"Data-Driven Thinking" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.
Today’s column is written by Michael McLaren, global CEO, B2B Group, at Merkle.
As more customer engagements move away from in-person contact to digital channels and virtual environments, the trends that were already driving the need for personalization in B2B marketing have dramatically accelerated.
Industry pundits have long encouraged B2B marketers to emulate their B2C counterparts with messaging and outreach tailored to the needs of individual customers. At a high level, that’s good advice, as B2B marketers have typically lagged in this area. During the pandemic, however, B2B marketers can’t just follow in their B2C colleagues’ footsteps – they must go beyond them.
B2B marketing is unique from B2C, and the pandemic-related shifts underscore those differences and their implications for personalization best practices. If B2B marketers want to get personalization right in today’s environment, there are several special considerations they must acknowledge.
Personalization within an extended sales cycle
Unlike most B2C categories, B2B sales cycles are lengthy, complicated affairs. Many can take 12 months or more, which means communicating with prospects becomes more of a winding journey, not a sprint. Marketers can streamline the process, and personalization represents a key means for doing this.
The more that marketers can learn about potential buyers, as early as possible in the process, the more relevant they can be when they first engage. By personalizing early communications to the greatest extent possible – according to the person’s known company, industry, historical purchases, even interests – marketers can help prospects quickly identify their specific need within the range of solutions, services or products they are marketing.
Identifiers, such as phone numbers or work email addresses, collected on an opt-in basis, are key to facilitating a more earnest value exchange of information and product and service details.
The sooner an intelligent, connected buyer journey can begin, the quicker B2B organizations can integrate marketing and sales efforts in the lower funnel. This is particularly important in the emerging remote workplace, where key stakeholders in the decision-making unit are still figuring out how best to jointly facilitate major purchasing decisions.
This time of transition introduces added inefficiencies to an already lengthy process, but better personalization can help marketing organizations reclaim that valuable time.
Here’s why B2B personalization efforts must go beyond B2C: Say you’re in charge of purchasing enterprise resource planning (ERP) software that could profoundly affect your colleagues’ daily functions and the company’s bottom line. The marketing material that would best help you make that decision would address your role, how it functions within a larger group of stakeholders, your company’s history with the vendor (or with the kinds of products the vendor provides) and the information needed to understand its products. That’s a lot more complexity than what’s required for a decision to buy a pair of shoes you viewed last week.
Tailoring messaging to multiple stakeholders
As mentioned, major B2B purchases are typically decided by a decision-making group, with up to 20 people influencing the decision. Each individual brings their own needs, experiences, biases and perspectives to the process, so tailoring messaging to the industry and company level is not sufficient. Companies must be able to identify the individuals involved in the decision-making process and, given their roles, address their personal concerns and use cases for a given solution.
Personalization at the individual level is even more important since colleagues are no longer working “shoulder to shoulder” on a daily basis. They’re not casually exchanging information during coffee breaks and, therefore, they’re not casually influencing one another’s perspectives. Rather, people will increasingly form their opinions in a physical vacuum and rely more heavily on their own research and social networks to form their opinions.
Personalization is key to relevance, engagement and influence, even more so in an isolated environment.
Building on our previous ERP software example, imagine that you’re in charge of deciding which vendor your company will choose, but you’re not the end user. Messaging about profitability that would influence your decision-making should look very different from the ease-of-use messages that are sent to, say, an HR executive who will be using it.
Acknowledging customers in a high-stakes game
B2B marketers must acknowledge that with major B2B purchases, there’s typically a lot on the line for the company and individuals who approve the purchase. This can lead to a heightened emotional investment in the decision, which can be exacerbated in today’s surreal business and social environment.
If an organization communicates with an existing or past customer with messaging that does not recognize the person or their history with the company, that buyer will likely have a negative emotional reaction to the organization. Think of it as a human conversation where you speak with someone you’ve met before – possibly multiple times – and realize that they don’t remember you or your history with them. If it’s the first time you’re meeting someone, you’re going to feel better about them if they are listening and interested in what you have to say.
The importance of personalization within the B2B sales and marketing journey has been growing in recent years, and that trend has been dramatically accelerated during the pandemic and the new reality in which businesses operate. By recognizing the individual and their role in the B2B journey as early as possible, marketers can increase not only efficiency in the sales cycle but also emotional connections with customers and, ultimately, their lifetime value.