The State of B-to-B Marketing in Asia: Moving Toward Digital
While teaching in Hong Kong for the semester, I’ve had the chance to meet some very interesting people. A standout in the B-to-B marketing field is David Ketchum, CEO of the demand generation agency Current Asia, and author of "Big M, little m Marketing: New Strategies for a New Asia." David also serves as chairman of the Digital + Direct Marketing Association of Hong Kong. He kindly agreed to answer some questions based on his perspective on B-to-B developments in Asia.
1. What’s the State of B-to-B Marketing in Asia These Days?
Ketchum: B-to-B in Asia today has two contradictory dynamics in play. On the one hand, markets are driven by the deal. Whether it’s commodity supplies sourced from low-cost production countries, or professional services delivered from gleaming downtown office towers, price factors into every decision. Multiple quotes are required, often accompanied by time-consuming negotiation. That’s good governance, but it lengthens and complicates sales. The trend is accelerated by Web-based platforms, like Alibaba.com, that give buyers increased price transparency, while creating further opportunities for sellers to bid for contracts.
On the other hand, B-to-B in Asia operates within a strong tradition of family and government business relationships. These may not be considered modern and are certainly not western. But they still govern many markets and business interactions. These relationships are not necessarily corrupt, but they are often not transparent, and can involve multiple elements and interactions that make it difficult to understand the financial specifics clearly. For example, the sales arm of a property conglomerate may sell machinery to a factory that is both a tenant on their land, and a partially-owned subsidiary.
And keep in mind that Asia is not a monolith, and there’s little cross-border consistency. For example, B-to-B in China is influenced by government policy and macroeconomic factors. In Taiwan and South Korea, the environment is more liberal and western-minded. Hong Kong and Singapore have relatively small local economies, but serve as massive, influential hubs. Japan has a large self-contained market with its own complexities, in addition to being a major exporter.
2. What Are the Particular Sales and Marketing Challenges Faced by Asian B-to-B Companies?
Ketchum: One headache for B-to-B companies in Asia can be the lack of scale. The headline numbers for regional economic growth, infrastructure development and transactions are large in the aggregate, but made up of many small deals. It takes time to find, negotiate and service many accounts. That puts pressure on margins.
In China, the potential addressable market is enormous, but current PRC (People’s Republic of China) policy promotes sales between PRC businesses, and that can diminish the opportunity for multinationals and exporters.
The many languages and legal structures across the region make it difficult to get cross-border synergies. Finally, the lack of transparency I mentioned can be a challenge. Many deals happen without an RFP, and if you are not personally connected, you risk missing opportunities.
3. Is Marketing Entirely Digital Here Now? What’s Working, When It Comes to Media Channels?
Ketchum: B-to-B digital marketing and digital business is on the rise, as evidenced by Alibaba and the availability of trusted online payment systems. However, much of Asia’s B-to-B is still a manual and even face-to-face affair, with massive trade shows for every conceivable sector still the primary venue for promotion and sales.
Marketing automation hasn't yet taken off for a couple of reasons. One is cost. The software licensing fees are large compared to the size of most marketing budgets in the region. And labor costs are lower here, which means the costs savings of automation are lower. There is also a conservatism about changing to the new processes that new platforms require — it’s amazing how many companies still batch-and-blast their company newsletter sent from Outlook!
All this is changing, however, as labor costs rise and automation becomes less expensive. And like elsewhere in the word, B-to-B is becoming consumerized. Why should someone have a powerful easy-to-use app for taking the bus to work, and then deal with antiquated systems and mountains of paperwork at the B-to-B workplace?
4. Your Agency, Current Asia, Seems to Be in the Forefront of B-to-B Demand Generation in Asia. How Did You Get Started, and What Capabilities Are You Offering Your Clients?
Ketchum: At Current Asia, we think the modern marketing wave is about to break in Asia, and we’re here to help clients surf it for competitive advantage. We believe that many of the barriers to modern marketing — traditionally trained company directors, concerns about ROI on software purchases, and strong reliance on relationships and face-to-face transactions — are about to fall away.
Current Asia starts by mapping our clients’ customer journeys, and clearly defining their target customer personas. From this starting point, we can clearly see what digital touchpoints and content are most engaging at each stage of the sales cycle. We then select the right marketing technologies and assemble them into a marketing tech stack that provides a single data view of the customer throughout the cycle, and that automates the lead nurturing and scoring process.
These new ways of engaging customers require new streams of content, from thought leadership, to tips and trends, to bite-sized product and customer service information. We offer content development services, too.
At Current Asia we help drive digital business transformation for some clients, and for others we provide the campaign and analytics services needed to drive their B-to-B marketing. It’s a great time to be in B-to-B in Asia.
Thanks, David, for the insights.
A version of this article appeared in Biznology, the digital marketing blog.
Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention, and teaches marketing at companies and business schools around the world. She is past chair of the DMA Business-to-Business Council, and past president of the Direct Marketing Club of New York. Ruth was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Marketing by Crain's BtoB magazine, and one of 20 Women to Watch by the Sales Lead Management Association. She is the author of Maximizing Lead Generation: The Complete Guide for B2B Marketers, and Trade Show and Event Marketing. Ruth serves as a director of Edmund Optics, Inc. She has held senior marketing positions at Time Warner, Ziff-Davis, and IBM and holds an MBA from Columbia University.