Keeping an eye on trends in the B2B landscape isn’t just our job; it’s also something we happen to be incredibly passionate about. Over the last couple of years, we’ve noticed some changes – both through research and anecdotally – in how B2B businesses have been conducting their marketing.

The summary is this: we’re moving away from traditional strategies – reliant heavily on demand generation through content downloads and emails – and moving towards an approach that’s more focused on positioning and branding.

There are plenty of interesting statistics (which we’ll delve into later) around this shift, but here’s one that drives home this point: 83% of customers eventually buy from the first business they engage with. And this seller, more and more, is the one that’s been leveraging data-driven content and unique research to position with that target customer over an extended period of time.

So, how does this shift affect the sales and marketing playbooks of B2B companies? After all, playbooks are a solution for businesses looking for efficiency, cohesiveness and a unified voice. So, they need to reflect the current market.

In the search for answers – and to promote conversation within the industry – we dedicated our latest Referrer’s Lunch to the subject. The Evolution of the Traditional B2B Marketing (and Sales) Playbook was about how businesses are moving towards more nuanced approaches.

The result was a wide-ranging conversation that examined the changing landscape and what we can all do to thrive in it. align.me Co-Founder and Executive Director Brett Bonser took the helm for this journey, guiding us through his take on this brave new world. Our guest speaker was David Marshall, a serial entrepreneur and Founder of Performio, a global leader in sales commission planning and more recently SalesGrid, an AI Platform that helps sales teams plan and execute their sales process. In these roles, David has worked with and advised many global leading brands, including Vodafone, Johnson & Johnson, Commonwealth Bank, Westpac, Optus and others.

What exactly is a playbook?

Before we go any further, it’s important to define what exactly a playbook is. For assistance in this, we turn to our guest speaker, who provided attendees at our Referrer’s Lunch with this definition.

“A playbook is a comprehensive guide that details best practices from engaging customers through to closing deals.”

While that sounds like a pretty definitive explanation that could be used widely across sales and marketing, David was able to condense it even more. Ultimately, he told our attendees, a playbook is a recipe for your company’s success. And that it can be reduced to a simple phrase:

“How do we win?”

David accompanied this succinct definition with a reminder to keep your playbook simple.  When a business struggles to hit targets, the natural reaction of higher-ups might be to overwhelm their employees with multiple complex playbooks that cover every imaginable topic. But that’s ineffective, confusing and muddles the minds of your salespeople. The real trick is to condense things until you have a comprehensive plan for attracting customers and winning sales. The easier something is to understand, the easier it is for employees to implement.

There are four areas in which you might show a competitive edge over the competition. These are:

  • Engagement
  • Discovery
  • Presentation
  • Negotiation

To be successful, you need to translate each of these into a strategy that can be included in your playbook. But to do that, you need to know what’s going right in your processes, and what needs attention. And that can be a difficult proposition. Self-reflection is difficult, so David suggests you should go outside your organisation. For example, when you successfully attract a client, ask them what made them select your product. You can then use this knowledge to refine and improve your playbook.

The statistics that show a changing world

As part of the lunch, align.me Co-Founder and Executive Director Brett Bonser shared some statistics showing how dramatically the market is changing. These included:

  • 70% of customers will wait until their needs are formed before they engage you as a seller
  • Only 5% of the audience is ever actively seeking a solution
  • And of this 5%, 83% of these buyers will purchase from the first seller they engage
  • But the final stat is a game changer for B2B marketers globally, the most recent research shows that those businesses who were prioritising demand gen over branding were 24% less likely to meet their sales objectives.

That last one is the most surprising (and the biggest impetus for change). It appears to posit that only using lead generation and email marketing might not cut it anymore. Instead, these methods are giving way to more nuanced approaches. For the first time, many businesses are electing to focus on positioning and branding.

This all dovetails nicely with the lunch’s topic of playbooks. It reinforces the importance of having a marketing playbook to position your brand in the minds of potential buyers. And once they’ve shifted into a buying mindset, you need a sales playbook to ensure the transaction is a smooth and successful one.

 Do all businesses have a playbook?

So, all this begs the question: can you get by without a playbook at all?

To gauge this, we surveyed attendees with a quick poll, asking how defined their sales playbook was. In an interesting twist, over a third of them didn’t have a playbook at all! The rest of the poll showed an even split between having a playbook “Somewhat documented” and one “Documented by not fully deployed.” Nobody in your group believed their playbook had completely aligned their marketing and sales.

We thought this merited more discussion, so we divided attendees into four groups to discuss how mature their sales playbook was. The results were enlightening. Some had no playbooks at all (as they told us earlier), some had inherited them from previous employees, and some were still building them.

No matter how developed they were, many playbooks that attendees spoke about were constantly iterated and improved on. In some examples – which we’ll take as a win for align.me – attendees had an existing playbook, then went through one of our Funnel Camps. As a result, they could take their playbook to the next level.

The importance of considering the Buyer’s Journey

When creating a marketing or sales playbook, it’s essential to ensure the buyer and their journey are at its core. An awareness of what your customers are thinking, feeling and doing is more important than ticking boxes and achieving internal goals. To properly adopt this philosophy, your sales team may need to think differently about how they approach customers.

One interesting discussion around this was how companies train their sales team on the product first, then get upset when salespeople push that product instead of exploring the customer’s needs. So, what if you sent your salespeople out on the road – without knowledge of the product – and simply talked to prospective customers? That way, they can truly listen to the customer without pushing the product. It’s undoubtedly a radical idea, but conversations like this are one of the reasons why we love our Referrer’s Lunches!

What about AI and its role?

It’s 2024, so it would be remiss if we didn’t discuss AI. Our guest speaker, David, had some fascinating points, as he works with AI every day in his role as CEO for SalesGrid.

He positioned AI as a “virtual teammate” that could help through the entire sales process. This could begin with AI scanning your potential buyer’s annual report and reporting back to you on areas of interest, then finish with getting it to draft emails and phone scripts to discuss the next steps of the deal with clients.

We also took the lunch as an opportunity to ask attendees about their use of AI and how they were leveraging it to leap ahead of their competitors. There were spirited debates among the groups, and while AI is seemingly here to stay, what’s less definitive is how it will be used moving forward.

Some of our attendees are yet to fully embrace AI, while others use it across almost every touchpoint in their business. This is helping them run operations smoothly and with less laborious and time-consuming tasks. And anything that lets you focus on your passion is a win in our book.

Eventually, the conversation turned to making AI work for us by creating customer-centric content. For example, getting your ChatGPT assistant to write you a blog to make you probably isn’t going to cut it anymore. You’ll just get the same thing that all your competitors are doing – which results in an echo chamber of companies shouting the same thing at their customers. But if you ask an AI writing assistant to give you a list of unexpected blog ideas that you or your agency could write yourself, suddenly you’re opening up new directions in your marketing. Plus, you’re making yourself look like a true thought leader.

The value of shared language

When some attendees who had attended our Funnel Camps discussed their playbooks with each other, they noted how often similar terms came up. This made conversation much easier, as there was a shared vocabulary of words and common ideas.

Now, we’re not saying that everybody needs to run out and book one of our Funnel Camps (although you’re certainly more than welcome to!) so you too can understand. However, it raises an important point: sales and marketing must speak the same language, use the same touchpoints, and address the same problems when communicating. Whether it’s through a Funnel Camp or another approach, a shared vocabulary is a vital cog in keeping communications between marketing and sales open, direct and understandable.

Late into the session, Hugh Macfarlane, align.me’s Founder and CEO, made an important point that reflects this. Perhaps with a touch of modesty, he reflected that 80% of a Funnel Camp is getting the right people in the room. While align.me works incredibly hard to ensure that 20% is invaluable to the business, what truly matters is getting your team on the same page and chasing the same goals. All with the Buyer’s Journey in mind.

A big thanks to everyone who attended.

This referral lunch was a huge success, in no small part thanks to our guest speaker and the quality conversation from our attendees. Our discussions showed that the landscape for modern businesses is changing, and that having a playbook is a key piece of collateral to help you stay ahead of the competition.

We’d like to thank our valued clients and friends for joining this insightful conversation. These lunches provide a great space to share knowledge and create value in return. We’re already looking forward to the next one!