Covid-19 has completely upended the B2B ad market. But surprisingly, its effects haven’t been entirely negative. True, overall growth has flattened during the pandemic. And some parts of the B2B world have been hit hard. As just one example, the Conference for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) reported that 73% of B2B exhibition organizers had canceled at least one exhibition as of June. Clearly, press-the-flesh events are a non-starter right now.
But that contraction has led to opportunities elsewhere. Since B2B marketers can’t connect with buyers in person, digital ads are being employed to reach large and diverse targeted audiences. In an August report, emarketer.com estimated that U.S. B2Bs would spend $8.14 billion on digital ads this year, up 22.6% from 2019. They predict a further 10.9% growth in national digital ad spending in 2021, to just over $9 billion. In comparison, U.S. digital ad spending overall will only rise 1.7% this year, to $134.7 billion.
“The conditions of Covid-19 are really forcing B2B marketers to realize that they need to accelerate their transformation into digital,” says Jillian Ryan, eMarketer principal analyst covering B2B and marketing transformation at Insider Intelligence.
Search, virtual event sponsorships, podcasts and spending on LinkedIn are replacing TV, print, out-of-home and in-person events, says Ryan. She predicts that LinkedIn will secure about 20% of all B2B digital ad dollars in 2020. “They are the supreme social network in terms of share,” Ryan says.
The absence of in-person events also means that B2Bs are adopting account-based marketing at much higher rates to target specific customers.
The format and content of digital B2B ads are changing too. Desktops are becoming more popular. So are sponsored webinars, virtual events through publishers, and search and social media ads.
The pandemic has stimulated digital marketing in many sectors. B2B digital ad spending for health care is predicted to rise 41.2% year over year. Tech products and services, financial services and telecom are also increasing their investment in B2B digital ad marketing.
Other sectors with obvious connections to human interaction are in the throes of massive downturns. Emarketer.com estimates that B2B digital travel ad spending will plummet 44.5% this year. Overall, U.S. B2B ad spending is predicted to fall 9.6% in 2020 to $21.42 billion.
But eMarketer is optimistic that there’ll be a massive turnaround in 2021 as the post-pandemic era begins. It predicts a 20.4% overall increase in B2B ad buys next year to $25.79 billion. “The assumption is that when the world starts to normalize, B2B budgets will start to normalize as well,” says Ryan. That revitalization will include new trends.
“In B2B, there are important shifts from more B2C-inspired tactics to a more focused effort to engage Millennial-age buyers: 45% of B2B technology buyers are now millennials, and more than 70% of millennials are included in B2B buying decisions,” says Lee Odden of Top Rank Marketing.
Odden has identified 10 trends that will energize and influence the digital B2B ad market in the next few years:
- Personalization – 72% of buyers expect B2B companies to personalize communications and 69% of buyers are willing to pay extra for a more personalized experience.
- Video Content and Live Video – According to research from HubSpot, 78% of buyers watch online videos weekly and 55% view them daily. Video is the top format for US advertisers and one of the most popular formats for influencer marketing.
- AI (Artificial Intelligence) and ML (Machine Learning) – Adobe reports that 41% of leading businesses are using artificial intelligence in 2020 for everything from suggesting keywords and simplifying scheduling to flagging potential fraud.
- Voice and Podcasts – Voice is now as popular as text in communicating with devices. Natural Language Processing and AI have made asking Alexa, Siri or Google to do things a normal part of life. According to ComScore, more than half of all searches in 2020 will be from voice search.
- Influencer Marketing – Ranked as a top 4 tactic for B2B marketers in 2019, influencer marketing has continued to grow in popularity and sophistication. According to Demand Gen Report, 95% of B2B buyers say they prefer credible content from industry influencers.
- Content Marketing – Still a growth area for marketers — 49% of B2B marketers plan to increase their budget this year, according to research from Content Marketing Institute. 69% of the most successful marketing organizations have a content marketing strategy while only 16% of the least successful do.
- Chatbots and Conversational Selling – According to research from Gartner, “By 2022, 70% of white-collar workers will interact with conversational platforms on a daily basis.”
- CX (Customer Experience) – Marketo reports that personalized customer experiences are among the top three purchasing drivers for business buyers. Accenture says 90% of B2B executives cite CX as a very important factor to achieving their organizations’ strategic priorities.
- Visual Content – Images, video and interactive content connect with B2B buyers on an emotional level. 54% of buyers want to see more video content from a business they support. Over half of all marketers are planning to increase their video marketing budgets this year.
- ABM – 50% of marketers implementing Account Based Marketing have had their initiatives in place for more than a year and 25% for six months to a year, according to Demand Gen Report. 92% of B2B companies feel ABM is a must-have, according to Demandbase.