What if we’re living in the last age of the B2B marketer?
It’s not a prospect that any of us would relish. But look at almost any global B2B organisation, and you’ll witness the rise of automation: enterprise-level systems that harness sophisticated algorithms and machine learning to plan, distribute and optimise marketing content. Such systems often bring integration challenges, and obviously need people to work them. But the landscape is changing, and the algorithms are already dominating the discourse of all but the smartest marketing organisations. Automation promises efficiency; and in many businesses, efficiency means ‘reduced headcount’. (If you don’t think that this is a concern, grab your nearest music industry exec for a five-minute chat.)
It’s not the machines’ fault. In many organisations, marketers have long been unwilling or unable to quantify their impact, and thereby justify their position at the top table. So it’s perhaps not a surprise when management decides to turn a low prestige process into a low involvement one, streamlining content production and reducing human capital costs into the bargain. Interestingly, many B2B marketers are actively championing this development, apparently in the vague hope that the data produced by automated systems will justify their continued employment.
Fair enough – but why should anyone care?
A central assumption of marketing automation is that optimisation is the primary driver of marketing success.
Optimisation is useful – after all, marketers need to be able to test hypotheses and approaches, and there is no substitute for real-world learning. But in isolation it isn’t sufficient to drive marketing success. We live in a world where competition in many categories is fierce and fast moving. If marketing is the process of ‘identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer needs profitably’1, it might be said that disruption occurs when customers’ previously hidden needs are identified and satisfied in original ways. Whether or not they recognise it, managing the risk of the unknown is the central strategic challenge that most marketers face.
This is not a challenge that automation can meet. Machines can tell us what’s working well, and what might work better from the range of options already on the table. They can’t tell us why something is or isn’t working. And they can’t think laterally, and spot an opportunity that’s not immediately obvious but which might turn the world on its head. Automation offers efficient answers, but never original ones.
The only way out is up
Marketers aren’t the only ones that might be feeling the squeeze of automation. In a landmark 2013 study, the academics Frey and Osborne defined the jobs that are most at risk from technological advancement. They asserted that, in general, roles that are process-driven are most likely to become extinct. The ones that are most likely to survive are those where success relies on engaging with unpredictable, imperfect humanity.
What role does unpredictable, imperfect humanity have to play in B2B marketing? Ideally, a central one – understanding consumer wants and needs, and how they might be evolving, is the foundation of any effective marketing strategy. Indeed, championing and harnessing the voice of the consumer was a central tenet of marketing throughout most of the 21st century. It gave rise to agency planning – and arguably to the entire direct marketing industry.
Fast-forward to today, and research suggests that buyers are as much as 70% of the way through the decision-making process before the organisation in question is even aware that there is an opportunity2. This speaks to a huge blind spot in knowledge. It’s therefore surprising that developing actionable customer insight doesn’t seem to be higher on many B2B marketers’ agendas.
But then again, maybe it isn’t a surprise. The historic argument against gathering customer insight is that people don’t really know what they want, which makes asking them pointless (Henry Ford said it best: “If I’d asked people what they wanted they would have said ‘faster horses’”).
Hold your horses
This assertion might have been true thirty years ago, but it doesn’t hold up today. Advances in behavioural science now make identifying unmet wants and needs possible in previously unimaginable ways. New psychological tools and techniques can get beyond what buyers say motivates them to identify the real drivers of behaviour in ways that are academically robust.
This gives rise to an interesting question, and one which points to an exciting future for marketers: how might your marketing evolve if you could understand your buyers better than they understand themselves?
In 2008, Dr. Robert Cialdini and colleagues did an experiment3 where he asked a group of people to predict from a list of reasons what would motivate them to use less electricity:
- Preserving the environment
- Saving money
- Because their neighbours were doing it.
The respondents overwhelmingly stated that the third reason would have little or no influence at all. Yet subsequent experiments on those respondents showed that by far the most influential message was the third one. In the final part of the test, the scientists showed the respondents how they had been motivated by social norms. Yet they were still adamant that they had not been affected by these messages: they were in denial about being in denial. In other words, the respondents may not have understood why they behaved as they did – but the researchers did. This kind of knowledge opens up a world of opportunity for the businesses that are ambitious and forward-thinking enough to seek it.
Help is at hand
The good news is that these tools and techniques are now available to B2B marketers. We founded our consultancy, Aperture Insights, to offer disruptive insights into buyers and markets, and practical advice about how to turn those insights into action. Our approach combines the latest advances in business psychology, behavioural science and data technology to help our clients market themselves more effectively, and sell more. We’re already seeing the impact it can have on ambitious B2B businesses in a range of categories.
The time is right. In an increasingly automated world, human insight is more valuable than ever. On the other hand, a failure to embrace the strategic high ground is likely to fatally compromise the role of marketing in many B2B organisations. Without a single-minded focus on creative thinking, and a clear articulation of the subservient role that automation should be playing, marketers championing automation will end up as nothing but turkeys voting for Christmas. A different future can, and should, be written for marketing – and the many talented professionals who still make up the field.
1. The Chartered Institute of Marketing’s definition of marketing.
2. Forrester research
3. ‘Normative Social Influence is Underdetected’ – Schultz, Cialdini et al, July 2008.
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