Business-to-business marketers are changing tactics in an effort to create deeper relationships and a more meaningful experience for their customers amid a challenging and uncertain economy, according to a new study by Edelman Public Relations Worldwide.

The Edelman 2002 Business-to-Business Benchmarking Survey says public relations is now viewed as the most valuable tool in the marketing toolbox, and the companies are shifting away from the use of advertising, direct mail and trade shows while increasing the use of PR, sales support materials and web services by business-to-business marketers. 

Relationships emerged as the focus of business-to-business executives. Almost three-quarters of respondents (72 percent) indicated that building better customer relationships is the primary business concern for management. Forty-four percent of respondents planned to increase their use of public relations activities to improve their relationships. Online promotion and sales support tools also were popular, with 54 percent and 51 percent of survey respondents indicating they will increase their use, respectively.

Notably, 63 percent said they would decrease their use of advertising and 61 percent said they would decrease trade show attendance.

“Marketers are turning to the tools that enable them to engage their customers in a meaningful dialogue, rather than talking at them,” said Mark Shadle, executive vice president and managing director of the Edelman business-to-business marketing practice. “It’s no longer a contest of who can yell the loudest or be the boldest, but instead a challenge to create a conversation with customers about value and trust.”

Current economic conditions are prompting marketers to re-examine budgets with an eye on their return on investment. The survey found that 68 percent of respondents felt that public relations activities meet or exceed their expectations—more than any other marketing tool. Conversely, only 52 percent of respondents felt advertising met or exceeded their expectations.

“We were interested to see how various tools held up in a tough economy,” said Shadle. “We expected that marketers would prefer the more cost-effective tactics as budgets contracted, but we were especially surprised at the degree to which some tools like advertising failed to meet expectations. These are still integrated programs, but the balance of emphasis is changing.”

The survey indicated that marketing is still a recognized and vital activity: 82 percent of respondents said that marketing has increased or maintained its importance at their company in the last year. However, a tangible illustration of the disconnect between the importance of marketing and the dollars that companies are willing to spend on those activities is seen in the respondents’ marketing budget forecast: 38 percent said their marketing budget will decrease—a reflection on the current economy; 19 percent said their marketing budget will increase, and 29 percent did not predict any change in their marketing budget.