any business here, you’re trying to get down to the real reason why it needs to exist and it’s to solve a problem. And so what we found on focusing on the B2B, specifically industrial sector, is that just very simply the market was underserved when it came to the role and function and execution of marketing strategy and tactics that essentially help promote build brands and  grow businesses. So just didn’t see any businesses like ours out serving the 258,000 manufacturers, distributors, industrial services companies throughout the supply chain.

Rich: Now before you started industrial, were you working in a B2B space?

James: Yeah. I’ve been in the business to business space essentially my whole career, coming out of Yukon in 92. I got with the fastest growing information company in the nineties. We were there essentially during the phase when mobile technologies were emerging from analog and the convergence of technology was starting to already happen. I think about the Radio Shack ad and 50,000 things that are all in AI phone right now. And you know, specifically the cellular industry and the convergence was there and B2B was there all along. And I had an opportunity for work for a software company along the way.

And also worked in industrial B2B and was recruited to bring on some new DNA, some new thinking, around transitioning industrial directory businesses, which were essentially search and connecting industrial buyers and suppliers – the industrial yellow pages – really with the emergence of Yahoo in 94 and Google 98. I joined that organization in 2002 and that’s what led me to meet a lot of manufacturing, industrial supply chain businesses and form Industrial Strict Marketing.

Rich: Nice. Now I always feel the obligation to say for those of you who don’t know, B2B stands for business to business, where B2C stands for business to consumer. I should have led with that. But now that I’ve explained it to the people who hadn’t heard those terms so far, James, what makes B2B marketing different than B2C marketing, in your opinion?

James: So essentially, one that makes it similar is that people market to people, right? So you really can’t differentiate on that level. But I think it’s more in terms of a scale, and really in the fact that you’re often in business to business, you’re essentially not dealing with an end user, especially in manufacturing, it could be one of the 4,000 parts going into a Nissan Sentra. But essentially what industrial – and specifically B2B really focus on – is really assisting companies and providing value to their end customers. And that’s essentially what it is on the most simple level.

Rich: So you’re focusing as much, if not more, on the end user than you are in the person you are marketing to. Is that what I’m hearing?

James: It’s really centering on the customer so that they can serve and deliver value to their customer. And so when you really look at it, B2B at the highest level, often it’s institutional buying, it’s technical buying, it’s an engineer designing a product and figuring out if they’re going to specify your component in that next run of iPhones.

B2B and industrial businesses are not trying to market and sell the iPhone. B2B and industrial companies are trying to specify the hundreds of parts and components that suppliers throughout the supply chain provide to an Apple, so to speak. And obviously companies like Tesla and Apple are going more to an integrated supply chain, but that still doesn’t mean it lacks other suppliers that provide parts components, technologies that go into the actual product itself or in the harder part, actually making the tooling and the system to make the products themselves.

A key thing that’s also different about B2B often and industrial, is that it’s not just one decision maker, you’re often dealing with the decision making unit. Often for B2B in industrial the stakes are higher. You can’t put something in a phone and make the wrong decision, you got millions of problems all throughout the world. You got to recall. So there’s a certain level of scrutiny, fiscal engineering, operations, and the stakeholders are a decision making unit you’re marketing to. So that interdependence is really key because it has to work for everyone.

Rich: James, that’s really interesting because very often we focus on what the customer journey is, but it almost sounds like there’s more than one customer here. There might be somebody in procurement, there might be an engineer involved, and then there’s also the end user as well that could be considered a customer. How do you view the customer journey when it comes to marketing in B2B?

James: I think when I think about the customer, you know, apostrophe S. I think as businesses, you have to think about it is not the customer, is that it’s their as possessive. It’s a customer’s journey, it’s theirs. And so when I really look at it is, how do you deliver value. How do you center your business on delivering that value and solving problems and providing solutions to that organization?

And so often a lot of businesses and marketers that look at the journey of the customer often look at it in a very linear way. So they think, “Hey, here’s our target customer, and we need to build awareness”.  Okay, at the ‘needs awareness phase’, what do they do? They search for a solution. So they go and search, often it’s online, and then there’s consideration comparison, and procurement, And really where I see the customer journey – and I’ve seen this backed up in things like Gartner research – they talk about the new B2B buying journey for instance, is that it is truly one decision making unit. Different people need different information at different phases.

But one of the things they show, and I believe this to be true and we see this ourselves, is that as folks are making decisions about what to buy and trying to make sense of all the information, they actually go through loops. They go back and forth and they start over again and they say, “Hey, here’s the real problem. We need this.” And they come back and ultimately figure out either how to configure the right solution with you, find a new one, and all these assumptions and dependencies are changing.

So really what you have to look at it is from a standpoint of who are the decision makers, what is the decision making process and what are the assumptions that change along the way, where maybe they have to go back in, maybe go to the top of the funnel and look for more solutions and answers. So it’s our job as essentially businesses and as marketers is to understand the business. Understand who looks at it from a fiscal, operational, even promotional standpoint, and just make sure you’re considering the overall need, the overall fit, and understand that we have to serve multiple people with multiple sets of information, potentially at multiple touch points.

And that only gets exasperated as the stakes get higher and the solutions or products that you’re selling are more complex. And so that’s essentially what we see. It’s truly multiple people and it’s kind of these loops that go kind of back and forth as people are going back and forth with their decision.

Rich: It sounds that the customer journey in B2B is less like a straight line and more like one of those Family Circus cartoons, where we had to figure out where Billy went to when he went on his little adventures. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember those, but anyway.

James: Sometimes it’s straight though. Sometimes they come in, they found you, they know what they’re meeting there, there’s that clarity of intent and purpose. So don’t get me wrong. It is often, it can be linear, but very often so, it’s true that you can’t look at it dogmatically that way. And that’s my point, depending on the type of organization, the type of decisions.

Rich: So if we’re creating content and there are multiple decision makers, should we be creating content and marketing material by starting with the boss or leader of an organization, or rather the implementers, like an IT team or both? And if it is both, is there a priority to when you’re sitting down to develop out content or marketing materials, where you want to start?

James: Yeah. So you have to consider really who’s involved. So I’ll give you an example. A lot of businesses are going through digital transformation, and they’re doing this at an enterprise level. And they’re looking for productivity efficiencies, they’re looking where technology can reduce their labor count. And I’ll say a robot can do it better, automation could do it better. So when you really look at the breadth and depth and scale – and quite frankly, organizational people, implications of technology – when you’re dealing at an enterprise level, that’s something that’s essentially changing an organization, or really positioning it for the future. You really have to start by looking at truly who are all the stakeholders.

And then on another scale, where are they in their journey. Are they a company that’s just starting out? Are they industrial age business, or old school business, or let’s say they saw a company that’s in the middle of their journey. So often you’ll find, let’s say, if it’s more of an enterprise opportunity with a bigger organization, you’re dealing with the CEO, you’re dealing with the chief technology officer. You’re dealing with the CFO who has to decide which bets they make. Well everybody asks for money and has projects, but they have to align and do that. And then when you’re looking at the folks that influence decision at the brand or the business unit level when they’re going to make some purchasing decisions or bring on partners or vendors, multiple people come in at the executive level of strategic management. They’re thinking about what business do we need to be in, what are these big things we need to do to compete and be competitive at the business unit level. The leaders are looking at what business we’re in, the business unit says, “Hey, how do we compete?” And then at the brand level of a business they’re looking at, “Okay, how do we implement that strategy?” And so from a procurement standpoint, what we look at are who comes in that journey. It’s still that decision making unit mindset.

Rich: Once we have an idea of what kind of content that people need to make a decision, where do you recommend we put it? From a digital marketing standpoint, what are the platforms or tools that you’re recommending to your clients that they focus on when they’re developing out this marketing strategy?

James: Yeah. I think we start first with what information do people need in order to do business with you and when do they need it? Who needs it, when do they need it, and what do they actually need then when you start to look at the strategy? And the narrative and the argument you’re going to make, everything should start with some level of strategy. And so I think we start there and then at the highest level, because you know, there’s five main destinations where you have most of the people’s time and attention. Social media, there’s obviously your data and email database, and there’s search and all of these channels, and industry, and trade, and mobile. There’s all these mechanisms to reach folks via media, but essentially start with who they are, what they need.

Then you can look at the mechanism that you need to reach them. On a high level, it should be the technology enables us to be so omnipresent across multiple channels, Omni channel, Omni present, if you can, and you can do more and more strategic targeting. And so the school of thought is wherever they are, whenever they’re there. And however, they may be looking right up tablet, you know, billboard you know, a laptop or, you know, a mobile device. But, but essentially that’s the challenge and mandate of, of modern business to business marketers. We have to be there whenever, wherever, however, with engaging useful and actionable content that considers who needs what and where. And that’s how you evolve. And sometimes it’s just honestly saying, “Hey, what would be the impact if we just reached out to our past customers and said, have you seen this lately?”

So again, these are all journeys and everyone’s at a different phase with a different capability to communicate in different ways. And a lot of what I’m explaining you would see in larger, better equipped organizations and clearly have internal resources helping them.

Rich: One of the things that I’ve noticed when I’ve worked with B2B companies is they often struggle to position themselves. They often don’t have a strong brand, they’ve been successful maybe despite some of their marketing shortcomings. I’m curious to know if you’ve run into similar issues with B2B companies out there, and maybe what these companies can do to overcome that lack of positioning, or that lack of clear branding about what they offer.

James: You know, I think that’s one of the biggest fundamental challenges that businesses have is a lack of clarity; who we are, where we’re going, how we’re going to get there. So before you can even think about positioning, what it really is, you have to look at who’s really responsible for this. And so I think where you ultimately have to start is with the leader and what the leader believes in. What’s the role in terms of the brand that they’re building, and is that the clarity of what that brand stands for?

So often when folks believe that they want to go about doing things like marketing and really trying to grow their brand and build their business, they realize there’s that lack of clarity. And Patrick Lencioni really speaks to organizational health. And that really starts with clarity and understanding how to ask, fundamental questions around brand. Why do we exist? What do we do? You know, things like that, what makes us different?

And so if you can get there, you can go through the process of building a brand. Because if you’re dealing and competing against thousands of companies of your type and you can’t articulate what makes your brand unique and even boil it down to one, two, three uniques, with no one owning all three. Maybe one worst case scenario, you’re going to really find it hard to be well positioned in the market and be clear of hopefully a very differentiated and on a saleable value proposition by your competitors.

You know, we really start there with the leader and getting them ready by understanding and documenting, literally get it down on one page, keep it simple, who we are, where we’re going, how we’re going to get there. What is our promise? You know, what are the core values that we live by? How would that show us evidence and the brand that people experience. And worst case scenario, we often even see companies where it’s not even a branding problem. It’s that fundamental, strategic problem that leaders have as they grow. Because every business, if you give them 50, give them 100 years, the thing that they built, their revenue on the other business, on that revenue source, ceases to exist.

Just look at IBM, look at it over and over again. So it’s not uncommon for businesses as generational technological market forces and competitive forces evolve that you have to completely reinvent your business. So where do we go in those cases? We really need to go into looking at your business model again, starting with what’s the problem in the market that you really need to solve, or the areas that you can solve for that you’re not taking advantage of. What are the customer segments that we’re going after? Then you can start to get into a value proposition, and then you can build out a business model. And I love strategizer business model, generation, stuff like that. Those are great for that.

And then you can start really getting, once that’s done and there’s clarity and your partners and all of those things that are established, then you can start really building the brand and reimagining it. And hopefully creating an organization that calls into account living by being inbounds and knowing when you’re out of bounds of those core values and things like your brand promise.

Rich: That’s very helpful. And those are some great first steps. It sounds like you’ve worked with a lot of companies in the B2B space. Once they’ve kind of identified some of these preliminary – what some people might call “101” stuff – but so many businesses don’t do this 101 stuff, how do you know if they’re ready to start marketing themselves? I know you have some sort of assessment, but what goes into that? And when do we know that we’re really ready to turn on the flood gates of marketing our business to other businesses?

James: Yeah. So what is readiness? It’s thinking you know enough, but knowing enough to know you don’t know enough. And I think for looking at the readiness question again, we believe it starts with leadership. It’s folks that are leading, building the brand, building opportunity, building pipeline, focusing on marketing and sales. You know, the innovation around the business. And what we say is, what do you actually know a lot about, maybe just some and a little about your business, what are those predictive success metrics that you need to understand? What are you tracking related to building your brand marketing or business?

So what we look at are really indicative questions that show and indicate a state of readiness, whether it’s financial and marketing and sales ops, whether it’s branding and positioning, whether that’s customer understanding of who the customer is, it’s understanding what they value and why they do business with you, why they don’t, why they push back, how do you overcome that pushback.

So we’ve put together about 40 questions asking things like; What you know, what percentage of your business comes from your largest customer? What is your customer acquisition cost? What is the lifetime value of a customer? How much business do they do with you in the first year? It’s funny, a few of those stats are just going into a standard return on investment calculation. So that’s telling me you’re not ready because you don’t even know the data that goes into it. And sometimes these are billion dollar companies we talk to and we’re a job shop, you know, and they don’t even know how to calculate return on investment. And they don’t know what are your key points, your top three points of differentiation, what are the three things that make you different?

And we often have like a sales marketing leader, an executive CFO fill this stuff out, and they’re all speaking with different voices. And so there’s clearly brand issues. There’s positioning issues, there’s customer standing issues, there’s data about their business that they don’t understand, which indicates that if you don’t know this data and use it, then your goals you’re probably setting are arbitrary.

One of the most killer stats I see is velocity. Meaning, what’s your sales velocity, how long does it take when you first get a lead – which we see as a contact – to when it ultimately becomes a customer. Some businesses sell capital equipment, some sell more transactional things, but you know, often in B2B these sales take longer. And if their velocity is six months or a year, it’s a big piece of equipment and they’re laying people off six months into their ramp up, those are things you need to know so that you can make real predictive decisions about things like where are you really in your pipeline?

So we came up with that. We graded it on a scale of and “A” in world-class and literally a “F” in failing. And we were doing it because we were just getting down to the root cause, like in your face leader, in your face marketing sales, CFO, CEO leader. If you prove you know this stuff, we did it as an interactive blind survey during two keynotes. And I think I did about 12 events that I spoke at. And we did these to get a test. And these are big industry associations down to smaller ones. And not just those, but it was also the leader summits, you know, like most of the associations have leader summits, every group, failed the 40 questions.

And as a matter of fact what we realized is, let’s just give this stuff away. These businesses need to know what they know and don’t know that will predict the success or failure of their business. And what’s transformative is that when you just take one small step and start to answer them, it creates a healthier leadership and marketing and sales organization. It starts to move companies to realize why they need to focus on positioning and branding. It helps them understand that you can’t manage what you don’t measure and that it’s not a good enough answer to say, “Hey, we can get that data”. Well, great. But if you’ve never fetched it and you’re not using it, then go do it.

And often they decide if they’re going to partner with somebody or they’re going to figure that out themselves, but regardless of the approach, they’ve got to do it or else they’re going to still have what is often a mistrust of marketing, a mistrust of sales, and lack of confidence. And that is what ultimately demonstrates the lack of readiness.

Rich: That is very helpful. James, this has been great. And I’m sure there are a lot of B2B marketers out there and businesses in general who are interested in learning more about you and what you have to offer over at Industrial. Where can people find you online?

James: Yeah. Two places, industrialstrengthmarketing.com and getmarketingready. We decided just because there’s been a lot of folks asking for it, we don’t have any weirdo hooks or anything, but basically you can take the interactive survey. And if you go to getmarketingready.com you can find it, with one caveat. If you take that thing it’s not a weapon to be used as a CEO to go to your head of sales or marketing. If you’re in marketing or sales, it’s a tool to realize most companies struggle with this and it’s to be used to have healthy conversations and in the spirit of addressing what a lot of companies share in terms of challenges. So it’s used it for good, not for evil. And if you get to those answers, you are getting to a whole different level of so many different companies that I think a lot of your listeners are trying to compete with.

Rich: Sounds good. We’ll have those links as always in the show notes. James, this has been great. Thanks so much for stopping by today.

James: It’s been my pleasure. Thanks Rich.

Show Notes:

James Soto has been in the B2B game for almost 20 years, so he understands that the main end goal is helping the end user. Check out his website to see how his businesses helps B2B marketers in the industrial space. And try taking their interactive survey to help open up a dialog in your office about addressing challenges you’re facing in this area.

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