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Top of B2B Marketing’s most recent trend tracker was a curious little phrase: growth marketing.

Both agencies and clients put it as the top trend for 2021. But what does it actually mean?

The consensus across the Googlesphere is that growth marketing is a development of growth hacking, focusing on rapid micro-experimentation rather than the traditional model of big campaigns. It is data-driven, looks at the whole customer lifecycle, and is strongly associated with startups.

But in its survey, B2B Marketing defines it more broadly as “strategies that enable marketing to be the engine room for growth for the business”. They focus on accountability. Marketing is not just about campaigns but is defined by the outcomes – i.e. growth – it can create.

In this case, I’m siding with B2B Marketing.

There is a lot to be said for adopting a more test-learn-adapt mindset. Failing small, fast and many times until you get the data to confirm what works is a smart way to work in many digital channels, and I’m confident a lot of campaign design in B2B would benefit from more early-stage testing. The mindset of growth hacking is certainly one part of the story.

Greater accountability

But there’s a bigger opportunity here. If we embrace growth marketing, it’s a chance for B2B marketers to continue their journey toward greater accountability for growth.

On the surface, this seems an odd statement to make. The first question I get when I say this is, ‘surely all marketing is about growth?’

There are other ways marketing can create commercial value. Protecting a price premium, for example. Or building brand equity ahead of a sale. But there’s no doubt that growth is the primary goal for most businesses, certainly in B2B tech currently, with huge investment being pumped into companies and pretty much all of it demanding growth (in no small part because of capital gains tax incentives).

But a focus on growth marketing also forces us to address two fundamental issues.

Aligning incentives

The first is incentives (I’m increasingly of the view that incentives are always the heart of the issue). Growth marketing is a whole-system problem. But right now B2B marketing is fragmented. The brand team is incentivized on awareness, the digital team on web visits and form fills, and the field team on marketing qualified leads (MQLs) – which too often don’t align to sales’ compensation plans and so don’t get followed up. In this scenario, it’s possible that every marketing team smashes their targets without moving the business forward in a meaningful way.

One way to overcome this is to create small, multidisciplinary teams focused on solving specific business problems to unlock growth. Typical examples I come across frequently: how do we successfully sell to a new type of audience (the business, not just IT)? How do we build on the good traction we have with tier two companies and crack the very biggest enterprise deals? How do establish a beachhead in an adjacent growth category such as robotic process automation (RPA)?

These are the sorts of growth problems we’re being asked to help our clients with, typically under the guise of account-based marketing or demand generation (or increasingly a new approach called BrandGen). Tackling them requires a mix of skills across the functional disciplines: strong positioning, smart use of data, great content, great digital experiences and sophisticated field work. And, perhaps most importantly, close collaboration with sales.

Partnering with the sales team

Which brings us to the second big opportunity from embracing growth as our North Star: closer partnership with sales. If growth is the focus, there are two objectives that matter: more sales today and a better sales environment in the long term. But there is very little point in creating a great environment for selling something when sales are ill-equipped or not incentivized, or don’t have the capacity to sell. And that is still dishearteningly common.

There’s an argument that sales focuses on the here and now, marketing looks after the long term. But that does no justice to salespeople, the best of whom are strategic and plan both short and long term. It also misunderstands how marketing works in the complex B2B sale.

A typical high-value B2B sales cycle is six months plus, very often more than a year. It involves many decision makers. The principles of both brand and demand have a role to play throughout that journey. Over that time the levers of brand – reach all your buyers, use distinctive brand assets, strengthen memory structures and positive associations – contribute alongside the tricks of sales activation, invoking scarcity, reciprocity, authority and so on. They might use different terminology but, in my experience, salespeople intuitively understand that a successful approach to growth comes from blending these approaches in a coordinated fashion, building trust over time.

Growth marketing then gives us an opportunity to move beyond the old dichotomies of brand v demand, emotional v rational, digital v in person. In every case it is ‘and’, not ‘or’.

This diversity in approach, combined with a singularity of purpose, is how we can continue to establish B2B marketing as the growth engine for the business it should be.

David van Schaick, chief marketing officer at The Marketing Practice.