Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Our Most Popular Posts of 2017

This will be my last post of 2017, and I want to thank everyone who as spent some of his or her valuable time reading this blog. My goal for this blog has always been to provide content that readers will find to be informative, thought-provoking, and useful, and I've been immensely gratified by the attention and engagement this blog has received.

For the past few years, I've used my last post of the year to share which posts have been most widely read. In the past, I've ranked posts based on cumulative total reads, regardless of when a post was published. Therefore, older posts had a built-in advantage, and they often appeared in the "most popular" list.

This year, I'm considering only posts that were published in 2017. So, in case you missed any of them, here are our five most popular posts for 2017:

  1. Why It's Time to Reset Expectations for Content Marketing
  2. What You Need to Know About Target Accounts for ABM Success
  3. Research Confirms that Customer Experience Drives Financial Performance
  4. The Economics of ABM Account Selection
  5. The Promise and Peril of Personalization at Scale
Happy New Year, everyone!

Image courtesy of the Republic of Korea via Flickr CC.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Key Attributes of Thought-Leading Brands

There's no longer any doubt that thought leadership content is having a major impact on B2B buying decisions. Several recent research studies have shown that business buyers are consuming more thought leadership content than in the past, and that thought leadership affects decisions at every stage of the buying process.

Research has also shown, however, that business buyers are becoming more selective about the content they consume. The volume of "thought leadership content" has grown exponentially over the past few years, and companies are finding it harder to create content that will stand out from the crowd and capture the attention of potential buyers.

A new study by Longitude - a marketing agency based in London - sought to identify the attributes and practices of companies that excel at the development and use of thought leadership in their marketing efforts. This research was based on a survey of 360 executives who are responsible for the management of thought leadership at their organization.

Based on an analysis of survey responses, Longitude identified a set of organizations that are outperforming their peers at "thought leadership marketing." These high-performing companies were designated as Thought-Leading Brands, while the balance of survey respondents were called Followers.

Longitude found that Thought-Leading Brands achieve far better business outcomes than Followers. The table below shows the percentage of Thought-Leading Brands and Followers who reported that they are nearly always successful at using thought leadership to achieve five strategic goals:

The study also found that there was no single reason for the superior performance of the Thought-Leading Brands. In the study report, Longitude observed:  "Instead, it is a combination of factors; they are consistently adopting a broad range of best practices to ensure success."

Longitude asked survey participants to rate their company's performance across eight thought leadership capabilities. The following table shows the percentage of Thought-Leading Brands and Followers who scored themselves as excellent on those eight capabilities:

The Longitude study also highlighted the growing importance of original research in thought leadership success. The study report described the important role of original research in emphatic terms:  "Business audiences are more discerning and will only engage with content that looks too important to ignore. Only the most interesting topics and campaigns - those backed up by robust and genuinely insightful research - stand any chance of getting noticed."

Top image courtesy of Affen Ajlfe ( via Flickr CC.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Why "Handle With Care" Should Be the Watchword for A.I. in Marketing

Artificial intelligence has been one of the hottest topics in B2B marketing in 2017. The hype surrounding A.I. and related topics, such as machine learning and predictive analytics, has been almost deafening. Many industry pundits are asserting that A.I. is already revolutionizing the practice of B2B marketing.

While some of the claims made about artificial intelligence are exaggerated, it seems clear that A.I. has the potential to be one of the most powerful marketing tools we've seen in the past several years. But some uses of artificial intelligence also have the potential to trigger negative reactions from potential customers. So, before marketers fully embrace artificial intelligence, they need to understand how people feel about A.I. generally, and more specifically, how people view the use of A.I. in marketing.

Syzygy (a WPP digital agency group) recently published the results of an August 2017 survey that was designed to uncover the attitudes of American consumers about artificial intelligence. This survey generated 2,000 responses from individuals in the US, with equal participation by men and women. The respondents were equally split among Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers.

For this study, Syzygy defined artificial intelligence as "technology that behaves intelligently, using skills we normally associate with human intelligence, including the ability to hold conversations, learn, reason and solve problems."

Syzygy found that US consumers have a broad range of feelings - both positive and negative - about artificial intelligence. When survey participants were asked how they feel when they think about A.I., the top four feelings identified were:

  1. Interested (45% of respondents)
  2. Concerned (41%)
  3. Skeptical (40%)
  4. Unsure (39%)
When Syzygy asked survey participants to describe how positive or negative their feelings are about A.I., the results show that strong feelings are the exception, not the rule. Eighty-six percent of respondents described their feelings as neutral, mildly positive, or mildly negative.

Syzygy also asked survey participants several specific questions about the use of artificial intelligence for marketing purposes. The good news for marketers is that over two-thirds of Americans are open to companies using A.I. to communicate with and serve them. However, the study also revealed attitudes that should concern marketers. For example:
  • Seventy-one percent of respondents said that companies should need their express consent before using A.I. to market to them.
  • Nearly nine out of ten respondents (89%) said that the use of A.I. in marketing "should be regulated with a legally-binding code of conduct."
The lesson from this research is that marketers should approach the use of A.I. cautiously and be sensitive to the skepticism and concern it can create. Marketers will need to stress the benefits and value that A.I.-powered applications can produce for customers, and above all else, they must be open and transparent about how they are using artificial intelligence in their marketing efforts.

Image courtesy of James Whatley via Flickr CC.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Why Proving the Impact of Marketing is Difficult

For several years, marketing leaders have faced growing demands from the C-suite to prove the value of their activities and programs. Marketing accountability has become the mantra for many CMO's, and return-on-investment has become the gold standard for measuring marketing performance. Several books and a host of white papers and ebooks have been written about marketing performance measurement, and dozens of webinars and conference presentations have been devoted to the topic.

But despite all of this attention and brainpower, proving the financial value of marketing is still challenging for many marketing leaders. Data from The CMO Survey - conducted by Dr. Christine Moorman with Duke University's Fuqua School of Business - demonstrates both the significance and the persistence of the challenge. The CMO Survey has been conducted semi-annually for the past several years, and the following chart shows the percentage of surveyed CMO's who have reported they are able to show the impact of marketing spending quantitatively.

Over the past three years, less than half of the surveyed CMO's have said they are able to quantitatively measure the impact of marketing spending on business results.

Proving the economic value of marketing is challenging for several reasons. A recent article in the Journal of Marketing summarized the difficulties as follows:

". . . marketing aims to create and stimulate favorable customer attitudes with the goal of ultimately boosting customer demand. This demand, in turn, generates sales and profits for the brand or firm, which can enhance its market position and financial value . . . As a result, marketing has multiple facets, some attitudinal, some behavioral, and some financial. However, the relation between the metrics that assess these facets is complex and nonlinear . . ."

Measuring the value of marketing activities is a complex undertaking, but the heart of the challenge is usually attribution. Attribution is the process of assigning both revenues and costs to a marketing activity or program, and it's impossible to accurately measure the financial value of a marketing program unless you can accurately assign economic benefits and costs to it. So, the accuracy of your value or ROI calculation ultimately depends on the accuracy of your attribution model. 

The State of Marketing Attribution

A few weeks ago, Econsultancy (in association with AdRoll)  published the results of a study regarding the use of marketing attribution, the goals and benefits of attribution, and the effectiveness of various attribution methods.

The State of Marketing Attribution 2017 report is based on a survey that produced 987 responses from both in-house marketing professionals ("company respondents") (74%) and professionals from agencies, consulting firms, vendors, etc. (26%). Respondents were based in Europe (53%), North America (22%), and Asia Pacific (22%). Company respondents came from both B2B and B2C enterprises operating in a wide range of industries.

Econsultancy found that the use of marketing attribution is growing. Eighty-one percent of company respondents said they are practicing attribution at some level, up from 79% in the 2016 edition of the survey. Thirty-nine percent of company respondents said they are using attribution with most or all of their marketing programs, up from only 31% in 2016.

Econsultancy also found that a growing number of companies are using attribution models that encompass both digital and offline channels. In the 2017 survey, 60% of company respondents said they are using some type of multichannel attribution, up from only 42% in the 2016  survey.

On the surface, the growing use of marketing attribution looks like a positive development. However, Econsultancy's research also revealed some troublesome facts about how marketing attribution is currently practiced. The survey asked participants to identify the specific attribution methods they are using and rate the effectiveness of each method. The following table shows the percentage of company respondents using each attribution method, and the percentage rating each method as very or somewhat effective:

These findings are disturbing because the three most widely-used attribution methods (and four of the top five) are methods that assign all of the revenue from a sale to one marketing touch point. Even more disturbing, large majorities of the survey respondents rated these methods as very or somewhat effective - 92% for first touch, 86% for first click, 85% for last touch, and 74% for last click. In reality, none of these "single touch" attribution methods will produce an accurate assessment of performance of value.

The Econsultancy research also found that most companies don't act on the insights derived from marketing attribution. The survey asked participants to indicate their agreement or disagreement with this statement:  "We don't action the insights we get from attribution." Twenty-three percent of company respondents strongly agreed with the statement, and another 47% agreed somewhat.

It's likely that marketers aren't relying on the results they obtain from attribution because they lack confidence in the validity of the attribution models they are using. They intuitively recognize that those models are incomplete at best, and may be seriously flawed.

The Bottom Line

Proving the impact of marketing is likely to remain challenging for the foreseeable future. Accurately attributing revenue to a marketing activity is a difficult task, particularly for companies with complex sales cycles that involve multiple decision makers.

The most important first step is to stop using all forms of single-touch attribution (first-touch, first-click, last-touch, and last-click). Except in rare cases, any single-touch attribution method will produce inaccurate results and lead to poor marketing decisions.

Custom attribution was regarded as the best attribution method by participants in the Econsultancy research, with 48% of the respondents rating it as very effective. Developing and implementing a custom attribution model requires a fair amount of thought and time, but the benefit is a more accurate view of marketing performance.

Top image courtesy of Rick B via Flickr.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Two Ways to Boost the Impact of Personalization in 2018

Delivering outstanding customer experiences has become a primary strategic objective for both B2B and B2C marketers. In the 2017 Digital Trends report by Econsultancy (in association with Adobe), surveyed marketing, digital, and ecommerce professionals selected optimizing the customer experience as their single most important opportunity for 2017, and they identified customer experience as the primary way they will differentiate their company from competitors over the next five years.

Most marketers now recognize that personalization is a critical ingredient in the recipe for great customer experiences. In a 2017 survey of marketing and business leaders by Researchscape International (in association with Evergage), nearly all (96%) of the respondents agreed that personalization helps advance customer relationships, and 88% agreed that their prospects and customers expect a personalized experience.

In the Econsultancy study, survey respondents identified targeting and personalization as a top digital priority for 2017 (behind only content marketing and social media engagement), and half (51%) of the respondents said they would increase their spending on personalization this year.

But despite all the recent focus on personalization, it's clear that most companies have more work to do to maximize the benefits of personalized marketing. In the Researchscape survey, only 30% of respondents were very or extremely satisfied with the level of personalization in their marketing programs, and 46% gave themselves a grade of "C" or lower on their current personalization efforts.

Other research has shown that many buyers aren't particularly impressed with the personalization efforts they encounter:

  • In a survey by Adobe, 71% of consumers said they like receiving personalized offers, but 20% reported that offers are not done well.
  • In a study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, 70% of survey respondents said that many of the personalized messages they receive are annoying because the attempts at personalization are superficial.
So what can be done to improve the effectiveness of personalization? There are two important steps that companies can take to boost the impact of their personalization efforts in 2018.

Make It Valuable

To be effective in today's competitive environment, personalization must provide meaningful value to customers and prospects. Personalization that is superficial or superfluous - i.e. personalization that is merely "window-dressing" - simply won't cut it.

Recent research has confirmed that buyers want to get practical value from their interactions with companies and brands. For example, in a survey of consumers conducted earlier this year by the CMO Council and SAP Hybris, nearly half of the respondents defined value as something that saves them time (49%) or makes their lives easier (47%).

Value is equally important to B2B buyers. In a 2017 survey of B2B buyers, Aberdeen Group asked participants what factors they consider when choosing a vendor. Over two-thirds (68.2%) of the respondents said the vendor can help sharpen our competitive differentiation, and over half (55.7%) said the vendor can help me identify new possibilities and avenues for revenue.

Personalization can be a powerful way to enhance the value of interactions with customers and prospects, but it must be designed with that objective in mind. Therefore, marketers should evaluate any proposed personalization initiative by asking a basic question:  How will this application of personalization provide practical value to our customers and/or prospects?

Make It (Mostly) Invisible

Since the early days of personalized marketing, the most common way to personalize a marketing message has been to include specific facts about the recipient in the message, a practice that can be called explicit or overt personalization. 

It's as if marketers believe that the effectiveness of personalization is based on communicating to the customer or prospect what they know about him or her. There may have been some truth to this belief when any form of personalization was rare. Now, however, most types of overt personalization are largely ineffective (because they are so common), and they can be seen as "creepy" by customers or prospects.

Today, personalization is usually more effective when it's invisible. The best personalization doesn't feel like personalization - it just feels like a message or experience that's really relevant, appropriate, and valuable.

There are, of course, some situations where overt personalization is still effective. For example, online stores (such as Amazon) often provide personalized product recommendations that are introduced by a phrase like, "People who ordered [Product X] also purchased . . ." When the personalization algorithm works well, these recommendations can be useful to customers, and most buyers don't view such recommendations as intrusive or creepy.

Illustration courtesy of Michael Coghlan via Flickr CC.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Research Says B2B Buyers Want Strategic Partners

For decades, the basic approach to B2B marketing and sales has been to identify a prospect's "pain points," and then demonstrate how your product or service can alleviate the pain. New research now suggests that many buyers look beyond immediate pain and take a more strategic approach to B2B buying.

A recent study by the Aberdeen Group (in collaboration with PJA Advertising and Marketing) indicates that B2B buyers are looking for vendors who can help them achieve strategic company goals, improve competitive differentiation, and identify new growth opportunities. The What Do B2B Buyers Want? report is based on a survey of over 250 B2B buyers from a range of industries and company sizes.

When survey participants were asked to select two factors (from a list of nine) that play a role in their buying decisions, the three most frequently chosen factors were:

  1. Total cost of ownership (45% of respondents)
  2. How the vendor/solution supports our company's goals (42%)
  3. Efficiency gains (ROI) (40%) 
When survey participants were asked what other factors they consider when they make buying decisions, 68.2% of respondents said the vendor can help sharpen our competitive differentiation, and over half (55.7%) said the vendor can help me identify new possibilities and avenues for revenue.

Viewed together, these survey responses make two points. First, B2B buyers are still focused on cost and ROI, and those economic factors remain at the core of B2B buying decisions. And second, many of the buyers in this survey panel appear to be taking a more strategic approach to buying decisions, once basic financial criteria are satisfied. 

It's noteworthy that when survey participants were asked how they usually know when they need to buy something, over two-thirds (67.2%) of the respondents said, "When our business strategy calls for it."

The Aberdeen study also found that B2B buyers are looking for vendors who can help them think through the business issues they are facing, and who are willing to challenge their current business practices. When survey participants were asked if they are more likely to work with a vendor who challenges they way they currently do business, almost two-thirds (65.4%) of the respondents answered, "Yes." So, the Aberdeen research provides support for the approach to B2B marketing and sales advocated by CEB in The Challenger Sale.

The Aberdeen study could be good news for B2B marketing and sales professionals, if the survey findings reflect the attitudes of a significant number of B2B buyers. The traditional "pain-solution" approach has a serious limitation because, at any given point in time, most potential buyers are not experiencing enough pain to take action. The Aberdeen research indicates that some business buyers are willing to look beyond the absence of immediate pain and consider longer-term strategic issues.

Illustration courtesy of Naval Surface Warriors via Flickr CC.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Why Sales Content Management Needs More Work

There's no longer any doubt that content has become the currency of marketing and sales for virtually all kinds of B2B companies. According to the latest content marketing survey by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs, 91% of North American B2B companies now use content marketing in some form.

Content also provides the fuel for productive interactions between sales reps and potential buyers. Today's business buyers have become accustomed to using content to support their buying decisions, and they now expect sales reps to provide relevant content resources to complement their in-person conversations.

Unfortunately, research has shown that many B2B companies have a serious content underutilization problem. Three years ago, an analysis by SiriusDecisions found that 65% of all the content owned by a typical B2B company is not used, and that 28% of the content isn't used because it's "unfindable." (2014 State of B-to-B Content Survey)

In my experience, sales content management remains a significant challenge for many B2B companies, and new research from CSO Insights helps explain why the challenge is so persistent. The 2017 Sales Enablement Optimization Report is based on survey responses from "just under" 500 sales professionals. Survey respondents represented a wide range of industries and company sizes (from less than $10 million to more than $1 billion in annual revenue).

The CSO Insights study provides a wealth of information regarding the current state of sales enablement, and it's a worthwhile read for B2B marketing and sales professionals. In the 2017 study, CSO Insights found that content had become the fourth most significant service provided by the sales enablement function, trailing only sales training, sales tools, and sales process improvements.

CSO Insights also asked survey participants about the primary approaches they are using to get content into the hands of salespeople. The following table show how the 2017 study participants responded:

As this table shows, 29.0% of survey respondents said they are using email to distribute content to sales reps, and another 22.6% said they have multiple content repositories. Only 16.7% of the respondents said they have a single repository for sales content, and a similar percentage said they use a sales enablement technology solution to manage sales content.

Using email to distribute content to salespeople puts the burden of managing content on individual sales reps, and having multiple content repositories can significantly increase the time it takes sales reps to find the content they need - if they find it at all.

This anemic adoption of sales content management solutions provides at least part of the explanation for the continuing sales content management challenges facing many B2B companies. Today's sales enablement/sales content management solutions offer robust capabilities that can streamline sales content management processes and increase the effective utilization of sales content assets.

When CSO Insights asked survey participants who are using a sales content management solution to describe its benefits, 50.9% of respondents said that it improves salesperson access to sales content and tools, and 38.0% said it reduces search time for content and collateral.

If your company has more than a handful of sales reps, these solutions should be on your radar.

Top image courtesy of Carolyn Coles via Flickr CC.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Debunking a Myth About Millennial B2B Buyers

In 2015, Millennials became the largest generational cohort in the US population and the largest generation in the US labor force. Research studies by the IBM Institute for Business Value, Google/Millward Brown Digital, Sacunas (now Merit), and SnapApp/Heinz Marketing have shown that Millennials are now playing significant roles in B2B purchase decisions. So it seems clear that we are in the early stages of a generational shift in B2B buying.

This generational shift raises an important issue for leaders of B2B companies:  Do the attitudes, preferences, and behaviors of Millennial B2B buyers require a different approach to marketing and sales? 

The popular view among industry pundits is that Millennial buyers have distinctive characteristics which require different marketing and sales methods and tactics. One recent research report emphatically stated that "the Millennial buyer is impacting the entire buying journey and the old marketing and sales tactics won't work."

In reality, many of the claims made about the attributes of Millennials are greatly oversimplified or just plain wrong. The global research firm Ipsos recently characterized Millennials as "the most carelessly described group we've ever looked at." In a detailed analysis of Millennial attitudes and behaviors published earlier this year, Ipsos wrote, "Myths and misunderstandings [about Millennials] abound, with bad research jumping to general conclusions based on shallow caricatures about a group that makes up 23% of the population."

Most researchers define the Millennial generation as individuals born from about 1981 through about 1997. The two other generational cohorts relevant to B2B marketing and sales professionals are Generation X and Baby Boomers. Generation X is typically defined as individuals born from 1965 through 1980, and the Baby Boom generation is defined as individuals born from 1946 through 1964.

Clearly, B2B marketing and sales professionals must recognize that Millennials have become active participants in the B2B buying process, and they must be prepared to engage Millennial buyers on their terms. But recent research has shown that Millennial B2B buyers are more like their Gen X and Baby Boomer counterparts than is usually recognized. To develop and implement effective strategies and programs, marketing and sales leaders must be able to separate Millennial myths from Millennial realities.

Millennial Myth vs. Millennial Reality

One of the most pervasive myths about Millennial B2B buyers is that they are digital addicts who prefer to do everything online. According to this myth, Millennials access and consume information primarily, if not exclusively, via digital channels, and they tend to view other means of communication with a certain degree of disdain.

Like many myths, this one has a basis in reality. Millennials are the first generation to grow up surrounded by digital technologies. Many Millennials have been using digital technologies since they were children or young teenagers. Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers, on the other hand, largely began using digital technologies in their everyday lives as adults. So, it's probably accurate to say that, on average, Millennials are more comfortable and more proficient with some digital technologies than older generations.

But there is strong evidence that the "comfort and proficiency gap" has narrowed significantly. For example, the research by Ipsos found that large majorities of all three generational cohorts access the internet on a daily or almost daily basis, and that Gen X-ers are almost as likely as Millennials to use a smartphone to go online. Ipsos did find that Millennials spend considerably more time online on their smartphones than older generations, which indicates that the comfort gap hasn't disappeared completely.

The Ipsos research demonstrates that members of all generations are now relying on digital technologies to obtain information and communicate. This isn't something that's unique to Millennials. The similarities between Millennials and Generation X are particularly relevant for B2B marketing and sales professionals because most of today's B2B buyers will be found in these two generational cohorts.

Research also shows that Millennial B2B buyers, like older buyers, rely on non-digital sources of information to support buying decisions. In a recent survey of B2B buyers by the IBM Institute for Business Value, study participants were asked what sources of information they are most likely to turn to when researching a vendor's products or services. The following table shows how nine sources of information (digital and non-digital) were ranked by respondents in each of the three generational cohorts:

As this table shows, the three research sources most preferred by Millennial buyers are all non-digital. In the study report, IBM suggested that one possible explanation for this somewhat surprising result is that Millennial respondents view online research as routine, and that they were focusing on sources of information that could provide richer insights about what it would be like to work with a particular vendor.

Ipsos addressed a similar issue in its research and found that the distinctive attribute of Millennials is that they typically draw on a broader and more varied pool of information resources than older generations. Millennials tend to seek out more sources of information, and they seem to be more comfortable than older generations at integrating information from multiple sources.

Two Key Takeaways

To sum things up, the idea that Millennial B2B buyers are digital addicts who prefer to do everything online is a myth. The evidence just doesn't support it.

The available evidence does provide two key takeaways for B2B marketing and sales professionals.

  • First, it's critical for B2B companies to provide marketing and sales content and messaging in digital form and to leverage digital channels to engage potential buyers. But this isn't only because Millennials are now active participants in B2B buying decisions. The reality is, buyers of all ages now rely extensively on digital content and digital communication channels.
  • And second, it's vital to remember that Millennial B2B buyers want to interact with a potential vendor in non-digital ways. Millennials may be "digital natives," but at some stages of the buying journey, they value person-to-person interactions.
Top image courtesy of ITU Pictures via Flickr CC.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Why ABM-ers Need to be Proficient at SAM

In an earlier post, I explained why most companies should look first to existing customers when selecting ABM accounts. There are two main reasons for giving priority to existing customers. First, many B2B companies have a small group of customers that produce a large percentage of total revenue and are therefore critical to the company's well-being. These customers merit the special attention that ABM provides. And second, companies have (or should have) rich "intelligence" regarding existing customers that can fuel effective ABM programs.

Account-focused business strategies are not new. Long before anyone had heard of "account-based marketing," astute business leaders recognized the importance of giving special treatment to their most valuable customers. In the late 1950's, larger B2B companies began implementing account management programs to strengthen relationships with their largest customers.

Over the past five-plus decades, the practice of strategic account management (also known as key account management) has grown and matured significantly. Many companies now have well-established account management programs that are led by dedicated key account managers. Several years ago, the Strategic Account Management Association said that about two out of three companies had SAM programs of some kind, and it's highly unlikely that this number has gone down.

When account-based marketing, particularly Strategic ABM, is introduced in a company with an established account management program, the ABM effort must be fully integrated with the existing account management system. A well-conceived account plan for a strategic customer will provide a comprehensive description of the company's strategy for growing its relationship with that customer, and it's important to have a single, unified strategy for each key customer. ABM activities provide the marketing components of the company's account management plan for each strategic customer.

To ensure that marketing activities are tightly integrated with the overall account plan, a marketer needs to be a member of each account management team. In A Practitioner's Guide to Account-Based Marketing, Bev Burgess and Dave Munn highlight this point when they write:  "The most successful ABM-ers are seen as part of the account team:  participating in its meetings, collaborating on the account plan development and execution, sharing the trials and tribulations of service or delivery issues, working flat out on major bids and celebrating success with the team."

If marketers want to be effective members of account teams, they will need to understand the fundamental principles and techniques of strategic account management. Fortunately, there is now a substantial body of knowledge regarding how to do strategic account management successfully, and there are many resources that marketers can use to learn the discipline. Here are two that I've found particularly useful.

The New Successful Large Account Management

The New Successful Large Account Management by Robert B. Miller and Stephen E. Heiman with Tad Tuleja is a revised and updated version of Successful Large Account Management, which was published in 1991. The revised version - published in 2011 - can no longer be called "new," but it describes a methodology for managing strategic accounts that is just as valid today as it was six years ago.

Strategic Account Management Association

The Strategic Account Management Association is a professional association that was formed in 1964 to support and further develop account management principles, practices, and professional skills. The SAMA website contains a wealth of account management resources. Many of the resources are free for SAMA members, and some are also available to non-members at no charge.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

What Sales Needs from Marketing

The business case for marketing-sales alignment has never been more compelling. According to the Aberdeen Group, companies with strong alignment grow revenue at a 64% greater rate than less aligned companies. The relationship between marketing and sales is improving, but it's clear that more work is needed.

Research shows that building a productive relationship between marketing and sales is still a work-in-progress at many companies. Earlier this year, I described some of the major findings of Altify's Business Performance Benchmark Study 2017. This global survey produced 833 responses, and it included respondents from sales, marketing, operations, IT, and customer service.

At first glance, the results of the Altify survey seem fairly positive. Seventy-one percent of the marketing respondents, and 66% of the sales respondents said their sales and marketing organizations "work well together."

However, the survey also revealed the existence of several significant disconnects between sales and marketing. For example, 86% of marketing respondents agreed that "marketing in our company is an effective investment of the company's resources." Only 54% of the sales respondents agreed with that statement, a gap of 32 percentage points.

A recent study by Televerde provides additional insights on the state of sales-marketing alignment from the sales perspective. The What Does Sales Need and Want from Marketing report was based on a survey of more than 200 B2B sales executives.

In this study, 62% of the surveyed sales professionals said that sales and marketing are aligned at their company, and another 18% said the two functions are very aligned. The survey report describes these results in positive terms:  "Survey results show the gap between Sales and Marketing narrowing (finally). The state of sales and marketing alignment isn't as bleak as it was 5 years ago."

The Televerde survey also asked participants about the biggest challenges they face in aligning sales with marketing. The top four responses (from a list of ten choices) were:

  1. Lack of regular communication (37% of respondents)
  2. Differences in the way sales and marketing successes are measured (33%)
  3. The lead qualification process (30%)
  4. Differences in what's important (27%)
One particularly interesting aspect of the Televerde study is that it sought to identify what sales professionals think they need from marketing to be more successful. The survey asked participants what marketing could do to help them win more deals. The following table shows the top five choices selected by respondents:

Televerde also asked study participants what marketing tools, assets, and activities were most useful to sales. The following table shows the respondents' top six choices:

So it does appear that the relationship between sales and marketing is getting better, but the improvement is painstakingly slow in many companies. It's also clear that most companies have more work to do to turn their marketing and sales organizations into a cohesive, high-performing revenue generation team.

Top image courtesy of Tomas Sobek via Flickr CC.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Look First to Existing Customers When Selecting ABM Accounts

Account-based marketing is often described as an effective way to acquire new customers. And that description is accurate. But ABM is also a powerful tool for growing relationships with existing customers you can't afford to lose.

One reason for the growing popularity of account-based marketing is the widely-held belief that it can dramatically improve the productivity of customer acquisition activities and programs. Most of the content that's currently being produced about ABM emphasizes its use for winning new customers. What often gets lost in this hype is that many companies can realize big benefits by using ABM with (some of) their existing customers.

The importance of existing customers hasn't been lost on many seasoned ABM practitioners.

Why Use ABM With Existing Customers
There's a very practical reason for focusing ABM efforts on existing customers. Most B2B companies have a core group of customers that are critical to the company's well-being. In many companies, 5% of the customers produce 50% or more of the total revenue. In my work with dozens of B2B companies over the past 30 years, I've frequently seen revenue distributions that were even more skewed toward large customers, where 4 or 5 customers accounted for more than 40% of the total revenue.
Account-based marketing is also particularly appropriate for your high-value existing customers because you potentially have several advantages with existing customers that ABM can leverage. Many of these advantages relate to the quality of the "intelligence" that you have regarding existing customers. When you have been working with a customer for a reasonable amount of time, you will have (or should have) rich and detailed information regarding:
  • The specific business needs and challenges the customer is facing
  • The identities, preferences, interests, and concerns of the key stakeholders who influence the relationship between the customer and your company
  • How the key stakeholders currently view their relationship with your company
  • The customer's organizational structure and culture
When used properly, these insights provide the foundation for valuable, relevant, and compelling customer engagement programs. And because most of these insights develop over time as a result of multiple interactions, they effectively constitute "inside" information that "outside" competitors can't easily duplicate.
At a high level, ABM for existing customers and ABM for new customer acquisition are based on the same fundamental principles. But when ABM is used with existing high-value customers, it becomes an integral component of your company's strategic account management program. In a future post, I'll discuss the critical relationship between account-based marketing and strategic account management.

Image courtesy of Kate Ter Haar via Flickr CC.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

How Will You Grow in 2018?

With the fourth quarter of 2017 now underway, many B2B companies have already started their planning for 2018. Over the next several weeks, senior company leaders will be evaluating how their business is currently performing and setting goals for the coming year. Some of those goals will inevitably relate to revenue growth, and one thing is clear:  Marketing leaders are squarely on the growth hotseat.

In a 2016 global survey of CEO's and CMO's by Accenture Strategy, 50% of the CEO's said their CMO is primarily responsible for driving disruptive growth in their organization. About a third of the CEO's also said that the CMO is the first to go when growth targets aren't met.

To set realistic growth objectives for 2018, and to implement marketing programs that will effectively support those objectives, marketing leaders must have a clearly-defined revenue growth strategy. One critical - but often overlooked - step in developing a sound revenue growth strategy is identifying where growth will come from. Specifically, marketing leaders need to answer three basic questions during their planning process:

  1. What are the structural sources of revenue growth in our business?
  2. How much growth is each source currently producing?
  3. How much growth can we realistically expect to generate from each source next year?
I described the most common structural sources of revenue growth in an earlier post, so I won't repeat that discussion here. The following diagram depicts the sources of growth that exist in most companies:

How Much Growth is Each Source Currently Producing?
In this post, I'll discuss how to answer Questions 2 and 3. When I work with clients on business or marketing strategy projects, I use sales data from the client's ERP/accounting system to answer the second question. Here's a simplified example of how the analysis works.
Suppose that your company had total sales of $110 million for the 12 months ending on September 30, 2017. In this example, I'll call this 12-month period "2017." You had total sales of $100 million for the 12 months that ended on September 30, 2016. We'll call this 12-month period "2016." So, your company grew sales by $10 million during 2017.
For this example, let's suppose that your company did not acquire another business or introduce any new types of products in 2017. During 2017, your company did begin selling in a new geographic market. Under these circumstances, your primary sources of revenue growth in 2017 were base retention, increased sales to existing customers, sales to new customers in existing markets, and sales to new customers in new markets.
To quantify how much revenue growth each of these sources produced, you would use "sales by customer" data from your ERP/accounting system.
Base retention (revenue churn) - To measure the impact of revenue churn, identify the customers who bought from you in 2016, but did not buy from you in 2017. The total sales made to these customers in 2016 is the amount of revenue that was "lost" in 2017 due to revenue churn. For this example, let's say the amount of lost revenue was $1 million.
Increased sales to existing customers - Identify the customers who bought from you in both 2017 and 2016, and compare the 2017 total to the 2016 total. For this example, let's say that sales to existing customers increased by $3 million in 2017.
Sales to new customers in existing markets - Identify the customers who  bought from you in 2017 but did not buy from you in 2016. Then eliminate those customers who are based in the geographic market that you entered in 2017. The sales made to the remaining customers are sales to new customers in existing markets. Let's say this source accounted for $5 million of the 2017 revenue growth.
Sales to new customers in new markets - This is the total 2017 sales made to customers in the geographic market that you entered in 2017. Let's say this amount was $3 million.
The table below summarizes the results of this analysis and shows where growth in 2017 came from:

How Much Growth Can We Generate from Each Source in 2018?
Once you know where your current growth came from, you can use these insights to set more realistic and achievable growth objectives for the coming year. The key is to analyze why the current growth happened.
In our hypothetical company, for example, sales to new customers in existing markets produced $5 million, or 50%, of the total sales growth in 2017. One possible explanation for this growth is that the overall market for the company's products or services expanded in 2017. In other words, the growth may have resulted from being in "the right market at the right time." It's also possible that this growth occurred because the company took customers from competitors and increased its market share.
Either way, the important questions is:  How much future growth can the existing markets provide? If the existing markets still have substantial growth potential, the company will probably want to focus a significant amount of demand generation efforts on acquiring more new customers in these existing markets.

On the other hand, if those existing markets do not have significant future growth potential, the company will need a different strategy to drive growth. It may, for example, want to focus more demand generation efforts on acquiring new customers in the geographic market it first entered in 2017, or it may need to consider expanding into new geographic markets.
This type of analysis should be done for each source of revenue that contributed to current growth and for any new sources that are expected to contribute next year. Once this analysis is completed, you should set revenue targets for 2018 for each source of revenue that applies to your company. And once these revenue targets have been established, marketing leaders can begin to design marketing programs to achieve those objectives.

Top image courtesy of via Flickr CC.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

New Research Shows the Evolution of B2B Content Marketing

Last week, the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs published the first report relating to their latest annual content marketing survey. B2B Content Marketing:  2018 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends - North America is based on the responses of 870 survey participants who said their company primarily sells B2B products or services. These respondents represented a wide range of industries and company sizes, and most held marketing-related positions.

The CMI/MarketingProfs survey has been conducted annually for several years, and therefore it's possible to see how content marketing attitudes and practices have changed over time. The following table shows some of the major findings from the latest survey and the comparable findings from the 2017 edition of the survey.

In general, these results indicate that content marketing is evolving in fairly predictable ways.

The Commitment to Content Marketing Remains Strong

Fifty-six percent of respondents in the 2018 survey said their company is extremely or very committed to content marketing. This was down from 63% in the 2017 survey, but I don't see this "drop" in commitment as particularly significant. As marketers gain experience with content marketing, their expectations become more realistic, and this can lead them to describe their commitment in a more "tempered" way.

Success with Content Marketing is Improving

In the 2018 survey, 24% of respondents described their company's overall approach to content marketing as extremely or very successful, up from 22% in the 2017 survey. In both surveys, a majority of respondents - 63% in 2018 and 62% in 2017 - said their content marketing efforts are now much more or somewhat more successful than they were a year earlier.

The Practice of Content Marketing is Maturing

In the 2018 edition of the survey, 34% of respondents rated the maturity of their content marketing efforts as sophisticated or mature. This was up from 28% in the 2017 survey. Many companies have been practicing content marketing now for several years, so it's not surprising that a growing number of marketers see their efforts as more mature.

The Continuing Need for Strategy

One of the disappointing findings in the 2018 survey is that only 37% of respondents reported having a documented content strategy. This percentage hasn't changed much for the past several years. It was 37% in 2017, 32% in 2016, and 35% in 2015. The CMI/MarketingProfs surveys have consistently shown that companies with a documented content strategy achieve greater content marketing success. In the 2018 survey, for example, 62% of the respondents who described their organization's content marketing efforts as extremely or very successful reported having a documented content strategy.

Top Image Source:  The Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Research Says "Bullies" Dictate Most Buying Decisions

The conventional wisdom is that B2B buying decisions are made by buying groups that must reach a consensus. New research says the conventional wisdom may be wrong.

A recent study sponsored by DiscoverOrg and conducted by Steve W. Martin provides several interesting insights regarding the attitudes and behaviors of business buyers, and argues that B2B buying groups don't really operate the way we've come to believe.

Why Didn't They Buy? was based on an in-depth survey of over 230 business professionals who evaluate the products and services their companies use. Survey respondents represented a wide range of industries and business functions. Although this study was designed primarily with sales reps in mind, the findings will be valuable for B2B marketers. First, the noncontroversial stuff.


B2B marketing and sales professionals have long recognized that many business buyers are risk averse. They have a strong fear of taking risks, which means that the real unstated goal of the B2B buying process is to reduce fear by mitigating risks. Gord Hotchkiss captured the essence of this point several years ago when he wrote, "B2B buying decisions are usually driven by one emotion - fear. Specifically, B2B buying is all about minimizing fear by eliminating risk." (The BuyerSphere Project, 2009).

Mr. Martin's research confirms that most B2B buyers are risk averse, but it also shows that the degree of risk aversion varies across industries and business functions. To paraphrase George Orwell, all B2B buyers are risk averse, but some are more risk averse than others.

The study found that buyers in the fashion, media, and real estate industries have the highest tolerance for risk, while buyers in government, consulting, and healthcare are the most risk averse. In terms of business function, the study found that buyers in marketing and engineering have a higher tolerance for risk than buyers in accounting and IT.

Vendor Market Position

Being the recognized market leader provides significant advantages in most selling situations, but the DiscoverOrg study revealed that most business buyers aren't blindly committed to the market leader. When survey participants were asked about choosing an expensive product they would use every day, 62% of the respondents said they would pass on the most prestigious, best-known brand with the most functionality and the highest cost, and instead choose a fairly well-known brand with 85% of the functionality and 80% of the cost of the top-of-the-line product.

But, the importance of market leadership varies significantly across industries. The following table shows the percentage of buyers in nine industries who would buy the best-known, top-of-the-line product with the highest functionality and cost:

The "Bully With the Juice"

Without a doubt, the most controversial finding in the DiscoverOrg study is that in most B2B buying groups, one member of the group largely controls the decision making process. Mr. Martin states this conclusion emphatically in the study report:  "Of the hundreds of sales cycles I have analyzed, I've found that one member of the selection team is able to exert his or her will and determine the vendor selected." Martin calls this person the "bully with the juice."

Over 90% of the survey respondents said there is always or usually one member of the buying group who tries to influence the decision his or her way. And 89% of the respondents said this person is successful in getting his or her way "most of the time."

These findings run counter to the widely-held view (supported by an impressive amount of research) that B2B buying decisions are primarily made by consensus. For a good discussion of the conventional view, take a look at "Making the Consensus Sale" by Karl Schmidt, Brent Adamson, and Anna Bird in the Harvard Business Review.

Frankly, it's difficult to reconcile Mr. Martin's findings with the more conventional view. In my work with B2B companies over the past 30 years, I've acted as a "facilitator" for dozens of project teams. I can say without reservation that it's not uncommon for a team member with a strong personality and strong opinions to dominate the team's work, even when that's not his or her intention. So I can see how a buying group could be "led" by a dominant personality.

On balance, however, my experience is that buying decisions are made by consensus, especially when the purchase under consideration impacts multiple business functions, and when the members of the buying group are of about the same rank in the corporate hierarchy.

Top image courtesy of Global Knowledge Partnership via Flickr CC.

"Bully" image courtesy of Pimkle via Flickr CC.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Surveys Show the Growing Commitment to Sales Enablement

SiriusDecisions recently published the results of its 2017 Sales Enablement Study. The 2017 research was based on a survey of 250 B2B sales enablement professionals representing 45 industries. This study was somewhat skewed toward larger B2B enterprises, with 43% of the survey respondents coming from organizations  with more than $750 million in annual revenue

Sales Enablement is Widespread

Overall, 66% of survey respondents reported having a dedicated sales enablement function, up from 61% in the 2012 edition of the survey. But the use of sales enablement is significantly greater in larger enterprises. Eighty-three percent of respondents from organizations with revenue of $750 million or more said they have deployed or plan to deploy a dedicated sales enablement team.

It's interesting to compare the results of the SiriusDecisions research with a recent survey conducted by CSO Insights. In its 2016 Sales Enablement Optimization Study, CSO Insights found that 37.7% of companies have a dedicated sales enablement function. This lower percentage is likely due to the demographics of the CSO Insights study. Only about 27% of the respondents in the CSO Insights study were with organizations having more than $250 million in annual revenue.

Sales Enablement is Clearly a Sales-Led Function

Both the SiriusDecisions study and the CSO Insights study show that sales enablement is now firmly established as a sales-led function. In the SiriusDecisions survey, 40% of respondents said that sales enablement reports directly to sales leadership, 25% said it reports to the CEO, and 13% said it reports to sales operations. Only 10% of respondents indicated that sales enablement reports to marketing leadership.

In the CSO Insights study, 60.8% of survey respondents said their sales enablement function reports to executive sales management, and another 20.9% said that it reports to sales operations. Only 7.6% of the respondents said that sales enablement reports to marketing.

Commitment to Sales Enablement is Growing

The SiriusDecisions research also found that the commitment to sales enablement is large and growing. Twenty-eight percent of the survey respondents said they have seven or more full-time employees working in sales enablement, but this increases to 43% for high-performing companies. (Note:  The study defines high-performing organizations as those reporting that 80% or more of their full-time sales reps achieved quota in the most recent fiscal year.)

Even more significant, nearly three-fourths (74%) of the respondents said they plan to increase spending on sales enablement during the next 12 months.

No Major Surprises

The findings of these two studies are not particularly surprising. After all, improving sales effectiveness has been a top priority for company leaders for the past several years, according to the annual sales performance optimization studies by CSO Insights.

It's also not surprising that sales enablement is a sales-led function in most companies. View properly, sales enablement is a multi-faceted function that encompasses several types of activities and processes, including sales process improvement, sales training, sales technology, and sales content development and management. So, it seems appropriate to manage the sales enablement function withing the sales organization.

Image courtesy of Daniel Oines via Flickr CC.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

How to Make Your Content More Credible, and Why That Matters

Credibility is the single most important attribute of great marketing content. Effective content must also be relevant and valuable, but if potential buyers don't see your content as credible, they won't give you credit for relevance or value. Here are two ways to increase the credibility of your content.

Several recent research studies have contained both good news and bad news regarding B2B content marketing. First the good news. It's clear that content plays a vital role in B2B buying decisions.

Now for the not-so-good news. Numerous studies have painted a rather bleak picture regarding the level of engagement that content is producing. For example:
  • In a 2016 survey of business executives by The Economist Group, respondents reported that, on average, they engage with only about 25% of the thought leadership content they see every day.
  • A 2016 study by Beckon found that the amount of content published by brands had tripled in the previous year, but that customer engagement had remained flat. The study also found that just 5% of the total content produced garnered 90% of the total customer engagements, meaning that 19 out of 20 content pieces generated little or no engagements.
There are several possible explanations for this disappointing level of content engagement. One is that the tremendous growth in content volume makes lower rates of engagement inevitable. In The Economist Group study, 82% of surveyed executives reported that the volume of content available has made them more selective in what they consume.
Another possibility is that buyers simply don't see much value in much of the content they encounter. In the Edelman/LinkedIn study, respondents said they gained valuable insights from content only about 44% of the time.
Credible Content is Essential
It's also clear that lack of trust is undermining the impact of content. In a recent survey of technology buyers by TrustRadius, survey participants were asked to rate the helpfulness and trustworthiness of 12 sources of information used in buying decisions. Respondents ranked vendor or product websites and vendor collateral (ebooks, case studies, webinars, etc.) as the least helpful and trustworthy sources of information.
The reality is, most business buyers are conditioned to treat the information they receive from potential vendors with a healthy dose of skepticism. They recognize that prospective vendors have an agenda that is likely to cause most vendor-supplied information to be suspect. In essence, most business buyers presume that vendor content is biased and not altogether trustworthy. The challenge facing B2B marketers is to develop content that can overcome this presumption.
The single more critical attribute of effective content is credibility. Yes, great content will be relevant to the buyer's interests and needs, and it will provide the buyer with useful and valuable information. But if prospective buyers don't see your content as credible, they won't give you credit for relevance or value.
Credibility, like trust, cannot be manufactured, but there are some steps you can take to increase the credibility of your content. Here are two of the most important.

Make It Authoritative

Credible content is authoritative. Therefore, it's important not to fill your content with unsubstantiated claims or assertions. Marketing content doesn't need to read like an academic journal or a legal brief, but the main points you make should be supported by sound evidence, preferably from recognized and reputable sources.

Business buyers have repeatedly made their preference for authoritative content clear:

  • In its 2017 Content Preferences Survey, Demand Gen Report asked survey participants what recommendations they would make to improve the quality of the content provided by B2B vendors. Seventy-six percent of respondents said use more data and research to support content.
  • In a 2016 survey of senior business executives by Grist, survey participants were asked what qualities they find most valuable in thought leadership content. The third highest ranking attribute was content that is evidence-based and contains robust data. The survey also asked participants what turns them off about content. Forty percent of respondents said unsubstantiated opinions.
Make It (Mostly) Non-Promotional

Credible content is primarily non-promotional. This is a particularly important attribute for content that's designed for early-stage buyers, many of whom will quickly dismiss content that contains even a hint of self-serving promotion.

Once again, B2B buyers have made their preference for non-promotional content clear. In a 2017 survey of business buyers by the Content Marketing Institute and SmartBrief, survey participants were asked to identify the most desirable qualities of the content they use to make buying decisions. The third most important attribute identified by survey respondents was content that "is more educational than promotional in nature."

"Promotional content" normally refers to content that's about a company or its products or services, but the term "promotional" describes the tone of content as much as the content subject matter. Content can be highly promotional in tone even when it's not about a company or specific products or services. And, it's possible to develop company- or product-related content that's not overly promotional.

One key to keeping your content non-promotional is to avoid hyperbole. The dictionary definition of hyperbole is "an exaggerated statement or claim not meant to be taken literally." Example:  "There was enough food at the party to feed an army." Unfortunately, marketing content often contains claims or assertions that border on being hyperbolic, and most buyers will instinctively view such claims or assertions as lacking credibility.

In most cases, content will be more persuasive if it is less promotional. When I develop content resources for clients, I have a simple way to determine if a resource passes the promotional "smell test." I ask myself this question:  If an independent and respected journalist were writing an article about this topic, would the tone and content of the article be similar to my resource?

Keep It Real

B2B buyers have spoken, and they've made it clear that they want vendors to provide content that is credible, relevant, and insightful. Potential buyers will see your content as more credible if you make it authoritative and non-promotional.

Image courtesy of Ron Mader via Flickr CC.