This was our first virtual event (well, other than the big weekly event that is the Rooster Punk “Cooped Inn” pub quiz!).

We were pretty excited.

It’s the first B2B marketing event my pets were welcome at, it had chat roulette, and also very high potential for digital mishaps. A heady mix.

Our own point of view (which Mr. Cash was due to present on) is that B2B marketing needs a philosophy. And this isn’t intended to be a blow-by-blow account of the event, and more of the story of what we saw and heard in terms of where B2B marketing’s soul is at.

Confronted by Covid-19 and a world in lockdown, how was our community of business marketers reacting?

Would it be a retreat into safety? Courage forgone for the fear of ‘being blamed’? Or would we see the industry defiant in the face of a global recession–wise heads not going gentle into that long night?

In a way we have seen a transformation–in previous years there was a split between those advocating ‘creativity’ and those selling Martech and focussing on specific techniques or routes to market, such as ABM. It’s a false dichotomy of course, but harks back to, and is symptomatic of the tendency we have to separate the world into ‘artists’ and ‘scientists’. Ideas and data. And yet we know the magic happens when we combine the two–as our second day’s great keynote from Dr Christine Bailey reminded us with “using data to enhance creativity and storytelling”.

This year marked a change which seemed in part to be brought about through the bridging power of storytelling. By invoking a more complex, nuanced and neuro-science based set of principles than the age-old ‘big idea’, storytelling seems to be uniting B2B marketeers–it was a key point in five of the first day’s presentations, from Tas’s event opener ‘why a story is worth a hundred slides’ to Jay Baer’s fabulous piece on building advocacy and WOM through… you guessed it, storytelling.

Why?

Well, one topic that came out on day two was that ‘brand’ has become (in the boardrooms of a world readying itself for recession) a dirty word. In this way, storytelling could be seen as a way for marketers to invest in brand by stealth. And as Field’s analysis of the IPA databank has shown, the ability for a brand to inexpensively gain higher SOV during a downturn pays huge dividends.

But it was far more than a reframing of ‘brand’–as we saw much discussion of story in the areas of lead-generation and content–most of which, as David Mcguire reminded us, we’re currently not very proud of. John Webb from the newly minted Nowse (great name BTW) reminded us that we should be thinking beyond the ‘lead’ and about really creating ongoing demand, which requires a more consistent and emotionally salient narrative than bursts of campaigns offer.

On day three we learned over half of B2B marketers have an installed ‘full’ martech stack, and the incremental gains of building a better always-on marketing engine are diminishing. And so organisations turn their attention again to the fuel that powers that engine. And because storytelling is as powerful in lead-gen as it is in building a brand, it better fits the need of sophisticated complex selling than the one-dimensional ‘big idea’ ever did.

As mentioned, the wonderful Jay Baer talked eloquently about the power story in building advocacy–reminding us of the crazy fact that despite recommendation being the biggest influence on buying, only 1% of organizations have a “word-of-mouth” programme.

But probably the most important aspect was the huge growth in the desire to emotionally connect with audiences. And critically not just the obvious prospect audiences, but with employees and advocates, with the sales team and with brands’ own boardrooms. The science of story is that it is proven to be (7x!) more memorable, meaningful and emotionally engaging when a proposition is wrapped in a story.

A scary, yet unsurprising research truth that came to light from David Mcguire was that in content marketing, B2B marketers felt that their internal reviews–the meddling of stakeholders-were the main impediment to creating quality content (other than haste!). Being able to emotionally engage and persuade internal audiences-is the first, crucial, job of storytelling.

Underpinning much of this is that marketing isn’t an end result, it’s a process. In three separate presentations–including fresh B2Bm research presented by Peter O’neill–the point was made that we tend to design content for the top and bottom of the funnel, and forget about the middle. It’s another symptom of the ‘brand’/ sales false divide. Instead we must develop narratives that are flexible and living enough to have salience through the buyer’s journey – and that’s a way to bridge the gap between marketing and sales.

That neatly takes us onto ABM – as Robert Norum urged us to think beyond SQLs and measure engagement and think about strategies with a wider perspective than the marketing lens. Indeed later we were told about the EQL (emotionally qualified lead–fascinating!). Cara O’nions opened the third day excellently by reminding us about consistency and authenticity (which came up a lot–as we were urged to be more emotional, there was the corollary warning to avoid faking it. Sally Adam even described as treachery in her great piece on the sins of content marketing). Understanding Challenger Sales/Challenge customer came up a few times –worth a read.

Our own Paul Cash had a fabulous audience for his talk which happily took a number of these themes through, espousing a new model for B2B marketers–to go past the language of product, and even the language of Customer and learn to speak the language of emotion–using stories. We need to become experts in people – and the benefits personally and organisationally are profound.

To close, the ever-positive Allister Frost urged us all to be optimistic, and to be the agents of change we wanted to see, perhaps to put in place that new philosophy Paul had talked about. Success in change demands energy–and yet we are more adaptable than we realise.

And so while key themes like ABM, Sales and marketing alignment and Storytelling came up as topics, what was at least as interesting was the tone of the event–how it felt. And we’re glad to report huge optimism–a belief that we’re well equipped for the challenges ahead, and reaching a level of new (tech and theoretical) maturity in the community that is B2B that’s both exciting and fulfilling.

And, as at the end of the day we’re all humans, that’s exactly what we need right now

James Trezona

Written by James Trezona

Resident chief punk, James has over 15 years’ experience working with leading technology and communications companies, and has been ranked 14 in The Drum’s Power 100 of the UK’s most influential marketers. Outside the coop, James can be found playing rugby. He also assists the running and fundraising of numerous charities. Follow him on Twitter: @J_Trezona

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