B2B marketing in a recession: Fight, flight or focus?

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Cameron Williams

20. 06. 2023 | 6 min read

B2B marketing in a recession: Fight, flight or focus?

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One of the niftiest things we humans evolved throughout our great and relatively short history is the fight-or-flight response.

It’s processed in the part of our brains called the amygdala — an amazing bit of kit:

In a matter of microseconds it contextualizes an immediate threat against our entire lived experience and decides a course of action: stay and fight or flee.

For our ancient ancestors, this helped deal with or avoid dangerous and life-threatening situations, like being eaten by a hangry mastodon. We feel it when we get a 6:00pm “have you got five mins?” Slack message.

But here’s the thing: in B2B marketing, your fight or flight reflex can also hurt you. 

This post is about why knee-jerk reactivity can create more problems down the line than it solves — especially for B2B marketers staring down the barrel of a job-threatening recession.

To customers, fight or flight looks like panic

For B2B marketers, an economic downturn is the perfect catalyst for fight-or-flight decision making. Here’s what it looks like:

Fight: Come out swingin’ with big and bold marketing spend which could include:

  • A dramatically new positioning
  • FUD messaging (“if you don’t get our thing say goodbye to survival!”)
  • Doubling your campaign spend
  • An expensive, glitzy rebrand 
  • Mud-slinging competitive marketing

OR

Flight: Air on the side of caution. Play dead and switch off marketing spend until it’s over (usually in the name of efficiency and waste reduction).

  • Aim for “damage limitation” as a policy
  • Shut down all campaign spend until the dust settles
  • Aim for business-as-usual with existing accounts
  • Prioritize continuity above expansion
  • Keep quiet and hope your customers don’t put you in the “non-essential spend” column

Fight is about flinging money at the problem and praying for revenue. This is usually where the fast-talking ad guys make a WWE-style entrance and preach that more spending in a crisis means more revenue and awareness afterwards.

Flight is about saving money and redirecting resources to “more important parts of the business” to stay afloat — like financing, restructuring and whiteboard-wielding consultants.

The catch here is that fight-or-flight marketing isn’t some affliction that sensitive marketers need to insulate themselves from. 

Fight-or-flight is often externally-driven — pressure from shareholders, executives and clients to do more, faster, with less. Marketers don’t just have to manage their own fight-or-flight response, they’re often a locus point for everyone else’s too. So what do you do?

Three ways focus can counteract fight-or-flight

1. Focus your targeting 

One common stress response to a recession is to fling out a football field-sized net to catch customers — to try to be all the types of things for all the prospects.

Actually, the opposite is often more effective: you don’t need a net. You need a harpoon.

When the pressure is on to drive more revenue quickly, narrowing your target audience may feel counterintuitive.

But there’s no better way to cut through the fight-or-flight fog than with unignorable relevance. And zooming in on your ideal personas is a sure-fire way to make sure your marketing reaches the audience most likely to care (and therefore most likely to buy).

Likewise, as spending decisions get scrutinized by more senior stakeholders, you might elevate your message to the person suddenly holding (or influencing) the purse strings. 

Maybe that’s a campaign for CFOs (even if you’ve never spoken to them before) or some enablement to help your primary audience have more persuasive conversations with a new cast of gatekeepers. 

Don’t rush. Take time to research who these priority customers are for you. Survey your existing, most profitable customers. What are their firmographics? What do they have in common? What are their pain points? What problems are you helping them solve day-to-day?

Once you know who you’re targeting, you can dial in specific messaging and content tailored to the precise moment they’re in. Which brings us to… 

2. Focus your content strategy 

Content is the next thing to put under the microscope. The situation has changed for you and your audience: you need more bang for your buck and they need content that actually solves problems for them.

Here are two quick-win ideas for focussed content that serves both parties:

Create some urgency messaging

Tech marketing always needs to answer “why you?” and “why now?”

In tough times, marketers need to dial up the “why now?” to prove exactly how your offering can help prospects hit the KPIs that drive their business – quickly, simply and safely. 

Exactly where will your product save money? Exactly where will it make money? How quickly? What’s the cost of doing nothing or delaying?

Jessie covered how to create urgency messaging in her blog here — read it to get some immediately actionable tips.

Blend this urgency messaging into your existing socials, PPC and landing pages. You don’t have to mention the crisis outright, but you do have to nail your rationale and credibility. 

You can even keep your original website copy for any business-as-usual traffic that comes through your site — and create alternative landing pages with more urgent messaging to promote to your priority prospects.

Hammer your blog

In a recession, people are attracted to credibility.

And what better way to drive credibility than by consistently showing up around the topics your customers truly give a shit about? 

If you can demonstrate through your blog that you really are an expert in the field, they’re way more likely to trust you when it comes to making a purchasing decision. 

You’d rather receive business legal advice from someone who knows their shit and also keeps up with the changing legal environment than someone who’s only read Business Law For Dummies.

On top of this, invite relevant experts and even clients to write guest blogs. Every post from an external contributor is: A) a tacit vote of confidence in your brand, and B) a signal that you’re actively engaging with the market beyond just selling. 

What’s more (and this is a real kick-ass win) it’s BASICALLY FREE to do.

3. Focus your sales alignment

A little misalignment between B2B sales and marketing teams is tolerable in stable markets. But in tough times, it’s malpractice.

Rightly or wrongly, your sales team probably feel like the whole revenue crisis rests squarely on their shoulders.  It’s on you to find ways marketing can help. And the good news is: there are plenty.

Take our earlier recommendation to focus your targeting. Sales are probably doing that as well — maybe using ABM (account-based-marketing) to narrow their audience to key, profitable accounts.

It doesn’t matter how much you narrow your focus if you’re both pulling in different directions. Sync up with your sales team — not just to align on the big picture stuff, but to support smaller things, like validating and refreshing the assets most relevant to your new shared focus (think data sheets and case studies to start with).

If the teams pursue different priorities your strategy will zig and zag all over the place.

In a time of focus, marketing and sales should:

  • Align on the kind of urgency messaging you’ll be using
  • Align on the use cases being used for each account 
  • Align on the roles and responsibilities of sales and marketing in the customer journey (making sure they don’t overlap)

The answer won’t be the same for every company, but as long as you’re aligned on your internal strategy, you can make sure that you give customers consistent messaging and content.

“Focus” is a strong recession strategy

Focus on fundamental moves that actually benefit your buyers, and you can give customers the confidence, assurance and zero-bullshit honesty they’re looking for in a time where they’re going through fight-or-flight too.

You’ll hit that sweet spot of mitigating risk while also making sure your audience is never alienated.

For marketers trying to help their customers in a crisis, the simplest changes can have the biggest effects.

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