To get an idea of what to expect, Business Marketing talked to a variety of players for their perspectives on what will emerge as key areas. Here's a look at the 10 hottest trends that top b-to-b marketers will focus on in 1998.
1. Online customization
While 1997 was the year the Internet was widely embraced by b-to-b marketers, 1998 looks to be the year when marketers hone their online skills, presenting customized offerings.
"As people get comfortable, they spend less time surfing for information; time becomes a precious commodity and they want only the specific information they want without having to dig for it every time," says Greg Smith, strategic resources director, Darwin Digital, a New York interactive marketing agency. "Customizing (using push technology) helps achieve that goal."
Getting online customers directly to the Web page and information they want instead of starting out on a home page is a priority for marketers.
"Online customization also means giving customers the ability to access a manufacturer's database via the Web site and bring up specifications, designs and pricing," says Andy Howarth, president, Snickelways Interactive, a New York Web consultancy that specializes in b-to-b applications.
2. Electronic commerce
In 1996, marketers dipped their toes into the online sales waters. In 1997, a second generation of applications that use the Web as a front end to conduct business took off. In 1998, e-commerce tools will continue to evolve to allow complete transactions, including payment, online.
"We are going to conduct more and more business electronically," says Mr. Smith of Darwin Digital. "This is the decision time. Either get in now or watch the competition take over your business."
Mark Silber, VP-executive creative director of Grey Interactive, New York, handles the Dell Computer Corp. Web site. The site already handles about $3 million in sales per day and allows online payment.
While Mr. Silber hesitates to project what will happen in '98, he says, "I think it's a snowball that will continue to grow because it makes so much sense on so many levels, particularly for companies like Dell that have a direct relationship with their customers. This is as close to a no-brainer as you can get in the business world."
3. Web design maturation
As a tool, b-to-b Web sites are undergoing multiple redesigns, becoming more functional and featuring more complete offerings.
"We're learning more and more about what customers want, how they use the Web sites, how they make their choices, and that rapid understanding quickly leads to better Web site design," says Darwin's Mr. Smith.
Specialization will drive Web site design and features in 1998, says Snickelways' Mr. Howarth. But he says it will be at least five years until companies routinely conduct transactions online.
In 1998, globalization will no longer be an option, but simply a fact of doing business.
"This is not a new frontier anymore," says Clay Timon, chairman, Landor Associates, a San Francisco brand consultancy. "It's an expectation of business today that the marketplace is the entire world, and it's standard operating procedure that companies are thinking of the global market as part of the overall marketing plan."
Mature U.S. markets have forced businesses to go overseas, while the Internet makes global marketing possible, even easy.
"Today, people don't even ask where the supplier is or where the warehouses are," says Gary Stibel, principal of New England Consulting Group, a Westport, Conn., brand marketing consultancy. "You log on, you bring all the alternatives up and you make a business decision based upon facts presented and you proceed."
5. Loyalty marketing
Call it relationship marketing, customer retention or frequency marketing, it's all loyalty marketing -- the process of better understanding customers to make them lifelong brand and company devotees.
"Marketers today are beginning to think about what else their customers want from a brand," says Watts Wacker, resident futurist of SRI Consulting, Westport, Conn. "Customers want more from their purchases, something that shows them that the brand values them as its customer," he says.
For many b-to-b marketers, this means redefining the entire sales process. Rather than sticking with a hit-and-run strategy, where sales reps concentrate on making the sale, the focus should be on the aftersale period.
6. Database integration
This story has the makings of a modern day myth. A big Midwestern company, with hundreds of products and hundreds of salespeople for each product, sent reps into the field without tracking who was handling what. One customer, tired of the endless parade of Company X sales reps, took pictures of each one and sent them to company headquarters saying, "I don't care which one you send. Just send one."
In 1998, more companies will look to database integration to deal with their version of this problem.
Says John Ruf, a consultant with the New England Consulting Group, "By creating a data warehouse, accessibility to various types of data enables executives, from customer service to sales reps, to make decisions faster and with the most current information possible."
But the question is control.
"People are very protective of their data," says Daniel Boone, VP-direct marketing, Saatchi & Saatchi Business Communications, Roch-
ester, N.Y. "Salespeople have cultivated those relationships and feel proprietary toward them; people in distribution and inventory control also have established relationships that they have a great deal vested in. When someone comes in to integrate all the data systems they have, they feel threatened."
Still, more companies will work to overcome that problem since the payback can be huge.
The idea that everyone, ultimately, is a consumer is gaining ground in b-to-b marketing. Numerous companies, many of which previously spent their entire ad budgets in trade magazines, have moved into consumer media, particularly TV. More and more marketers are treating business prospects as individuals.
"It's a continuation of the trend of business-to-business marketers being interested in the ad disciplines used by packaged goods companies," says Chet Kane, president of Kane Bortree & Associates, a New York brand image and marketing consultancy.
Whether the end user is a business professional or consumer, Mr. Kane says, "People (who make buying decisions) think about how they're going to fulfill a particular need or desire. They don't think in terms of categories, market segments and niches, but that is how too many companies insist on marketing to them."
8. Emotion in advertising
Along with a slide toward consumerization in marketing, more use of emotion -- good, sad or bad -- will crop up in advertising.
"Emotion is intended to open up the people who hold the corporate purse strings," says Ann Hayden, executive creative director, Saatchi & Saatchi Business Communications. "It's all about having a human being relate to another human being. It's finally being recognized that big purchase decisions are more than a rational decision; people make really important decisions based on the way they feel and think."
While advertisers must be careful not to offend their audience, emotion is "a way to make you relate very quickly to a product or service," says Ms. Hayden. "It's a shortcut."
9. Shifting research models
The demand for faster information and research is inspiring more companies to make their immense information resources available online.
A survey by the Council of American Survey Research Organizations, Port Jefferson, N.Y., earlier this year showed that two-thirds of large companies plan more Internet-based and Internet-aided research. Dun & Bradstreet Corp., Murray Hill, N.J., for one, allows subscribers to tap into its Million Dollar Database online.
Still, though the Internet certainly can be a valuable asset to accessing information, many business executives stop short of hailing it as a substitute for other market research. What is more troublesome as 1998 arrives, industry executives say, is the growing use of research as a crutch.
"Because there is so much information and research now out there, companies are using research, any research, to validate bad strategies," says Mr. Stibel of New England Consulting. "It's getting to the point where business managers are incapable of making a decision without having a research study."
10. Brand emphasis
There is a growing consensus that brands are a greater asset in b-to-b than previously thought.
"What we're seeing now is companies have really squeezed every cost saving they can out of their organizations, whether by restructuring, spinning off, off-loading, that the only way to continue growing the bottom line is to really dramatically grow the top line," says Landor's Mr. Timon. "So companies are looking at what they have that allows them to increase their share and that's the strength of their brands, the few things that can truly give them differentiation in their category."
Component advertising, such as Intel's "Intel Inside" campaign for microprocessor chips, E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.'s print ads for its patented technologies and BASF's "We don't make many of the products you buy, but we make many of the products you buy better," run in consumer and b-to-b media.
"It's the branding of the corporate franchise, making it appeal to both consumers, as in the b-to-b customer (who buys the components), and the end user of the product," Mr. Timon says. "Equally importantly, there is a message to the investing market" that a company name is the source of product value.
"The bottom line for companies today," he says, "is that people care about brands."