Updated on 01/03/2023

What is B2B marketing? A return to the past

What is B2B marketing related to Inbound marketing? What is inbound marketing and why is it important? In this post, we’ll trace the origins of inbound in the B2B context.


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From the beginnings of B2B marketing to social networks

According to some interpretations, the pioneer of B2B marketing was John Wanamaker, an American entrepreneur and politician who, as early as 1899 tried to explain how the network of relationships between suppliers, retailers, and customers was a delicate balance of profit and customer satisfaction.

However, B2B marketing (which began as “industrial marketing“) was referenced in the 1920s in the works of Melvin T. Copeland (Marketing Problems, 1920 and Cases in the Industrial Marketing, 1930). This was followed up, a decade later, in academic publications by John Fredrick and Robert Elder. These early reflections focused exclusively on the economic nature of transactions and converged in an approach that was based on the homogeneity of markets, the rationality of decision-making processes, low product differentiation, and price.

The study focused on the customer’s ability to identify only the minimum requirements of the product or service: cost, quality, and delivery time. However, it almost completely neglected the analysis of behavioral patterns such as preferences, emotions, social interactions, customer loyalty, and desires.

The move to a more integrated vision of B2B marketing, which also included behavioral theories, began with the first modern attempt to explore networks and relationships in the 1940s. The first university course dedicated to B2B marketing was taught by Professor E. Raymond Corey at Harvard Business School in 1957. Since then, for the following decades and especially after digital transformation, an organic vision of B2B marketing has consolidated around the concepts of business to business networks, multi-channel, and lead generation.

The advent of inbound marketing in B2B

Around the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, promotional activities were basically always the same: telemarketing or cold-calling, email marketing, spamming, trade fairs. These were, for the most part, typical outbound marketing techniques: trade shows, seminars, or lists of names to be contacted by phone or email. Depending on the budget available, these tools could also include advertising campaigns in newspapers and magazines, billboards, radio, and television. However, it seemed that these techniques, which were effective in the 1990s, were no longer effective, not even for the B2B market, which seemed more impervious to the dramatic changes taking place.

The truth was that corporate buyers, just like consumers, were spending more and more time on Google searches, were actively participating in the blogosphere and were becoming part of the community of social network users (Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn). Their reality, as well as that of consumers, had changed radically. On the other side of the business-to-business relationship, even if to a different extent compared to the consumer dimension, there was a heightened need to reach potential customers, who were more and more elusive and increasingly immersed in the multidimensional world of the web. Over time, for many brands, inbound marketing seemed like the most effective solution because it operated in the “right” direction: it included the appropriate tools in a single system that could be used to create relevant experiences for business decision-makers, taking into account (thanks to increasingly better profiling) not only the specific needs of the organization, but also their uniqueness as individuals.

The evolution of lead generation

According to some data, 53% of marketers spend at least half of their budget on lead generation (source: brighttalk). Generating qualified leads is a constant source of concern: 61% of respondents consider it the main challenge to face.

Attention, a scarce resource in the time of social networks

With the unstoppable growth of web traffic, we have moved from a world characterised by a lack of information to one in which we are literally flooded with it. As Google CEO Eric Schmidt commented, the same amount of information that was created until 2003—5 exabytes—is now created every couple of days.

The problem is that our daily reality is marked by the unwritten rules of what social scientist Herbert Simon first called the “economy of attention,” the abundance of information corresponds to a proportional scarcity of attention. The wealth of information available, Simon wrote in 1971, means that something else consumes the attention of recipients, that transforms the purchasing process. Overwhelmed by all of this information noise, individuals increasingly adopt tools that simultaneously allow them to ignore the messages they don’t want to hear and to find the information that best meets their specific needs.

In a recent post by Italian communications consultant Anna Maria Testa, she highlights the implications that this paradigm creates for the modern communications system, from traditional mass media to digital media and therefore to the social media revolution:

“Until a few years ago, the traditional mass media competing for our leisure time and attention—content producers (both informational and that for entertainment purposes), free (e.g. private television) or pay-per-view (newspapers and periodicals, public television, cinema) all followed the same economic model. In a nutshell, the model works like this: the media offer their audiences interesting content and receive the viewers’ attention in return. This is then sold, monetizing it, to advertisers, who will do everything they can to divert some of that attention to their commercial proposals. (…) The model works, with some additional difficulty, even when it migrates to the web. But social media shatters this model. They do not produce content, but only provide the technological infrastructures that host content generated by others, over which they exercise little control. They then make this content available (always free) to the users, but in exchange they monetize both their attention and their data, which are not aggregated, but personal. And they have a much greater value for advertisers. It is an ideal universe to capture and keep the attention of huge amounts of users, and also to seize the attention of those who are very difficult to intercept without content that can be easily conveyed over mobile.”

What happens in the B2B world?

Testa’s observation is particularly valuable if we transfer it into the business context. Here, in the old pre-digital world, where information was scarce, the lead generation process consisted of a two-step process: marketing found the names of potential customers and passed them on to sales. At that point, the dynamics were clear and rather rigid: prospects expected to hear from sales and sales knew they would talk to prospects, who, in most cases, were not yet qualified, i.e. still far from making a decision. Users’ attention was not, in this case, the object of exchange between business and media but could be won thanks to a few targeted marketing actions (cold outbound tactics).

Then, everything changed. Potential customers find themselves in front of an endless landscape of information, they quickly learn how to use search engines to find information and resources. Social media and other digital channels add new possibilities of interaction and forms of participation: even before talking to the sales team of the company that has contacted you, the network allows you to read third-party reviews and to independently evaluate the features of a product or service (it is good to remember that, although the web makes a lot of content available, the quality of that content can vary).

The change in the traditional purchasing process is enormous. Corporate buyers can start forming an opinion at any point in their buyer’s journey, even before being contacted directly by the supplier. Access to information is so wide that the meeting with sales can be postponed until the potential customer feels adequately informed.

In the end, all the aspects that we have reflected on fall here, on this question: How do we capture the attention of business customers? There are two indicators that are relevant to all of the channels and phases of B2B processes: by creating a solid lead generation strategy that takes into account a context where the digital media landscape—high volume, many players—is constantly changing and by focusing on all phases in which the potential customer will be motivated, convinced, and ready to contact sales.


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