Temple University professor and mathematician John Allen Paulos once said, “Uncertainty is the only certainty there is.” The year 2020 taught us that difficult lesson in spades. And as we enter a new year and a new chapter, it appears 2021 is bringing its own special brand of uncertainty.

B2B companies enter the new year attempting to plan, operate, and rebuild in an uncertainty they’ve never seen before. Will the COVID-19 global pandemic exist deep into 2021 … and beyond? What is the true impact of this current economic downturn? Why are employment projections so muddled? What does demand even look like in our industry? And the biggest question of all: When will things go back to normal?

With these questions and more, the state of B2B in 2021 is like looking into a dark crystal ball. The effects of 2020 hit companies and industries differently, and recovery will vary. But no matter the company or vertical, there are some similarities we share across the marketing landscape. Focusing exclusively on B2B, here are a few predictions Spire foresees as we enter the first days of work in this challenging new world.

Quiet in Q1

In 2005, holiday travel company Sky Travel deemed the third Monday in January as Blue Monday, otherwise known as “the worst day of the year.” The somewhat-scientific calculation was based on frigid weather conditions, time since Christmas, debt level, breaking of New Year’s resolutions, and low motivation levels.

Many B2B companies are feeling similarly about the pandemic year of 2020. There is a hesitation by companies to spend too quickly in 2021, as they are still dealing with slashed budgets, headcount, and production.

The Gartner Group’s annual survey of CMOs found that 59% of CMOs predict their marketing budgets will increase in 2021, and 73% have a positive outlook for the next 18 to 24 months. But the same survey found that almost a third of respondents had marketing budgets cut by 15% or more, some entirely, in 2020. So it is unlikely that marketing will bounce back in Q1 as trade shows continue to be postponed, media dollars are frozen in hesitation, and both sales and marketing staff are reduced. But those who are able to maintain marketing communications during “the worst months of the year” will truly stand out and incent a quicker sales recovery.

Selling from Afar for Far Longer

In November, Spire provided perspective on how companies have marketed during the pandemic. Not surprising, 96% of B2B sales teams had fully or partially shifted to remote selling during the pandemic. Perhaps a bit more shocking is that only 20% of B2B buyers hope to return to in-person sales.

During a time of tightened budgets, travel restrictions, and Zoom technology, it seems that 70% to 80% of B2B decision-makers actually prefer remote human interactions or digital self-service. Going even further, 65% of B2B decision-makers say remote communications are equally or even more effective than what they were prior to the pandemic.

It seems the sales and marketing pivots made in 2020 will remain embraced for the new year. In fact, 79% of companies believe current COVID selling shifts will continue throughout 2021 and even beyond. The question is this: Is your business prepared to close the sale when you can’t be close to your customer?

Winning with Nimbleness

2020 taught us that our entire economy can quickly tilt in one direction or another because of unpredictable, and often uncontrollable, forces. B2B brands will be more agile going forward, turning on a dime when market dynamics shift, by modifying key pillars of their market positioning (but not their core values). CMOs who understand the key triggers that influence their market positioning fundamentals will be better prepared to guide their firms and react to unexpected changes.

At its core, agile marketing runs on the 80/20 rule—valuing speed to market with ongoing optimization, over waiting for an initiative to be perfect before rolling it out. And according to research from Merkle, 85% of marketers plan to increase agile usage in the next two years.

Prioritizing Human Connections Over Enterprise Connections

We became a more disconnected economy in 2020. As we continue to navigate one of the most challenging business climates in history, B2B brands will continue demonstrating a more personalized, emphatic approach to dealing with strained and overwhelmed customers. Businesses that refocus their systems, automation, and processes into fostering stronger human connections will be the ones to flourish in 2021.

A 2020 survey from Deloitte found that customers are 1.6 times more likely to purchase from brands that demonstrate humanity. And employees are 2.6 times more likely to feel motivated at work. When a brand connects on a humane, empathetic level, customers are more open to trusting its intentions and believing their needs are truly being addressed. Businesses that find ways to connect more deeply with their audiences in 2021 are going to be the ones that succeed.

Doubling Down on Post-Acquisition Marketing

For many enterprises before COVID-19, customer retention was largely viewed as a secondary metric (if measured at all) in marketing success. It certainly took a backseat to new customer acquisition. However. in tough economic times, customer retention and expansion take on increased importance in solidifying revenue stability.

According to Harvard Business Review, a 5% increase in customer retention can deliver up to 95% increase in profits. B2B marketers will significantly increase their focus on critical base accounts and account-based marketing in 2021.

Staying Connected with Content

B2B buyers are having to do more with less as a result of COVID-19. Their traditional sales channels are cut off due to budget cutbacks, canceled business trips and trade shows, and even sales furloughs. To stay at the top of their game, they are seeking relevant content more than ever. In fact, 67% of respondents said they rely even more on content than they did last year to research and inform purchase decisions, according to a recent survey of B2B buyers from DemandGen.

One way to generate content is for you and your company to speak at the many webinars, podcasts, virtual trade shows, and speaking engagements that have surfaced this year. It adds authority to your organization and keeps you in front of customers.

As you invest in content marketing, where can you best spend your limited content marketing dollars? Well, 84% of respondents have implemented email as a marketing tactic, likely due to its high ROI. And 75% of B2B marketers use social media and social media advertising as part of their overall strategy. Unsurprisingly, blogging and content marketing (69%) and SEO (60%) were also high on the list.

Content is a loyalty platform, so be sure to think about the customers’ needs, not your own. In fact, 96% of respondents in DemandGen’s Content Preferences Study said B2B vendors could improve the quality of content by curbing the sales messages. Remember, a survey from PathFactor found 92% of marketing leaders report that content plays an important part in their decision-making process. The time is now to tell your story from afar with a consistent content strategy that keeps buyers in touch with you.

While 2020 was the year we could never see coming, we can only expect that 2021 will continue to create both obstacles and opportunities in B2B. According to Deloitte, 58% of CMOs say the importance of marketing has increased during the pandemic—maybe even more important as our world moves on from it. Happy New Year. Are you ready for what’s next?

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For media inquiries: Steve Gray / Spire Agency / steve.gray@spireagency.com