How to Improve Your B2B Digital Engagement Strategy
In this Forbes Tech Council article, Kaon President and CEO Gavin Finn presents the impact COVID-19 has had on the B2B landscape, specifically regarding the difficulties some companies faced accommodating the shift away from in-person meetings and maintaining customer engagement in a digital-first environment.
Companies have been dealing with pandemic setbacks in the wrong ways -- to the detriment of their customers. Finn cites a multitude of common mistakes businesses and CEOs have made in their efforts to compensate for the inability to meet with buyers and demonstrate products in-person. Likewise, he stresses the importance of reinventing how a B2B digital customer engagement strategy is approached. To this end:
“What companies now need is a customer digital engagement strategy — one that is accessible to all of the different customer-facing functional areas throughout the company. The value of a strategy provides the guiding principles and the context around which each solution is conceived and created.”
COVID-19 Transformed the Marketing Ps to Es
The “4 P’s of Marketing” concept feels almost as old as marketing itself, harkening back to a simpler time when chalkboards were a marketing professor’s primary communication tool and virtual classrooms sounded like an impossibility. The world – at large as well as from a marketing standpoint – has changed. After undergoing a seismic shift that propelled both buyers and sellers to a digital-first world, marketers have instead adopted the four E’s, an updated mnemonic device that encapsulates how brands need to approach marketing from this point on.
In the post-COVID era of marketing, the passive components highlighted in the four P’s (product, price, promotion, and place) are no longer sufficient. Instead, the four E’s provide a proactive approach that puts the customer at the center of marketing and sales engagements.
“E” is for Experience + Engagement
With access to social media sites and 24-hour news via our computers, phones, and tablets plus the distractions of working from home, it’s no surprise that professionals only give 23% of their attention during online conference and video calls. As virtual and hybrid meetings and events are quickly becoming the norm, companies need to find ways to engage prospects online more effectively.
Now more than ever marketers are competing for the full attention of their customers. If marketers and sales teams want their products/solutions to be differentiated and be memorable during virtual events, they need to create emotional and cognitive connections. No one can be reasonably expected to simply absorb a list of product features and make a buying decision based on a comparison matrix; they need a more connective experience.
For some time now, the trend has been to recognize that more and more consumers no longer buy just products – they buy an experience. Starbucks Coffee stores, for example, are all about the experience. The customer experience starts well before they taste the coffee - starting with the welcoming scent of coffee beans as they walk in, the specifically selected colors and textures of the store, the friendliness of the baristas as they pen names on cups, and the curated playlist of the best coffeehouse tunes. Starbucks is the most successful coffeehouse chain in the world because of the consistent experience it creates for its customers.
In the B2B world, this same concept can be applied to the buying experience. Sales and marketing teams need to deliver to decision-makers a comprehensive, consistent, and elevated experience well beyond the focus of the product that they are buying. The most effective way to start that experience is to put the customer in the “driver’s seat” - letting them control the pace and direction of the experience so that they can discover the company’s unique value differentiation for themselves. Research has shown that this customer’s “self-discovery” is a more impactful way of learning and understanding. Focusing on delivering this experience will allow the company to stand out in even the most competitive market.
“E” is also for Exchange of Value
While price will always be a factor, it shouldn’t be the deciding factor when it comes to buying complex solutions. When prospects don’t understand the value of a feature, product, or solution, they commoditize the solution into dimensions that they do understand - the most common of which is price. This is a challenge for B2B companies in two ways: First, no global solutions providers want to be in competitive situations where the only perceived difference is price because that leads to both profit margin erosion and market perception erosion The second, reason is that companies invest enormous budgets in R&D to create differentiated features and products, and if the market does not understand the differentiated benefits of these innovations, then these companies experience a much lower Return on Invested Capital, further reducing their financial performance.
The goal is to be able to charge higher prices because the customers understand the unique benefits of the solution and are willing to pay for these benefits to achieve the value that these solutions deliver. As such, companies must first become experts at highlighting their unique solution-based value to customers and prospects, and how they can create value across an entire organization and even for the clients’ customers. This value-first approach leads to a customer mindset transition from price-based decisions to that of a mutual exchange of value.
In this sustained digital-first world, CEOs are looking to their visionary B2B marketing leaders to provide long-term impact strategies that offer agility, efficiencies, and increased enterprise revenue. The most effective way to accomplish this is to first help customers understand the value that the company delivers.
Customers now have more options than ever before when it comes to researching and exploring potential solutions. In the past, in-person sales meetings, briefing center visits, and trade shows were the primary venues where customers could fulfill their information-gathering needs and explore solutions. In the past decade, prospects have shifted to web-based research before agreeing to in-person meetings. Now, due to the COVID-19 lockdowns, customers expect to be able to have all of their interactions remotely, even when talking to company representatives.
On the heels of the pandemic, most large organizations are still struggling with disruptions in sales and marketing, finding it almost impossible to systematically modify their previous approach to engaging with customers and prospects in a digital-first world. According to Forbes, more than 75% of B2B buyers and sellers say they now prefer digital self-serve and remote human engagement over face-to-face interactions. Instead of trying to get customers off their phones and tablets and forcing them to pay attention to you, engage them on the devices that they’re already on and use that versatility to your advantage.
Delivering engaging and immersive experiences for prospects and customers is now imperative, and these experiences need to be available everywhere the customers are, at every stage of their problem-solving journey.
As Well As Evangelism
“People buy from people,” is a well-known adage. The corollary to this is that “people listen to, and trust people they know” and are more likely to be influenced by their trusted community than by what a company representative tells them. We want our customers to be the ones who tell the market about the value of our solutions because they believe in that value and how it has transformed their worlds. We need to transition from “word of mouth” to evangelism - conveying not just a review or an endorsement but a “transfer of enthusiasm” based on shared beliefs.
If customers believe in the value of a product and a company, they will proactively discuss it with friends, colleagues, and industry associates. To truly create a brand evangelist, you must align with the identity and motivations of each customer. People yearn to associate with brands that reflect their missions and values. Buyers don’t only buy just to increase revenue or reduce expenses; they invest in order to better achieve the brand’s mission. While customers’ goals appear to be measured in dollars, buyers also consider how partners can help them accomplish their missionswhile following their core values. Once you have helped them uncover solutions to their unique challenges, they will enthusiastically share their insight with other like-minded organizations on your behalf.
This substantially more proactive approach to sales and marketing is not a distant future but is happening right now. Marketing textbooks and playbooks will need updating in 2021 to prepare the next generation of marketers for the post-COVID world. In the meantime, get ahead of the game; stop talking about and living with the outdated “P’s” and join the “E”volution of marketing and sales.
How to Measure Digital Engagement
Marketers have been collecting data on their digital marketing initiatives ever since the web became a mainstream marketing platform. The vast majority of this kind of “analytics” relates to user actions and behavior (i.e. “What path did a specific user take on my website,” or “What are the most commonly clicked links on this page?”, etc.). When marketing applications became more ubiquitous, these same kinds of data collection principles were similarly used in an attempt to measure the effectiveness of these applications.
Particularly for marketing apps (be they web apps or native apps on desktop or mobile devices) the key question marketers should be asking about their apps is: “Are my users engaged?” What insightful marketers recently have learned is that just looking at clicks and time-on-page is not sufficient to develop an understanding of the user’s intent, and neither are these kinds of declarative metrics reliable indications or predictors of future behavior.
What is digital customer engagement?
“Engagement” is a metric that some marketers have started to use in the context of web analytics. If we look at the definition of engagement in Google Analytics documentation, they define it as:
Any user interaction with your site or app.
This is a peculiar choice, which doesn't jibe with what people generally mean by the word engagement. The dictionary definition of the word engage is a useful reference:
Occupy, attract, or involve (someone's interest or attention).
Why the disconnect between the analytics definition and the dictionary definition? Because analytics software is limited to the range of data that was collected, and web analytics typically only counts “hits” on pages or clicks. This limitation has repercussions that turn a lot of web analytics metrics into a wasteland of misleading, useless data.
For example, suppose your prospect searches for information about your product. They click through the search link and end up on a product page. Your product page is well-designed, and the user spends several minutes reading about your product. They then close that browser window. This was an “engagement” lasting several minutes. However, web analytics saw only one hit and then nothing else. As far as web analytics are concerned, it could easily be counted as a zero-interaction “bounce.”
The opposite also happens. Suppose your prospect starts on your website. They browse to a page about a product and get distracted by a Facebook notification on their phone. A few minutes later, they return to your product page in their browser, decide they clicked on the wrong product, and navigate to your home page. Web analytics software will report a several-minute engagement, while there was no engagement at all on the part of the user.
How do you measure digital engagement?
Instead of accepting this status quo, what if we designed a strategy measuring digital engagement by making the app itself an active participant in the analysis? How different would the results be?
Let’s start with these basic digital engagement definitions:
#1 - A session is a series of interactions between the user and the application.
#2 - A single session can span multiple short bursts of activity.
#3 - Multi-tasking is a reality, and apps going in and out of the foreground only marks a session boundary if that the idle time is large (say, for example, a half-hour).
#4 - Idle time should be disregarded. The app can monitor input like mouse-cursor motion, scrolling and clicks/taps to determine whether the app is idle.
#5 - Sessions could happen online or offline. In the offline case, data should be collected and accurately reported at a later time when the app is used online.
If we use these definitions/rules, both the examples above would much better answer the question: “Is my user engaged?” In the first case (reading everything on a single page), the session would last several minutes. In the second case (the Facebook distraction), after subtracting out idle time, the session only would last a few seconds.
Google Analytics vs. Actual Engagement
When you compare traditional web analytics to analytics collected using these specifications, the difference is striking. Looking at two weeks of data from one of Kaon Interactive’s marketing and sales applications that gathers analytics both in Google Analytics and using this new method, Google Analytics reports 3,163 sessions:
When, in fact there were 4,926 sessions (55% more than Google Analytics reported!) with a completely different distribution:
Why do they look so different, if they were analyzing the same user sessions? The difference in the distribution of engagement durations is easily explained. This app is highly engaging (it consists mostly of 3D, interactive, product tours). Users can spend many minutes exploring products and features without changing pages, and, so, they get bucketed as one-hit “bounces,” despite being minutes-long engagements.
The difference in the count of sessions is harder to explain, since Google Analytics uses the same “half-hour idle” rule we used here. The most likely explanation is that Google Analytics doesn’t include some of the sessions that only visited a single page. Another possibility is that the web analytics stores a statistical model of sessions, not the individual sessions at all – and then attempts to reconstruct/estimate raw numbers from those models. That’s not a problem when you are looking at trends, since, over time, the models will tend to have similar error. But, it can be confusing and significantly misleading if you are trying to use this “web analytics” data to make marketing decisions (such as understanding conversions to sales or campaign clicks to attribute sales/revenue to particular marketing initiatives/tools).
This particular app is deployed a variety of ways, which leads to different engagement distributions (colors indicate different device types):
About half the usage of this app is on the company’s website, with individual 3D, interactive, product tours available either on the main product page or on a dedicated 3D product sub-page. A quarter of the views are from people going to a direct link (possibly from the corporate site or shared directly). The last quarter are from the sales team that have this app installed on their phones, tablets and computers. Understanding the engagement profile of the sales team separately from understanding customer or prospect engagement is critical for developing accurate and meaningful marketing insights.
In the case of web embedding, the user is not as likely to be there just to see the specific app content, which explains the bias in the distribution toward slightly lower levels of engagement. It is noteworthy that, even in this case, there are significant proportions of sessions lasting more than three minutes. (For comparison purposes, industry averages for time-on-page range from 40 seconds to two minutes.) Keep in mind that idle time is subtracted out, so this is only counting time interacting with the app content.
It is possible to record events other than page views to web analytics software. This might make web analytics software better able to capture true engagement, since a user of a modern website could be interacting quite a bit without changing pages. For example, another Kaon-developed app fits that profile. Although the user never changes “pages,” we record events each time they click to learn more about a particular part of the solution story being told.
For a single period in this app, Google Analytics reported 31 sessions:
This closely matches the 29 sessions counted by our analytics (the difference could be explained by slightly different definition of when a “day” starts). However, the distribution reported by Google Analytics still shows considerable error. Here is the actual distribution of session engagement:
The difference between these distributions demonstrates flaws in traditional web analytics engagement measures, even though the pages are highly instrumented. Web analytics overstates the number of short sessions, because a user might be engaged (scrolling or moving the mouse) without clicking on anything. It also overstates the number of long sessions because it fails to subtract out idle time. App and website users multitask constantly, and marketers are kidding themselves if they believe “time-on-page” is anything like a measure of actual engagement.
To clearly illustrate the discrepancies in Google Analytics, we looked at a large-scale virtual event hosted by one of our customers using a custom-built interactive application in both Google Analytics and the application's back-end insights portal.
Generally, you can see that Google overestimated the number of attendees but underestimated their true engagement -- especially in that critical 3-5-minute engagement time range.
Metrics for digital customer engagement
Of course, we aren't measuring digital engagement for its own sake. We want to know engagement because we believe that it predicts other things. In an app, engagement should predict specific marketing value propositions, such as understanding competitive differentiation, customer satisfaction, or long-term value of the app in helping to solve problems or illustrate solutions. On an e-commerce website, engagement should predict conversion outcomes. Since web analytics software is unable to accurately report customer engagement, marketers would be wise to stop looking at the reported digital engagement metrics and find other ways to measure the effectiveness of the app or website in meeting its goals.
The other alternative is to do what Kaon has done and add active digital engagement metrics to the app or website and develop a scalable back-end system to store and report this data. If the past is any indication, it is unlikely that web analytics providers will add true engagement measurement to their platforms any time soon.
By Joshua Smith, CTO & Co-Founder, Kaon Interactive
Why B2B Needs A Digital-First Marketing and Sales Strategy
There’s a saying that the definition of sales is “the transfer of enthusiasm.” This is the driving force behind why – up until now – pivotal B2B sales meetings predominantly take place in-person and not in virtual meetings or over the phone. As the world has become more complex, and with the increasing pace of change, however, it has become more challenging for sales people to ensure that these meetings are effective. In fact, according to SiriusDecisions research, the primary reason why B2B companies lose deals that they should win is that sales teams are unable to consistently articulate the relevant differentiated value of their complex solutions.
Now, imagine the increased difficulty that companies are encountering with the recent elimination of face-to-face sales meetings and events, leaving only online conferencing tools. Without the ability to connect on a personal level, and with only the use of admittedly boring slide presentations as their primary communications tool, achieving that “transfer of enthusiasm” has become exponentially more difficult.
Accelerated by the COVID-19 lockdowns, sales representatives have been realizing for some time now that they can no longer rely on simply discussing their products’ features in order to convey competitive differentiation. Nor can they rely on their personal relationship-building skills to transfer the kind of enthusiasm that connects with decision-makers. A true transformation in sales and marketing is now required. Rather than “presenting” to prospects and customers, sales and marketing teams are compelled to engage their audience directly. This transformation is extremely challenging for many companies, because it involves both a behavior change (give the customer control, rather than to always be presenting) and a technology upgrade (slides and videos are no longer sufficient – interactive applications are required).
Having worked with Fortune 1000 companies across the globe on transforming their digital-first marketing and sales strategies, I’ve collected key takeaways from some of the world’s top executives on how this digital interactive strategy helped their sales and marketing teams better demonstrate value and convert conversations into sales.
One of the key insights from these global companies is that just focusing on the mechanics of running the virtual sales or marketing meeting as a digital version of an in-person meeting is insufficient and ineffective. It’s imperative to focus on the attendee/customer experience. Virtual meeting attendees are only paying attention 23% of the time (the remainder of which is spent emailing, surfing the web, checking their phones, etc.). The most effective way to engage customers is to involve them - let them control the digital experience. Putting them in the driver’s seat ensures that they keep their focus on the story that they are revealing to clearly understand how your company’s unique value proposition will help THEM overcome THEIR business challenges.
When asked how adopting a digital-first marketing and sales customer engagement strategy helped them quickly and effectively adapt to a remote sales and marketing model -- and move from vendor to strategic collaborator – these executives shared the following learnings:
Ricoh USA: Mike Herold, Director Global Marketing, Production Inkjet Technologies; and Roger Serette, Executive Briefing Center Director
When working at home isn’t a choice, staying productive, secure, and focused is of critical importance. Our interactive solutions have helped us engage and educate buyers virtually, tell our value story better, communicate technology differentiators, and uncover new opportunities. The agility of the platform has given us a competitive advantage and helped our sellers pivot quickly to a digital-first world. We use this for our service organization, our marketing organization, our customers use it to communicate to THEIR customers. Our entire organization can now have a 9.5-ton printing press sitting in their office and interact with it [virtually, with augmented reality]. It solved a transformative problem and that is how we get our entire organization to engage with a product that they may never be able to physically stand in front of.
FÖRCH: Alexander Emmert, Business Unit Manager Digital Business International
We used to follow standard industry practice in manually developing specifications and proposals to design systems configured within our customers’ environments. Today, we have automated much of that process, improving the customer’s solutions and dramatically reducing the sales cycle and customer lead time. The system automatically creates consistent visuals to represent a common and correct understanding between the customer, sales, our inventory system, all the way through delivery and installation. The pandemic has highlighted the value of this digital strategy, because the efficiencies and interactive nature of this application have brilliantly transformed our sellers’ ability to effectively engage customers and communicate complex product offerings. It is a game changer.
NetApp: Lee Howard, Director, GSI Solutions Engineering
When we looked at reevaluating how we would go to market, we knew we had to have some sort of digital expression... not only for the physical hardware; our innovation cadence was really focused around quality of life improvement. How do you change what you’ve always done, how do you disrupt that muscle memory? We have to get out of talking and deriving value from speeds and feeds and getting into telling stories and articulating business outcomes, and, in order to do that, you have to have a different avenue in which you communicate. This digital interactive platform is key in that transformation.
Juniper Networks: Sally Bament, VP of Marketing
We can reach customers that we may not have been able to reach in just the physical, in-person events. This platform gives us a content hub that we can continually refresh and send our customers back to.
Regardless of how the business environment evolves in the future, remote/virtual meetings and events will be a major part of how business is done. In order to transfer enthusiasm in a virtual environment, B2B marketers and sales professionals must raise the bar to create engaging experiences that evoke emotion, are multi-sensory, and reveal relevant and useful information. A long-term digital-first marketing and sales customer engagement approach can change the competitive dynamics forever, leading to more sales and longer-term profitable business relationships.
By Gavin Finn, President & CEO, Kaon Interactive