The Promise and Perils of Focusing on “In-Market” Prospects

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Intent data and predictive analytics have been hot topics in B2B marketing circles for the past few years. Simply put, intent data is information collected about the online activities of a person with the goal of using that data to identify or predict purchase intent. To make this prediction, intent data is processed using a software application with predictive analytics functionality.

Some providers of intent data and/or predictive analytics capabilities have been rather effusive in describing the benefits of their solutions. Consider, for example, these two blog post passages from firms operating in the intent data/predictive analytics space:

    “To avoid wasting time and money pursuing prospects that either already just bought the product from your competitor or are not serious about buying yet, your team should focus on the right people, targeting them at the right time by leveraging intent data, which will help you understand total active demand. Instead of a broad market of generic buyer personas, it enables you to find specific accounts that are active in your market.”

    “The opportunity represented by intent data is obvious:  find in-market buyers before they enter the funnel by tracking their online behavior and content consumption on different websites. Get enough of a head start and you can land a deal before they even consider your competition, shorten your sales cycle, and cut your customer acquisition costs.”

This is heady stuff because the ability to know which prospects are engaged in an active buying process could enable fundamental changes in the practice of B2B marketing.

The Promise

For example, suppose that your company has implemented account-based marketing. With intent data and predictive analytics, you could select ABM target accounts based on both fit (how well a prospect matches your ideal customer profile) and interest (whether a prospect is “in-market”). You could also frequently update your list of target accounts so that you have a near real-time view of which accounts are engaged in an active buying process.

This sounds like marketing nirvana, right? When you know which of your prospects are in-market, you can focus your marketing programs on this “low-hanging fruit,” which should result in higher conversion rates, increased marketing efficiency, and as the blog passage says, lower customer acquisition costs.

The Perils

It’s clear that some companies can reap substantial benefits from using intent data and predictive analytics in their marketing efforts. But intent data still has some important limitations that marketers need to understand. Those limitations have been widely discussed in articles and blog posts. For example:

Using intent data and predictive analytics to focus marketing efforts on in-market prospects also presents a broader hazard. If taken to the extreme, it can lead marketers to ignore prospects that don’t make the in-market cut. This is dangerous because it disregards an important aspect of how business buyers make buying decisions.

The conventional view is that a B2B buying process begins when a company’s leaders or managers recognize a need or a problem and decide to do something about it. These “buyers” then gather information about the need or problem, evaluate possible solutions, and may or may not decide to buy a product or service to address the need or problem. So our traditional view of B2B buying is that information gathering, learning, and evaluation all occur after an intentional buying process is underway.

But business decision makers rarely begin a buying process with a clean slate. Every day, they are forming impressions of companies, brands, and products from touch points like ads, content resources, news reports, and conversations with business colleagues and friends. When something triggers an intentional buying process, these accumulated impressions become pivotal because they shape the initial consideration set.

The initial consideration set contains those companies and/or solutions that business decision makers immediately think of when they’re faced with the potential need to buy something. And being included in the initial consideration set really matters. Research by McKinsey in the B2C space has found that brands in the initial consideration set can be up to three times more likely to be purchased than brands that aren’t in it.

I suspect the impact is slightly less in B2B, but being part of the initial consideration set is still important because it all but guarantees that your solution will be one of those evaluated in the formal buying process. And, you have to be invited to the party before you can be asked to dance.

The importance of being in the initial consideration set explains why it would be a mistake for most B2B companies to focus their marketing efforts exclusively on in-market prospects.

At any given moment in time, a large majority of your most attractive prospects – those with high potential value and good fit – will not be engaged in an active buying process and would not qualify as being “in-market.” These attractive prospects may not be likely to buy in the near term, but that doesn’t mean they are unlikely to buy in the longer term.

If you focus your marketing efforts solely on in-market prospects, you’ll be abandoning the opportunity to influence the perceptions and preferences of high-value future buyers.

Image courtesy of Fertile Ground via Flickr CC.

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