B2B Marketing Skills: What You Need to Succeed in 2020

Adam Smartschan

Partner & Chief Strategy Officer

It’s no secret that the business-to-business marketing world is changing fast. Whether you’re looking for a new job or driving leads, here are the B2B marketing skills you’ll need in 2020.

We’ll also teach you how to learn B2B marketing skills.

But first, why work on your B2B marketing skills in the first place?

Fact is, the marketing world is evolving every day. What worked in 2018 didn’t work in 2019, and what worked in 2019 will be dead in 2020.

If you’re not keeping with the Joneses – or your competition – you might be out of a job by 2021.

But there is hope.

In a world that’s shifting fast, you don’t want to always chase the shiny object. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Instead, it’s better to focus on evergreen B2B marketing skills. These are things that will stand the test of time and help you succeed in every environment.

Look. Google isn’t going to start hating quality content in 2020. And audiences will still loathe all-bullet PowerPoint decks.

That means building a foundation of these 10 B2B marketing skills will serve you well, no matter what.

#1: Strong Writing Skills

The core of business-to-business marketing is writing. That doesn’t mean everything needs to be a paragraph-laden slog. But you still need to be able to express your ideas well.

And that means strong writing skills are paramount.

Remember that the point of language is clarity of expression. If you can get your point across in an understandable way, you’re writing well. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blog post or a display ad. Strong, forceful writing gets results.

How to Improve Your Writing

First, write. A lot. Then do it again.

Timebox your work, and force yourself out of your comfort zone.

There are plenty of apps to help, too. Grammarly is the old Microsoft Word spellcheck on steroids. And Hemingway improves readability in real time. It forces you to exclude adverbs, passive voice and other poor constructions. Both have free versions and cheap paid versions.

#2: Presentation Skills

The ability to create and present a good deck is critical. Whether you’re pitching a prospect or showing client results, you need their attention. That doesn’t happen by reading bullets on a slide.

Think about what you like to see in a presentation. There’s a good chance it’s a TED Talk or some other good keynote.

You know what they don’t do? Read verbatim from literal slides. Use your deck to emphasize key points and keep the focus on you.

Be an expert. Be authoritative. Make eye contact. Own the room.

How to Improve Public Speaking

That sounds like a lot for the more introverted readers. And it is! Good presentation skills take practice.

There’s no substitute.

So film some videos for your website. If they’re not great, so what? You’ll get a few dozen views unless your traffic is good. The more you do, the more comfortable you’ll get.

There are also groups made to get better at presenting. Toastmasters International is a famous one. You’ll drop “like” and “um” in no time with them.

#3: Marketing Analytics & Excel

The designers reading this just shuddered. Sorry, guys and gals, but Excel is the heart of marketing.

You don’t need to be an Excel power user, but you do need to be comfortable there. Ultimately, you’ll need to be good enough to:

  • Make and test what-if forecasts
  • Format data to identify outliers and opportunities
  • Create basic graphs (though a dashboard is better for that)
  • Format spreadsheets attractively

You can’t fix what you can’t measure. And you can’t measure without a grasp of marketing analytics and Excel.

How to Improve Excel Skills

There are tons of Excel courses online to develop your B2B marketing skills. My personal favorite is on Udemy. Just make sure you find a coupon code or you get it on sale for $10 or so.

#4: Flexibility & Critical Thinking

Seems obvious, right?

In the real world, it’s not.

Too many people get into marketing because it’s “process-driven.” But this is not a field for people who want to do the same thing every day.

B2B marketers must respond to buyer behavior and rapid-fire changes. There are so many distractions these days that a rote process is a recipe for failure.

Look at what’s in front of you and always analyze the best path forward. Move fast and break some things. The term “growth hacking” is beyond cliche, but it has some truth to it. B2B marketing winners are constantly shifting and changing.

How to Improve Flexibility

Stretch every morning.

(Just kidding.)

Really, this goes hand in hand with the note on analytics and Excel. Don’t look at analytics as a way to confirm that everything’s working. Look for what isn’t, and think about how to fix it. It might be something new, or something tweaked. Either way, if it’s broke, it needs fixing. Think outside the box and don’t be afraid to fail.

#5: Getting into Buyers’ Shoes

This might be the most important B2B marketing skill.

A lot of marketers think about what they like and what they want. Problem is, they’re not buying from themselves. And if their likes don’t reflect the audience, they lose.

This is particularly problematic in conservative industries, like the life sciences. Often, marketers and designers will bring too much of their own feelings to the table. These don’t necessarily match those of folks in a change-averse industry.

It’s critical to think not of what you, the marketer, want, but what your buyers need.

How to Improve this Skill

The best way to put yourself in the buyer’s shoes is to talk to the buyer. Get to know them. Read what they read. Watch what they watch.

Then talk to your salespeople about the buyer. What are they like? How old are they? What do they wear? (Seriously.)

The more you know, the better you’ll be able to tune your message and creative to them. If you’re guessing, you’ll inevitably fall back on doing stuff for you, not them.

#6: Digital Advertising

You don’t need to be a Google Ads wizard to be a good B2B digital marketer. But some knowledge of major platforms and methodologies is a must-have skill.

You should understand at least:

  • How search advertising works
  • The basics of network and direct display advertising
  • When and how to use targeted ads on social media
  • Your options for buying and using data and DSPs
  • How you can target your ads (e.g., by time and geography)

Digital advertising is a very deep B2B marketing skill. And it changes constantly. Unless it’s your specialty, you don’t need to get ultra-deep. But some knowledge is absolutely power.

How to Get Better at Digital Advertising

First, get your Google Ads certification. It’s the basis of so much digital advertising, and it’s a great LinkedIn- and resume-builder.

You can also invest in tools to make digital advertising less technical. WordStream is a great one for Google, Bing and Facebook PPC. It removes the arcane Google Ads UI from the process and lets you focus on strategy.

#7: ‘Fire in the Belly’

You can’t teach fire in the belly, but you’ll need it if you’re going to succeed in a B2B marketing department or agency.

Here’s what we mean by fire in the belly.

  • You have the desire to succeed, and it’s clear to others
  • You’re focused on your goals, and you’re willing to try creative things to reach them
  • You believe the first “no” is the start of a marketing or sales conversation
  • You get the job done, end of story

That’s all critical stuff in business-to-business marketing. This is not a business for the wary or the lazy. You’ll hear a lot of “no.” That’s the way it is in an industry where a 2% conversion rate is cause for celebration. It can’t get you down.

How to Get Fire in the Belly

Think about what you’re doing your job for. You might love it. (It sure makes it easier.) But it’s not just for the job.

You’re making a living. You might be working to provide a better life for your family. You might truly believe in your company’s mission. Whatever the motivation, never forget it.

Fire in the belly is one B2B marketing skill you can't teach. Remember why you're working.

#8: Graphic Design (or Staying Out of Their Way)

Having Photoshop on your machine doesn’t make you a designer. A Sketch license doesn’t make you a designer. An Illustrator login doesn’t make you a designer.

You don’t need to be a designer to be a great B2B marketer.

What you do need is either some basic design ability … or the ability to stay out of your designers’ way.

At the end of the day, they’re the professionals. You might have certain requirements, like website speed or color contrast. But at some point you need to leave design to the pros.

Does that mean you can’t weigh in? Of course not! Creative and websites are collaborations. And if you’re an A-plus designer yourself, great!

Just don’t feel the need to get “great at Photoshop.” Be serviceable, absolutely. But when things get high-stakes, use a pro.

How to Get Better at Design Work

Know your limits. Period.

There are some things that a citizen designer can handle, no problem. That should be you, unless you have a very specific set of skills.

But if you don’t have a very specific set of skills, be willing to let design pros be design pros. Ultimately, they’re the ones driving your company’s gestalt and creative standards.

#9: Negotiation

Being able to negotiate is key in every facet of life. And B2B marketing is no exception. It’s a key skill here.

It might be negotiating an ad rate with a publisher. Or it might be tweaking a web design so it works with AMP standards. Or it might be changing a CTA to meet Google Display Network standards.

Marketing is 100% about working with other people to find mutually beneficial solutions. And negotiating is all about that.

How to Get Better at Negotiation

Practice, practice, practice.

Never pay sticker rate for an ad plan. Never compromise your core messaging, nor your visual identity.

But don’t be a jerk about it. (That’s actually a pretty good B2B marketing skill, itself.)

#10: Experience in Different Marketing Automation Tools

A lot of B2C and B2B marketers want to pick up a single certification and be done with it. (This happens a lot with Inbound coursework at the HubSpot Academy.)

Thing is, knowing one marketing automation tool inside and out isn’t enough.

Marketing automation isn’t about knowing where a button is in Pardot. It isn’t about knowing what a campaign is called in Marketo.

It’s about being able to take manual tasks and automate them.That’s not tied to one system. It’s not about one methodology or philosophy.

In fact, we’d argue that it’s completely system-agnostic.

You’re going to be better off in the long run if you know how to provide value in any number of tools. You won’t feel as constrained, and you’ll be able to solve B2B marketing problems better.

How to Get Marketing Automation Experience

Here, we’d argue not to start with certifications.

Instead, call around. Get demos. See what platforms can do, and try them if you can.

Want to get better at landing pages? Try Unbounce and Instapage. Want better automation chops? Call up the folks at INBOX25 and 366 and see what they’ve got. The more you know and the more you spread your brain, the better.

B2B Marketing Skills: Conclusion

Business-to-business marketing (and B2C marketing, too) isn’t going to stop changing. Don’t chase shiny objects and squirrels, or you’ll never get anything done.

Instead, if you focus on the skills here, you can set yourself and your company up for long-term success.

Psst … have those skills already? Looking for that next great marketing job? Check out our careers portal. We’re always looking for talent and fire in the belly.

Adam Smartschan

Adam Smartschan heads Altitude's strategic marketing and branding efforts. An award-winning writer and editor by trade in a former life, he now specializes in data analytics, search engine optimization, digital advertising strategy, conversion rate optimization and technical integrations. He holds numerous industry certifications and is a frequent speaker on topics around B2B marketing strategy and SEO.