Our team at BrightTALK recently had a chance to interview a number of marketing professionals and get their thoughts and predictions about some of the key trends in B2B marketing. It was an interesting exercise, and it allowed us to dig into some of the new ideas and practical applications that are being adopted by today’s best marketers.
Now more than ever, marketers have a variety of new and traditional options in their toolboxes. In addition to tried-and-true foundational practices, our group of professionals shared their insights into new ways of approaching demand generation, improving content marketing, and leveraging early forms of machine learning and AI — all within the framework of a vastly expanded appreciation of the central role of the customer experience. According to Scott Brinker, founder of the website chiefmartec.com and author of The Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic, “Marketing is becoming responsible for customer experience throughout the organization.”
The marketing technology ecosystem has exploded in the last decade, ballooning from about 150 martech companies in 2011 to roughly 7,000 today. That translates into dozens, sometimes hundreds, of options for every phase of a company’s marketing requirements. The key is to figure out how these new methods and technologies work together — and how they can best achieve quantifiable business goals.
One of my top takeaways from these discussions is the growing importance of formulating and managing marketing campaigns on a far more granular and customer-centric level. Prospects and customers need to be addressed through multiple touchpoints, using the appropriate content and delivered through the right channels at the right time.
So let’s take a look at some of the approaches — both current practices and those on the horizon — within the marketer’s arsenal.
As always in marketing, generating demand takes center stage. Many of the new software applications on the market focus on this most critical precursor to sales. Appropriately, the 2018 Demand Gen Benchmarks Report found that 70 percent of marketers say their demand-generation budgets are growing, and a third of them said they will grow by more than 20 percent.
Demand generation has traditionally focused on looking beyond existing accounts and finding new prospects. Much of the recent discussion has centered around the notion of harvesting the additional potential in your existing client base, broadly known as account-based marketing (ABM). The Demand Gen Benchmark report found that 49 percent of respondents identified account-based tools as a top priority.
“It’s really about understanding who your customers are, knowing where they interact and learn about what you’re selling and marketing, and creating a process that appeals to them and reaches them in the right places at the right time,” said Doug Sechrist, vice president of demand marketing at Zenefits.
So many companies are racing to generate content that the marketing landscape is starting to look like a content arms race. Increasingly, that race is ending in content overload. Many of the experts we spoke to addressed the importance of tailoring content and its messaging to specific audiences at particular moments in the purchasing cycle.
Sometimes content needs only to inform and educate; at other points in the sales funnel, content can shed light on specific product benefits and attributes. As Steven Wastie, chief marketing and revenue officer of Origami Logic, observed, “The biggest challenge and opportunity for us around content is understanding the context within which the content is consumed. It’s one thing to deliver a long-form asset when somebody’s not ready for it and quite another to deliver a short-form asset when they’re totally ready for it and you get the call-to-action response you expect.”
One of the things we heard repeatedly was the value of offering insight into how customers experience and use products. Customer stories and case studies are particularly effective at communicating how products and services solve actual problems in the marketplace. The Demand Gen report found that two-thirds of buyers said they give strong credence to peer reviews and user-generated feedback. Sixty percent of buyers similarly said they find value in expert content from third-party publications and analysis.
As Julia Stead, vice president of marketing at Invoca, said of the growing value of content marketing, “Historically, we’ve led a lot with product features and showing off what we think is cool about our product. This year, I want to make sure that we’re reframing things and putting our customer stories front and center, showcasing their specific use cases and the results they’ve seen, to make it more tangible for our audience to understand what we provide.”
One marketing area that has seen remarkable change during the last several years is the expanded focus on customer experience. That emphasis is only continuing to grow; according to a study by Walker, the consulting firm, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator by the year 2020.
Marketing is typically tasked with overseeing the entire digital experience. Increasingly, according to many of the experts we spoke with, marketing now permeates every dimension of the customer experience — from initial awareness to the sales transaction process and extending through the post-purchase experience. In other words, marketing is coming to own more and more of the customer lifecycle.
One expert we spoke to credited the growing emphasis on customer experience to the models set by consumer merchandisers. “We’re seeing pressure in B2B to have customer experiences that live up to the experiences that B2C high-tech innovators provide,” explained Tommy Jenkins, vice president of marketing at AvidXchange. “Customers have seen all this convenience that’s happened in their personal lives, but they haven’t seen that delivered in B2B from a customer experience standpoint. People are starting to say, ‘Wait a
second, shouldn’t we have the same kind of experience everywhere?’”
As Sangram Vajre, co-founder and CMO of Terminus, pointed out, “A perfect or near-perfect customer experience could be when you combine these high-tech touchpoints on digital channels with high-touch outreach, like direct mail, customer dinners, and ongoing communications. When those key things work in perfect harmony, that’s a better customer experience.”
There is a great deal of excitement about the potential of machine learning and artificial intelligence to enhance the marketing function. Our panel offered a variety of perspectives and insights about AI, and participants seemed to be in various stages of adoption of these new applications, including chatbots, automation of lead scoring, and customer data analysis. In 2017, according to the Lead Nurturing & Acceleration Survey Report, about one in five marketers (19 percent) said they were using AI-powered applications, but more than a third (36 percent) said they planned to deploy AI tools as part of their martech stack within the next 12 months.
Some interesting new work centers around connecting people with educational material based on their professional interests. Using machine learning that analyzes previous content consumption and makes personalized recommendations, marketers can now provide content that serves professionals’ actual needs and preferences at scale. In other words, there will be more intelligence in artificial intelligence.
As a study by Peppers and Rogers presciently observed 25 years ago: “When two marketers are competing for the same customer’s business, all other things being equal, the marketer with the greatest scope of information about that particular customer […] will be the more efficient competitor.”