A diverse range of trends are driving change in the B2B world, and many of these influences are technological in nature. Technologies evolve continually, and occasionally explode forward in great leaps.
Some of these leaps are easy to predict by following the money and general arrow of progress. Other shifts and their impacts, however, are much less obvious and the result of complex interactions of factors.
For example, we can anticipate forthcoming breakthroughs in synthetic messenger RNA medicines — which might have taken years longer to materialise — due to the investment and attention around the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine. mRNA research has been ongoing since the 1990s but is now attracting funding, which could lead to personalised treatments for cancer and other conditions much sooner than otherwise expected. But will this be new funding or will it decelerate investment in other areas?
Predicting trends is always a gamble and is best done at a very high level. The big picture suggests the direction of travel but the devil will always be in the detail.
With that said, there are some essential trends to watch.
Location and geo-presence giving way to extended and virtual reality
Following more than a year of rolling lockdowns around the world, businesses learned to work virtually and digitally, faster than ever before.
Still in flux, the workplace of the ‘new normality’ continues to be debated and shaped but most agree that it will include a blend of local and remote participants, with the purpose of offices and collaboration spaces being redefined.
This is happening in the context of a global 5G rollout offering potential for low-latency, high-bandwidth remote encounters of a quality never before seen and significant investment in applications designed to enhance virtual encounters at scale (such as Gather, recently raising almost £19 million from Sequoia Capital and others).
Creating virtual SIMS-like worlds in which to interact and get together, many of these startups are focused on solving the distance/presence dimension virtually. This serves to more closely replicate the real-world experience — such as being able to see and approach a group conversation and listen before joining in, and move your avatar around an interactive space. So there will soon be real alternatives to staring down a webcam in a haze of ‘zoom-fatigue’ that don’t involve a return to the levels of business travel we knew in the BC (Before Covid) days.
As virtual, augmented, and extended reality environments become part of our every day, further trends will follow on this wave of acceptance: virtual currencies, experience marketplaces, and dedicated devices will all drive down our need to go anywhere physically.
That urge to travel is also going to be constrained by another huge global trend:
The green agenda: Zero emissions realistically targeted
Images of empty city centers during the pandemic were powerful, but so were the clean air readings taken at the same time. Combined with the looming COP climate conference and growing awareness of the need to curb fossil fuel emissions, the chance to ‘build back better’ is on every policymaker’s mind. Eco-products, sustainable investing, renewable energy, and net-zero emissions are key business trends for 2021 and they impact the tech sector in various ways.
For some businesses, this will mean the chance to take advantage of financial incentives to green their whole enterprise, from transport to energy use. And technology will play a vital role in delivering the data that makes this work; sensors everywhere will micro-adjust temperature controls in response to ambient changes, for example, and algorithms for smart energy buying and source exchanging will create new markets, underpinning the emissions agenda.
However, tech itself will be increasingly in the spotlight for environmental reasons, and ESG policy will influence the uptake of green data centers. Cloud computing is very hard to evaluate (and tax) for direct energy use due to its complexity and amorphous nature but overall accounts for at least 1% of worldwide emissions, and this is only set to increase. For end-users, the carbon consumption might seem marginal at best, but when the difference is amplified by monetary incentives, business buyers will take note.
At least we’re still going to be shopping and consuming things digitally, and e-commerce logistics suppliers are also greening their operations to include electric and micro-mobility solutions for last-mile deliveries. All this will continue to keep the consumers and their vehicles off the streets because the evolution in personalised e-commerce is now irreversible.
Automation and intelligence in customer experience
B2C and B2B businesses alike may be seeing less of their customers in the flesh, but they know more about each of them than ever before.
The days of broad personas, and putting clumps of consumers into big buckets, are gone. Technology now enables smart marketers to treat every customer journey as unique — laser-targeting messaging and offers directly to each individual, in a way so subtle as to feel increasingly natural.
Rather than being haunted by the same Google ad on every site you visit, you’re more likely to receive a personalized video message offering clarity on the product you were just reading about, followed by a complex funnel of follow-ups triggered by your individual actions and spread across a diverse range of media. We’ll continue to joke about our smart speakers telling tales on us to advertisers but the reality is marketing automation guided by a series of user behaviors we give off largely digitally.
For this to work in a non-creepy way, however, accuracy and totality will be vital. Remaining face-to-face encounters will have to feed into the data-driven strategy and it will become increasingly difficult to buy anything anywhere without identifying yourself as we move steadily towards a cash-free society. Physical stores are just one aspect of the omnichannel blend now, with their role in buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS) and buy-online-pickup-at-curb (BOPAC).
Products too will be a space for ultra-personalisation, from supplements and medicines tailored to our DNA profile to uniquely customisable fashion — which we’ll want to see modeled on a 3D rendering based on our own measurements.
What does this mean for B2B sales? More flexibility, with packages and subscriptions built around users. Off-the-shelf plans might work as a base but when customers want specific features and not others, they should be able to modularise SaaS investments at a highly granular level, which speaks to exactly what they need and want. Being forced into a significant plan upgrade because of one key feature is a good reason to look for an alternative supplier.
B2B buyers with big budgets can expect to see acquisition and retention strategies designed around measurable and significant CPA, combined with hyper-personalisation to catch attention in a noisy online world. And when you have a service or follow-up issue, you can also expect your own messaging with a brand to shift from multi-channel to truly omnichannel, with video everywhere, and for all content to be indexed and accessible through every touchpoint.
Smart marketers will not ask customers to repeat themselves, because it’s all about using data well.
Big but agile data… and whose is it anyway?
Key to all of this is the vital tech trend of data — bigger than ever, but also more versatile, accessible, and specific.
From GDPR to iOS14, awareness of the relative value of personal data continues to seep into the public consciousness. It won’t be so easy to buy shoppers off with a free cup of coffee; they’ll demand genuine recognition of the intelligence they’re offering up every time they swipe their loyalty card. And they won’t tolerate you selling that shopping list or user journey to the highest bidder because their expectation of a personal brand relationship has been heightened by all that targeted messaging — it’s you they’re sharing their buying habits with, not anybody else.
Businesses will thrive by adopting a transactional attitude to customer insight — incentivising research participants and data-sharers transparently. Fintech advances in digital payments will facilitate micropayments to support this, along with gamified loyalty products based on personalised interactions and engagement levels. But more important will be brand trust, because of an increased acceptance that you have to trust somebody with your stuff, and that’s a valid trade-off for convenience (such as living entirely within the Apple ecosystem’s walled garden of apps and devices, even though that is both expensive and restrictive).
B2B datasets will grow in value, and as the distributed workplace expands, better compliance, archiving, and supervision of that data should strengthen regulatory oversight and protect individuals. The sophistication of bad actors, up to and including state-level hackers, will maintain the arms race between attack and defense, and become so specialised as to be easier outsourced in most cases. Responsibility for security then simply becomes part of your monthly cloud services subscription.
Security threats are part of the wider truth wars agenda and will feed into most broad tech trends as the world unlocks. During lockdown, no one could leave the company database on the bus — but a lot of users were more vulnerable to phishing and similar social engineering attacks, while their guard was lowered in their own home. A hybrid and flexible environment is intrinsically more vulnerable, so businesses will need to invest in all aspects of data security, from modern device management to compliance applications to behavioral awareness training.
The word hybrid is definitely overused, or indiscriminately used, at the moment to refer to a work or business environment that is hard to pin down and may involve a variety of things. But it’s not a bad metaphor for the slipperiness of predicting the impact of broader tech trends on specific use cases.
Complexity, individuation, and a blended reality will weave an unpredictable future. Somehow technology will lead the way through it, even though each user’s journey will be unique.
As a market research veteran and founder of NYC-based B2B market research consultancy firm, Adience, Chris Wells has worked with hundreds of companies over the years.
Copyright Chris Wells, Adience