As we approach the end of 2020, it’s time to take a look at key 2021 B2B marketing trends that will emerge in the year ahead.

Continuing a pattern from previous years, 2021 will see the ongoing evolution of many B2B marketing trends from recent years, and the increasing influence of B2C marketing will make a big impact. So what macro trends will likely have the biggest impact on firms in the coming year? Here’s a list of five macro B2B marketing trends to watch in 2021.

1. Digital (Marketing) Acceleration

It can be said that in many ways, there really is no longer such a thing as digital marketing—it’s just marketing in a digital world. And the events of 2020 have driven a significant increase in user demand for digital and digital consumption—growing trends that have been building for many years now. Some of the factors behind that include the enormous generational change in the workforce and the rapid pace of change brought on by technological advancement.

With that in mind, 2021 will see the vast majority of B2B firms (who haven’t already) adopt a truly digital-first and digital-centric philosophy when it comes to marketing and sales. And this will drive what is referred to as digital acceleration. This acceleration of digital tactics and channels will include many things already in a B2B marketer’s toolkit, with greater emphasis and intentionality.

Here are a few examples of what this acceleration will look like:

Video
Video has become the dominant medium. Research from Cisco estimates that by 2022, online videos will make up more than 82% of all consumer internet traffic—15 times higher than it was in 2017. Many B2B firms are still not fully capitalizing on the power of video but expect that to change in 2021. B2B buyers crave video content and they are looking for video content at every stage of the buyer’s journey. Vlogs, team introductions, product or service demonstrations, explainers and tutorials and client success stories are just some of the bite-sized videos that B2B marketers should invest in.

Virtual events
Once Covid-19 shut down nearly every conference and tradeshow of 2020 from March on, virtual events became the instantaneous replacement. Regardless of what happens in the fight to end the pandemic, virtual events are here to stay. Look for their popularity to increase in 2021, but also to evolve to become more hybrid in nature. This approach brings a broadcast quality to the format by taking a cue from TV production and bring it to the virtual environment. This means that to do virtual events well, investment levels will need to be near in-person levels to pull it off. This year’s Adobe MAX conference is just one example of what this production quality looks like.

SEO and SEM
Organic and paid search are certainly not new for B2B marketers, but the increase in digital consumption and the growing importance of the corporate website is prompting B2B marketers to invest more heavily in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) similar to their B2C counterparts. For SEO, marketers are shifting towards a true convergence of content strategy and both on-page and off-page SEO strategies. There is also a growing emphasis on semantic search, search intent and voice search as well, as search engines and user behaviors continue to evolve. And similar to SEO, SEM and PPC will also be added to many online marketing strategies or simply play a larger role in driving website traffic.

Marketing automation and email marketing
Marketing automation was all the rage in the early 2010s but seemed to cool off as we approached the end of the decade. While many B2B marketers signed up for the software, true adoption and successful implementation was not as widespread as in the industry had hoped. But marketing automation is making a comeback and the software is projected to more than double in sales (from 6.08B to 16.87B) over the next five years. Driven by other trends such as personalization, account-based marketing (see #4), retention marketing and the like, marketing automation and email marketing will become even more dominant in B2B marketing strategies.

2. AI-Powered Marketing

It’s nearly impossible to understate the impact that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is having/will have on our lives. It’s being called the 4th industrial revolution and will bring about changes just as far-reaching as the advent of mechanization, mass production and automation that came before. When it comes to marketing, few organizations are actually using AI for marketing and sales: less than one in five. However, two-thirds of B2B marketers are currently planning, evaluating, or implementing AI for marketing or sales initiatives. AI can make marketers more efficient and smarter at scale by offering better insights, faster analysis and by streamlining routine tasks.

Here are just a few examples of AI-powered marketing trends to watch out for:

Client Insights
AI products have become increasingly adept at analyzing unstructured data like images, video, and audio. Chorus, for example, provides transcription and audio analysis of recorded sales calls to give insights on how to reshape messaging, better serve customers and increase workforce productivity. Other AI companies, like Affectiva, are working on solutions to measure tone and sentiment in a person’s voice so marketers will know when prospects are enthusiastic or disinterested on sales calls and can pivot in real time.

Personality Insights
Crystal is a Chrome extension that analyzes millions of online data points and assessment tools to show you a prospect, customer or co-worker’s personality on their LinkedIn profile so you can communicate more effectively with them. It will even coach you on phrases to use or avoid.

Buyer Intent Data
Buyer intent data helps identify people online who are currently in-market for your solutions, based on activity like searching for specific keywords or visiting either your website or a competitor’s site. Then marketing campaigns customized to their interests and based on predictive insights into their stage in the buying journey can be deployed to engage them.

AI-Generated Content
AI content tools like Market Muse can help you plan, research, create and optimize content that is relevant, authoritative and helpful. These tools will show you where there are opportunities for topics that are of interest to the audience but aren’t being covered by your competitors. It can then create a first draft that can be refined and edited, saving you research and writing time.

Predictive Analytics & Lead Scoring
Predictive analytics uses historical data to make assumptions about future results. Platforms like Mintingo, Infer and others harness AI to identify and prioritize your best leads – helping you optimize campaigns, accelerate your pipeline and improve close rates.

Expediting Repetitive Tasks
AI can also be used to help expedite repetitive tasks. Otter is an AI-powered transcription application used to capture meeting notes. Once the meeting’s done, we can easily extract the important information with minimal clean-ups for unclear or misheard terms.

3. An Agile Approach to Marketing

While agile marketing—an iterative approach inspired by software developers—has long had its proponents, the events of 2020 is pushing marketers in virtually every industry to take a hard look at the benefits of adopting an agile approach. At its core, agile marketing runs on the “80%” rule—valuing speed to market with ongoing optimization, over waiting for an initiative to be perfect before rolling it out. And according to research from Merkle, 85% of marketers plan to increase agile usage in the next two years.

Here are a few ways that an agile approach will impact B2B marketing:

Customer centricity
Customer-centricity goes beyond customer experience (CX) initiatives, which are crucial for gaining and sustaining competitive advantage. An agile mindset will drive marketers to make the customer an integral (or even primary) influence in the firm’s planning, processes, products, services, marketing and sales activities. Customer-centricity will be a massive paradigm shift, as it transforms marketing from an inside-out approach to an outside-in approach.

Experimentation
The kind of experimentation, innovation and iteration observed during this year’s pandemic is what agile thinking is all about. Today’s market demands agility from high-growth firms who want to continue growing and thriving—in spite of turbulent times. This means reacting rapidly to customers’ needs or making sudden operational and marketing changes. Agile thinking encourages firms not to fear trying something that might fail, in an effort to achieve growth and success.

Testing and optimization
Agile marketing also places a high value on testing and monitoring. Campaigns or initiatives are always running in beta mode, with marketers closely monitoring the data and making necessary optimizations along the way. A/B testing and multivariate testing can now be leveraged in a variety of channels, such as email, landing pages and websites, advertising and social media—in order to improve the effectiveness of the campaign.

Continuous improvement
The name of the game is never stop improving. In a world with an uncertain future and an ever-shifting economy, focusing on high-value marketing initiatives, while prioritizing continuous improvement, will ensure the best return on your marketing efforts. Even successful efforts can always be improved.

4. Dominance of Account-Based Marketing (ABM)

Over the last few years, we’ve seen ABM move from a buzzword to a fundamental way to transform customer success, sales, and marketing teams into full-funnel revenue generators. However in 2020, a small percentage of firms are doing ABM at the highest level. According to research from Terminus, 8% are still in pilot mode and 43% are in the early stages of implementation. But only 13% say their sales and marketing teams are fully integrated into their ABM program. In 2021, look for ABM to become the dominant strategy for leading B2B companies.

Here are just a few examples of ABM trends and impacts to watch out for:

A focus on revenue, not leads
One of the things that is largely driving increased adoption of ABM is the continued shift away from attracting large amounts of leads to focusing on generating revenue. The economic impacts of COVID are accelerating this as budgets tighten and the revenue focus of companies has shifted to customer-oriented programs aimed at protecting their existing revenue base.

Customer retention
ABM isn’t just for new customer acquisition. It’s also a way to drive customer retention. As is well documented, it takes much more effort (and budget) to acquire a new customer than to nurture and retain an existing customer. ABM strategies can be leveraged to engage existing customers on their journey from on-boarding through raving fan with intentional, personalized outreach.

Sales/marketing integration, not just alignment
Alignment has been the buzzword for years in B2B circles, but ABM forces marketing and sales to be integrated, not just aligned. The “land and expand” mentality of ABM strategies requires internal teams to not only know what each is doing, but to be truly integrated and working on marketing and sales initiatives for ABM together.

5. Buyer Enablement

In a survey of more than 250 B2B customers, Gartner found that 77% rated their purchase experience as extremely complex or difficult. B2B buyers have changed—and continue to change—becoming more independent and self-directed. B2B buyers are demanding more personalized experiences, and the truth is, buyers are now in control of the buyer’s journey—not marketing, sales or business development.

Buyer enablement is emerging as an antidote to these and other issues, taking the gist of sales enablement and completely flipping the script. Just as sales enablement helps sellers sell, buyer enablement helps buyers buy by providing them with the content and support to make good decisions and make the buying process easier to navigate and complete. B2B firms can leverage buyer enablement strategies to get their attention, earn their trust and ultimately close the sale.

Create buyer-centric content
Creating content that educates and informs your prospects and clients is what content marketing is supposed to be all about. Content creation should have the goal of helping buyers make better informed decisions, while also demonstrating true expertise and building authority. Or as Jay Baer puts it: “stop trying to be amazing and start being useful.”

Make your website a robust resource for buyers
In today’s digital-first world, a firm’s website is their most valuable marketing asset. And in a buyer-first world, it’s also their most valuable sales tool because it plays an increasingly important role in the buying process. But does your website contain a variety of content topics and formats that are of interest and use to buyers at all stages of the buyer’s journey? To make your firm’s website a robust resource for buyers requires a content strategy that focuses more on what a buyer is looking to find on your website, and less on what your firm wants to put on your website.

Reducing any and all friction along the buyer’s journey
Customer experience (CX) programs develop journey maps to identify virtually every touchpoint a buyer encounters with a firm from stranger to sale. Buyer enablement seeks to reduce any and all friction the buyer typically encounters when they’re searching for answers along that journey. Many B2B firms have stopped gating all or most content as a way to reduce friction. Offering multiple ways for a prospect to connect is also critical—phone, email, live chat, social media and website forms to name a few.

The only constant in marketing is change

There are certainly a variety of other B2B marketing trends—both macro and micro—that will likely pick up steam in 2021 (and a whole bunch of fads will come and go, too). This list, while admittedly not comprehensive, provides a look at some macro B2B marketing trends to consider and watch in the year ahead.