As we enter into a new decade, there's a looming sense of uncertainty: a possible recession, presidential impeachment and an election year, Brexit and wider trade disputes. Despite the unsettled macro environment, communications leaders in B2B tech are plowing forward, focusing on factors they can control.

Tech-enabled Efficiency 

The more unstable the economy, the more important measurement and ROI typically become. In this climate, technology can expect to receive greater budget allocation, with PR taking an approach comparable to that in paid media marketing.

“The biggest expansion in our spending will likely be on communications technology—tools that enable us to better understand and target our impact,” says David McCulloch, vice-president of communications at Hitachi Vantara. “I plan to extend our capabilities beyond monitoring and measuring to testing, targeting and ultimately optimizing our work through data.”

McCulloch says the idea is to use data to “rapidly assess the impact of campaigns, content and employee advocacy efforts and to refine our strategy based on that data”.

Measurement “is still pretty much top of mind with every marketer and PR leader,” says Mark Nardone, EVP of PAN Communications. He sees advances in data helping to show more conclusively the impact earned media has on other channels.

Eric Channing Brown, VP of corporate marketing and communications at data management company DataStax, plans to put more emphasis on earned media's role in supporting demand generation and user acquisition. More generally, he thinks PR can have “an outsized impact” when it comes to brand building and says it will lead more initiatives in that context.

Of course, not all investment will be technology-focused. For Brown, live engagement is a priority.

“We’re going to spend more on speaking opportunities and executive networking,” Brown says. “Meeting customers and prospects face-to-face and ‘live in-person’ is more important than ever, and creates a chance to meet people when they’re receptive to learning, which is not always the case when we’re bombarded every day by a steady stream of content.”

The company is also investing more in “getting our customer references front and center. In the enterprise arena, nothing is more important than customers telling their own impact stories in their own words,” he said.

The Earned Media Debate

Hitachi Vantara’s McCulloch anticipates shifting more money from media relations into social media and other areas such as social good programs, citing the shrinkage of B2B publishing. But Michelle Herman, VP of corporate marketing at software company Sisense, says the fundamentals of media and thought-leadership tactics still count for a lot. She sees the need to maintain steady investment in this area, whether through an agency or in-house.

“Technology news today covers fewer vendors, so the opportunities to profile your company and the problems you solve for consumers are fewer and far between,” Herman notes. “That means we need to be super savvy at inserting ourselves into breaking news, find alignment in trend stories and get far more compelling with customer storytelling.”

She adds that while this is not “rocket science,” it is “very hard work and any company that says it’s not a priority for their business isn’t being honest”.

Influencers & Entertainment

Even if an air of caution prevails in business, communications professionals would be remiss not to experiment with unfamiliar areas. Darlene Doyle, EVP at PAN Communications, says clients are showing more interest in influencer marketing, an example of the continued blurring of the line between earned and paid outreach.

“Influencer marketing in the enterprise area isn’t as easy as in the consumer space,” says Channing Brown. “But we will spend time nurturing enterprise influencers to get them to write content about us, and then syndicating that over our own and their channels.”

“The biggest expansion in our spending will likely be on communications technology

Despite the very specific nature of its business—data storage, Hitachi Vantara is also approaching communications more like a mainstream consumer brand would. “We took a big step toward thinking about content like an entertainment company might this year,” McCulloch says. “I see that continuing into 2020. We recently repurposed a large meeting room in our headquarters building, turning it into a video and audio recording studio. Video content and podcasts are increasingly replacing blogs, whitepapers and case studies at Hitachi. We’re seeing much better engagement with these types of assets, so I see us doing more in that domain.”

We can also expect to see more in the way of employee engagement. While hardly a new area, companies are looking at it with renewed interest and experimenting with ways upgrade it. “In today’s uber-competitive job market, companies are eager to understand how best to mobilize their internal ambassadors to support the brand and recruitment efforts,” PAN's Doyle says.

Integration, Finally?

Agencies might start to feel a change in the way clients engage them too, but mostly for the better. “I do feel the mindset of ‘us versus them’ is getting thrown out of the window,” says PAN's Nardone. In-house departments are starting to “recognize how to better utilize and tap into the agency skillset. It’s more of an integrated conversation than a siloed effort.”

As the representative of an agency, Nardone sees growing unification inside clients between PR and other skillsets. “We’ll pitch to the PR team but they’re also relying on the head of social or the head of demand generation to help influence the ultimate decision and that's a big change,” he says.

McCulloch confirms that he is thinking differently about vendors. “Five years ago, the portfolio of services I expected from a PR agency was relatively narrow,” he says. “Now I expect my agency partners to offer a broad swath of social, digital, content, analytics, and production capabilities. I expect them to operate with an agile mindset that is responsive to the digital, social, mobile, meme-driven world of communications we live in. That applies in the B2B sector too.”

Channing Brown puts it more simply. “We consider our agencies an extension of our in-house team. We just want to get closer to them and make sure they understand our vision and strategy to help us communicate those to the outside world.”

But if mainstream agencies are expected to do it all, there is also room for very specialized service providers. Herman says using a speaker placement agency has helped her dramatically. “It’s a brilliant model if you think about it,” she says. “Communications professionals, who understand how to position a company and an executive, decide to specialize in placing company spokespeople in custom-fit panels, keynotes and events based on their area of expertise and the audience they want to reach.”

While last year her focus was on mid-level speakers, in 2020 it will be on the C-suite.

Less is More

So what won’t clients be investing in? Nardone argues that rather than pulling back on specific areas, they will look to find ways “to work better with their current investment,”which in some cases comes back to employing technology to be more efficient.

For others, it's a simple case of reading the way things are received and adapting accordingly. “Creating a meaningful thought leadership campaign with earned media is harder and harder,” Channing Brown notes, “because our own message can be diluted by the voices and opinions of others. So we’ll use our own media channels, primarily our blog and also our social feeds, as well as select paid media to get our thought leadership point of view into the market.”

For Doyle, 2020 will spell the end of “one-off” initiatives. With luck, it will also mean better planning.

“We see our clients looking at their communications programs from an integrated lens,” she says. “Creating campaigns and assets that can be used across channels to serve multiple audiences. It’s a less-is-more mentality. It’s not about more content; it’s about making your content work for you across channels. It’s not about more coverage; it’s about coverage in the media outlets that matter most to you.”