January 21, 2018

The crisis of buyer information in B2B and how to fix it


Image by roboppy via Flickr

The other day, I kept getting calls on my cell phone from the same number. Never left a voice mail, (which my gut was telling me should have been a signal), but the number was local. Could it really be that someone I knew was trying to get hold of me?

So, like a fool, I finally called back (the iPhone makes it so easy to do!). With the kind of maddening irony that makes me flash on doing capital punishment-inducing physical harm to a fellow human, I heard a recorded voice say, “Thanks for calling back. If you would like us to stop calling you press…”

Too bad you can’t slam an iPhone.

Pushing the easy button
The episode reminded me of the sheer desperation, sociopathic lack of empathy, and .0000000000000000001% response rate it takes to do direct commercial marketing via the telephone these days. Some of you may not even be old enough to recall what it was like before the National Do Not Call Registry came along. Don’t ask. You think Wall Street and the banks are evil now? You should have seen what they did to doddering seniors’ life savings via the telephone.

It got me thinking, what if a similar easy button comes along for online marketing? We keep hearing that at some point web users may truly be able to stop you from learning anything about them. The “voluntary policing” being done by the ad industry today online is at best an uneasy truce with an internet public not yet bothered enough, too lazy, or too uniformed to do anything about shutting off the cookie oven for good. Certainly, you know that the kinds of douche bags who practice the aforementioned cell phone marketing are no doubt out there somewhere hatching an internet cookie scheme that will so outrage the American public that the little old ladies (and men) will finally rise up and demand relief, just as they did with telephone marketing.

Obviously, this is less of an issue in B2B than B2C. Cookies help us learn more about our website visitors, but you won’t learn nearly as much about the spending patterns of B2B executives through web cookies as you do with B2C buyers.

Privacy is a concern in B2B, too
Yet even in B2B, we have a growing concern over privacy in lead management. Anecdotally, we hear that content gets exponentially more clicks when there’s no registration form attached to it. And people’s B2C experiences have a habit of leaking over to their B2B behavior. Generally I think we can say that the trend and sentiment among B2B buyers is to hand over less information over time rather than more.

So how to stave off this impending crisis of buyer information? It may seem facile, but social media are the answer. Rather than trading information for value or simply stealing it through invisible cookies, what if we actually did it the way people do in real life: through a personal relationship?

Buyers click more on pages with people
Buyers want to get to know your subject matter experts. They really do. I saw a terrific interview recently with Ethan McCarty of IBM, who talked about how IBM is working to get its employees involved in internal knowledge sharing through social mechanisms. You should read the whole thing, but one bit jumped out at me as great data for proving why we need to get more personal with buyers:

“Through A/B testing we have found that pages with IBMers on them perform significantly better than those that do not have IBMers on them. For example, if we have a web page that is designed to get visitors to click deeper into our site, the presence of IBM experts on the page improves both the performance and the overall feedback we get about the page. It’s kind of no surprise—when we are transparent, people trust us and feel better about the experience. What was interesting to me is that this is even the case when they don’t interact directly with the IBMer on the page.”

Marketers who let their subject matter experts get more personal with buyers will win in the end.

What do you think? Are you making plans for a post-buyer information age? If so, how?

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Why Lead Management Automation Really Matters

We should care more about lead management automation in B2B marketing. Maybe we don’t care enough because we’re focusing on the wrong reasons for doing it.

It isn’t because the software for automating this stuff has improved, or because it’s available through the cloud so you don’t have to deal with those people over in IT.

No, there’s something bigger going on here. And that is a huge change in the buying process.

In part it is being driven by social media. ITSMA’s annual survey of IT buyers found that this year, for the first time, a majority of buyers in the US—and 75% when you include other countries—are using social media in the purchasing process—especially the younger ones.

In our research we’ve also seen consistently over the past few years that two-thirds of buyers prefer to research their buying options themselves rather than waiting for vendors to contact them. Indeed, research by Forbes and Google found that 80% of C-level executives perform at least three web searches per day.

And finally, the trade press and general business media are dying. We have fewer and fewer outlets to do the heavy lifting of thought leadership for us by featuring our subject matter experts in in-depth analytical articles. Yet buyers are hungrier than ever for this kind of information and insight.

Buyers are removing salespeople from the buying process
What this all means is that buyers are really trying to remove salespeople from the earliest stages of the buying process. They want to become as informed as possible about current trends and their buying options before they ever speak to a salesperson.

This is where we as marketers need to provide more content—but not sales content. This content must be like what the press used to provide, objective, idea-based, and educational—not selling. Put another way, we have to use content to establish a relationship with buyers where our salespeople can’t. And we have to continue to build that relationship over time until those buyers are ready to talk to us.

That’s why lead management automation is important. It’s too difficult to track that relationship and know when someone is ready to do more than just read your white papers unless you have a process for lead management and can automate it. You have to be able to connect content with behavior with action. That’s not possible manually. It just won’t scale.

What do you think? What is stopping your company from creating an automated lead management process?

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Is lead generation killing marketing?

What happens when you stake the value of your contribution to the company on something that you’ll never do as well as someone else?

This was the gist of a very controversial assertion made by a senior marketer from a very well known B2B technology company during dinner at our ITSMA Marketing Leadership Forum (download highlights from the ITSMA Marketing Leadership Forum) when he said: “An overemphasis on leads is damaging our relationship with sales.”

You could hear the proverbial pin drop in the room after he said it.

On the one hand, what he was saying seemed ludicrous. How could emphasizing leads not improve the relationship? The perceptions that marketers send nothing but junk leads to sales and fail to measure the impact of those leads on revenue have been hurting marketers’ relationships with salespeople—and the business—for at least a decade.

But his point was that marketers will never be as good at handling leads as salespeople are. In my research, I’ve never seen anyone claim that marketing contributes anywhere near 50% of the leads that turn into sales. Most anecdotal estimates I’ve heard range from 10-35%.

Now, you could argue that if marketers improved their ability to generate, nurture, and manage leads from start to finish that those numbers would improve.

But can we ever say that marketers will become the leading contributors of leads that wind up as closed business? Maybe if you’re selling Apple iPads, but if you’re selling complex B2B services and solutions? Seems doubtful.

Meanwhile, an overemphasis on leads causes salespeople to devalue the things that marketers really do best. The mysterious arts of reputation, idea marketing, segmentation, and value propositions move from mysterious to stupid in the eyes of salespeople if only viewed through the prism of leads.

In the current climate, the psychosis over leads to continuous pressure on marketers to provide more and better quality leads. The overall success of marketing is defined by increases in those two things.

But, argues this marketing leader, are we going to allow our success to be defined this way? If so, we will never win. Salespeople will never respect us because we will never contribute as much as they do.

While I don’t think we can just walk away from the lead problem and go back to designing logos, I do think we need to compartmentalize it a bit. We need to be measured on what we really do well—the creative, right-brained stuff. Here are some ideas for how to calm the battle over leads:

  • Create a lead system of record. The most contentious aspect of marketers’ contribution to revenue is that it can’t easily be measured. That means installing a system that can follow leads from the website to sales and back again. Marketers can send more leads to sales every year and still be seen as failing because they can’t track those leads. Other functions have systems of record. We need one, too. Within that system, we need to agree on ground rules for lead management—such as the definition of a qualified lead, lead scoring, etc. People respect rules more when they’re written in stone.
  • Agree on a realistic level of contribution. Most reasonable salespeople will agree that marketers can only do so much in terms of lead generation. Sure, the totals should go up each year, but the proportion of leads supplied by marketing can’t be expected to rise forever—otherwise, why do we need salespeople? Sales and marketing leaders should decide on a target goal of proportion of contribution and then get on with it.
  • Split the short term from the long term. It seems only fair that marketers should be judged more for their contribution to longer-term revenue—to the sales pipeline rather to sales themselves, in other words—than to short-term revenue goals. Most marketing leads are people who are not ready to buy. We need to make allowances for that.

We need to get past this battle over leads and get back to doing what we do best.

What do you think?

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How Facebook’s privacy disasters will change B2B marketing

Have you ever noticed that your Facebook profile page looks like one of those horrible qualification forms that we make our customers fill out? If you go to Facebook and look at your profile, your immediate reaction is going to be that it’s asking for too much information.

Social media is beginning to teach us that long qual forms are going the way of the dodo. I’m still looking to pin down incontrovertible evidence of this, but anecdotally I hear from people that when they get rid of qual forms for their content the amount of engagement increases exponentially. The question that we’re asking Facebook is the question that we should be asking ourselves in our marketing: Do we really need all this information?

Facebook has built its business model around gathering as much personal information about us as possible. And just as our traditional thinking about qual forms is failing, so will Facebook’s personal-information-as-currency model. Both Facebook and we have traditionally believed that the content services that we provide—in our case studies, white papers, webinars, etc.—come at a price. It costs us money to produce this stuff, and therefore our consumers must pay a price. That price is personal information, company information, and buying intent. For Facebook, it’s personal information that advertisers can use to target us.

Customers are less willing to give up information
Especially as social media takes off, we’re finding that prospects and customers have less and less patience for giving us that information. The expectation on Twitter is that 99.9% of the time any link that you put in a tweet is going to lead to accessible content. Twitter etiquette, at least as I observe it, is that if the information that you’re linking to is gated, you take up some of that precious 140-character real estate to inform people of that fact.

It seems that Facebook has staked its future not on the interactions that occur between people on its network but on the idea that the value is in the personal information of its participants. This is a disaster if you ask me.

Now let’s compare your profile page on Facebook with your profile page on Twitter. It’s like the difference between someone asking for your e-mail in exchange for a white paper versus them asking for your salutation, your company size, when you are going to buy, your mother’s maiden name and on and on ad nausea.

The key is the interaction—not the information
See, what I think Twitter understands that Facebook and LinkedIn and all of the other permission-based networks don’t is that the key is in the interaction, not in the information.

I admit it; I’m a Twitter bigot. I find much more value in Twitter than in any of the other social media networks. So take my comments with a grain of salt. But I will tell you that this week I attended an excellent event run by Silver pop called the B2B marketing University in Boston. Because of my Twitter interactions with people in the B2B realm, I had all the information I needed to be able to approach four people I recognized at the event (if you’re reading this, you know who you are!) and engage them in real substantive discussions—even though we had never met.

I don’t know what schools they went to, or where they worked before their current jobs, but I know what they think about B2B marketing and I have re-tweeted their stuff and I know they’re smart. Those interactions on Twitter opened up a possibility of a relationship much more easily than being able to read their profile pages on LinkedIn or Facebook. I learn about them and who they are based on my interactions with them and in sharing content that is of interest to all of us.

Viral vs. permission-based
It’s this viral relationship model of Twitter that wins in every privacy showdown between Facebook and its users. There is a cottage industry developing out there for people who want to protect you from Facebook. Reclaimprivacy.org is a small browser based program that practices a kind of benevolent vigilantism and helps you change your vulnerable privacy settings. It’s a great service, but it only reinforces the perception of Facebook as Big Brother. The privacy issues for Facebook are going to be on the cover of Time magazine next week. There’s would be joy in Twitterville this week if it didn’t seem that the founders of Twitter have none of the ego and contempt for competitors that most businesses seem to have. (Of course, it may be a little bit easier to be this way when your own business model remains rather ill defined.)

I don’t know about you, but I’m always annoyed by people whose first question is what I do or what school I went to. But that is how we’re introduced to each other on Facebook and LinkedIn. I’d rather get to know you based on knowing that I have a shared interest with you. Frankly, I can’t imagine why 300 people would read my blog every week if that weren’t the basis of our relationship.

Ask for a relationship, not information
I think that as social media becomes more integrated into our lives and our jobs were going to see that just as with our content we are going to have to get to know one another through our interactions. We need to ask people for a relationship rather than asking them for their information. What if, next time you offer a white paper or video to prospects, instead of demanding their contact information, you invite them to join your community on LinkedIn, or sign up for an event, or follow you on Twitter? This would be the basis of a much more substantive encounter—and potential relationship—just as I had with my Tweeps this week in Boston.

We should all take a lesson from Facebook and understand that getting information from people is not a zero-sum game. It’s a gradual process—the currency of which is trust and exchange of value.

What do you think?

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How social media will change lead generation in B2B

The era of the sales process beginning with a lead is over. The number of B2B buyers who are ready to buy as soon as they engage with our marketing is small—and social media will make it even smaller.

We have to come to terms with the fact that there is a stage of the buying process that comes before the buyers we are pursuing are ready to become leads.

We call it the epiphany stage.

This is the stage that occurs long before any discussion of products, services, or RFPs—indeed, it occurs before customers have even begun to think about a purchase.

However, there is something important that happens at this stage: It is the point at which customers come to the realization of an important business need.

This is where social media comes in. As social media expands our opportunity to reach people who have never heard of us or our services, we need to be prepared to engage them during the epiphany stage. We are trying to generate demand during this stage, not create leads, because these people aren’t ready to become leads. We have to generate demand before we can generate a lead.

The best way to do this is with thought leadership. We need a content engine capable of gaining the attention and respect of people who have never heard of us before. These people are not leads—they are not ready to be contacted by anyone. But they may be open to building a relationship that could someday lead to a sale.

These people are prospects, not leads. The way we turn prospects into leads is to gain their trust. We gain their trust by reaching out to them with smart, engaging, educational content. The trust leads to a more personal relationship and hopefully, a purchase. As I said in my last post, social media simply makes starkly plain what we’ve known for some time but haven’t had to face yet: We don’t have a lot of content capable of generating trust and relationships. We need to create that content.

But getting to that realization requires that we first acknowledge that there is a whole world that comes before a lead and before the interest phase of the buying process. We need to see that we are ignoring many people who aren’t leads. If we ignore them, they may never know that they need something that we have to offer.

What do you think?

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How much do you “charge” for your content?

Lady Gaga at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.
Image via Wikipedia

Okay, so it’s difficult to actually pull money out of buyers for your marketing content (though there are rare exceptions: McKinsey has been doing it for years with the McKinsey Quarterly).

Yet while generally we can’t put a price tag on our content, we do charge for it. The price is the forms we make people fill out to download white papers or sign up for events. Trouble is, we take a one-price-for all approach to our content.

That has to change.

In many cases, we’re charging too much for our content and in other cases not enough. For example, there is no way that the typical Webinar is worth as much as an in-depth research report, yet we make buyers give us the same amount of information for both—we charge them the same price.

Make no mistake; buyers understand the prices behind marketing content. We’re the ones who don’t pay enough attention to it. Here are the components of the price from the buyer’s perspective:

  • Time. They have to spend time filling out the form and predict the amount of time they will need to absorb the content—and probably deal with the emails and calls from pesky salespeople after the fact.
  • Privacy. Buyers understand that they give away a piece of their privacy every time they fill out a form and engage with content.
  • Intention. Buyers want the most valuable content they can get. They decide how to reveal about their intentions based on the value of the content to them. They may also assume that a higher level of intent will net them more valuable content either in terms of quantity or depth.
  • Hierarchy. Buyers are all-too aware of their positions in the chain of command. Those lower down on the corporate ladder are more willing to “spend” their information because they realize that it has less value than those higher up, whose buying power gives them more information riches combined with less willingness to spend it (kind of like rich people in the real economy).
  • Access. Buyers understand that there are different levels of access to content depending on certain factors. They don’t always know what those factors are, but they value access enough to lie. For example, many assume that a higher level of buying intent will get them more goodies, so they say they are ready to buy when they aren’t. Many also assume that if they say that they are vice president instead of a director that they will receive better content and probably better treatment overall.
  • Relationship. This price is one that high-level executives have been calculating for years as providers woo them with memberships in customer councils and invitations to private events. But it’s less familiar to lower-level buyers, who are only beginning to calculate this piece as the economics of social media open up the privileges of relationship from cheesy tchotckes at trade shows to online social networks.
  • Account history. Buyers assume that the price of content will change depending on the number of times they have engaged with you. Even the most basic lead scoring mechanism raises the price of content as buyers consume more of it—i.e., If you download two white papers a week for a month, you should expect a call from a salesperson. Buyers get that—or at least they will probably see the logic in the pricing.
  • Culture and location. Culture, both corporate and social, affects the price that buyers are willing to pay for content. For example, research shows that Europeans value their privacy more than Americans—meaning that their information may cost you more. And some companies have disclosure rules that make it hard for their executives to participate on customer advisory boards.

The price will change
We should evaluate our content pricing models to see if we’re charging the right amounts. We should expect those prices to change as social media takes hold among buyers. For example, 99.9% of the links I click on in Twitter take me directly to the content advertised in the tweets. And when there is a gate, most Twitterers take the precious real estate needed to say that registration is necessary. Just as the web has gutted the business model of publishing it has also reduced the price of marketing content. It has also changed the scope of our content process, as Jon Miller points out here.

Mobile raises the price
But the price can go up, too. That possibility hit home with me this week as I read Steve Woods’ post about the B2B implications of the iPad. Steve points out, among other things, that the richer environment of the iPad could revive the “print” advertising market.

As publishers are able to present content that doesn’t look like crap like it does on a web browser, they can charge more and advertisers can grab more attention. And the multimedia possibilities mean that subscribers to the New York Times might be willing to pay for that embedded video interview with Lady GaGa.

No doubt marketers can also charge a higher price for a white paper that embeds a video case study or a how-to in a great looking media environment. I’m not sure whether the iPad is that environment or not, but we all know that some kind of portable media device will replace our dead-tree publications if the experience is as good or better than we can have with print.

And no doubt the location abilities of mobile devices like the iPad and smartphones will also raise the price we can charge for marketing content. CK Kerley and I went back and forth on this issue as she prepared an excellent piece about how mobile will affect B2B.

My thinking is that we’re so busy assuming that we need to bang down the door to reach buyers that we forget that sometimes they actually want to be found—not necessarily by us but by each other. By acting as a matchmaker at events and perhaps by creating communities with location-based functions, we can help them find each other and get to market to them as the price of fostering the connection.

What are they willing to “pay?”
So there is a price for marketing content. Maybe I’m focusing too much on semantics, but I think lead scoring only gets it half right. We assign points to buyers based on their actions, but we don’t think about it from their perspective. Lead scores don’t ask, “But what are they willing (and happy) to pay for our content?

Thinking about a pricing model for content also helps us target our content to the specific segments of the buying process. I talk more about how we need to vary the amount of information we take from buyers in this post, but the idea that there is a price to be charged and paid makes it clearer in my mind.

How about you?

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