I gave a presentation last week at CRM Magazine's annual CRM Evolution summit in New York City on 'strategic' marketing automation. What was I trying to get at with this spin on the topic? Well, it's easy to show -- technically -- what automation does, but I thought it was more compelling to focus on a strategic view of what we are really trying to accomplish. What is underlying and driving the need for B2B marketing organizations to adopt marketing automation?
It comes down to the simple context of managing buyer dialogue -- a concept I touched on in another recent blog piece on sales/marketing alignment. You want to manage a one-on-one, upstream (i.e., pre-sales) dialogue with a B2B buyer that builds purchase momentum and that consequently hands off a high-quality Marketing Qualified Lead to your sales colleague (who should then pick up the dialogue from where you left off). Yet in order to close a sufficient volume of downstream sales, you must manage quite a large volume of these upstream 'one-on-one' conversations ... and on a massive scale. SiriusDecisions reported at their May annual Summit that in 2009 the average B2B marketing organization started 1,000 of these conversations for every 2.31 deals closed.
What does this have to do with the relevance of content and campaigns?
I think most marketers would acknowledge the buyer dialogue context when speaking strategically about CRM and marketing automation. And data shows that taking the buyer-centered approach in marketing pays off. "Campaigns that are [buyer] event-triggered have a five-times better success rate," noted a recent article on destinationCRM.com," and highly-targeted ... campaigns, whereby the customer finds you, have shown 10 times the success rate over those that are intrusive."
Yet -- too often as marketers -- we completely forget the dialogue context as we develop content and campaigns and put together our lead management strategy. Should we use a white paper to generate leads? What should we say in a follow-up e-mail from a tradeshow? How should our search engine optimization and lead nurturing integrate in our overall marketing strategy?
These somehow become questions we struggle to answer because we think about the tactics in a vacuum, versus placing them in context. As a result, we lose 'relevance' -- a concept my colleague Loren McDonald explains is about 'the right message' at 'the right time' and which is critical to effective marketing.
I believe that in B2B marketing the strongest approach to rationalizing content and campaigns -- and improving net relevance -- is to leverage the buyer dialogue context.
Where does a given piece of content or step in a campaign lie in the typical dialogue with a buyer in the midst of his/her decision-making process? That is the question that should govern the subsequent content copy or campaign flow developed.
How do we get our heads wrapped around the buyer's decision-making process?
Okay, let me admit that this can be complicated and will vary by industry, company and customer. It's admittedly no easy task to analyze -- in detail -- your buyer's process and the mediums/messages that are most relevant at various stages of evaluation. You may never have the perfect model of this critical dialogue path, but that's no excuse for not trying to get your head wrapped around this. The good news is that none of us are the first B2B marketers (or sales people) to ask this question.
There is a wealth of research and numerous business books over the past few decades that have tackled the topic of understanding the B2B buyer. One particularly-insightful book (which I think of as a modern-day sales classic) is Customer Centered Selling, published in 1998 by Robert L. Jolles. Jolles is a former training consultant for XEROX -- the folks who literally invented modern B2B selling techniques -- and he has great insights into the buying process. He believes that there is a repeatable process that every buyer goes through -- beginning and ending with 'satisfaction.'
I won't go into a complete explanation. But Jolles' insights are very instructive in understanding what motivates a buyer to move from one stage to the next, and he has great data on the steps where we spend a lot of time and energy. For instance, he reports data showing that buyers spend 79% of their time at the 'acknowledgement' phase -- where they know they need to buy something but are still 'on the fence' about the purchase.
So what should a B2B marketer do to drive this process (and dialogue)?
Jolles comments early on in his book that "[t]he key concept of Customer Centered Selling is to learn to analyze where your customers are in their decision cycle and assist in moving them through to a decision. In doing so, you must learn what tactics are appropriate for which part of the decision cycle." He obviously wrote the book to help sales professionals analyze their prospects and figure out how to move them along; moreover, at the time when he wrote this book, the conventional wisdom was that a seasoned B2B sales professional could actually manage this entire process.
The problem lies in the Internet and its influence on the modern B2B buying process. Buyers are increasingly self-propelled as they go through this process -- consuming Internet-based information, including consulting other buyers and experts. As a result, they are engaging a sales professional later and later in the process. In fact, sales professionals are increasingly relegated to interacting with B2B buyers at the investigation stage or later (noted by the yellow stars below). This means that at this stage the buyer has already formed many of his/her opinions -- leaving less room for the sales professional to influence the process and creating a problem for the vendor company.
Enter the B2B marketer -- armed with this insight. By looking at the buying process in these terms and understanding where sales is engaged in the dialogue, it becomes increasingly clear where the B2B marketing team has an opportunity to close the gap and manage the upstream dialogue -- moving the buyer through the 'acknowledgement,' 'decision,' 'criteria' and 'measurement' stages (noted by the orange stars above). And marketing can do this through content and targeted communication, eventually handing off a Marketing Qualified Lead somewhere around the 'investigation' stage.
This gap analysis helps to rationalize marketing's role, but it also helps to focus our efforts as B2B marketers.
What does this mean for keeping campaigns and content relevant?
The next step is to understand the nature of the dialogue and the mediums leveraged at different steps in the process. For instance, understanding how B2B buyers leverage social media, thought leadership (such as Webinars and white papers) and traditional media to get off the 'fence' and decide to make a purchase helps to identify opportunities for tactics and content that will serve a compelling role in this stage of the process. Similarly, understanding the role e-mail nurturing can play in bridging the gap between acknowledgement phase and shifting into a more-formal purchase evaluation helps to rationalize your nurturing campaigns.
Below are some examples of mediums and content types that often play a role in key stages of the B2B buying process.
The key take-away is that buyer dialogue is always happening, and today it's a process that is less and less easy to control. So understanding the process and knowing the gaps you need to close as a B2B marketer helps to rationalize and inform the focus of your content and campaigns. It also points to the strategic role that marketing automation increasingly must play in managing a volume of micro-conversations and converting them into Marketing Qualified Leads. The key is to keep the buyer -- and your dialogue with that buyer -- at the center of your marketing strategy. And the result will be greater relevance and also greater sales conversions.
What do you think about this buyer dialogue context? What are your thoughts on how marketers can better leverage customer-centered strategies to improve the relevance of content and campaigns?