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Lessons from China’s B2B Content Marketing Revolution

10/15/2020
— Martin Xu, WE Red Bridge 

A radical shift in B2B marketing is upon us – and it’s starting in China.

In recent years, a quiet revolution has occurred in the Chinese B2B market. Taking a leaf from the content marketing strategies of B2C counterparts, B2B brands are engaging potential buyers on digital platforms with new content geared toward showing their humanity. Two reasons spurred this change:  

 

B2B marketing is becoming increasingly ‘consumerized’

Chinese B2B decision-makers have gradually been demanding more personalized communications and to be treated more like people. B2B and B2C marketing used to be very distinct disciplines with different audiences, channels and content focuses. In recent years, the lines between B2B and B2C tactics have become increasingly blurred. B2B buyers, conditioned by their B2C experiences, now have higher expectations of B2B communications. Brands are still communicating to human beings who want to be treated like people –they want brands to communicate authentically.

Our Business Continuity in the Era of COVID-19 report highlighted the value of being genuine in building long-term brand equity with target audiences. B2B brands that stick to the tried and tested strategies forget that behind the corporate veil, people make decisions – people who still value the “human touch.”

 

The pandemic has accelerated digital adoption

More recently, the pandemic has forced brands to adapt to digital means as most offline sales channels became unavailable. The significant economic changes caused by the pandemic has also resulted in marketers and communicators facing increased pressure to drive business results. In China, this convergence of factors forced B2B marketers and communicators to find creative ways to engage their target audience digitally to adapt swiftly to the new reality of B2B marketing.

China has managed to stay a step ahead through it all, shifting content marketing strategies to suit these new paradigms. Today, a Chinese B2B buyer is engaged through traditional B2C channels such as livestreams, social media channels and virtual events – a stark difference from the B2B of old. But how did Chinese B2B marketing and communications professionals get here, and what can communicators use from China’s example as a looking glass to the future of global B2B content marketing?

 

The New Digital Tools in B2B

Livestreaming and Virtual Events

As the pandemic looms over us and the work-from-home trend continues to grow, businesses are waking up to the value and safety of connecting with audiences virtually. B2B brands shifted their sights to livestreaming.

Livestreaming has been part of China’s B2C strategy for some time now, a multibillion-dollar industry that continues to grow year-on-year as consumers demand more engaging and interactive purchasing experiences. Taobao Live, the livestreaming unit of e-commerce giant Alibaba, recorded RMB20 billion ($2.85 billion) in sales during its 2019 Singles Day shopping event. Sensing an opportunity, Chinese B2B brands started hopping on the bandwagon as well.

There are three key objectives that livestreaming serves: entertainment, educating customers and increasing sales conversions. For B2B brands, livestreaming has become an alternative for offline events, such as exhibitions and trade shows, as livestreaming has the added advantage of being frictionless – joining a livestream is a lower-commitment ask compared with attending trade events.

Take for example Covestro, a high-tech polymer material supplier. Covestro wanted to promote its latest suite of materials for smart home appliances in China. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the brand was unable to conduct its traditional marketing efforts. It quickly adapted its campaign strategy, choosing to conduct a webinar for its customers – but with a twist. Instead of a keynote presentation, speaker-with-slides style, the webinar was structured as a talk show starring the brand’s marketing and sales directors. They showcased common scenarios affecting their customers and discussions about industry megatrends. The approach garnered the audience’s attention and built trust at the same time. More importantly, Covestro saw an increase in potential buyer inquiries within 24 hours of the campaign.

Covestro succeeded by telling its story in an engaging way that was relevant to its audience. For communicators, livestreaming represents a new channel to tell a brand’s story, a fresh opportunity to reach audiences through impactful narratives crafted for the digital age. While the storytelling channel has changed, creating engaging narratives remains key to building ongoing relationships with audiences.

Social selling

Social selling, which relies on social media channels to sell products and services, has been another strategy that B2B companies use to grow customer bases. By turning to social media to source and connect with potential buyers, brands develop relationships and position themselves first in line when buyers are ready to make purchasing decisions.

While B2C brands have been using social media for years now, B2B brands are increasingly using the channel too. Through targeted and compelling content like Q&As, articles, short videos and white papers, B2B brands seek to build credibility and forge trust with potential buyers on social media. In China, brands have utilized WeChat, but more recently have invested in newer platforms such as ZhiHu, Bilibili and Douyin (Chinese equivalents of Quora, YouTube and TikTok, respectively) to reach audiences.

Another great example of a B2B company applying this tactic was a software intelligence company that sought to acquire more leads, choosing to utilize social selling as a focus for its campaign. It began by creating niche technical content for targeted buyers such as relevant infographics, white papers and case studies. This content would be promoted to potential buyers through the WeChat connections of its sales engineers, gradually creating a positive feedback loop as the engineers continued nurturing the leads. At the same time, WeChat Moment advertising was also deployed to target these accounts. Through this strategy, the brand almost doubled its initial lead targets within three months.

Once again, we see the power of these new channels in building strong relationships with audiences. This is a great opportunity for communicators to leverage the interactivity afforded by digital media to drive awareness and build its reputation. By developing strong stories crafted with their audience, businesses can forge stronger relationships in the process, eventually leading to increased demand for services.

 

These changes are here to stay; lean into them.

According to a McKinsey survey, 91% of B2B brands expect this remote, digital model to remain into the future. More importantly, 70%-75% of Chinese B2B decision-makers prefer remote human interactions or digital self-service interactions over in-person ones.

While digital media has pros and cons that differ from the tried and tested ones of old, the central principle remains unchanged – strong storytelling and the ability to weave compelling narratives to capture audience attention is paramount. Communicators have an inherent advantage in doing so, as crafting and telling impactful stories has been the lifeblood of the trade. At the same time, communicators need to understand the current pain points potential buyers face in their work and anticipate the potential problems they might encounter. Paired with this long-term view, communicators can effectively create content that grabs attention and provides value to audiences, a central tenet to nurturing relationships in the digital age.

Entire industries have been forced to adapt to the new normal. It is important to remember that leaning into change and adapting to new digital means of connecting is the key to remaining relevant. The most successful companies are the ones that remain agile in the face of change. This is a time of great disruption, and communicators can step up to make significant changes to the tried and tested content marketing model, as in uncertainty lies the opportunity for positive change.