It is natural to look for the ‘silver bullet’ – the simple solution to a complex problem – but it seems that in business-to-business marketing we have failed to learn the lesson that this approach rarely reflects the complexity of engaging with B2B buyers.
As vendors continue to offer a vast array of ‘solutions’ to marketing’s challenge of filling, nurturing and converting the sales funnel, we seem to be in danger of jumping from Content Marketing to Inbound Marketing to Customer Experience Marketing to Account Based Marketing as silver bullet solutions.
But are we really understanding the problem?
Digital Changes Everything
Everyone understands the huge disruptive impact of the digital transformation of business. Whole industries have migrated from a majority bricks-and-mortar existence to the digital world. The world has become one big marketplace and standardised approaches to automating the front and back offices purchased as a service (software-as-a-service: SaaS) have brought huge gains in productivity and efficiency to all sizes of business.
A lot of business is now conducted online: either directly using eCommerce platforms or with significant elements of the buyer’s journey completed online before engaging directly with a potential supplier. This is the new reality.
But the buying journey remains the same – it starts with a recognised need and ends with a purchase and post-purchase support of some kind. What changes with digital, is the challenge for vendors to recognise the signs that a purchasing cycle is underway. This is because no longer is someone picking up the phone to call sales – buying behaviour is fragmented across time, across multiple channels and across multiple buying team members.
How does Marketing help with that?
As vendors, we meet our objectives when our solutions match our customers’ needs/ wants. This symbiosis is often represented in B2B by a funnel, with ‘awareness’, ‘education’ or some other descriptor used to describe the top of the open funnel and a dollar sign or ‘order’ identifying the bottom of the funnel when a financial contribution is booked.
This funnel representation is useful for representing a number of important sales and marketing dynamics:
how high volumes of broad reach marketing activity at the top of the funnel become more personalised, more specific engagement as late stages of the funnel are reached
how funnel ‘leakage’ and recycling occur as early stage interest fails to convert to the next stage
how responsibility for nurturing and engagement changes based on the tasks that need to be performed at different stages
how some predictability of funnel performance/ outcomes can be built into planning through the capture of data and insights
how content and channels perform differently at different stages
All of this value can be undermined by thinking that this represents real buyer behaviour: this is, of course, only a model.
It is very useful for planning, but not helpful if it is not connected to buyer journey analysis, content marketing, enablement and human qualification. Leads, MQLs and SALS mean nothing in isolation.
Funnel Marketing is not a silver bullet.
The Desire for Attribution
It is natural, that, as B2B Marketing sought to find its place at the CXO table by showing that the marketing function represents an investment in growth - not a cost of doing business – it would prioritise lead generation as a key measure.
All companies are obsessed with growth – it is an important indicator of success – so marketing’s ability to show marketing-sourced leads turning into sales pipeline and closed orders is a priority.
But what is a ‘lead’ in the context of a 6-month sales cycle, with a 12-person buying team? While simple, low cost, transactional purchases via digital channels and eCommerce platforms can be more readily attributed to sales, that is much harder when there is no clear relationship between initial lead, opportunity and account entity.
Web forms, marketing automation and CRM systems play a significant part in determining how well marketing tracking – and therefore attribution – can work. And this is even truer when trying to define marketing influence over new business or customer retention.
Lead attribution is not a silver bullet – and can in fact drive the wrong behaviours
Account Based Marketing
ABM is the latest in a long line of reinvented B2B marketing strategies over recent years. These include: omni-channel marketing, content marketing, data-driven marketing, customer experience marketing acquisition.
As I wrote recently, ABM, like all of the other go-to-market fads of the last 5 years, is no more than a restatement of B2B marketing in a digital world. While we should not under-estimate the work required to execute marketing strategies in an always-on world, it is this change in the way the Marketing function operates which needs attention, not the individual strategies themselves.
ABM focuses attention on two key realities of B2B sale and marketing: some accounts – usually the larger ones – are worth more to our business than others; and these larger account opportunities are harder to win as they involve more people and involve a longer buying process.
ABM is therefore a strategy to increase customer lifetime value by focusing on a smaller number of accounts with a greater propensity to not only contribute significantly to this year’s sales quota, but also to provide expansion opportunities in the future. This is not a new objective and it is one that usually needs to co-exist with more traditional funnel marketing strategies, since in very few cases will all target accounts justify the investment of an ABM approach.
Central to ABM strategies is account intelligence. There has to be good data and customer insights that point to why focusing on a smaller number of accounts is going to produce a higher order/ revenue contribution. It is not enough to want ‘marquee’ accounts or recognisable logos – there has to be a genuine and quantifiable value proposition for these accounts on how ROI will be delivered.
Content, channels, data, a joined-up customer experience and all of the other reinvented strategies need to be brought together in a personalised, coordinated approach, led by account intelligence for ABM to work effectively.
For most companies it is more of an aspiration than a reality – and there is no silver bullet: just hard work.
Change Management in Marketing
Marketing has transformed significantly in recent years to a function that contributes to growth by turning digital buying journeys into new customers. By collaborating closely with sales on a shared vision of how to target and acquire new customers new funnel marketing – and now ABM – strategies are emerging, driven by big data and sophisticated martech.
Instead of looking for that silver bullet we need to continue the journey to effective cross-functional alignment within our organisations, built around the customer. This change to customer-centricity in B2B is still in its infancy, but the recognition that product performance superiority provides only short-term differentiation is taking hold. This is leading to dramatic business transformations – and new, disruptive market entrants focused entirely on the needs of high value customer niches.
Marketing has led much of this change and is in good shape to help companies transform to customer-centric, digital first organisations that have been engineered for agility and excellence.
We just need to realise change takes time - and there is no silver bullet.