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The 2020 pandemic is a historic dividing line. The world might be looking forward to an eventual return to ‘normal’. But we all need to get comfortable with the idea that it’s unlikely to ever quite be the same again. Our lives have changed, business has changed — sales and marketing will have to change too.
Even if lockdown ended tomorrow, significant shifts are already underway. But the simple fact that things aren’t going to go back to the way they were doesn’t mean that everything will get turned upside down. The global economic response to the crisis has, in many ways, just accelerated already-in-progress transformation.
If COVID-19 proves anything, it’s that certainty is foolish. But thinking that you can just pick up where you were in 6, 8, 10, or 12 months won't prepare you for the future that is actually around the corner. This article is about helping all of us think about different possibilities — please leave a comment below with your thoughts.
The obvious changes
Some of the changes are obvious. Across all industries, more people are working from home, and online and home delivery is skyrocketing. Many of the changes are already part of the new normal. As the world adjusts, more and more systems and institutions will adapt their business processes to take into account people's new behaviour.
One of the first changes political leaders thought to implement, some as far back as January or February 2020 was a general ban on public events. Concerts, rallies, sporting venues, movie theatres and other public gatherings were indefinitely postponed. Although our assumption is that this shift will be temporary, that might not entirely be the case.
How long do you think it will be before you are comfortable in a crowd of people? What’s more, people are already making shifts in their personal lives that are reducing the value of large public events. For example, the shift towards streaming services was already reducing cinema attendance.
The same retreat from public life will change trade shows, business conferences and industry events. These types of sales opportunities were already outdated. Realistically, particularly for software products, far more information can be absorbed on a laptop, running through a demo. Events, both commercial and recreational, will return. But they are unlikely to come back as strong as they once were.
What might be true for fun public gatherings is also true for business meetings and other communications. Again, an already-existing trend toward cheap, convenient virtual meetings has been accelerated by work-from-home and don't-go-outside policies.
Sharing information and idea generation was the most important aspect of business meetings, and getting everybody together in a conference room was traditionally just the easiest way to do this among people confined to the same office. The trend toward remote conferences was already developing for international businesses, which find it inconvenient to fly people across oceans for brief get-togethers, but affordable and accessible services such as Zoom and Skype have brought virtual meetings into the mainstream for everybody, including schoolchildren.
Remote and mobile working
The remote-access model is likely to work out for regular office workers. More and more, people who work in human resources, finance, and customer services are motivated to work from home. Simple routing systems can direct customer calls to employees' personal phones during working hours, with an equally simple login system to track their time.
Google Docs and cloud-based spreadsheet services have made sharing finance and policy documents remotely even more accessible than walking hard copies to a co-worker's desk. Again, this trend was already underway for several years. Still, the stay-home orders have created a pressing financial incentive for companies to make an adjustment that was probably inevitable.
Time and space
Space and time have always been the limitations of office work and client interactions. Face-to-face meetings, of course, have to be scheduled, and that requires pre-meeting coordination. The trope of overbooked professionals struggling to find a meeting time that's good for both of them was the subject of humour even in the 1980s, but the rise of international business — that is, business across time zones — made the issue harder to manage. In busy offices, even workers located in the same building sometimes found it hard to set aside the time they needed to meet up and talk.
Email is not a new technology, but its ability to get time-delayed messages out to large groups is just what many businesses need during the lockdown. Another seasoned technology that has found new life is cloud sharing. Even if your team is operating on a steep time delay, changes to a cloud document are immediately visible to everybody with permission to view or edit the file. Group tasks were already slowly moving into the cloud before COVID-19, but remote real-time and time-delayed communications systems such as these have the potential to dramatically reduce the overhead of keeping physical office space.
Video conferencing is good for more than just scheduling meetings between people working from home. Because of the need to build trust between marketers and their clients, it’s hard to imagine anything fully replacing face-to-face communications. But the number of face-to-face meetings may drastically reduce — being evermore replaced by video calls.
Even a modest laptop or tablet computer can support solid video conferencing software, and even a public Wi-Fi connection is usually enough to handle streaming two-way video calls. Further innovations, such as real-time file sharing through the graphic interface and the ability to sign contracts remotely, have the potential to make video streaming a permanent (and expanded) part of how business is done in the post-Corona world.
From the earliest days of the internet, retailers have been looking for ways to streamline commerce between their online storefront and customers all over the world. From the late-1990s, it became easier than ever to buy and sell online. By 2010, sites such as eBay and Amazon were mainstays of the remote consumer economy. When the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic hit, the market could hardly have been more ready to step up.
Even sectors that did most of their business face-to-face in 2019 have found themselves dealing with remote orders on a scale they hadn't planned. In a single week, restaurants across Britain went from business-as-usual to pick-up only. To stay in business at all, even upscale restaurants have found a use for Just Eat and Deliveroo.
The same kind of shift might be seen in B2B markets. Atlassian is a forerunner in creating frictionless, self-service purchase journeys for complex and expensive B2B software packages. It’s very possible that the decline of face-to-face interactions sees an explosion of accessibility when it comes to B2B services and software, enabling remote consumerism by empowering customers to make decisions on their own.
The less obvious changes
Where the economy really starts to shift is how all of these front end changes start to impact the support structures that form the true basis of the economy. We are all directly experiencing a shift towards remote workflows and online shopping — but what does this actually mean?
This section is a lot more speculative, but likely more important in the long run. Marketers who can ‘crack’ the less obvious changes are the ones who will really thrive in the years to come.
The death of global supply chains
From 1945 to the middle of the 1970s, the United States, Europe and Japan were about the only game in town for manufacturing and distribution. Starting in the ‘70s, however, global supply chains diversified. Manufacturing processes that used to have a dozen steps (most of them taking place within a few hundred miles of the end consumer) have spread out into hundreds of steps that reach around the world.
By 2015, a typical automobile assembled at the Aston Martin plant in Coventry contained rubber from Indonesia, iron from Sweden and plastic made from Canadian natural gas. The semi-finished components could easily have passed through 20 countries, each adding value and shipping the product to the next step in a tremendously complex supply chain. This allowed manufacturers to shop around for the absolute best price possible in a fully connected world.
Unfortunately, any path that a circuit board can take can also be followed by a virus. It's no coincidence that COVID-19 began in China and immediately spread to Europe and North America. These are some of the most connected economies in the world. Ever since the collapse of the Pacific Rim Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2016, every major trend has been toward collapsing global supply chains and moving manufacturing back closer to the markets where goods are sold. The global pandemic didn't start this trend, but it has accelerated it.
The risk that current events have injected into globally distributed manufacturing will act as a counterweight against the value of reduced labour costs. Although shipping restrictions will be lifted, fear that they will return will remain. It’s very likely that we see an increase in localised consolidation of supply chains across every regional market in the world.
Reduction in global interconnectedness
Global connections are strained to the breaking point, and the weaker ones have already begun to snap. In early February, the Foreign Office advised all British nationals living in China to return home, making the UK the first country to issue such a warning. By mid-March, China had responded by outright banning foreign visitors from every country.
Hand-in-hand with this political struggle is the breaking of business ties between countries. For decades, capital has flowed almost freely across borders, but the shifting patterns of business — a trend that also includes the financial markets of the City of London separating from EU borrowers — are promising to confine lending services to national markets only.
On a less formal level, the human beings who travel between countries have had to restrict their movements more than at any other time since World War II. Not only were cruise ships among the first victims of COVID-19, but now even a beach vacation in Cancun or backpacking trip around Europe are all but impossible until further notice. When businesses split along national boundaries, and even recreational travel grinds to a halt, the human connections between friends and business partners necessarily suffers.
What does this all mean for B2B sales and marketing?
One of the major challenges for B2B sales is to build trust in a world without handshakes. Meeting face-to-face may be on its way out, to be replaced with stay-at-home professionals making deals in their pyjamas, but the human need to do business with a friendly face is as strong as ever.
Even after the emergency laws have been lifted and people are free to mingle again, the cultural changes brought by COVID-19 could make people unwilling to meet in person wherever it can be avoided, and that change could be permanent. This is going to bring some serious alterations to how sales are made.
Digital-first sales strategies
The centuries-old approach of physically meeting with potential customers to start a sales relationship is probably never going to be what it once was. Instead, a new ecosystem of digital-first sales strategies seems like the most likely pattern to emerge from the pandemic era. Digital-first contacts can take many forms, which creates a rich range of options for nimble digital marketers.
A company's web presence is more important now than ever before. Expect comparatively fewer a la carte consulting and digital marketing gigs, and far more full-spectrum clients who need a total online presence for their brand.
An elevated emphasis on digital sales channels and marketing means that digital marketing agencies may also need to expand their capabilities. That means continuing to offer SEO and social media branding, but also looking to provide database architects and management services, web design and development, content creation and hosting infrastructure.
Bright signage and a good location were the keys to success for brick-and-mortar stores. In the digital-first sales and marketing world, what draws the customers' attention is content. Robust, high-quality content has been a critical part of marketing for some 15 years.But, moving forward, it really could become the deciding factor in how much attention a brand gets online. From well-written landing pages to interesting and informative blogs, bright sales copy and frequently updated product pages, first-rate content is the digital equivalent of having a store that sees a lot of foot traffic.
Segmentation is one of the key concepts of digital marketing, especially for brands counting on content to drive sales. Digital marketing offers almost unlimited scope for sales approaches, but getting results means committing to deep segmentation.
Marketers need to harness the data generated from online interactions to learn about how customers respond and use that information to personalise messaging and outreach. The same information can be partnered with content marketing to create hyper-relevant posts that add more value to specific segments of your audience.
Social media is the star of the new marketing environment. The ability of a free platform to build a brand following, instantly communicate with millions and facilitate sales is a dream for brands looking to expand without in-person contacts. LinkedIn is especially valuable for B2B marketers. Not only is it one of the very few social media services that are already profitable, but the platform also has tools that facilitate one-to-one contacts and many-to-many conclaves that create a virtual conference hall out of potentially hundreds of at-home professionals.As this trend gains ground, new core skills are bound to gain along with it. Planning and hosting webinars, for example, is likely to be as important to marketers in 2030 as reading a train schedule was to travelling salesmen in 1930.
Live chat and conversational marketing
Live chat is not just a convenience websites can offer their visitors, they're a useful sales tool for many online brands. Having a window always open that can connect casual browsers with trained customer service and sales rep is the digital equivalent of having a sales rep escort customers through the store.Ultimately, an always-open line of communication shortens the length of time between the customer's decision to buy and the act of reaching out to close the deal.
Conversational marketing is one of the biggest advantages to an online approach, and it's likely to increase in importance with more digital-oriented strategies gaining ground. Being able to handle feedback from customers, vendors and clients in something close to real-time is a powerful tool for adapting to ever-changing customer needs, especially at scale.
Free trials and freemium have been staples of SaaS marketing for years. We already mentioned the trendsetter Atlassian, but you can find successful freemium business strategies all over the place. Everyone from Slack to Salesforce uses some form of freemium to get new users onboard.
The power of demos, free trials and freemium products is the ability to break down the largest barrier to online shopping — confidence in the product. People want to try before they buy. It seems very likely that with greater emphasis placed on digital-first sales, more flexibility in trying out products will be embraced. This could even extend to things like public-cloud subscriptions, managed IT services or IT products.
Of course, in any context, a business must make sure that the cost of customer acquisition does not outstrip average lifetime customer value. But, there are plenty of interesting possibilities for making it easier to demo or try out services — even B2B services that don’t have much to do with software. For example, that might mean making it simpler to engage in short-term projects, pause contracts or start using trial periods.
Digital-first marketing relies on making the buying process easy, and allowing the customer the flexibility to try out ideas before really making a commitment. It’s hard to say what form this will take, but we believe demonstrations will come to play a larger role in the future of digital marketing.
The future isn't bleak — it's just different (and it always has been)
Nothing is ever truly ‘normal’. Change just isn’t normally demarcated so clearly. If you think about the number of economic transformations that have occurred within the last fifteen years, it’s staggering. Uber is barely ten years old, Twitter is fourteen, and smartphones are just thirteen. The term ‘SaaS’ didn’t really exist before 2005.
If there has been a single driving trend since the industrial revolution, it has been society’s struggle to adapt to constant change. As we have gotten better at it, the change has gotten faster. 2020 is your opportunity to put that skill set to the test. No matter how big of a challenge rapid transformation presents, it’s an equally large opportunity.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the source of change is a pandemic or a new type of software — your path to success requires adaptation to the new reality. In this case, a crisis outside of human control has accelerated a wide number of existing economic shifts and introduced new changes no one expected. But your path remains the same. Stay focused, think about where you add value, be flexible, and, of course, keep washing your hands.