Having been working in B2B for 17 years, I’ve long felt that there are several phrases in circulation where the actual meaning is subtly different to the surface one.
Decision-making process is a personal favourite. It sounds focused, dynamic and systematic. But you can pretty much guarantee that the purpose of any ‘decision-making process’ is to slow down decision-making to the point where almost nothing gets decided efficiently or effectively.
Annual planning cycle is another. The phrase points to a process that is rigorous, regimented, and focused on critical decisions. And, indeed, this is what planning should be.
But the reality for many B2B marketers is that planning cycles are challenging. Budgets get heavily scrutinised, making the process an inherently defensive one. Looking backwards becomes an exercise in selective story-telling in order to justify recommendations about the future. What’s more, in many businesses the entire cycle has become dully routine, making planning less an exercise in creative thinking and more one of optimisation within well-worn parameters.
Outside of genuinely new ideas, what is most notable by its absence in many clients’ planning processes is the voice of the customer. My colleague Dr Simon Moore wrote last week about how the psychological predisposition of customers towards different B2B brands can have a huge impact on how they develop. Indeed, time and again we have seen how hidden motivations, perceptions and associations can undermine the best-laid plans from a product and marketing perspective. Yet many organisations just aren’t aware of these dynamics, let alone building this understanding into their planning processes. This feels like a missed opportunity at best, and a root cause of some potentially serious strategic errors at worst.
There are two main ways in which innovative marketing teams can use customer insight to support annual planning.
The first is inspiration. These are the kind of questions that look squarely at a blue sky and identify what might fall out of it. Where are we held to be strong, and our competitors weak, and what can we do with this? What do customers want and need from us (and our category) that they’re not already getting? How far can our brand stretch in different directions – where might we have a right to play? These kinds of questions are critical if planning isn’t going to be purely an exercise in tweaking what’s gone before.
The second is validation. These questions speak directly to whether customers are likely to engage with a proposed course of action. If we launch this product next year, will anyone buy it? Is our planned communications campaign likely to succeed? Will our strategy to deposition the competition resonate? These kinds of questions are vital to ensure that strategy has a chance of surviving contact with reality.
So why isn’t building customer insight into the planning process a no-brainer? There are perceptual issues at work here. Say the phrase ‘customer research’ to many B2B marketers and what gets conjured up are mental images of huge invoices, lengthy projects and foot-thick debriefs. No one needs this when they’re wrestling with an already cumbersome planning process (or, indeed, at all).
But the process of gathering and leveraging insight need not be tortuous. At the simplest level, a few customer conversations over the course of an afternoon might get the ball rolling in some useful directions. In a more sophisticated context, even the kinds of psychological insight processes we deliver at Aperture can be wrapped up in days and weeks, not months.
There is such an opportunity for forward-thinking marketers here. In a recent study, we looked at B2B buyer motivations for a communications consultancy – and discovered that the business’s core messaging was alienating to an entire tranche of its addressable market. The implications for the annual planning process were clear: the team needed to reimagine its service offering, marketing activity and messaging to create a broader appeal. In this instance, budget wasn’t so much the issue as how effectively the business was allocating its existing resources. But the client had a massive blind spot in this area; it didn’t know what it didn’t know.
So, as 2017 looms, it’s perhaps a good time to take stock and ask a question which experience suggests is never wasted: do we know what we need to know about our customers and prospects to make our marketing planning truly effective?
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