What is B2B? Just another acronym you’re going to learn in school, right? The modern business world is full of fancy acronyms from SEO to CRM. But one of the most important terms you’ll want to understand in the marketing world is ‘B2B.’ This guide explains exactly what B2B is and how you can create an effective B2B strategy for your company.
What does B2B mean?
B2B is short for ‘business-to-business’ and is a term used to describe companies whose clients are other businesses.
A few examples of B2B companies include marketing companies, accounting firms, business equipment retailers, commercial software companies and delivery couriers.
The opposite of a B2B company is a B2C company (business-to-consumer). B2C is used to describe companies that cater more to general consumers. Such companies include examples such as grocery stores, restaurants, dental practices, pet products and home services.
A brief history of B2B
Businesses have been serving other businesses for millennia. For instance, during the Roman Empire, construction companies would seek their materials from separate stonemasons and timber merchants, while merchants would rely on lenders and insurance companies to fund them.
‘B2B marketing’ is a term that was only adopted in the 1990s, although the term industrial marketing was used before this – the first journal on this subject was published in 1971. Before this, businesses would have still marketed to other businesses, but there was simply not a term for it.
B2B marketing would have begun as word-of-mouth and is likely to have been revolutionized by the printing press. Posters, pamphlets and newspaper ads were some of the main forms of B2B marketing before the advent of the internet. Nowadays, strategies such as SEO, social media marketing and content marketing are heavily used.
What makes a successful B2B company?
Successful B2B companies need to be able to win over the trust of other businesses. While a general consumer may not pay much attention to the small details making up a business, a business client is more likely to pick up on these details because they know what it takes to run a business. As a B2B company, it’s therefore important to show the utmost professionalism and to make sure that everything is conducted to a high standard.
Often successful B2B companies need to be extremely knowledgeable and they need to be able to prove this to customers. This could include hiring knowledgable salespeople, offering consultation services and creating content that helps to provide advice and support.
On top of doing their homework, innovation is important. Having a USP is important for any business that wants to stand out. Successful B2B businesses are constantly coming up with new ideas to set themselves apart and adapt to the changing business landscape. Get innovative enough and other companies may even start trying to imitate you.
Successful B2B companies are also able to keep their customers loyal by nurturing their relationships. Many treat their customers like business partners and aim to work with them, solving their unique issues. By doing this, customers may learn to see you as an acquaintance and are more likely to recommend you to others.
B2B vs B2C: How do the two differ?
B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-consumer) companies tend to rely on very different marketing strategies. What appeals to general consumers does not necessarily appeal to other businesses. Some of the differences include:
Credibility vs convenience
B2B companies get more out of establishing credibility with potential clients. After all, their clients are businesses themselves – they know what to look for in a reputable business. Establishing trusting relationships and investing in high quality content can often help when building loyal customers in this field.
While B2C companies still need to establish trust, their customers are more likely to buy products on impulse and tend to value simplicity and quick access over credibility. While a business software company might get a lot of out of a sales conference, a consumer software company is better off simply providing free trials that allow customers to get stuck in straight away.
Niche market vs open market
Businesses are much more of a niche than general consumers. As a result, marketing strategies tend to be more targeted towards certain consumers. Marketing towards individuals tends to be much more common.
B2C companies have a much wider audience to choose from. Even when marketing to specific groups, it’s often harder to pin down individual consumers to target and so more general marketing tactics tend to have a stronger impact.
Lead generation vs brand awareness
B2B companies get more out of pursuing leads than they do from brand exposure. It can be worth focusing more time on individuals that show interest and offering prompts that may lead into a sale.
B2C companies meanwhile can get more out of simply putting their brand out there. Time may be wasted chasing certain individuals – such companies are better off focusing on attracting initial leads and letting these leads commit to a sale without prompts.
Technical vs emotional language
Both B2B marketing and B2C marketing also tend to use different language styles. Clients of B2B companies tend to be more easily won over by technical lingo – to them it is a sign of expertise that helps to build trust. For instance, an office furniture retailer might use terms like ‘ergonomic’, ‘prevent RSIs’ and ‘promote posture’ when advertising comfort.
In B2C marketing campaigns, you may see less of this technical lingo and more emotional language. This helps these products to appeal to a general audience and also helps to trigger impulse purchases. A company selling home chairs and sofas for instance is more likely to use phrases like ‘kick back, ‘sink into’ and ‘relax and unwind’ when advertising comfort.
Examples of successful B2B companies
Successful B2B companies aren’t always household names like B2C companies due to being advertised largely in business spaces. However, there are some B2B companies that have become very well known, often crossing over some of their services into the B2C market.
Below are just a few successful B2B companies that you may have heard of – and some of the things that have helped them to become so successful.
FedEx is probably the world’s most renowned international courier service. It began as solely an air cargo service, helping to deliver business goods by air – it now consists of an air service, ground service, freight service and logistics service.
The success of FedEx is down to the company’s ability to constantly evolve and provide consistently high quality service. They pioneered the ability to track packages, delivering a level of transparency and convenience never experienced before. In terms of marketing, their tactics have always relied on promoting value. As Bill Razzouk, Vice President of US sales, states: ‘salespeople can avoid swamps by learning how to sell value, not price’.
IBM was founded in 1911 and has long been one of the biggest computer technology companies. In the 80s, they were a leading supplier or hardware and helped pioneer the personal computer.
Their focus has always been on providing technology for businesses – when the likes of Microsoft and Apple began taking over on the consumer and small business front, IBM turned its focus to higher-ticket commercial products like cloud technology, mainframe computers, consulting and research. Their ability to constantly shift markets in a fast-paced industry has helped them to stay successful. Similarly, their marketing strategies have constantly evolved.
Boeing is the most popular commercial aircraft manufacturer in the world. Airlines across the world currently use Boeing aircraft and have done for decades.
Part of the company’s success is down to their ability to constantly innovate with every model, as well as maintaining rigorous quality checks to keep up with ever-changing regulation. Unlike their competitor Airbus who have frequently been found to cut corners, Boeing have withheld a reputation for always adapting to tightening regulations and being transparent. Many of their customers respect their integrity and their desire to do things right.
London company WPP Plc began as a manufacturer of wire shopping baskets. They are now regarded as one of the biggest advertising companies in the world (if not the biggest marketing company), dealing with clients in industries as wide ranging as healthcare and retail.
This shift from shopping baskets to advertising happened in the 1980s is one of the most successful examples of a company totally rebranding itself. In changing their focus, WPP Plc were able to grow to an international level. They have continued to expand their vision into the 21st Century, which has aided their growth.
ArcelorMittal are the world’s largest steel and mining company. Unlike many other B2B giants, their success has not been through branching out, but by consolidating their practices – focusing in on the demand for steel until they became industry leaders.
The company’s CEO has made generous donations to education, healthcare and sports over the years. The company has meanwhile been heavily committed to helping the environment for the last two decades. This desire to put their profits into causes has played a big part in the success of their brand.
Founded in 1999, Salesforce is known for being a leading business software provider with a focus in marketing automation. Their software is used by businesses of all sizes across the world.
Salesforce have remained successful by keeping their product, marketing and sales strategies tightly aligned. Back in 1999, they also understood the importance of protecting customer data and went to great lengths to make sure that customers felt safe using their product. This was crucial in the early days of the internet when most people were still hesitant to enter their card details online. To this day, they remain a trusted and secure software provider.
Shopify is one of the world’s leading ecommerce platforms. Established in 2004, Tobias Lutke created the platform himself after being dissatisfied by existing platforms on the web.
Shopify’s ease of use remains one of its biggest pull factors. Lutke knew that it was important to create a platform that could allow business owners to easily set up a shop online without too much tech know-how. It’s one of the few examples in the B2B world where customers wanted convenience.
Zoom’s rise to success is an example of a company challenging already established competitors and beating them to the top. Video communications platforms like Skype had a huge head start against Zoom – and yet Zoom was able to become the number one video conferencing tool by making vast improvements to what was already out there and building up its reputation from there. The pandemic has only helped Zoom to grow and more companies have been switching over to it every day.
Many view Costco as a B2C company, but it is also largely a B2B company. Many of Costco’s trade members are owners of businesses – Costco realized that these types of customers could be valuable when it came to buying goods in bulk.
Costco trade members are given privileges that individual members don’t receive such as early access to stores and delivery services for products. This has helped them to build lasting relationships with their B2B customers. Having separate membership schemes for business owners and consumers also makes it possible to deploy different marketing strategies to encourage loyalty (such as having separate mailing lists).
Apple may have a strong B2C client base due to products such as the iPhone, but much of their success has also been in the B2B world. Apple computers remain favorites among designers and its app store remains a favorite store for those selling business apps.
Apple understood that when marketing to businesses, separate measures had to be taken – the company has a business team set up to talk with potential business clients and incentives focused at business owners such as discounts. They also conduct separate advertising targeted at these types of customers.
The best books on B2B marketing
Still want more information as to what is B2B? There is plenty of business literature out there focused towards business-to-business companies. Below are some of the top books for getting more advice on B2B marketing.
1. The B2B Executive Playbook – Sean Geehan
Sean Geehan’s The B2B Executive Playbook is pretty much the B2B marketing bible. The serial entrepreneur behind it wrote it out of the realization that most business/marketing books focused only on B2C companies. One of the main takeaways from this book is that your customers are your best marketing tool – by nurturing your relationships with them, you can turn them into advocates that promote your business for you.
2. The Challenger Sale – Brent Adamson & Matthew Dixon
What if traditional relationship building wasn’t the best marketing practice at all for B2B companies? Best-selling business guide, The Challenger Sale, argues just this – that sometimes it’s better to challenge the customer. At its heart, it’s still a book about building relationships – but relationships that are more personalized.
3. Unleash Possible – Samantha Stone
This book by revenue catalyst Samantha Stone is perfect for those wanting to negotiate complex selling environments (more commonly found in B2B environments). Drawing on her 20 years + of strategic planning and marketing experience, Samantha shows you not just what to do but how to do it to get the best results.
4. There is no B2B or B2C: It’s Human to Human – Bryan Cramer
Perhaps successful B2B and B2C marketing have more similarities than we think? This is the premise of Bryan Cramer’s popular book, which focuses largely on relationship building and how every marketing strategy should be aimed at humans. It’s only 68 pages, so if you don’t have the time for a long read, this is the perfect book to pick up.
5. The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing – Al Ries and Jack Trout
World-renowned marketing consultants Al Ries and Jack Trout published this book back in 1994. While parts are slightly dated as a result, the core ‘laws’ still ring true and are applicable to both B2B and B2C companies. It’s a relatively short read and written in layman’s terms making it a great starting point if you’re a new B2B company seeking out initial advice.
6. The B2B social media book – Jeffrey L Cohen
A lot of companies struggle when understanding the role of social media in business-to-business marketing. This is the perfect book for those wanting to get a deeper understanding about this particular side to B2B marketing. It’s written by an esteemed content marketing consultant and contains advice relevant to businesses of all sizes.
7. Selling to Big Companies – Jill Konrath
Selling to other small companies can be a challenge itself, but what about securing big companies as clients? Jill Konrath’s guide to Selling To Big Companies is the ideal guide for anyone wanting to get into this market. It’s written in a very straightforward tone and while some of the information is a little dated now (the book was first published in 2005) much of it is still very relevant today.
8. To Sell is Human – Daniel H Pink
This book is full of fascinating findings on the social science of sales – some of which may go against everything you thought you knew. For those experienced in marketing or for those that are just starting out, it can offer some useful food for thought on how to conduct that next sale. In fact, it’s not just selling but persuasion skills that you can learn in this book, useful in all areas of life.
9. Good to Great – Jim Collins
When it comes to taking the leap from being a ‘good’ company to a ‘great’ company, this book contains a treasure trove of tips necessary for growth – many of which are very relevant for B2B companies. Published in 2001, it’s stood the test of time well and is often regarded as a must-read business book.
10. Building a StoryBrand – Donald Miller
Building a story around your company and products can be very useful when selling them in a B2B setting. Stories can help to engage people on a human level. This book by Donald Miller outlines how you can create such a narrative as a part of your brand.
Other useful B2B sources
Beyond books, there are many other useful sources that can be worth looking into if you need advice on B2B marketing. Below are a few online sources.
Useful B2B blogs
The Drift blog offers useful marketing tips for B2B and B2C companies alike. It’s well worth reading for its insights, interviews and research.
Grow – Mark Shaefer
This blog run by Mark Shaefer offers great advice for any company wanting to grow, with many of its posts covering B2B marketing tactics. It’s been featured on many lists of the top five business blogs in the world.
Convince and Convert
Convince and Convert is a blog dedicated to content marketing strategies. It offers in-depth advice on a variety of tactics – many of which apply to B2B companies.
Marketo’s blog is teeming with marketing tips aimed exclusively at B2B companies. The company itself is known for providing world-class marketing automation software.
Hubspot Inbound Marketing Blog
For those that want the basics on what is B2B and what strategies to use, Hubspot’s Inbound Marketing blog is a must-stop location. You can find all kinds of niche tips on this site.
Useful B2B influencers to follow
If you regularly read Forbes, Inc or Entrepreneur, you may know Neil Patel – he is a regular contributor. He’s also the founder of KISSmetrics, Hello Bar and Crazy Egg. He has a lot of B2B advice to give, having offered consulting services for Viacom, HP, NBC and Amazon.
Follow at @neilpatel
CEO of StoryBrand, Donald Miller has dedicated much of his career to helping B2B businesses clarify their message and build customers. He is the author of several books and runs his own podcast.
Follow at @donaldmiller
Ann Handley is a content marketing guru – she’s a bestseller author, LinkedIn influencer and head of MarketingProfs. If you want advice on B2B marketing, she’s definitely someone to look into.
Follow at @MarketingProfs
Joel Comm is CEO of social media consulting company Infomedia and is a renowned B2B sales influencer. He’s a keynote speaker and is also known for hosting 2007 reality show ‘The Next Internet Millionaire’.
Follow at @joelcomm
Avinash Kaushik is a well known B2B consultant and is the owner of Market Motive Inc. He’s a keynote speaker, blogger and author – one of his most famous concepts is that of the ‘sales funnel’.
Follow at @avinash
How to create a B2B marketing plan
Starting to get a better idea as to what is B2B? The next step is to start putting some B2B marketing tactics into practice. Below is a brief plan on how you can start marketing.
Define your target customer
Your clients are other businesses – but exactly what type of business are they? What size of business and what type of industries are likely to be your main source of income?
Work out exactly who your target customer is so that you can focus your marketing strategy towards them.
This is where you want to start checking out blogs, listening to influencers and reading books such Building A StoryBrand. Try to familiarise yourself with B2B marketing tactics, as well developing a knowledge of your niche. Learning the lingo within your industry could be particularly important when building content that wins over customers.
Build a high quality website
Every business needs a website. For many B2B companies, websites are an important source of leads. Customers may spend a lot of time on this site trying to get an idea of how credible you are, so make sure that your website looks professional. Pay a professional web design agency to build your site and use professional images and copywriters where appropriate. Small details such as securing an SSL certificate and improving the loading speed of your site can even help to make your website more trustworthy.
Start building targeted content
You can start attracting leads to your site through content. This could include blog posts, social media content, email content, video content or even printed content ( you can flyers with QR codes to get people to your site). Make sure that this content is targeted towards your ideal customers. Content that is likely to get people’s interest includes educational and informational pieces. Think about questions that your customers are likely to have and focus on answering them – while making sure that it is relevant to your company.
Use clear calls to action
Make sure that potential customers know how to get in touch. Clear call to action buttons should be placed strategically across your site and within emails in order to get people to call you, book a consultation or schedule a demo. There may be regularly visited parts of your website where you can place these call to action buttons to maximise clicks.
Be a great story teller
Captivating stories about your brand and your products can help you to build trust and win over customers. Stories have a way of connecting to people on a human level. Whether you’re writing copy for your website or hosting a sales conference, think about how you can use the power of storytelling to win over customers.
Strive for inbound leads
By encouraging inbound leads, you can reduce marketing work for yourself. These are leads that come directly to you as opposed to having to reach out to potential customers. A few marketing tactics that can help to build inbound leads include SEO and generation of interesting content.
Analytics are a great tool for understanding how well your marketing is going. Whether you’re determining the sources of web traffic, measuring the success of an email marketing campaign or trying to build effective PPC ads, the use of analytics can help you to determine what is working well and what isnt working well through the collection of hard data. This allows you to fine-tune your marketing strategy.
Avoid pushy sales tactics
Nobody likes a pushy salesman. Make sure that you’re employing salespeople that work creatively to solve the individual needs of leads. We’re more willing to trust people when we know that they’re legitimately trying to help use – the best salespeople are also great consultants.
Encourage customers to become advocates
Your most loyal and happy customers can be your best marketing resource. In fact, they can help do your marketing for you. Many of us still choose a company to use based on the recommendations of others. Your customers can be encouraged to leave reviews, shout about you on social media and even recommend new direct customers in exchange for rewards such as discounts, freebies or even cash rewards.