Pivoting B2B Marketing During a Global Pandemic

What’s the key to running a digital agency during a pandemic? For Thad Kahlow, CEO of BusinessOnline, it all comes down to authenticity. That’s what he told me when we chatted about the ups and downs of trying to survive (and attempting to thrive) in the marketing world at a time of uncertainty. The most important thing we can do right now, he said, is to remember and understand that we’re human. No pretentiousness. No polish. Just empathy. When you lead with that, the rest will follow.

That’s not just good work advice, but good life advice, too.

Watch our first interview of BOL Real Talk Video Series here: 

One year on, COVID-19 has upended so much in our personal and professional lives and we definitely need all the empathy we can get. We didn’t know it at the time, but the pandemic is drastically changing our future too. In the world of B2B marketing, it has already accelerated our adaptation and navigation of a truly digital world in big ways.

For digital agencies like BusinessOnline, the past year has brought many questions, and the need for a vision that can answer them quickly. How do you adjust your agency strategy and keep growing in a rapidly changing world, while also mitigating potential risks? What do digital agencies need to do to make sure they’re prepared going forward? How do marketing leaders need to approach this moment in a way that will keep their teams both healthy and happy?

In this session of BOL Real Talk, we took some time out to discuss how the pandemic has reshaped agency life, the biggest takeaways from the uncertain journey that was 2020, and what the bigger picture looks like going forward. Watch the video above, and then check out our recap below:

Lesson #1: Lead with a Conscience 

Whether it comes to your clients or colleagues, compassion is critical. For BusinessOnline, it became the cornerstone of every decision that was made going forward once the company realized that a shift was taking place and it wasn’t going to go away quickly. 

Like businesses across the world, a small adjustment in staff had to be made, but balancing the needs of the business with the human needs of the team was the ultimate goal as the company delved deeper into uncharted territory – and that goal was communicated clearly and early.

“That decision let people know early on that we have compassion,” Kahlow says, adding that you have to stick to the plan and see it through. “If you make a decision where you’re too finally driven, you kill culture and show the world what you’re all about. If you’re too singularly focused on individuals and you’re not willing to look after the financial needs of the business, then you put the entire business at risk.”

Lesson #2: Being Customer-Obsessed Pays Off

The pandemic might have pushed us into the digital direction we’ve been heading in for years, but it was the customer leading the charge the entire way. 

Research shows that COVID-19 has changed consumer behavior across many spheres of life, including a surge in e-commerce and changing brand preferences. In the B2B world, more than three quarters of buyers and sellers say they now prefer digital engagement.

Any organization that wants to pay more than lip service is customer-obsessed, says Kahlow. 

“How you understand the inputs and behaviors of the customers to then deliver on their needs, wants, and desires – that in my opinion is the hallmark of a company that’s going to do well.”

And understanding their needs, wants, and desires in this moment means embracing the digital transformation. In fact, 34% of agencies report advising clients to invest in digital transformation.

For BusinessOnline, digital transformation has been the mantra for a long time, says Kahlow. That’s why the agency has produced guides like Invent to Survive, research on digital marketing for manufacturing companies, and the SaaS Marketers Survival Guide for 2020.

The bottom line? Embracing and adjusting to new buyers and new habits is how businesses can deliver on outcomes like efficiency and growth. 

Lesson #3: Personalization Is More Important Than Ever

Account-Based Marketing, or ABM, has increased in popularity, and with good reason. It’s a marketing strategy that involves highly focused, personalized targeting that essentially speaks to prospects in more individualized ways – and it’s a perfect tool during a time when customers have more options to choose from than ever before. 

ABM has also been an important aspect of BusinessOnline’s services and a way to move beyond a sales-driven approach when buyers have bigger expectations about their digital experiences.

“Brands have to be better at understanding their buyer,” says Kahlow. “ABM is not the only way, but an amazing way of doing that, for businesses to re-architect themselves around a customer-obsessed journey.”

Lesson #4: The Time Is Now

The digital transformation hastened by a global pandemic is here to stay, which means if you want to succeed, you should have already shed old habits and restructured your approach to suit not only the present, but what’s about to drop in the future. The gist? Having a long-term view of your business is always going to put you ahead and help you not only deal with difficult decisions, but also look beyond them, too.

“The moment is now,” Kahlow says. “Marketing as a function within B2B has never been more important.” 

And, he argues, it’s going to be one of the most important functions of business going forward, eclipsing things that once held No. 1 spots like sales and engineering. 


2020 is behind us, but its impact is still being felt in all aspects of our lives. When it comes to our careers and communities, the pandemic has revealed the surprising ways we adapt and manage to overcome, and what really matters when the going gets tough. At every level, including running a digital agency, it’s also shown us how being honest about problems and recognizing challenges isn’t a weakness, but a strategy rooted in compassion and strength that can be used to grow, become efficient, and mitigate risk. 

If you’re looking to stay ahead of the rapidly changing world of marketing, see how BusinessOnline’s 20+ years as a performance marketing pioneer can guide you in the right direction