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Evolution of b2b digital PR

Gone are the days when business-to-business (b2b) PROs could point to a couple of posts on Twitter or writing a few blogs as their digital strategy. According to Circle Research four in five marketing teams now post on social media. B2b digital marketing has grown up hugely over the last few years, but the reality is more need to be done to help b2b practitioners fully understand the conversation around them.

Let’s start off with the positives. B2b has evolved in a number of ways in the last few years:

Digital is being integrated in daily activity

Once the outsiders in the b2b PR conversation, digital marketing is no longer a niche channel. Many PR agencies that created separate digital teams are beginning to integrate digital skills within all teams. As Yvonne Genovese, group vice president at research firm Gartner puts it. “Marketers no longer make a clear distinction between offline and online marketing disciplines. As customers opt for digitally led experiences, digital marketing stops being a discrete discipline and instead becomes the context for all marketing.” The challenge for b2b companies now is bringing all the different elements of a diverse digital mix to work together instead of working on just their part of a campaign. That means the web design team talking to SEO experts or mobile experts so strategy is more joined up to cater for all points of the customer journey.

Social usage increasing throughout the sales cycle

Part of the evolving role for a digital head of b2b PR has been the increasing importance of key social media networks in driving leads and lead nurturing in the purchase cycle for clients. The b2b buying cycle isn’t about walking into a shop or going online and deciding “I want that”. It’s much longer and tends to involve a lot more people than business to consumer (b2c) – especially for major purchases. In fact, no less than technology and services company Aberdeen Group estimates that on average there will be 10 marketing-driven ‘touches’ that progress a lead from awareness to purchase. And research from search-engine giant Google shows that not all these decision-makers are senior. It’s true that 64% of the C-suite have final sign off, but so do a quarter (24%) of the non-C-suite. Non-C-level people have influence too; 81% of non-C-suiters have a say in purchase decisions. 

It means that digital PR heads are grappling with delivering consistent social content to a number of audiences and on a lot more social channels – not just LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube, but traditional b2c channels like Facebook and Instagram. And a lot of that is visual content like infographics, images and video which is more time-consuming to produce. Much of this content is often still used in the awareness stage, but is increasingly used further down the sales cycle to trap soft leads through gated content and then to nurture prospects through the sales process. A real change for an industry whose bread and butter used to be coverage.

Mobile matters for b2b

It’s a common misconception that mobile doesn’t matter for b2b. It does. According to Google, 42% of people use a mobile device during the b2b research process – whether that’s a smartphone, tablet or something in between. Among these users, there’s been a 91% growth in use over the past two years throughout the sales cycle. If we understand that influencers in the purchase cycle aren’t just senior decision-makers and millennials too, then it’s easy to see why increasingly b2b campaigns are becoming mobile-optimised.

Pay per click has become a PR’s friend

There was a time when b2b PR and its marketing cousins hardly ever crossed paths. Digital b2b PR was all about blogger relations and pushing content out through media publications. Whilst the most trusted sources of information remain the online versions of traditional media outlets, print and trade shows, targeted pay per click (PPC) offers new ways to reach target audiences.

Today, the sophistication of PPC advertising to target the right people with the right content means it’s entirely possible to bypass media outlets. A shrinking number of media outlets and sheer competition for eyeballs means that b2b PROs increasingly look to PPC advertising to aid discovery of content. Native advertising such a LinkedIn’s sponsored updates or Twitter’s promoted tweets as well as sponsored articles mean that b2b PPC advertising budgets have become a key part of the PRO’s armoury and PROs need to know the difference between their CPC and CTR.

The rise of the marketing automation machines

Enterprise b2b practitioners – especially in larger companies – are turning to marketing automation software like Hubspot, Marketo and Pardot to manage the sheer number of customer interactions. According to Emailmonday “The Ultimate Marketing Automation stats”, more than half of b2b companies (55%) have adopted automation technology. Marketing automation software aims to automate repetitive tasks such as marketing emails and social media. Again, the real goal is lead nurturing through the sales cycle. Marketing automation offers the ability score leads and to link content to CRMs to achieve the holy grail of linking PR content to sales leads. .

Metrics mayhem

Pointing to a double-page spread in “no one reads it quarterly” isn’t proof of PR success. With more people involved in the PR buying process and the ability of digital to track content success, there rightly comes more scrutiny on ROI. More b2b PROs have caught up with their b2c counterparts and are following what the industry refers to as the Barcelona Principles – a set of seven voluntary guidelines established to measure the efficacy of PR campaigns. Essentially these (loosely) talk about things like focusing on outcomes rather than outputs, measuring impact of campaigns on organisational performance and the importance of social media measurement. You’re just as likely to see b2b PROs measuring hits to their website, goal conversions, social engagement or digital share of voice as they are to report coverage numbers these days. The irony is that some people got into PR because they didn’t “do numbers” yet the job is increasing about metrics.    

Going Live!

The emergence of live streaming technology like Periscope and Facebook Live is changing the way b2b brands use video to interact with customers and employees. For example GE used Periscope-enabled drones to give tours insight its facilities as part of #Droneweek. Expect to see lots more content from brands including behind the scenes access, Q&As, customer testimonials and product demos as brands and their leaders look to engage more interactively with audiences.

Whilst b2b PR has moved on, my main gripe is that b2b conversation and influencer monitoring really lacks the nuance of b2c monitoring and hasn’t evolved nearly enough.

Conversations are hard to listen to

The industry struggles in understanding online b2b conversations around brands and their hot topics on key platforms like LinkedIn. Social media monitoring tools like Hootsuite and Sysomos are undoubtedly great for picking up public b2c conversations about products and hot topics on open platforms like Twitter. Where these tools fall down is where PROs have to monitor more niche conversations that are behind a paywall or where the social networks restrict access. LinkedIn isn’t the be-all and end-all for b2b brands, but it has around 433m members and in North America alone, 94% of b2b marketers use LinkedIn to distribute content. Yet, it restricts API access and it’s difficult to get data around keyword discussions in groups or from public posts. It means listening remains a largely manual process and that’s a huge gap in information.

No one is arguing that private conversations shouldn’t remain private, but the lack of transparency only gives b2b PROs part of the conversation. That makes it harder to create relevant content for their audiences.

Social-media monitoring tools argue that platforms like LinkedIn have closed off access and there is nothing they can do, but surely there is a deal to be had with paywall publishers and the boards at LinkedIn and Microsoft? Yes I get that LinkedIn see the value in owning the data including selling it through tools like LinkedIn Sales Navigator and LinkedIn Pulse. And yes, you can get some analytics if you manage a LinkedIn company page. But surely, it’s not difficult for LinkedIn to help organisations and members understand the broad topics people are discussing and are interested in?

For example, why not open up topic data for public posts in the way that Facebook does? It would still protect anonymity and go some way to open up access to conversations to make marketing content more relevant for people and more effective for marketers. It might even mean that LinkedIn’s engagement rates – which are among the lowest among social networks – would increase if it opened up a bit more. Certainly users of Microsoft’s Dynamics CRM and LinkedIn advertising would gain from that level of insight.

The world of b2b PR has changed hugely, but it needs to keep evolving.

Article written by Errol Jayawardene, creative and digital director at PR agency Red Lorry Yellow Lorry

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