The traditional B2B marketing function has been dead for a while—we just haven’t acknowledged it.
B2B marketers may be reluctant to admit this reality because it makes them uneasy. The size and type of firms that employ these marketers don’t matter. Whether you’re at a large or small firm, pitching product or service, none of us are immune. So, marketers must get uneasy and take action!
Before we look into what that action looks like, and what a radial marketing organization is, let’s get some context on how we got here.
Evolution of Customer Behavior
We all know how customer behaviors and preferences have evolved over the past decade. With everything becoming digital, customers do not demand or need as much in-person interaction as they used to. Just compare the shopping process today from a decade ago, and you can see how far we have come. Business customers are no different. Over the years, their buying journeys have transformed entirely.
Importance of Customer Experience
As digital became prevalent, the importance of customer experience as a winning differentiator became even more apparent. This factor has affected all corporate and business functions. No functional leader could meet their objectives if they were failing at customer engagement. Whether it is the external customer for sales or an internal employee for HR, you cannot win their trust with lacking customer experience.
Marketing’s Fast Adoption
Due to the nature of its business, marketing was the first to adopt new ways of customer engagement. Marketing teams were the first to be trained, and embraced new channels before anyone else in the organization. In a way, marketing has been the most successful at digital transformation when it comes to engaging with the customer.
Dependence on Marketing
For a large part, non-marketing functions arrived late to the digital party, and many teams continue to deal with their customers in traditional ways. In areas they must use new mediums, they lean on marketing (skills) to provide a better customer experience. It is the articulation of messages, their design and timely delivery on the right channels that matter. No other function within a firm is better equipped to deliver this experience than marketing, especially in the digital age.
Modern management guru Peter Drucker noted that at the core of it, a business only has two functions: marketing and innovation. Of course, I am biased, but I do believe this applies not only at the organization level but also to its individual functions.
Ask leaders across functional areas if they have any dependence on marketing for their success, and you will likely fail to get a single emphatic “yes.” This, after many of them have consciously invested in hiring and training themselves and their teams on marketing skills—whether it is storytelling, customer experience, communications, design thinking or visualization. This has led to marketing talent redundancies. These redundancies can be found across the organization and range from content writers, communications experts, events specialists, campaign managers and designers.
This might work in the short term, but it’s not sustainable. These specialized teams within a specific function are almost always small, and it is not the most conducive environment for learning and growth. If your team (or worst, your manager) does not understand the work you do, or how to measure it, it is difficult to get rewarded for it.
In addition, it is hard to further train this talent, and since the team size will always remain small, there are hardly any opportunities to move up the ladder unless you move into the core functional area.
Marketing Function’s Failure
Here’s what business leaders fail to understand: In the B2B space, a differentiated product itself does not bring customers. You do not win because of a better product. You win because of better perception. And marketing is the key driver of perception.
Here’s the great irony—marketing skills have become important in roles across other functional areas, but the function itself continues to be relegated as a support function. Most management teams have failed to correct this because they have a limited understanding of the problem.
This is exactly why the traditional marketing organization is dead. It’s not the failure of management or the failure of other functions; it’s the failure of the marketing team. One of the most essential roles of marketing is to help every function within a business deliver exceptional value to its customers. Most B2B marketing teams are failing at this task.
Here’s a typical scenario—marketing receives ad-hoc requests from each of the functional areas. In response, some content and messaging are created with surface-level domain knowledge, and campaigns are run with little understanding of the audience’s problems, needs and preferences. Not surprisingly, the impact of this work is limited, and top management does not see the function as mission-critical.
The Radial Marketing Organization
Marketing talent must be hired and groomed within the marketing function. In the radial marketing organization, the hub is responsible for operations and execution, while “live-in” experts, who form the spokes, build an understanding of the customer and strategy so they can deliver value to them. As represented in Figure 1, shared services form the hub of the organization, and the marketing team’s functional experts are the spokes.
Each functional expert must have a live-in relationship with the function they serve. Without it, they cannot build an in-depth knowledge of the domain. Their goals must be aligned with the KPIs of the host function. They must have a complete understanding of the function’s objectives, its customers, what their challenges and needs are, and the plan of action to deliver value to them. Empowered with this knowledge, they can then collaborate with the hub teams for execution. The performance of everyone involved (both hub and spoke) can then be measured based on the direct impact on these KPIs. Accordingly, marketing can report progress on outcomes that management is actively tracking, and not some vague vanity metrics.
Once these functional experts have been successful in their role, they have multiple options for further learning and growth.
- They can break the live-in relationship and move into the Hub to learn the breadth of marketing skills.
- They can break and form a new live-in relationship with another host function in the organization for cross-functional lateral growth.
- And, if there is understanding and interest, they can grow within (and marry) the host function and build a career outside of marketing.
This learning and growth flexibility are paramount to the success and retention of the marketing talent.
The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the need for enabling better digital experiences for customers. The radial marketing organization is the answer to many of the skill-gap problems currently faced by B2B firms.
Yes, the current structure has been a marketing team’s failure. But, more importantly, it should be seen as a missed opportunity for the organization that is not effectively leveraging some of their most creative, dynamic, and digital-ready talent. It provides a framework to make the marketing function more relevant and effective. It gives marketing a much-deserved seat at the table. But, more importantly, it helps organizations grow and retain critical talent. After all, any B2B company’s success can be directly tied to its ability to retain talent.
Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash.