B2B Demand Generation Best Practices: 10 Proven Ways to Improve Your Results

B2B Demand Generation Best Practices

2020 was a tough year for B2B marketers – and everyone else. But there were some bright spots.

A few B2B marketing strategies did particularly well in 2020, and demand generation was one of them. For the marketers who were able to pivot quickly, many B2B demand generation best practices helped to ease the pain of 2020.

As marketers lost access to traditional channels like live events and in-person meetings, many marketing budgets were redirected into demand generation campaigns. “Demand gen” allowed marketers to either replace the lost or compromised channels of in-person meeting and live events, or it allowed marketers to give a shot in the arm to their entire B2B strategy.

Boosting their demand generation efforts, in other words, gave B2B marketers a way to counteract the weak performance that so many other marketing tactics suffered from in 2020.

The data bears this out. As we’ve written about elsewhere: “since the pandemic began, 55% of marketers have increased demand gen activity. Despite the current climate, 78% of respondents also stated that they expect their demand gen budgets to either grow or stay the same.”

So B2B demand generation has gained influence thanks to the pandemic. But it shows no signs of slowing down as the pandemic wanes. B2B marketers, like so many other people, are seeing that some of the adjustments they made in 2020 are here to stay.

If you’re among the marketers who invested more in demand generation in the last year, and you’re thinking about investing more, this article can help.

But before we go too far, let’s be clear about what demand generation is and is not. It’s often referred to as if it was the same as lead generation. While the two tactics share a lot of similarities, they are not the same thing.

Here is Gartner’s definition of demand generation:

“Demand generation is a data-driven marketing strategy focused on driving awareness and interest in an organization’s products and services, with the ultimate goal of developing long-term customer engagement. Demand generation includes lead capture, lead nurturing and pipeline acceleration.”

And here’s HubSpot’s definition:

“demand generation captures the umbrella of marketing programs that get customers excited about your company’s product and services. Demand generation programs can help your organization reach new markets, promote new product features, build consumer buzz, generate PR, and re-engage existing customers.”

So now that we’re clear on that, let’s walk through ten demand generation best practices for 2021. Along the way we’ll explain the research that prompted these recommendations.

Focus on customer experience [and audience engagement].

Or, as the Content Marketing Institute recommends, “Be customer-centric.”

If demand generation is all about getting customers excited about your products and services, then it makes sense that knowing your customers and giving them an optimal experience would be key.

Customer experience is a core concept in B2B marketing strategy, and so while it’s a best practice no matter what you’re doing, it’s especially critical for demand generation. If we botch the customer experience in demand gen, all the other good things that are supposed to happen after it (lead nurturing, sales, etc) may not happen.

The question is, of course, how do you optimize the customer experience? We’ll talk about personas in a moment, but good old analytics can tell you a lot about how good your customer experience is. For instance, what are the bounce rates on your landing pages? How long do people watch your videos? Are they sharing those videos and your other content?

Just to give you another example of why the customer experience is so critical, look to audience engagement rates. This is the third most-often used metric tracking for demand generation content. It’s also the metric whose importance increased the most from 2019 to 2020.

Improving audience engagement is one of the B2B demand generation best practices

Another way to improve the customer experience – and engagement – is how you organize content on your website. For B2B marketers with a lot of content and personas, this can be quite the challenge. But recent research from DemandGen will show you exactly how B2B buyers would like to have content organized:

How B2B Buyers want content organized on websites

Use personas.

Want to improve the customer experience with content? Then make the content relevant to the people you want to attract.

And if you want to attract different types of people, be sure to create content to suit them. In other words, use personas.

This is a best practice borrowed from content marketing, but it is mission-critical for a B2B demand generation funnel. And unfortunately, only about half of demand generation marketers are using personas.

Hopefully, you’re among the 52% who do.

what percent of b2b marketers use personas

B2B marketers, in particular, should consider creating “enterprise personas” either in addition to or in lieu of individual personas. Why? Because most B2B purchases are made by buying committees – not by individuals. So a marketer that is designing their content with an enterprise persona, rather than an individual persona, is aligning their content more closely to how purchases actually get made.

Use more storytelling.

This is another aspect of the “increase engagement” theme, but storytelling specifically pops up in two of the major recent studies about demand generation.

Here’s what DemandGen Report’s 2021 Content Preferences Survey Report specifically has to say about it:

“A common component of content preferences is the ability to deliver a memorable piece that tells a story and resonates with buyers’ needs and pain points. When asked what made content memorable enough to warrant a sales call, respondents noted they want content that:

  • Tells a strong story that resonates with buying committees (55%)
  • Uses data and research to support claims (52%)
  • Is research-based (40%)
  • Is packed with shareable stats and quick-hitting insights (40%)
  • Is personalized/tailored to their needs (32%)”

And here’s what the Content Marketing Institute’s study turned up:

“One interesting finding is that the percentage using storytelling/evoking emotion increased significantly this year. In 2019, only 39% said they used it to nurture audiences. This year, the percentage was close to half (49%), suggesting that demand gen marketers are doing more to appeal to emotions and develop empathetic content pieces.”

So how do you integrate more storytelling into your content? Read our blog post, “3 B2B Storytelling Techniques to Improve Content Marketing Performance,” to find out.

Do more virtual events.

Virtual events were big before the pandemic, huge during the pandemic, and are now positioned to have a massive influence on marketing forevermore.

This was another common theme for all three of the demand generation surveys cited here. Activate’s 2020 State of Demand Generation Report showed that online events were the #1 content format marketers planned to increase in the next 12 months.

webinars are the most popular b2b demand generation best practices

Demand Gen Report’s 2021 Content Preferences Study of B2B buyers also found that buyers prefer webinars above all other top content formats, ranked as follows:

  • Webinars: 57% (compared to 54% in 2020)
  • E-books: 57% (compared to 48% in 2020)
  • White papers: 55% (compared to 60% in 2020)
  • Research/survey reports: 52% (compared to 54% in 2020)
  • Blog posts: 46% (compared to 56% in 2020)
  • Case studies: 46% (compared to 54% in 2020)

Note that you need not do marathon webinars, either: The #1 thing B2B buyers want from content is for it to be shorter, according to Demand Gen Report. They say, “a majority of respondents stated they would commit five to 30 minutes to a piece of content (more than 50% of respondents chose this time frame for most content formats), with some going up to 60 minutes to review content.”

Make your content shareable.

Demand generation has one primary goal: To get the word out. This is different than lead generation, where the goal is converting traffic.

So what does that have to do with making content shareable? A lot. Specifically, it means “ungating” more of your content.

“Gated” content refers to any content that requires the user to do something to get access to the content. Typically, “gated” content means someone has to give their email address in exchange for access to the content.

This is the classic lead generation setup: You drive traffic to a landing page, offer a high-value piece of content, and make people fill out a lead generation form in order to get that content.

Demand generation content may want to play by slightly different rules. Remember – the goal here is not exclusively lead generation – it’s brand visibility. And so if you really want people to see and share your content, consider removing some of those lead generation forms (aka “gates”), especially for some of your most shareable, top-of-funnel demand generation content.

This will immediately make your content far more shareable and more visible. Which is great, because it ends up that a lot of B2B buyers share content with the other members of their buying committees. This is one of the top ways B2B buyers find and consume content.

So yes, ungate some of your content. But also make it easy for people to share your content via email, or via social media – especially via LinkedIn. It will help to boost the visibility of your demand generation content a lot.

Focus on ROI.

This is another best practice pulled from… pretty much any marketing strategy ever. It’s a no-brainer now to do your best to get a return on your marketing investments. And to know if you’re getting a return or not, you’re going to have to know how to measure your results.

The trouble is, getting quantifiable measurements of marketing results (i.e., something more specific than, “the campaign did great!”) can be tricky. And understanding the ROI of your demand generation efforts will probably be harder than measuring, say, lead generation.

This is because demand generation is measured, in part, via brand visibility. And while there are metrics and tools to help marketers track brand visibility, share of voice, and similar metrics, these metrics are admittedly a bit more “squishy” (that’s a technical term) than, say, lead generation, where you can count leads and thus quantify your work more accurately.

The solution? Do the best you can. Accept that you may not have a perfect measurement, and thus that you may not be able to perfectly measure the ROI of your demand generation campaigns. But even a rough measurement is better than no measurement at all.

Also, know you’re not alone with this challenge. HubSpot says “44% of marketers say ‘Better measure the ROI of our demand generation initiatives’ is their top priority for 2021.”

Invest in earned and paid media.

We’ve talked a lot about “owned media” here – as in content you create, own, and control. But don’t forget about earned and paid media, either.

Earned media is basically public relations, though it can be much more. So a really good demand generation marketer should have the number of a good public relations contact on their phone.

Then there’s paid media. You know all about boosting content with pay-per-click and display advertising, and you’re probably already doing that. But what about investing in a few sponsorships, virtual events, and other visibility-raising media?

Almost all of the content preference studies for B2B content mention the importance of influencers. And we all know how important influencer marketing is. So how about expanding your demand generation spending to sponsor a few things from a few key influencers in your industry? To sponsor even a newsletter or two, or to sponsor a podcast for a few months?

Don’t forget search engine optimization.

If visibility is what we want, it would make sense to employ one of the best channels of “free” traffic: SEO.

Search engine optimization takes work, of course. And it definitely takes planning. But if you can spend even some time doing keyword research for your demand generation content, that will help. SEO is a proven tactic for lead generation, so the type of traffic you can attract with your demand gen content will be the same sort of people who fill out lead gen forms.

Vary your content formats.

Audio and video formats have moved center stage. This means converting your best-performing content into these formats. But it also means you need to think about the content channels you use for content partnerships and sponsorships.

So instead of having your CMO or CEO write a guest post, get them on a podcast as a guest. Have your marketing team see if they can’t do a few co-sponsored webinars. See if you can’t get one of your subject experts into an online  “summit.” And get ready for the return of in-person events!

Collaborate with sales early and often.

This is definitely not the first time you’ve heard this advice, but it’s worth repeating. And while somme B2B demand generation tactics are more targeted to earlier in the buyer’s journey than lead generation is, the first steps of the buyer’s journey will shape everything that happens later on. In other words, if you attract the attention of the right audiences, and you’ll get better quality leads later on.

Sales teams also tend to know where their prospects gather. This could mean anything from all of LinkedIn to a specific Facebook group or a Slack channel of B2B insiders.

Collaborating with Sales is also critical, of course, because they are in a sense the “end users” of the demand marketers generate. And it’s SQLs (Sales Qualified Leads) that more and more marketers’ performance is measured by.

So check in with your Sales team or your Sales contact as you develop your B2B demand generation ideas. If nothing else, at least they’ll be aware of the work you’re putting in to warm up audiences for your lead generation work.

A Unifying Principle for B2B Demand Generation Best Practices: Make Them Customer-Centric

Let’s bring this back to where we started: With the customer. The prospect. The user experience.

That’s the lens to see all your demand generation activities through. Because while it’s easy to get focused on content, distribution channels, measurement, and martech, those all need to be in the service of the customer experience.

This is true throughout B2B marketing, but it’s especially important for demand generation strategy.

Because if the customer isn’t at the center of your demand generation work… then who is? Can you justify them taking the customer or the prospect’s place?

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