B-to-B CMOs, Experts Weigh In on Defining Trends for 2023

For many b-to-b chief marketing officers and their marketing organizations, 2023 will be a crucible year. After three pandemic years, marketers are facing not only budget cuts and hiring freezes but also pressure from their C-suite to do more and do better. Much like their b-to-c counterparts, b-to-b CMOs are being asked to take the lead on nearly everything from innovation and customer experience to new business development, product strategy and channel management, data and analytics. And yet, many are worried for their jobs.

Though CMOs have gotten used to turbulence and volatility year after year, how they navigate 2023 could redirect the trajectory of their organizations, careers and even the marketing discipline for the next decade.

To better understand the unique challenges facing b-to-b marketers in 2023, we talked to analysts, researchers and consultants, as well as the CMOs representing professional services, ad tech, mar tech, IT software, risk management, analytics services and account-based marketing (ABM). What emerged from these conversations was a set of underlying trends that have the potential to impact b-to-b marketing in 2023 and beyond.

Customer happiness will be a defining issue

Given the uncertainty about just how bad the economy will get, b-to-b CMOs are expected to shift their focus to customer retention this year.

“We’ll need to drive the same or more revenue with less budget, and in an environment where winning new customers will be much harder,” said Amanda Malko, CMO of software marketplace G2. “One positive to come from all this is that CMOs will finally focus more attention on their existing customers and ensure they are happy, successful and growing with their companies.”

Fortunately for b-to-b CMOs, retention is an area where their marketing organizations have historically excelled. According to Forrester estimations, between 77%-80% of all b-to-b company revenue derives from customers with whom the firm has done some business in the past. However, 2023 will test b-to-b customer retention programs in ways not seen in years.

For one, business customers have become more demanding and unpredictable. They constantly evaluate and reevaluate their purchasing decisions, often conducting rigorous desktop research on a company before even agreeing to take a meeting with a salesperson. They are younger and members of large, global multifunctional buying committees. They make purchasing decisions based on brand reputation and the relevance of a product or service to their rapidly evolving needs. And above all else, they want their company to understand what they’re trying to accomplish with a product or service on an intimate level.

“It’s been far too common for b-to-b marketing organizations to just push more offers—buy this, see that—at their existing customer base,” said Ross Graber, vp and principal analyst at Forrester. “The organizations that are going to be successful in 2023 are the ones who are investing in deeply understanding what their customers require across the totality of the relationship, as opposed to looking at the relationship only through the lens of a single product during the buying process.”

The path to success for b-to-b companies will be to not tinker at the edges but instead position customer health and customer loyalty at the center of what they do and who they are as organizations. B-to-b CMOs, for their part, can be the driving force for building and sustaining symbiotic ties with their customers as if those relationships are with a concierge or even a friend. CMOs are the C-suite executives best positioned to create systems to measure customer value, employ design thinking methods to build customer loyalty and lead the organization in a transformation toward customer centricity.

“There’s a lot of talk of ‘customer-first,’ but with a looming recession and mounting business pressures, it will be more important than ever to practice what we preach,” said Randi Stipes, CMO of IBM Watson Advertising and The Weather Company. “Let’s resist becoming ROI junkies; this is the time to test, learn and play the longer game.”

Marketing organizations have already begun to move in this direction. Even as CMOs face pressure to justify budgets, cut back on spending and put off innovation projects, investments in customer loyalty programs are on the rise. According to Gartner predictions, both b-to-b and b-to-c companies will increase their investments in loyalty programs as a percentage of their total marketing budget in 2023. And the percentage of companies adopting loyalty programs will increase in industries with some of the lowest adoption rates, including automotive, consumer-packaged goods and industrials and chemicals, according to the Gartner research.

“There’s an increasing desire among customers to have fewer relationships and deeper relationships with brands—and relationships that are more tailored to their specific wants and needs,” noted Andrew Frank, research vp and distinguished analyst at Gartner.

Early adopters of ABM will have the advantage

Though the concept of ABM has been around for a while, 2023 may be the year it goes from theory to practice. At its core, ABM is about identifying a set of highly targeted, high-value accounts and building lasting relationships with them. Instead of trying to generate as many leads as possible and nurturing them with tried-and-true digital marketing tools, practitioners of ABM focus their energies on specific prospects with personalized messaging, communications and even customized thought leadership content.

So, why now for ABM? As Nick Panayi, CMO of conversational AI software company Amelia, explained it, not only have technologies advanced, but the talent pool of practitioners has deepened. Also, more executive leaders are embracing the concept amid macroeconomic uncertainty, he added.

“We have finally managed to get our chief revenue officers and CEOs to appreciate the value and impact of a well-functioning ABM program,” Panayi said. “That is naturally a great thing for CMOs who have already invested in ABM and have the ABM staff, platforms and discipline necessary to deliver the ROI.”

Hila Shitrit Nissim, CMO of mar-tech company Blend Localization, added that ABM will become prevalent in the coming year, in part because of challenges with running targeted campaigns and tracking data using traditional methods. “The increasing popularity of ABM strategies and tools is due to their ability to effectively reach specific target prospects,” Nissim said.

The budget dollars flowing to ABM in 2023 will be substantial. According to a survey of marketing executives from U.S. b-to-b businesses, 70% of digital marketing leaders plan to invest in ABM technology in 2023. Meanwhile, 63% of businesses surveyed by the agency already use ABM methods and practices, but of those companies that currently use ABM, as much as one-third reported having limited experience with ABM.

Building an effective ABM capability takes a minimum of six months, and many CMOs have yet to make the necessary investments in ABM. “I believe we’ll see an increasing chasm between expectations and results that will frustrate CROs and CEOs and will put CMOs in jeopardy,” Panayi said about CMOs who are behind the curve heading into the new year.

Thought leadership is getting more granular and targeted

For b-to-b organizations, thought leadership has long been a powerful tool for driving revenue growth and differentiating the organization in the ideas marketplace. But with budgets under pressure and every marketing initiative scrutinized for maximum ROI, many b-to-b marketing organizations have pivoted their content development away from sweeping brand-building stories (think, “The Future of Metaverse”).

Joseph Kingsbury, managing director at Edelman Business Marketing who studies thought leadership, said he has seen b-to-b companies begin to target their content toward existing customer portfolios, with the goal of customer retention and cross-selling.

“In 2023, whatever you’re doing really has to move the needle with key audiences,” Kingsbury said. “In fact, an increasing number of companies are starting to use account-based marketing for communications and thought leadership, instead of solely for sales and advertising.”

Savvy b-to-b CMOs are seizing the opportunity to experiment

While most b-to-b CMOs will be constrained by hiring freezes and lower-than-normal advertising and marketing budgets, the savviest will find ways to innovate and test new technologies and applications, channels and brand narratives that will position their companies to be more competitive come 2024.

Those experiments are likely to extend to the creator economy. Michelle Wiles, senior marketing director at testing platform Swayable, expects more b-to-b companies to partner with creators in 2023 to produce “snackable” content. “Getting an executive to commit to a 30-minute webinar is a big ask,” Wiles said. “But short-form video content combined with LinkedIn’s b-to-b targeting could be a killer combo.”

Stipes said she is eager for b-to-b marketers to take a page out of the b-to-c playbook and diversify their content: what they create, who creates it and where it’s distributed. “How do we move beyond product features and benefits to show versus tell, to educate versus sell?” she asked. “How do we use influencers and partners to help tell our stories? How do we better leverage less traditional platforms like podcasts, and eventually the metaverse, to reach audiences where they are? I’m watching brands who have the courage to experiment.”

2023 will be a big year for AI

B-to-b marketing organizations haven’t realized the full potential of technologies like artificial intelligence—yet. But facing budget constraints, marketing teams are figuring out how best to use AI and other technological applications to help them be more efficient in their day-to-day jobs and even create content.

One major recent development is ChatGPT and other AI models that can communicate in plain English, write and revise text, and even write code. Lawrence Schwartz, CMO of b-to-b software provider Aspen Technology, said ChatGPT opens the door for AI to play a larger role in marketing, including the possibility of drafting content and marketing copy.

“We could see marketers’ roles evolve to take on new responsibilities, including being the idea generator and editor for these new content creating AI engines,” Schwartz said.

The same AI technologies are also becoming the tools that help improve employee performance and efficiency. Software developer 6sense, for example, is using AI assistants to help schedule and coordinate meetings over email. “Instead of carrying on 20 conversations a week with 20 accounts, our salespeople can do 600 because the AI is responding and following up and looping in new people for them,” said Latané Conant, CMO of 6sense. “The AI assistant allows them to do better prep and hold better conversations when we actually get to the moment of truth with the prospect.”

Sustainability will be more embedded in marketing

In recent years, sustainability goals have become top business priorities for asset intensive b-to-b industries like energy and chemicals, which are under intense scrutiny to reduce their environmental impact. This has been reflected in brand messaging, marketing materials and external communications, including environmental, sustainability and governance (ESG) reports.

Schwartz said sustainability will become more of an embedded message in 2023, on par with operational excellence, profitability and performance. “It will no longer simply be a bolt-on addition throughout marketing content and activities,” Schwartz said.

Lucy Birch, chief marketing and communications officer at researcher Kantar Public, said she expected the industry’s focus on sustainability to extend to the carbon footprint of marketing itself. “There is a growing trend toward CMOs holding their media agencies accountable for making smarter choices around where investment dollars for advertising are placed,” she said.

Cross-functional collaboration is becoming essential

In the past several years, strategic marketing priorities such as innovation, customer experience and brand awareness have transcended functional silos, becoming top priorities for the C-suite while leaving the messy work of cross-functional execution to CMOs. Ewan McIntyre, vp analyst and chief of research at the Gartner for Marketers Practice, said he expects CMOs to focus more on fostering cooperation and communication rather than competition and isolation in 2023. In a down economy, especially, working together can garner results, he said.

“A really mature and effective CMO will have honest conversations this year with C-suite peers to work out not just the technology that’s required for shared ownership of business priorities but the operating models and processes that ensure that value is being created,” McIntyre said.

To be sure, cross-functional collaboration can strain already taxed marketing teams when not executed properly, resulting in underperformance against critical marketing goals. But in 2023, “it’s something that CMOs need to focus on almost relentlessly to get right,” McIntyre added.

Hitting a breaking point

Most b-to-b marketing leaders and their teams saw the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to showcase their ability to respond to changing client and market needs in real time.

But that came at a high cost. For many marketers, the pandemic greatly intensified the conditions that lead to burnout: exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy in the workplace. Now, as we enter 2023, employees and their leaders are facing another set of external forces that require even greater agility, resilience and adaptation. And many might not have enough to keep going.

“Where marketing functions have been flat out for the last three years, those CMOs who have not invested in nurturing and balancing the needs of their teams with the increasing demands of the business may well find that there is little left in the tank,” Birch said. One key for CMOs, according to Birch, is to resist spreading resources—both people and budget—too thin across areas that will not deliver value back to the business.

The best (enterprise) storyteller will finish first

CMOs are in the storytelling business. To excel at their jobs, all CMOs need a deep understanding of how stories touch audiences, such as why one message resonates while another fails to connect, in addition to having the leadership chops to oversee large, distributed, often global teams of storytellers.

The power of storytelling is now also increasingly central to their work as C-suite executives. At a time when companies generally reduce their advertising and marketing budgets, CMOs need to articulate their value story across the company.

“If you are one of those CMOs who is still not able to build a compelling story about how you build enterprise value, you are in trouble in 2023,” McIntyre said.

B-to-b CMOs must go beyond the conventional measurements of impact and find ways to present daunting concepts—such as ABM, market mix modeling and thought leadership—with care and compassion for their audience. It will take practice and inventiveness, but when done well, good “value storytelling” may mean the difference between the success and failure of a b-to-b marketing program.

“Marketing is traditionally looked at within b-to-b organizations as variable spend,” Graber added. “The program portion of that variable spend is always at risk when organizations are facing tough economic times or risking underperformance. But the marketing organizations and CMOs who do better here are the ones who have made clearer links between what marketing is bringing to the table and the company’s ability to achieve revenue outcomes.”

For the past three years, b-to-b marketers have been navigating through the greatest market and industry disruption in generations. In 2023, CMOs will need to build on their strengths and expand their aperture to guide their people and their brand through uncertainty ahead.

Adweek freelance writer David Kaplan contributed reporting.