It has been said that comfort is the enemy of progress. After speaking to a few B2B sales and marketing leaders about how they’ve handled the current environment, we’re inclined to agree.
A momentary pause. A reallocation. However you couch it, spend in marketing and sales has definitely undergone a change since the first quarter. ABC Fitness Solutions, a premier provider of technology and related financial services for the health and fitness industry, was heavily investing in both people and programs prior to the onset of COVID-19. “We paused our external advertising spend for three months starting in April,” said Cristine Kao, Chief Marketing Officer for ABC Fitness Solutions. During that time, the company’s sales and marketing teams dug into getting to know their prospective buyers and have since realized they don’t need to spend as much when they find better ways to digitally personalize for specific buyer audiences. “From a digital perspective,” Kao said, “we’re spending about a third of what we were, but we are converting more because we were able to hone in on more specific messaging.”
Digital outreach dollars were borrowed from in-person programming at a number of businesses. HMS, a leading provider of technology, analytics and engagement solutions for healthcare organizations, sponsors many conferences throughout the year. “There were assumptions early on that we were going to save so much money,” said Melissa Humphrey, Vice President at HMS. But many conferences went virtual to avoid refunds. HMS decided to host its client conference virtually, too. Then came the big reveal. “We didn’t spend any less, which is mind-boggling when you think about hotel costs and airfare,” Humphrey said. “But we had to channel so much more creativity and resources into the virtual production of these events, it was a wash.”
NTT DATA had been building up its digital marketing foundation over the past few years, according to Mona Charif, the company’s Executive Vice President & Chief Marketing Officer. “We were already using email campaigns, e-books, digital display and social media advertising to reach our targets,” Charif said. “But now we’ve shifted to 100% webinars, 100% virtual events, and 100% virtual executive briefings and hospitality.”
That’s evident with the programs highlighted on the company’s events page, the most interesting of which is an on-demand Q&A with INDYCAR drivers Mario Andretti, Dario Franchitti and Felix Rosenqvist. “Our parent company is title sponsor of the NTT IndyCar Series. This year, we were unable to host clients at the INDY 500, as we’ve done in years past,” Charif said. “So we hosted a live virtual event before the race to give clients a chance to have an intimate, once-in-a-lifetime conversation with these icons.” And as impressive as that seems, Charif is most excited about the company’s shift to account-based, data-driven marketing. “We’re strategically investing in reaching more of the right targets online, where they are today,” Charif said.
In addition to persona-based marketing, ABC Fitness Solutions is hyper-focused on sales enablement. The company’s sales reps, who have traditionally relied on face-to-face meetings, have pivoted to remote selling. So the company is standing up an in-house sales enablement team, devoted to knowledge transfer and outbound contact programs. “We are taking a ‘back to the basics’ approach,” Kao said. “It’s not traditional in our industry, but it’s a foundational shift.”
Predicting the Future
By all indicators, which vary by market and industry, most sales and marketing leaders are optimistic about the future. “I think we’re already over the worst of it,” Kao said. “Our membership base is maintaining at 98% and if we continue to track and measure marketing-to-sales conversions, we’ll continue to build credibility with leadership — and that means getting to take advantage of more opportunities in the future.”
Melissa Humphrey at HMS also predicts the business is over the hump. We caught her in the middle of budget planning for 2021, so reallocation was fresh on her mind. “We’ve made progress over the past few months, but moving from traditional to digital takes time,” Humphrey said. It also takes the right marketing technology stack. “You get to a point where the missing data is holding you back, and you must invest in additional technology,” Humphrey said. “So that’s one of the bigger changes we’ll be making for 2021.”
Even companies with the right technology infrastructure are doubling down on their digital marketing investments by using untapped channels. NTT DATA, for example, is planning on using its employees to drive outreach. “We want to encourage our employees to become active brand ambassadors,” Charif said. “By providing more in-depth information on our internal channels, we can make it easier for them to share insights with clients, invite them to webinars and promote thought leadership.”
Taking into account all the feedback we’ve heard from sales and marketing leaders, the past six months could be viewed as a catalyst for positive change or at least a cup of cold water to tired eyes. But the ability to pivot successfully requires more than mindfulness. It requires quick, strategic action designed to turn your sales and marketing tactics at the speed of the market — and always toward your long-term goals. Promoting virtual events and relevant content, digitally targeting your ideal buyers, and leveraging your internal communications to positively impact external audiences were all powerful strategies before COVID-19. Perhaps the past six months — and the next six months — are a reason to go all in.