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2021 B2B Marketing Planning In The Age Of Covid

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com. Please find it here.

Many companies seemed to fall in one of two camps when the coronavirus pandemic started: They either hunkered down, pausing all marketing activities to “wait out” lockdown or went “all in” on customer acquisition to make up for potential losses. Turns out, the “all or nothing” philosophy tends not to be successful for the long haul — and this haul has been much longer than expected. Businesses that focused instead on helping their customers and leaning into strategic marketing initiatives have typically fared much better.

So where does that leave us when it comes to marketing planning and budgeting for 2021?

Unfortunately, the old adage is spot on here: Change is the only constant. And that will continue to be true in 2021. Simply copying and pasting your 2019 or 2020 marketing calendar, and changing dates and campaign names, will be far from sufficient for the year ahead. Establishing a steady but flexible strategy, despite the chaos around us, is critical.

Budgeting Season

As marketers face the inevitable spreadsheets, board meetings and planning calls that accompany the end of the year, they’re also facing shrinking budgets and teams. But according to the American Marketing Association, certain areas of marketing budgets are growing, including:

• Digital Marketing: The AMA’s latest CMO Survey found that marketers anticipate an 8.4% rise in digital marketing spending throughout the next year.

• Customer Experience: As a percent of total marketing budgets, customer experience spending has increased 10% over the past few months — a good sign that teams are continuing to prioritize the right strategies.

• Social Media: Also, interestingly, social media spending has jumped by 74% since February, and the investment has paid off. Marketers report that social media has contributed to company performance 24% more in that timeframe — the first time in the AMA’s CMO survey history that this number has risen.

Overall, 62% of study participants report that marketing’s importance has grown during the pandemic, due to its critical role in digitally reaching customers. It’s clear that forward-thinking companies see the value of — and even increased — levels of marketing (which I covered in a recent Forbes Agency Councils piece on ways B2B companies can pivot during the pandemic).

Strategies That Always Work — Especially During a Pandemic

There are few things we know for sure in 2020, and it’s comforting to remember them. So to that end, here are several marketing strategies that worked before and during the pandemic, and most certainly will hold their weight after. In fact, the pandemic has accelerated the efficacy of each of these approaches.

1. Maintain a fierce customer focus. Most companies think they’re focusing on and marketing to their customers’ true pain points, of course, but it’s a moving target. Consumer behavior and customer priorities are shifting dramatically, and the pandemic is accelerating the change. Forrester reports that 80% or more of the sales cycle now takes place in remote or digital environments. Trust and social responsibility are more important than ever. “Brands will need to make clear commitments to causes they believe in or risk newly empowered consumers calling them out,” McKinsey explains.

2. Invest in inbound and content marketing. With the vast majority of the sales cycle happening online and the average B2B deal involving 6.8 stakeholders, according to HubSpot, enterprise sales has been turned on its head. Prospects make more decisions before reaching out to a company than ever before, and they expect your website and social channels to educate them fully. If they can’t find the information they’re looking for on your owned channels, they might just head to your competitor’s website instead.

3. Double-down on data and personalization. This doesn’t have to mean a complete, expensive overhaul of your CRM and days upon days of mapping out detailed buyer personas, but be sure to go further down this path. Start small if you need to.

4. Embed flexibility. If this year has taught us anything, it’s that agility under pressure is golden for a resilient, and even thriving, business.

Important For 2021

1. Benchmark. There were, no doubt, successes and failures in 2020 as early year pivots and reallocation of resources occurred. Be sure to take a full inventory of what worked and what didn’t and why. Audit that data, including timing, message, tactic and effectiveness. Many lessons and best practices for 2021 can be learned as you work through the good, bad and even the ugly.

2. Plan in quarters. Many companies routinely create beautiful, full-year planning calendars in November and December. 2020 has taught us that to plan too far in advance in the age of Covid is to err. Who knows whether those fall 2021 events will be in-person or virtual? Will your target audience be as receptive to emails and webinars after a couple of more quarters of digital bombardment from all sides? Plan months in advance, yes, but do it in pencil.

3. Constantly audit. This is the time to evaluate every goal, every channel, every message. Also, think big-picture: company positioning and values, competitive research, even business goals. In addition, complete a fresh audit of the media, journalist and analyst landscape in your vertical, as significant shifts have taken place throughout the past year.

4. Don’t be afraid to continue shifting budgets. Much of 2020 has been a bit of an experiment for marketing teams. Maybe you moved spending around already — away from in-person events and expensive prospect meetings, toward PPC, website and content creation. Some companies have reluctantly gone that direction, but have been hesitant to fully commit. If you’re planning in quarters, there’s little risk; consider advertorials, creative virtual events (virtual happy hours and customer appreciation gatherings, perhaps?), and strategic lead generation tools. It’s a great time to invest in intent data, ABM, SEO and other martech-powered digital initiatives.

As marketers, we talk about “grit and grace” a lot. Never has that phrase been more applicable than in 2020. We’ve been proud to help clients — and ourselves — pivot throughout the year, and now, plan for what’s sure to be a better year ahead.

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