Everyone likes the cozy feeling of going to a local restaurant or café where the staff knows us by name, menu preferences, and perhaps even our moodsRemember? It is (or was for many before the pandemic) a perfect example of personalized food service in an increasingly depersonalizedfast-food/chain-restaurant world.  

As we look forward to the beginning of the hopeful end of the coronavirus pandemic in 2021, re-creation of that sort of personalization by digital means is the primary communications objective of both business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B) marketers. There will always be some differences between B2B and B2C marketing, but the process of shopping for products and services today is surprisingly similar. Both are focused on business-to-individual (B2I) communications – the creation of one-to-one marketing experiences for individual customers based on qualitative data about their buying habits and preferences.    

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has defined personalization as: the process of knowing the needs, preferences, and interests of your current and prospective customers so that you can serve them exactly what they’re looking for when they’re looking for it.1 In-person selling is the oldest, and some would argue, the ultimate form personalization… but digital personalization is rapidly catching up and, in some ways, surpassing it.  

B2C Led the Digital Personalization Movement 

Long before the coronavirus pandemic stuck, B2C marketers understood the value of personalized digital communication. Taking their cue from the sudden rise of social media in 2004 (Facebook) and mobile technology in 2008 (Apple iPhone), B2C marketers have been using a host of digital tools – smart web content, chatbots, and qualitative data collection and analysis, to name a few – to send individual consumers personalized online recommendations and offers. Amazon, Netflix and YouTube are among the most dazzling, familiar examples of this. 

The reason is simple: Millennials and younger consumers demand personalization, and they’re willing to pay more for products they perceive as unique to them. Besides, they are more open to sharing personal data in exchange for receiving personalized recommendations and offers.  

By 2016, MarTech Advisor declared that, “Personalization is one of the biggest digital trends that (consumer) brands are aiming at today.”2 That same year, Marketo Marketing reported3 that more than 78 percent of consumers would only consider offers if they had been personalized based on their previous encounters with the brand. In 2017, Business 2 Community reported4 that 74 percent of consumers feel frustrated when website content is not personalized, and that personalized home page promotions influenced 85 percent of consumers to buy. And by 2019, Forrester Research was reporting5 that 77 percent of consumers had chosen, recommended, or paid more for a brand that provides personalized service or experiences.  

Consumerization of B2B Was Not Far Behind 

As B2C digital personalization was maturing, B2B was rapidly catching up. The days of B2B sales reps relying primarily on golf, happy hours, elaborate dinners and sporting events to increase sales had started to fade by 2011 when Harvard Business Review referenced an InsideView report declaring the disappearance of traditional sales techniques.6 InsideView also reported that 90 percent of C-level executives never responded to cold calls or non-personalized emails.  

From the early days of cumbersome, restricted enterprise e-commerce sites, many B2B manufacturing companies have evolved to unrestricted high quality websites that provide reliable product and service information and make buying a seamless experience. They had little choice, considering that a 2018 survey by DemandGen of American B2B buyers indicated that Amazon Business was the top B2B marketplace, followed by China-based Alibaba.7  

In January of 2020, Elevation Marketing cited a Gartner study8 indicating that another factor driving the consumerization of B2B is the increasing presence of younger Millennial buyers. Skeptical of sales reps, Millennials want access to more and higher quality information, and are heavily influenced by their B2C buying experiences. They have high expectations from websites and vendors thanks to their extensive experience as savvy online consumers.  

The Pandemic Accelerated Personalization and the Evolution Toward B2I Marketing 

Seven months into the pandemic, in September of 2020 Forbes magazine declared that, “The consumerization of B2B marketing and sales efforts is now a priority, and the shift to digitization continues to ramp up.”9 Both B2B and B2C are tech-led industries today, a fact underscored and accelerated by the pandemic.  

But the pandemic also reminded us that consumers will always desire, and require, direct in-person service – the second leg, and personification of B2I communication. Even at the risk of COVID-19 infection, consumers are still cautiously visiting their local bank branches, standing in line for groceries, touring houses for sale, and meeting with their B2B sales reps.  

People of all ages want the metaphoric human hand-holding that experts with a depth of knowledge and the right expertise provide to make customers feel safe, reassured, and comfortable with their financial choices. This is especially true of complex B2B transactions, which often involve several decision makers, advanced technology and significant capital investments. This is why in-person sales expertise will always have an important role in B2B marketing. 

The larger challenge, for both B2C and B2B marketers, is how to continue humanizing digital engagement to provide increasingly seamless B2I service and communication in the early 21st CenturyIn many ways, this evolution is as exciting and profound as the mass marketing revolution enabled by the rise of radio and television in the early 20th Century. 

Mass digitization of products, services and experiences has allowed many companies to move to a new engagement model. But the winners going forward will be those companies able to fundamentally change how they operate and deliver value to customers through broader-scale digital transformation. And that requires a culture willing to think big, challenge the status quo, embrace change, and continuously test, learn and adapt to stay relevant in an ever-rolling reality. That’s what it will take to lead and succeed in the age of B2I. 

Footnotes/Links:

  1. Personalization and Digital Marketing (bcg.com) 
  2. Understanding the Importance of Personalization in Digital Marketing | MarTech Advisor 
  3. Loyalty360 - Loyalty Today | Blogs on Customer Loyalty, Customer Experience, Loyalty Programs 
  4. 10 Surprising Stats About Personalization - Business 2 Community 
  5. What is Personalization in Digital Marketing? (abtasty.com) 
  6. Council Post: The Consumerization Of B2B (forbes.com)  
  7. The Consumerization of B2B Marketing | Elevation Marketing (elevationb2b.com)
  8. Council Post: The Consumerization Of B2B (forbes.com)  
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