Digital Marketing and Business-to-Business Relationships: A Close Look at the Interface
and a Roadmap for the Future
Charles F. Hofacker
Department of Marketing, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, USA, Email:
School of Business and Social Sciences, Department of Business Development and Technology,
Aarhus University, Herning, Denmark, Email: email@example.com
Kishore Gopalakrishna Pillai
Amrita School of Business, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Coimbatore, India, Email:
David M. Gligor
School of Business Administration, University of Mississippi, Oxford, USA, Email:
This study aims to introduce the special issue on digital marketing and business-to-business (B2B)
relationships. In general, only modest attention has been devoted to the study of digitalization in
the B2B sector and even less on the importance of the perils and promises of digitalization for B2B
relationships. This study’s goal is to help focus scholarly attention on the implications of
digitalization on B2B relationships.
In this conceptual paper, the authors’ approach is to carefully review relevant literature, and to lay
out the field of digital marketing and B2B relationships, conceptualizing it for future research.
The authors find that the following areas are critically important to understanding future trends in
digital marketing and B2B relationships: coopetition, value co-creation, B2B branding,
servitization, innovation networks, relationship dynamics and power and trust.
The intersection of digitalization and B2B relationships is an under-researched topic. With this
paper and the accompanying special issues papers, the authors hope to begin to fill this critical
Digital marketing, Relationship marketing, Business-to-business marketing, Digitalization
Digitalization is a pervasive force in the marketplace (Hofacker et al., 2016). Along with (big) data
analytics, digital marketing now occupies a central place in marketing research and practice. Not
surprisingly, over the past couple of decades, a large body of research has examined digitalization
and its implications for marketing theory. However, much of this research has focused on the
implications of digitalization on B2C marketing. Among the critical areas examined by scholars
include online/mobile retailing (Pagani, Racat, & Hofacker, 2019; Shankar et al., 2010), online
advertising (Goldfarb & Tucker, 2011), online branding (Murphy & Scharl, 2007), online reviews
(Sparks & Browning, 2011), online communities (Park et al., 2018) and gamification (Hofacker et
al., 2016). Compared to this stream of research, much less attention has been devoted to the study
of digitalization in the business-to-business (B2B) sector. Recent developments in digitalization
hold considerable promise for B2B relationships (Kannan, 2017). There are also threats that need
better understanding. Consequently, the purpose of this special issue is to focus scholarly attention
on the implications of digitalization on B2B relationships.
The emergent domain of digital marketing vis-à-vis business-to-business marketing
Scholars started examining the implications of digitalization on B2B marketing in the 1990s, and
research in this stream came to the fore by the turn of the century. Early research noted the
implications of digitalization on fundamental relationship issues in the B2B context such as
relationship evolution and trust (Pavlou, 2002) and the reversion to transactional orientation from
a relational orientation (Sharma & Pillai, 2003). B2B exchanges and market places, given their
potential to disrupt the prevailing market structure, attracted considerable scholarly attention
during this time (Day, Fein, & Ruppersberger, 2003; Kandampully, 2003; Pillai & Sharma, 2004).
Technological aspects of digital relationships such as CRM in B2B e-commerce (Zeng, Wen, &
Yen, 2003) and technology adoption (Pires & Aisbett, 2003) were among other topics studied.
Subsequently, a large body of research examined these and other pertinent issues such as
digital branding in the B2B sector (Kuhn, Alpert, & Pope, 2008; Lipiäinen & Karjaluoto, 2015).
A discernible trend during this period was the broadening of the cultural context of inquiry with
studies being conducted in non-US counties (e.g., Gurău, 2007). Additionally, dictated by the
evolution of technology, new themes of scholarly inquiry emerged. For example, recent research
has examined issues such as harnessing automation for B2B content marketing (Järvinen &
Taiminen, 2016), adoption of big data technology for innovation in B2B marketing (Wright et al.,
2019) and determinants of social media adoption by B2B organizations (Siamagka et al., 2015).
The role of digitalization in business-to-business relationships
As noted above, B2B relationships have not escaped the overwhelming transformative force of
digitalization that has been upending the way markets function and the way customers behave and
make sense of firms’ value offerings (Confos & Davis, 2016; Kannan, 2017; Vendrell-Herrero et
al., 2017). Artificial intelligence, blockchain, data security/integrity, Internet of Things, and big
data analytics are just some possible digital trends that can shape how B2B relationships are
understood and managed. Below we delve specifically into important research domains in B2B
marketing and discuss what role digitalization and digital marketing can play in each domain.
Some of these domains, such as coopetition and servitization, represent emergent themes in B2B
marketing research, while others, such as relationship dynamics and power/trust concepts, have
traditionally constituted fundamental research streams. Nonetheless, they are all subject to a
pervasive influence of digitalization and digital marketing, and thus, has the potential to be
extensively informed by research tackling the digitalization-B2B marketing interface. Figure 1
shows the important domains of B2B relationships where different aspects of digitalization and
digital marketing have a strong potential to influence.
It needs to be clarified here that we use the term digital marketing and B2B relationship
broadly. Thus, by former, we denote trends in digitalization, such as the emergence of blockchain,
which might not yet be a marketing channel or a medium of communication, but have important
implications for digital marketing. Similarly, regarding the latter, our focus is on the broader
context of the B2B sector, where relationships contribute to value creation and go beyond the
specific relational dynamics or relationship-specific factors.
------------------------------------------ Insert Figure 1 here ------------------------------------------
Coopetition is a dynamic and paradoxical manifestation of simultaneous competition and
cooperation between B2B partners (Rai, 2016; Raza-Ullah, Bengtsson, & Kock, 2014). In the
sophisticated world of B2B relationships, coopetition is a prevalent practical phenomenon and
increasingly recognized research domain (Bengtsson & Kock, 2014). Due to technological
advancements and the increasing connectedness of the global marketplace, firms are compelled to
compete with their partners and collaborate with their competitors (Gnyawali & Park, 2009;
Gnyawali & Park, 2011). As such, coopetition is virtually an inevitable component of B2B
relationships and is subject to a strong influence of digitalization, given its dynamic and
Research on coopetition in B2B relationships is rapidly developing and taking a new mold
in light of the recent developments in the global marketplace. For example, coopetition-based
business models and organizing coopetition for innovation are influenced by digital platforms and
emergent digital technologies (Ritala, Golnam, & Wegmann, 2014; Yami & Nemeh, 2014). As
new digital technologies emerge, firms find new ways to access and use information, and such
developments influence both means of collaboration and competition across organizational
Coopetition has been traditionally prompted and sustained by the geographical proximity
of competitors (Rivera, Gligor, & Sheffi, 2016). For example, industry evidence indicates that
governments have been devoting significant resources to the creation of logistics clusters. Such
clusters have allowed competitors to both compete and collaborate to generate wealth within a
particular geographical area by facilitating the pooling of logistics capabilities (Sheffi, 2012b).
Similarly, industrial clusters have facilitated interfirm networking and the pooling of various
resources through co-locating (Sheffi, 2012a).
However, the co-locating aspect of such logistics and industrial clusters have also created
unwanted interdependence among the participating firms (Rivera et al., 2016). Firms have to
devote significant resources to re(locate) their operations to such clusters. Further, once firms
re(locate) their operations to take advantage of coopetition opportunities, it becomes more difficult
to leave in the future should their strategic needs dictate it. That is because of the sunk resources
and interdependencies created with other firms in the respective clusters. Digitalization can help
address some of these challenges associated with co-location. Specifically, it can allow firms to
engage in various forms of coopetition without the need for physical co-location by enabling
virtual co-location (Iyer & Pazgal, 2003). As such, firms can not only reduce the initial sunk cost
of engaging in coopetition by physically locating operations to a logistics or industrial cluster, but
also reduce inherent interdependencies resulting from physical colocation while facilitating new
forms of coopetition.
Value creation is at the epicenter of marketing (Woodruff, 1997). Along with the research on
service-dominant logic (Grönroos & Voima, 2013; Vargo, Maglio, & Akaka, 2008), B2B
marketing research has a strong emphasis on value co-creation as an interactive set of business
activities across B2B partners and customers that are aimed at creating superior customer value
creation and use experience (Cossío-Silva et al., 2016; Jaakkola & Hakanen, 2013; Ramaswamy
& Ozcan, 2018). In fact, the essence of B2B marketing is embedded in the notion that suppliers
and customers work together to create superior value that cannot singlehandedly be provided by
As the digitalization and related technological advancements drive the next era of business
value creation, we argue that digital marketing can fundamentally shape how value is co-created
and how customers experience value co-creation. The fact that today value is dominantly seen
through intangible attributes rather than tangible benefits (Vargo et al., 2008) highlights the
potential role of digitalization and digital technologies in B2B value co-creation. While the use of
digital technologies such as the Internet of Things and blockchain can enhance value co-creation
activities and eliminate human involvement in mechanistic processes leading to greater value, they
also are likely to raise new challenges that would amplify the soft behavioral aspects of B2B
relationships. In this vein, extant research has noted that digitalization provides new opportunities
for value co-creation but also harbors threats that firms cannot address with existing business
models (Ehret & Wirtz, 2017).
Furthermore, the increasing use of digital technologies in B2B relationships can help
transcend challenges related to time and space discontinuities in interorganizational collaborations
to co-create value. Digital e-commerce sites such as Alibaba, Amazon, and eBay are not only
digital marketplaces for buyer-supplier transactions but are increasingly used as a rich platforms
for multifaceted collaboration across different geographies and time zones to co-create relevant
value, due to better use of data analytics, increasingly sophisticated online services, and buyers’
and sellers’ improving capabilities to use such platforms. Likewise, new digital technologies like
Partner Relationship Management systems and computer-mediated communications can facilitate
B2B relationships in the pursuit of value co-creation (Obal & Lancioni, 2013).
The core premise of value co-creation is customers’ engagement in dialog with suppliers
during each stage of value design, creation, and delivery (Payne, Storbacka, & Frow, 2008). Digital
technologies can not only facilitate buyer-supplier communication for value co-creation but also
shape the way it is executed. Blockchain can help keep track of and integrate each value-creating
activity, while reducing the need for manual monitoring by B2B partners (Queiroz, Telles, &
Brands have been the primary means for customers to identify and recognize a firm’s offerings
and for firms to be influential in shaping customers’ beliefs and actions and deliver functional,
emotional, and self-expressive benefits (Ramaswamy & Ozcan, 2016). Brand mechanisms also
engender and facilitate buyer-supplier relationships, as brands enable obtaining a priori
information about potential partners, help achieve legitimacy, support reputations, and establish
expectations for engaging in B2B exchange (Czinkota, Kaufmann, & Basile, 2014; Leek &
Christodoulides, 2011). Although branding has traditionally been examined more extensively in
business-to-consumer settings (e.g., Confos & Davis, 2016; Lee, O’cass, & Sok, 2017; Pappu &
Quester, 2016), B2B research has recently acknowledged its importance and made significant
inquiries into its role in B2B markets (Leek & Christodoulides, 2011).
For B2B branding to be effective, all the stakeholders must share a common and unified
perception of the brand (Leek & Christodoulides, 2011). While smaller B2B firms may rely more
on face-to-face interactions with customers to promote their brands, larger firms may need to rely
on alternative ways of communicating the brand (Bengtsson & Servais, 2005). Digitalization can
help firms address these issues by helping to provide the platform to deliver a cohesive brand
image to all stakeholders. Recent research shows that digital media can be a crucial enabler of B2B
branding (Lipiäinen & Karjaluoto, 2015). Industry examples supplement academic evidence.
Digitalization has also increased competition and has further pushed firms to seek unique
ways to distinguish themselves in the B2B market (Hsiao & Chen, 2013). Further, it has changed
how B2B branding is executed. In fact, digital interactions are quickly replacing the traditional
salespeople contacts that have long been the hallmark of B2B branding (Zahay, Schultz, & Kumar,
2015). The rise of digital media has made brand building multidirectional. Firms and their business
customers are interconnected, can contribute to online discussions, and create and exchange
content (Hennig-Thurau et al., 2010). Social media allows authentic, experiential stories to be told
by business customers, not just for marketing messages to be delivered by firms. As such,
digitalization allows for conversations around the brand, as opposed to the pushing of marketing
messages (Österle, Kuhn, & Henseler, 2018). In essence, due to digitalization, B2B branding is
co-created with business customers.
Servitization can be seen as a business trend and a set of transformative business processes that go in
line with digitalization (Coreynen, Matthyssens, & Van Bockhaven, 2017). Servitization covers an
important domain in B2B marketing, as it involves deep and extensive collaboration with multiple
suppliers, partners, and customers in product-service networks (Jaakkola & Hakanen, 2013;
Windahl & Lakemond, 2006). B2B markets are heavily populated by firms that have traditionally
developed product-centered customer value with product-driven marketing logic. However, many
of such firms are undergoing a serious servitization transformation to respond to market demands
that have direct implications for B2B relationships.
In developed countries, more than two-thirds of product firms have adopted a servitization
strategy (Neely, 2008). This allows firms to differentiate their offerings further and boost customer
engagement. Servitization enhances the firm’s innovative capabilities and creates further value at
the customer level by allowing the firm to offer a balance of services and products (Visnjic & Van
Looy, 2013). However, firms must be cautious that firm performance might not necessarily
improve through the addition of services (Benedetti et al., 2015). Threats, such as new competitor
entry or product life cycle, can negatively impact a firm’s ability to derive value from service
implementation (Cusumano, Kahl, & Suarez, 2015). Further, digital technology disrupts the way
firms offer their products and services. For example, such technologies can lead to higher
unemployment as the need for human intervention is reduced (Brynjolfsson & Mcafee, 2011)
Digitalization plays a crucial role in servitization (Vendrell-Herrero et al., 2017). In fact, a
growing stream of research examines the role of digital technologies in servitized products under
the umbrella of digital servitization (Vendrell-Herrero & Wilson, 2017). In sum, digital
servitization can be defined as the offering of digital services rooted in a physical product
(Holmström & Partanen, 2014). While digital services are both an enabler and a driver of
servitization (Vendrell-Herrero et al., 2017), digitalization also poses a couple of challenges to
servitization. First, once they are created, digital services have a very low cost of producing new
units. While this might be viewed favorably by the seller firm, it might also reduce the customers’
perception of value offering (Rifkin, 2014). Second, digital services can cannibalize or substitute
traditional products (Greenstein, 2010). As such, B2B firms must also pay close attention to these
challenges to ensure they truly benefit from digitalization.
Innovation networks are loosely coupled systems of autonomous firms (Dhanaraj & Parkhe, 2006),
and they “encompass a number of cooperative relationships between firms, with constituent
members engaged in innovation-supporting activities ranging from R&D to commercialization and
diffusion” (Dodgson et al., 2008, p. 431). Key elements of innovation networks include network
membership, network structure, and network position (Dhanaraj & Parkhe, 2006), all of which
shape the way network members behave, and innovation takes place. Each participant in
innovation networks adds to the behavioral and structural complexity that could be witnessed in
networks of substantial size (Borgatti & Halgin, 2011). Actors with different types of network ties
such as kinships, affective, transactional, and interactive ties practice a multitude of activities
across a multitude of members and positions. Hence, innovation networks exhibit a manifold of
complexity that stems from the complex nature of innovation (Ritala & Hurmelinna-Laukkanen,
2009) and a complex nature of networks (Chakkol et al., 2018).
The MIT Smart Cities Project offers a good example of innovative networks with its design
of a City Car. The City Car is a prime example of how digitalization in service and product
innovation brings together a plethora of heterogeneous resources blurring industry boundaries. It
features an open design approach that allows third-party innovators to contribute to its design
(Lyytinen, Yoo, & Boland Jr, 2016). The City Car features can be folded and stacked due to its
decentralized power train; it is entirely digitized and can be integrated within a city’s intelligent
transportation service (Mitchell, 2007). The vehicle is stacked at various locations throughout the
city and can be obtained for short-term use through payments made via mobile devices. It uses
pricing mechanisms to buy driving rights in certain areas to reduce congestion. Digitalization
enables the formation of innovation networks to contribute to the design of the City Car through
the pooling of physical and intellectual resources outside of MIT, such as experts in electrical
engineering, urban planning, industrial design, mechanical engineering, material science, energy
policy, and software engineering.
Recent research indicates that advances in digital technologies pose noteworthy benefits
for innovation networks. First, they reduce communication costs and increase reach and scope,
thus enhancing innovation network connectivity. Second, they increase network knowledge
heterogeneity by enhancing the scope and speed of digital convergence. In essence, these
developments expand innovation networks and increase knowledge coordination across space and
time (Lyytinen et al., 2016). As such, digitalization facilitates the development of four types of
emerging innovation networks across the dimensions of a) digital connectivity through operant
resource and b) level of heterogeneity within operant resources that must be identified and
deployed for product innovation: 1) project innovation networks, 2) clan innovation network, 3)
the federated network, and 4) the anarchic network (Lyytinen et al., 2016).
Relationship dynamics comprise the interactions of multiple individuals that operate and interact
within and across organizational boundaries on an evolving and dynamic basis (Palmatier et al.,
2013). One of the central tenets of B2B relationships is that they are dynamic (Autry & Golicic,
2010; Palmatier et al., 2013). They are not linear but have ups and downs along the space-time
continuum. Likewise, B2B relationships host politically-driven behavioral elements (Lancioni,
Schau, & Smith, 2005; Wilson & Barbat, 2015) that bound rational decision-making and
complicate relationship undercurrents. Firms and their boundary-spanning representatives go
through changing experiences of B2B relationships throughout time, and digital elements of
marketing such as the use of social media platforms can inform how relationship dynamics
between partners take shape within the lifespan of B2B interactions. Accordingly, concepts such
as commitment velocity (Palmatier et al., 2013), actor role and role ambiguity, relationship quality,
as well as boundary-spanning capabilities and activities (Chakkol et al., 2018) are concepts
germane to B2B relationship dynamics that entail further attention vis-à-vis digital marketing.
Dwyer, Schurr, and Oh (1987) seminally recognized that relationships go through stages
(i.e., grow, mature) and operate differently across the different stages. Digitalization has
completely changed how actors within a B2B network can develop relationships, and has also
strongly influenced relationship stages (Vendrell-Herrero et al., 2017), thus playing a direct role
in relationship dynamics. Digitalization of business relationships has been triggered and sustained
by the plethora of digital and electronic commerce tools and can be described as the process of
making business activities, information, and offerings related to exchanges between two firms
digital (Salo, 2006).
Business relationship digitalization can yield significant benefits for the parties involved,
including lower transactional cost and increased customer value (Peppard & Rylander, 2006).
Digital technologies allow downstream and upstream supply chain actors to connect directly,
blurring the boundary between customer and supplier firms, and promoting alliances between
supply chain parties (Pagani & Pardo, 2017). However, fully digitalized business relationships are
not without pitfalls. Digitalization can eliminate the need for human intervention, thus profoundly
affecting B2B relationship dynamics, with a direct impact on sales professionals (Singh et al.,
2019). Without the human element, the relationship stages described by Dwyer et al. (1987) can
be profoundly altered, resulting in both positive and negative implications. Hybrid sales
organizations, which employ traditional salespeople and digital channels, have become quite
prevalent. Although several theoretical frameworks have been put forth to explain hybrid sales
organizations, their impact on B2B relationship dynamics is not well-understood (Thaichon et al.,
2018). Similarly, recent research has highlighted the negative effects of strong relationships (Pillai
et al., 2017). Strong relationships fostered by greater connectivity following digitalization can lead
to negative consequences, which need to be examined in detail.
Power and trust are fundamental concepts both within and outside of marketing (French & Raven,
1959; Hunt & Nevin, 1974; Sturm & Antonakis, 2015) and have traditionally been bedrocks of
B2B research (Galinsky, Schaerer, & Magee, 2017; Hingley, 2005). Power is an inherently
relational concept (Zhao et al., 2016), and so is trust (Guenzi & Georges, 2010; Selnes, 1998).
Nonetheless, beyond being essential phenomena of interest in B2B relationships, power and trust
are also elusive and subjective concepts that change over time and do not have a uniformed set of
drivers. As such, both power and trust are contextual and can be underpinned by technological
advancements like digitalization along with socioeconomic changes.
Probably the most relevant and controversial elements of digitalization to power and trust
dynamics in B2B relationships are data integrity and security. Data is often touted as the new most
important economic resource and the next big source of power (Economist, 2017). When virtually
every behavior can be codified and stored as data, firms that have means to access big data and are
able to analyze it are likely to obtain power advantage within their B2B dyads or networks.
However, having access to and using such data sources come with ethical and behavioral caveats.
While the use of big data as a source of competitive advantage can benefit firms’ power position
in B2B relationships, it may also hurt interorganizational trust-an essential building blocks of B2B
relationships (Jain et al., 2014; Selnes, 1998). Accordingly, especially big data analytics, a pillar
of digitalization, may have fundamental implications for power/trust equilibrium in B2B
relationships that need to be treaded diligently.
Digitalization has affected B2B power relationships in multiple sectors. In the hotel, taxi,
and music industries, new digital platforms such as Airbnb, Lyft, and Spotify have penetrated the
market as downstream retailers and have proposed competitive offerings by exercising control
over consumer interaction while also making upstream resource owners reliable suppliers.
Amazon is another prime example of digital servitization. The firm uses its scale to establish power
dominance in its relationship with its suppliers. In essence, the upstream-downstream power
balance has shifted in many industries where digital servitization has occurred (Vendrell-Herrero
& Wilson, 2017).
Digitalization has also led to the creation of digital trust (Mazzella et al., 2016). Several
crowdsourcing applications are enabling the establishment of this new type of trust. As such, “the
key building block of society-interpersonal trust-is being transformed from a scarce resource into
an abundant one” (Mazzella et al., 2016). Consumers utilize services such as Uber or Lyft and trust
the providers of these services because of the digital platform the providers utilize to offer their
services. Research also shows that applications of online feedback mechanisms serve to build trust
in B2B platforms (Dellarocas, 2003). That is, online applications help establish trust so business
relationships can be developed (Arnott et al., 2007).
Furthermore, emergent technologies, such as blockchain, facilitate trust-free cryptographic
transactions (Beck et al., 2016). Digitalization allows economics transactions to be guaranteed by
the blockchain, thus creating trust-free systems (Hawlitschek, Notheisen, & Teubner, 2018).
Participating entities to transactions executed via blockchain no longer need to spend time to form
trust prior to engaging in economic exchanges. In essence, blockchain is making the traditional
notion of trust obsolete and entails further research to be better understood. The foregoing
discussion leads to the following specific questions for future research.
Future research agenda
Despite growing research interest in the interface of B2B relationships and digital marketing, there
are many unexplored or underexplored phenomena within this research domain that highlights a
rich future research potential. In this section, we discuss the research potential of digital marketing
in B2B relationships in line with the seven noteworthy domains of B2B relationships that were
As a dynamic and paradoxical phenomenon that is manifested at multiple levels and across many
contexts (Rai, 2016; Raza-Ullah et al., 2014), coopetition remains little understood. The emergence
and increasing prevalence of digital technologies and digitalization-driven business models can
potentially change the way coopetition is understood and manifested in B2B markets and have
distinct future research implications. First, the question of how digital technologies underpin
coopetition dynamics between firms can enable scholars to explain the (supportive or hindering)
role of various digital technologies in the way coopetition between B2B partners evolve over time.
Different types and degrees of coopetition may emerge as a result of the use of digital platforms
by B2B partners, and scholars are advised to examine how B2B coopetition changes amid the
growing adoption of digitalization.
Furthermore, beyond dyads, coopetition may be subject to network effects (Czakon &
Czernek, 2016), and digital technologies such as blockchain that have network applications may
influence coopetitive behaviors and outcomes. Accordingly, we suggest that circumstances under
which the use of blockchain lead to productive or unproductive forms of coopetition require further
attention. Likewise, coopetition is, in part, about a dynamic juxtapose of collaborative and
competitive roles boundary spanners assume in B2B relationships. In this vein, investigating the
role of digital technologies in collaborative and competitive roles in interorganizational
interactions may be another fruitful research pursuit to undertake.
Finally, but not exhaustively, as one of the main functions of digitalization is transcending
space discontinuities, the interplay between geography and digitalization in explaining coopetition
may reveal interesting insights. Geography and space-related factors may play an instrumental role
in the nature of coopetition in B2B relationships (Luo, 2007). For example, the challenges related
to the psychic, cultural, and institutional distances between B2B partners may instrumentally shape
how they see each other as collaborators and/or competitors (Klimas, 2016; Monticelli, Garrido,
& De Vasconcellos, 2018). However, once digital tools, platforms, and business models are in the
picture, the role of geography in coopetition may be fundamentally reshaped. Therefore, we call
for greater attention to the potential role of digitalization in the relationship between geography
While value co-creation is the essence of B2B relationships (Cossío-Silva et al., 2016; Jaakkola &
Hakanen, 2013; Ramaswamy & Ozcan, 2018), the transformative role of digitalization in B2B
value co-creation needs further attention. For example, the role of big data analytics in open
innovation as a value co-creation strategy has not yet been thoroughly explored. As such, little is
known about how B2B firms can unleash the potential big data analytics in open innovation
communities and realize the potential of open innovation more effectively. We suggest that B2B
marketing scholars embedded themselves more deeply in the world of big data and develop
informed frameworks on the role of big data analytics in value co-creation in open innovation
networks. Likewise, as the advances in digital technologies enabled transcending place
discontinuities in value co-creation (Iyer & Pazgal, 2003), and more research is needed to reveal
whether and when virtual team collaboration leads to a higher degree of value co-creation.
Furthermore, we earlier noted that B2B firms are more and more compelled to develop
digital media presence for building their brand and competing more effectively in the marketplace.
However, many B2B firms struggle to optimize their digital media presence, and there is not
sufficient research to inform and guide practitioners within this domain. We, therefore, propose
further research on technical and behavioral tools for collaborative B2B digital media optimization
Finally, boundary-spanning individuals in B2B relationships may experience digitalization
as a double-edged sword. While, on the one hand, digital technologies may facilitate their work
and make value co-creation easier, on the other hand, such technologies may render some of them
redundant and no longer needed by their organizations. As such, there is a need for further research
in B2B marketing on the implications of digitalization for individual boundary-spanners and their
work life. Such research may enable a more balanced view and use of digital technologies in B2B
value co-creation and ease potential challenges boundary spanners face when dealing with
Research indicates that digital media can be an essential enabler of B2B branding (Lipiäinen
& Karjaluoto, 2015). In fact, digitization has transformed how firms can distinguish themselves
from competitors in the B2B market (Hsiao & Chen, 2013). A noteworthy change has been in the
area of the directionality of the brand building, with brand building evolving from unidirectional
(i.e., firm to customer) to multidirectional (i.e., firm to customer and customer to firm) (Hennig-
Thurau et al., 2010).
A fruitful area of future research is in the domain of social media. This platform allows
business customers to actively engage in B2B branding with firms (Österle, Kuhn, & Henseler,
2018). However, little is known about how B2B firms engage in branding via social media
platforms. Such insights could offer firms a new source of competitive advantage. Future research
should also explore the potential payoffs of mobile advertising in B2B markets and the
effectiveness of mobile viral marketing campaigns for B2B branding. Current research efforts have
primarily focused on these phenomena in the B2C context. In addition, little is known about the
underlying mechanisms of building brand equity for B2B technology firms. Qualitative studies
can help uncover these mechanisms. Finally, the underexplored area of B2B branding could benefit
from future studies investigating the digital underpinnings of co-branding in B2B markets.
Considering the costs associated with branding efforts, such insights can offer firms additional
avenues for achieving their branding needs while lowering their costs.
The interface between servitization and digitalization in B2B markets has been receiving
increasing attention (Coreynen et al., 2017; Vendrell-Herrero et al., 2017). One might argue that
servitization can serve as a force for further digitalization, and digitalization may facilitate
servitization transformation. However, many relevant issues on servitization and digitalization in
B2B markets remain to be explored further. For example, the question of when digitalization
benefits the servitization success of industrial firms, and when it hurts is an intriguing one. This
perspective acknowledges that the interplay between servitization and digitalization does not
always have to be positive, and potential negative aspects are also worth investigating.
Furthermore, as the contemporary landscape of services and servitization depends more
and more on ecosystems (Akaka, Vargo, & Lusch, 2013; Koskela-Huotari et al., 2016), the
underexplored linkage between digital platforms and business ecosystems during servitization
processes comes forth. Thus, we suggest that researchers delve deeper into the mechanisms that
connect digital platforms and business ecosystems in sophisticated ways. In a similar vein, when
servitization is seen as a business model (Palo, Åkesson, & Löfberg, 2019), whether digital
technologies can complement strategy making in achieving servitization success requires further
attention. Hence, exploring the role of digital technologies in enabling servitization-driven
business model innovation may provide interesting insights to scholars and practitioners alike.
The impact of social media networks on consumer engagement is fairly well explored (e.g., Sheng,
2019). Marketing and management scholars have so far done less work in uncovering the role of
digital technologies in orchestrating innovation networks among firms. It is, therefore, unclear as
to whether user-generated content supports the development and diffusion of innovation in B2B
markets the way that it does in the B2C realm (Mallapragada, Grewal, & Lilien, 2012), and the
types of network structures that are conducive to promoting innovation in B2B markets. The ideal
mix of collaborating users, producers, and business and non-business actors is unclear as well.
As reviewed above in our section on the role of digitalization in B2B relationships, digital
communication is characterized by low communication costs and the fact that real-world networks
tend to be characterized by relatively short paths (i.e., their small world property) between two
randomly chosen nodes (Jackson & Rogers, 2005). We thus expect to see heterogeneous
knowledge sources enter into contact in B2B innovation networks. The view that innovation is
generated through the recombination of previous knowledge (Solé, Amor, & Valverde, 2016)
would further suggest that digitalization will generate accelerating innovation growth as networks
form. As the sheer quantity of innovation and the data it generates increases, the question will
naturally arise as to how the various sources of and approaches to big data analytics can be
harnessed to catalog, measure, and optimize innovation networks. Another topic that ought to be
addressed is the way in which the knowledge management process – now also digitalized along
with innovation networks – will influence firms’ ability to search. We imagine that both search
depth and search breadth through innovation networks will change and will impact important
If one looks at the lifespan of B2B relationships during the last few decades, it would be fair to say
that external circumstances that condition such relationships have dramatically changed. For one,
the role of digital technologies in B2B relationships has been both that of facilitating and
disturbing. However, the research has been falling behind to explore sophisticated aspects of this
role. For example, the question of how buyers and suppliers approach data integrity and security
challenges during the lifetime of their relationships has not been properly examined. As such, there
is room for a better examination of digitalization driven data integrity and security concerns in
B2B relationships. For another, while some partners excel at the adoption and use of digital
technologies, others lag behind. Nonetheless, little is known about what happens when B2B
partners are uneven in their adoption and effective use of digital platforms. Therefore, the issue of
how asymmetric use of social media platforms influence relationship quality between B2B
partners emerges as an important relationship dynamics related issue to resolve.
In a similar vein, as shortly discussed within the domain of value co-creation above, when
human intervention is and is not needed in the evolution of digitalization-based B2B relationships
may be an essential area to dwell on as artificial intelligence gradually takes over human’s role in
governing B2B exchanges. This question can be placed within the bigger discussion around what
type of human skills can and cannot be replaced by artificial intelligence in the future and what
implications such transformation may have for individual businesses, marketing channels, and
society at large. Hence, the behavioral underpinnings of omnichannel B2B digital media strategy
and adoption emerge as a potential area of research to tackle such issues in the future. The
examination of behavioral underpinnings of digitalization-driven B2B relationships may also lead
to collateral opportunities for understanding the dark side aspects of strong relationships that arise
from digitalization and the ensuing connectivity, given the fact that increased digitalization may
foster stronger connectivity between B2B partners.
As noted in the above discussion, we expect that digitalization may have a pervasive influence on
power and trust-related phenomena in B2B relationships. However, researchers examining power
and trust in B2B marketing have somewhat been slow to catch up with recent developments in
digital technologies. For example, interfirm monitoring has often been seen as an unpleasant and
challenging but necessary tool for governing B2B relationships (Heide, Wathne, & Rokkan, 2007).
However, we still do not know how new tools for monitoring (e.g., blockchain, artificial
intelligence) change interfirm behavior. Future research can, therefore, examine the way digital
monitoring tools are implemented and shape buyers’ and suppliers’ behaviors in business markets.
Nonetheless, beyond being a monitoring mechanism, blockchain, in specific, may facilitate
interorganizational trust (Hawlitschek et al., 2018), and more research is needed to examine
whether and how blockchain support trust-building activities in marketing channels. Similarly,
research can revisit the conceptual properties and outcomes of trust in digital settings and explore
whether and how digital trust is different from conventional trust in B2B markets. While digital
trust has gained growing attention on digital marketing research, we believe there is need for a
better understanding of the concept and its outcomes in B2B relationships.
An increasingly prevalent notion suggests that data is power more so than ever before
(Economist, 2017). However, still little is known about the interplay between big data use and
interfirm power dynamics. As such, we suggest that research exploring this interplay can make
noteworthy contributions to both streams of research on power and on digital marketing. Likewise,
research on the sources of power, while seminal, is quite outdated and relies on conventional
assumptions (Hunt & Nevin, 1974; Turker, 2014). In the meantime, a plethora of research has
examined online reputation/word of mouth, especially in consumer settings (Dellarocas, 2003;
Proserpio & Zervas, 2017). We suspect that online reputation/word of mouth can be a new source
of power in B2B relationships and suggest scholars explore the role of online reputation/word of
mouth in obtaining and exercising power in business networks.
Articles in the special issue
The articles in the special issue take a close look at some important items within the topic of digital
marketing and B2B relationships. In an interesting article, Zhu et al. (2020) examine the patterns
of business-to-business digital referrals inscribed in business’s digital content. These authors find
that businesses are more likely to give referrals to peers residing in the same region. The article
provides useful insights into competition in the digital space.
Social presence currently plays an increasingly important role in digital marketing.
Koponen and Rytsy (2020) examine social presence in B2B chat conversations. These authors
identify different types of social presence. The findings provide useful insights for managers
regarding training salespersons for a chat. In services management, scholars have long assumed
that loyalty is the result of a chain of effects. What has not been so clear is how this chain changes
when service delivery is modified by replacing or adding to social relationships with technology
relationships and digitalization. In (Kingshott, Sharma, & Smitha, 2020), the authors carefully
distinguish between social chains of effect and technical chains of effect. Their analysis suggests
the overarching importance of trust in the relational exchange, and also suggests the
counterintuitive result that managers need to carefully separate social from technical resources
rather than integrate the two types of resource.
Digitalization has amplified the prevalence of different types of online marketing,
including social media marketing, for B2B firms. In (Drummond, O'toole, & Mcgrath, 2020), the
authors identify the digital engagement strategies and tactics in developing social media marketing
capability. They explore different digital engagement strategies and tactics for the four essential
layers of social media marketing capability and contribute to research on social media use in B2B
marketing. Likewise, Karampela, Lacka, and Mclean (2020) focus on advancing research on the
consequences of using social media sites in B2B markets. They investigate the role of B2B brands’
social media presence, interactivity, and responsiveness in customers’ perceptions of commitment,
intimacy, satisfaction, partner quality. They find that a supplier’s presence on social media sites
like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook plays a positive role in each of the brand relationship strength
aspects of commitment, intimacy, satisfaction, partner quality. They also reveal that interactivity
boosts perceived partner quality, while responsiveness positively affects commitment.
The goal of our special issue was to recognize the increasingly instrumental role of
digitalization in B2B relationships and provoke new research avenues at the interface of digital
marketing and B2B marketing. In this editorial, we outline seven major domains of B2B
relationships that are being shaped by digitalization, and we develop a roadmap for future research
to explore the interface more closely. Likewise, the articles in this issue both provide unique
insights into the role of digitalization and digital technologies in B2B marketing and offer new
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Figure 1 Major B2B research domains that are (likely to) be influenced by digital marketing