Rethinking the 5 Most Common Ways to Grow Your B2B Business for 2021

2020 was a challenging year, to say the least. Common modes of operation have changed for numerous industries, and based on your location, things could be worse(or better) off for you. Today, I wanted to discuss five of the most common ways that a B2B business could decide they’re going to spend their marketing and sales dollars as we enter and go through 2021. All of these methods have a long list of pros and cons that you will have to evaluate to determine if it’s worth devoting your time and money to these channels.

These 5 suggestions here are not some new, revolutionary tools or strategies, but have all been around for some time. With the evolving circumstances, however, you may need to rethink how you would approach these options to make them successful for you.

1. Networking and Referrals

The first option is networking and referrals. I’ve spoken to countless business owners over the last 10 months that have built very successful businesses 100% off their reputation and the strength of their network. It may be the most common way small businesses grow. However, the reason I’ve been speaking to so many people who’ve built their business this way is because things are starting to change and they realize they need to implement other tactics or strategies into their approach.

Typically, in-person networking and developing referral channels involves the least direct cost of any marketing or sales initiative. You can obviously pay to join networking groups, but these costs are typically relatively small. There’s also tons of free options out there. Your real cost here is going to be time.

You may have to spend months or years building these relationships. Many of the best relationships come from existing clients because they know they can trust you. Typically, the easiest sales you ever make will come from a referral because you don’t have to spend as much time or energy breaking down the “trust wall”. The referral just wants you to help them do what you’ve done for their friend.

The biggest problem with relying on referrals only is it’s not controllable. You can proactively try to build the relationships, but you can’t make people bring you referrals. So there’s always a challenge in how do I scale this. An even bigger problem is when you have somebody bringing you a lot of people at once, but then they stop.

You may find yourself asking, “So what do you do now?” I recommend digging into your existing network first to explicitly ask for referrals. Some people may never think about their connections that could need your help.

After you work your way through your existing client base, evaluate the formal networking groups(if any) you’ve been engaged with. Which ones provided the most or best opportunities for you? Can you find other groups that have some of those same qualities? This will take more time, but if you are great at networking, the time investment may be worth it. Since most groups are operating, at least partially, remotely, the time saved on traveling may make up the additional time spent in new groups.

2. Content or Inbound Marketing

The second option many business have been putting a lot of focus on is content marketing, or inbound marketing. Most of these businesses are focusing on SEO with the goal of higher ranking on search engines. If this is you, you’re going to focus on putting content out into the world, through your website, blog, YouTube, etc and social media with the hopes that if you do it right, you’ll become the number one source for whatever you do online and customers will just show up at your doorstep(or website form) every day.

When things start working correctly those people are going to join some type of communication channel you have, primarily it’s email. Then you’re going to be able to email those people for a long period of time. And then over time, they’re going to grow to know and trust you and become a fan or an advocate. Finally, they’re going to either become a customer or they’ll somehow refer customers to you.

If successfully done, this is an amazing way to grow a business, because once that’s in place, essentially you just have to do some maintenance on it, keep new content going and you generally maintain those results unless several competitors knock you off your throne. But, as the logic goes, you’re not paying a cost per lead like you do with other channels. You just have new leads and new clients coming into your world all the time.

The hard part is, at the end of the day, it’s very expensive, it’s very time consuming, it’s very labor intensive, it’s very resource intensive, and it may not work.

Even HubSpot, the leader of inbound marketing, has been saying for years, when you dive in on the Inbound approach that you better be ready to produce a hundred plus pieces of high-quality content over the course of a year or so. Once you get to that point you should start seeing these extrapolating results of more traffic and more awareness. And then that should, if you did it properly result in leads and clients – but it may not work.

So you may spend a year and thousands of dollars and then it not pan out like you thought. Can you wait a year?

We always suggest content as part of every marketing strategy, but for many businesses in competitive markets, we receommend the goal of creating the content should likely be first to create content that can directly help in the sales process.

If you can help people that you are already talking with make the decision to work with you using content you are creating, it’s a good chance others will find value as well. Over time, Google may reward you, or they might not, but at least your priority will help achieve some of your goals in the near term.

3. Digital Advertising

The third common option for B2B lead generation is digital advertising. So obviously digital advertising is the pay to play version of lead generation. You are going to go out on one platform or another and target people to get them to purchase from you. You will typically pay the platform when they click or view your ad.

If it’s Google ads, you’re trying to catch people searching for things. You also could be trying to put your YouTube videos or display ads in front of people based on an audience they’re in or things they’ve searched for or websites they’ve visited, Maybe they’ve been to your website and you’re retargeting them.

On social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter you’re typically targeting an audience based on someone’s interests or demographics with image or video ads that will hopefully get interested people to give you their email or sign up for a consultation or sign up for a demo of whatever it is that you’re selling. The obvious thing here is that you’re paying an ad budget. Most of the time, you’re also you’re paying someone to manage all of this and create your ad creatives.

So using this solution can mean you’re paying a significant cost per lead. And then because of the nature of where you’re finding a lot of those leads, they might not actually be looking for what you’re offering. So they may become a lead, but they really have no purchase intent or they’re not qualified.

And then when you decide to stop the ads, you turn off your lead source. So you go to zero immediately and unless you’ve been doing other things, there’s nothing to replace it.

We always suggest to start with a VERY specific targeting strategy with digital ads. It’s more important now than ever before. You want to make sure you are focusing on keywords that will very clearly indicate someone is looking for the solution you provide when advertising on Google Search.

When focusing on social ads, keep things in perspective and try to maximize your exposure and nurture people through to prospect and lead status over time. This will take more ad creative elements and a more complex strategy, but should help you reduce cost per lead overall while simultaneously improving quality.

4. Outbound Sales Efforts

Number four is outbound sales outreach, cold calling, cold emailing, social networking, LinkedIn outreach and other things like this. This is your most direct path to your prospects. You want to be using these tactics and channels when you know who your audience is, and you can identify the individuals in your audience, go directly to them and place your message, product or service in front of them.

Your overall goal here is engaging your audience members and getting them to a conversation with the aim of developing them into a client or a customer. The most obvious benefits of this approach is that you can get started with this today.

You could be reaching out to your audience and putting your message in front of them right now(you would miss option 5 in this post, maybe wait a few minutes). You could literally get a client today, but that’s definitely not the norm.

There’s lots of work to go into developing a solid strategy, but it is the most direct path to clients. It’s probably one of the lower cost options, similar to networking, and you will have a similar trade-off with the investment of your time.

If you need a LinkedIn Sales Navigator account to help you find your very targeted list of prospects, you would have to figure those costs in. If you’re going to use some kind of software to manage the messaging campaigns, there’s going to be a cost. There are also several data solutions that can help you find contact details to reach out to people. Costs and data accuracy vary widely.

Once you stop doing outbound activities on a regular basis, in most cases, you stop your lead flow. So it’s something that has to be continual, or at least a regular activity.

And you run into problems where, how do you keep it going? How do you find more prospects? How do you find contact data, things like this, which can then add more costs.

We always suggest our clients start with LinkedIn because your prospects are self identifying their industry and job title. If you have time, you can get started growing your network for free today, and every new connection in your audience opens the door to potentially start a great relationship.

If you have more time or resources, combining email outreach and LinkedIn can significantly increase your responses as you will have the highest chance of getting a written response from your prospects. Oh, and cold calling is not dead. People still land clients every day over the phone!

5. Live Events

Our fifth common option for growing your B2B business may seem crazy thanks to COVID, but live events have built many successful businesses and continue to do so. Things just look a bit different for now. Any opportunity to get in front of your audience with an opportunity to build authority through speaking, webinars, podcasts, or things like this is still valuable no matter if it’s in person or virtually.

Virtual events have actually given an opportunity to enhance your content marketing efforts because the event producers are very commonly sharing that content as much as possible to keep their name out there and supprot the sponsor/speakers/exhibitors. Because they may have a larger digital footprint or level of authority, more people may be finding your content than if you tried to distribute it yourself.

You have to keep an eye out for the best opportunities for your business to fit your needs. Sometimes people seek you out, but if you’re just getting started, you probably have to pay for speaking opportunities. So, that can get expensive.

You can use tactics like outreach to identify and potentially find other opportunities that you could get in front of people for free.

People are definitely attending virtual events because people are still looking for knowledge, but it honestly loses a little bit when you’re not there in the presence of everyone else, who’s excited about what’s happening. And so sometimes it doesn’t have the same impact.

Also when you’re in person at an event such as a trade show and you’re exhibiting, then you have these other opportunities of people coming to you at your booth/stall/stand depending on where you are in the world. You have the ability to have conversations directly with people at scale. You can hand them things, you have this physical relationship.

Overall, that personal, physical interaction is missing right now, but it can be huge if you have something unique, something where you can easily demonstrate the benefit, then people can jump on that opportunity from the event and you can get a lot of leads to now then follow up with.

Look out for events that utilize technology live virtual booths, interactive QandA session and other cool technology that can replace some of the in-person benefits of live shows. Also, don’t downplay the options of participating in webinars or podcasts with people in related industries that can help you gain exposure to their prebuilt audiences.

6. Bonus: Multiple Channels

So those are the five individual ways to grow your business. As a bonus, I’d like to present you with a number six, which isn’t really one way, it would be some kind of combination of these.

Ideally, you would be doing all of these things at some level, all the time. All of these options we’ve discussed are important. The problem is if, especially if you’re starting off or you’re younger in your business, you don’t likely have the budget to do all of these things.

So for instance, with content marketing or digital advertising, even established businesses are likely choosing to focus on one of these two paths. So they’re either saying, “We know there’s a huge audience here and we can get in front of them with ads,” or they’re saying “We’re taking a long-term approach and we’re going to go the content route. And we know it’s going to pay off in one or two years.”

Some of the other things are… It could also be super expensive for events. To get a booth at some events it could be $5000 to $10,000 USD. So, that price is out of the price range for a lot of newer businesses.

I would suggest is to try to come up with a plan that would combine a couple of these, maybe in different ways that most people aren’t thinking of. So for instance, what if you used outreach to fulfill the primary objective of inbound marketing – which is to get your content in front of your audience and get them to opt-in to your email marketing efforts.

Once you have an email address, you have a relationship with somebody for months or years where you can continually contact that person. And so the whole objective is to drive somebody to your content and then that content will, ideally, have a form if where somebody is going to submit their email address and then wants you to contact them.

This requires a change of focus from let me sell you something, to let me share with you something. And now you are getting that person to consent to sending them content-focused messages, via email or whatever channel you use. And now you have just turned what could be a very transactional conversation that could either result in a client or nothing and then it’s over into an opportunity to educate, inform, grow trust with someone for a long period of time.

You could also add in digital advertising by retargeting people who visit the pieces of content you are sharing in your outbound campaigns. This would significantly reduce your budget and keep the focus on people you know are in your audience rather than whoever Facebook “thinks” should be in your audience.

Finally, try to find a few content producers with podcast/webinars/YouTube channels in your industry and reach out to try to participate. They are usually always looking for more guests and typically do not charge.

With this plan mentioned above, you would need at least one awesome piece of content, a LinkedIn account, an email address and a small budget to use for retargeting on Google/Facebook/LinkedIn Ads. This is the 2021 starter kit. If you’ve got more budget, the skies the limit.

How are you approaching your B2B lead generation program for 2021? Have you made any adjustments? Are you planning to shift your focus or add/remove any channels, tactics or strategies?