The 2018 B2B Marketing Leaders Forum was packed with insights from all over the world. For those who couldn’t make it, or those looking to jog your memory, here our top takeaways.

With keynotes, panels, deep dives, case studies and workshops covering the latest strategies and technologies in marketing, there was a lot to take in at the B2B Marketing Leaders Forum. By day end on Wednesday, attendees were filled to the brim with fresh insights (and in my case, cronuts) about how to serve their customers and stakeholders in the least disruptive and most welcomed manner, in an age when disruption is often considered the holy grail.

To help you digest all that information, here are our favourite ideas from the event.

1. Business as usual is dangerous, and change creates opportunities

Threaded through each of the sessions was the idea that digital was presenting marketers with new challenges but also creating new opportunities. Many were looking at ways to use digital marketing in a way that measurably met business objectives. From using thought leadership on LinkedIn for social selling to configuring digital metrics that support ROI. Mark Phibbs, Cisco’s Vice President of Marketing for Asia-Pacific and Japan, said he was looking to increase his investment in digital marketing to 50% of his budget over the next year.

Of course digital marketing has been on the scene for a while now but that doesn’t mean some questions aren’t still keeping marketers up at night. Why is it that even with more data our audiences seem more elusive than ever? How should we embrace change and new technology without straying from our brand’s defining values and principles?  How do I stay relevant with the right skills without being pigeonholed? How can we make sure we are digital but still human?

However, as Mike Cameron, Group Executive of Customer and Revenue at Property Exchange Australia, explained, the seven most expensive words in business are “we have always done it this way”. When Cameron presented his case study on taking a 150 year old company on a journey of digital transformation that changed the paper-based property settlement process he showed that even traditional organisations are finding new ways to adapt to digital. Now 30% of all lodgements are done digitally through the company’s system. Julienne Harry also took on the change management project of digital transformation at Lendlease, where she had to wrangle 110 websites across multiple CMS platforms into something more beneficial to the business.

Natalie Truong, Head of B2B Marketing at Mercer, added on to these thoughts. She said change management is key to digital transformation. “You have these people in your company who have been doing things the same way for about 20 years and you have to communicate that change to them”.

On the topic of change management, Trisca Scott-Branagan, Head of Marketing, Institutional at ANZ Bank, said trying to change the way an organisation works, including how it uses technology, is hard – it leaves many with scars.

“But this is because we start in the wrong place. Too often we make change harder by starting with tools and process,” she said, and explained that if tools and processes are the main focus, the change will only have a third of the impact that it should.

Scott-Branagan made a case for a shift to an agile way of working, theorising the application of agile to marketing teams, and outlining how she’s seen it play out in practice.

2. Don’t be fools with tools

Machines are a marketer’s ally. They collect vital information and data, refine investment decisions with targeting and reduce friction in customer experience (CX).

But it would be delusional for us to frame machines or martech or even data alone as a complete solution to our marketing problems. As the quote referenced during the event from Atlassian’s Dom Price goes: “a fool with tools is still a fool. You’ve just made them more efficient.”

Machines are, after all, only as ‘intelligent’ as the people who build and use them.

Natali Talevski and Stuart Mattewman from IR, an experience management software company, highlighted how technology can obstruct marketing success as much as assist it. They shared a case study about how they simplified their martech stack so that alerts were confined to actual leads, and everything is trackable, attributable and reportable.

“Technology is not your saving grace, it is just a tool,” Talevski said.

Natalie Truong later added that rather than technology, people are her challenge – particularly finding talent capable of using her company’s martech stack well. The technology itself, for her, is almost secondary.

“There isn’t a perfect marketing stack. It’s about you. The approach that you can have is very different, even if we have the same stack,” she said.

3. “In God we trust. Everyone else needs to bring data”

Religious or otherwise, this quote from Charles Weiser, Head of Customer Experience at Optus, highlighted another theme of the event – we need to bring data if we want to be taken seriously. This is the case whether we are talking to the c-suite or sales, or looking for strategy guidance.

Most marketers will already have a wealth of customer data dancing at their fingertips. This data has the ability to prove marketing’s value. A number of speakers described a shift of perception as they moved from being derisively called the ‘colouring-in department’ to the revenue generator.

Kate Burleigh, the Country Manager for Amazon Alexa Skills echoed this sentiment. “Marketing is in the most elegant space ever – you own the data, the relationship with customers and the relationship with sales. Marketers see pockets of opportunity no on else sees,” she said. By sharing our insights across an organisation, she explained, we increase the value of those insights and our position.

But data has an additional benefit. Jason Burby, Chief Customer Success Officer at martech software company DOMO, said “data should be positioned as an enabler” that inspires creativity. What easier way to spark ideas that are tethered to your audience’s real world than by starting with insights from their world?

But data isn’t a strategy or a decision by itself. It is only of benefit if it’s translated into insights and action.

4. The customer is king

The success of marketing largely depends on how well we understand our audience. Data helps here but the best way to create understanding is to actively and intentionally listen. Many of the speakers discussed listening to your customers and improving CX.

Penny Elmslie, Director of Small Business and Head of Marketing at Xero Australia, said that to say marketing owns CX is “a small shift in language but it represents the change in thinking in what the organisation should do”. But she also admits there is “a bit of a gap between where marketing wants to be and where it actually is”.

Optus’s Charles Weiser explained how the company wanted to change from a telco to a mobile-led entertainment business, leading it to purchase the Australian broadcast rights for the English Premier League. Optus made this move because it listened to customers, observing them in their homes to realise that they used multiple devices at one time when interacting with media. Weiser advised marketers to find new ways to listen and understand your customer’s needs because “if you have the same approaches to research you will get the same result over and over”. Even if you think you know your customer, new approaches may reveal new opportunities.

It easy for B2B marketers to forget that their customers are people too. But putting that human face on our clients and accounts is critical. “Let’s not forget that we market to and engage people not companies. At the end of that call, cheque or product we have a person who feels, and feels strongly, about their job. We have to bring empathy to the job,” said Carlos Hidalgo, Founder & CEO of VisumCx.

And CX and customer-centricity go beyond service. Marketers need to offer improvement by asking how we can help customers solve their problems or overcome challenges in their everyday life? Whether customers hail from B2C or B2B, they are demanding more than ever and more connected than ever. They want the Uber experience. They’re waiting on us (or our competitors) to deliver that same frictionless, fluid experience. According to Temkin Group, 86% of customers who have a great CX are likely to repurchase versus 13% who do not have a good experience.

“Let me assure you, your customers are engaging with you well before you ever talk to them. If we don’t engage them with our brand content, the chances of us engaging with them in the buying cycle are slim,” Hidalgo said.

5. Audience-first, always

Just like marketers have to place the customer first, when producing content we have to put the audience first or risk them blocking out our efforts all together. “Why is it as marketers that we continue to produce mediocre content that interrupts and annoys audiences?” questioned Danielle Uskovic, Former Head of Digital and Social (Asia-Pacific) at Lenovo, now APAC Marketing Director for LinkedIn Sales and Marketing Solutions.

Mahlab at B2B Marketing event

Our own MD Bobbi Mahlab and Samantha Zdjelar, National Marketing Manager for Engineers Australia (EA), reinforced that we should be adding value to your audiences through content. Bobbi and Zdjelar presented a case study showing the EA’s move to a digital-first content brand. Zdjelar said the difficulty EA had was their content was not putting their audience first, speaking to a wide variety of people in the same way. “We spoke to our membership base like they were all 65-year-old white men,” she said.

To counteract this, EA let the customer shape their content strategy, rather than leading with their content type. “The customer-first mindset starts with the audience insight and it moves to the content themes. Then we focus on the type of content, whether it is a blog or a video. Too often we see the content type, not audience, leading the strategy,” Bobbi said.

6. Measure what matters

There was much discussion about how to choose metrics that focus on the business impact, avoid vanity metrics and define success upfront. For example, Bobbi explained that we know whether our content is connecting with the right people at the right place through website traffic, revenue and email subscriptions.

Natalie Truong decided to throw away marketing qualified leads (MQL) as a KPI after she was given a target of 1164 for 2017, having only achieved 270 in 2016. The numbers, she said, were “a bit hocus pocus”.

Instead of chasing that number, Truong focused on making every lead work harder, by improving the sales handover process and measuring conversion. Truong warns the approach worked with Mercer’s long sales cycle – more revenue can be gained from one conversion. It may not work in a volume business.

The point is: not everyone needs to kill MQLs. Marketing leaders should stop making it the holy grail of KPIs and choose metrics that matter.

7. B2B must recover from ‘brand detachment disorder’ to innovate

In the closing keynote, Carla Johnson diagnosed the whole room with BDD – brand detachment disorder. She defined this ‘illness’ as the tendency to dismiss the relevancy and application of great ideas because our brand or product is different.

If you’ve ever rolled your eyes at a creative marketing idea because its been created by a big-budget brand you are tired of hearing about, Johnson would diagnose you with BDD.

Tired of hearing about how excellent Richard Branson is? Sick of seeing Red Bull’s extreme sports? It may be easier to do cool ads and marketing stunts when you have a big budget or are marketing a consumer product, but B2B marketers shouldn’t tune out from the lessons we can take from these brands.

It may seem harder to make boron mining as exciting as a Super Bowl ad but a higher level of creativity and innovation involves taking the essence of a great idea, using it as inspiration and transplanting it into what you do.

Cisco’s Mark Phibbs is currently trying to humanising a brand that sells technology that can seem like a black box. “I see a lot of B2B marketing that is boring like wallpaper and social media marketing that isn’t engagement, just broadcast,” Phibbs said. “You need to cut through and, to do that, you need an emotional connection.” Cisco is using storytelling on social media to show that Cisco is only as good as the people that make it up, and creating ads with Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage to connect with their core audiences.

Kelly Watkins, Vice President of Global Marketing at Slack made a decision to look inwards in their marketing. Instead of focusing on the software’s features, Watkins turned the tables to talk about how customers use Slack.

“Tell a story about the difference you are going to make in your customers working life,” Watkins said. Slack was, after all, a source of interesting stories – it is where one of the biggest recent astrophysics discoveries happened.

So, B2B marketers, if we want to be innovative and reach our potential we need to learn lessons wherever we can. This can be comedy, journalism or any other field, and ensures we are not just repeating what everyone in our space is doing.

“You don’t need to turn the world upside down to be innovative as a marketer. Just connect the dots between what inspires us as people and what you do as a marketer,” Carla Johnson says.

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