Sunday, May 28, 2023

Can Marketing Content Trigger a B2B Buying Process?

Most B2B marketers recognize that their toughest competitor isn't usually a company offering an alternative product or service, but rather what their potential buyers are already using or doing. No sale can be made unless potential buyers first become willing to seriously consider alternatives for their existing methods and practices.

Over the past several years, marketing pundits have promoted a variety of tactics marketers can use to "break the grip of the status quo." I've discussed these techniques in previous posts (here, for example), but I've often wondered if they are consistently effective.

For decades, the Holy Grail of marketing has been to provide every potential buyer "the right message at the right time." The belief underlying this goal is that the right message delivered at the right time will cause a potential buyer to be more likely to make a purchase.

There's no doubt that marketing content can influence business buyers at several stages of their buying journey. But can marketing content alone cause a business decision-maker to begin a buying process? In other words, is marketing content sufficient, in itself, to break the grip of the status quo?

The answer to this question has implications that are often underappreciated by marketers. It affects the shape of marketing strategy and the allocation of marketing budgets. But it has a particularly significant impact on the substance and form of marketing messages and content.

The Trigger Imperative

Astute marketers have long recognized that some kind of "trigger" is usually required to ignite a B2B buying process. A trigger is an event that causes a business person to feel a need or desire to fix a problem or seize an opportunity.

A myriad of events can provoke a buying process, but there's been little recent research about what specific kinds of events most frequently create buying process triggers. A 2021 survey by WSJ Intelligence and B2B International directly addressed this issue.

The "Trust Your Decisions" study was a survey of 1,601 business decision-makers who had recently led or participated in the selection of a new vendor for their company. All survey respondents were affiliated with companies having at least $250 million in annual revenue. Survey respondents were drawn from the United States (50%), Europe (25%), and Asia (25%). The study evaluated four purchase categories - technology, finance, professional services, and marketing services.

The researchers asked survey participants what kinds of events triggered their decision to search for a new vendor/service provider. The following table shows the percentage of respondents who selected each of twelve trigger events.

These survey results illustrate that a wide variety of events can trigger a B2B buying process. More importantly for marketers, the table shows that trigger events primarily involving the consumption of marketing/sales/news content (shown in red in the table) were near the bottom of the list, which indicates that marketing content alone won't be sufficient to trigger a buying process in most cases.

Implications for B2B Marketers

So, what does this mean for B2B marketers? The key lesson here is that you need to use different kinds of marketing content with potential buyers who haven't experienced a triggering event.

If you were using marketing content to trigger a buying process, marketing messages should focus on the "pain" created by an issue or challenge and emphasize the need for change. The objective of the content would be to cause potential buyers to feel the pain of their status quo sufficiently to provoke a willingness to consider change.

But since marketing content alone isn't sufficient to trigger a buying process in most cases, the better strategy with out-of-market buyers is to use marketing content that emphasizes how an issue or challenge can be successfully addressed and describes the benefits such a change will produce.

You also want to use thought leadership content that showcases your company's expertise on those issues that are most likely to be buying process triggers for your potential buyers.

These types of content probably won't trigger the start of a buying process, but they will make it more likely that buyers will remember your company when they experience a triggering event.

Top image source: via Flickr (CC).

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Why Generative AI Can't Create Real Thought Leadership Content . . . At Least Not Yet

Last November's release of ChatGPT set off a remarkable frenzy of activity in the AI space. Over the past several weeks, a host of technology companies, from start-ups to heavyweights like Microsoft and Google, have announced or rolled out applications with generative AI capabilities.

Even now, it seems clear that generative AI applications will have a transformative impact on all aspects of business, including marketing. I've already seen dozens of articles and blog posts describing how marketers can use generative AI to improve the quality of their work and increase their productivity.

The "elephant-in-the-room" question for many marketers is whether generative AI apps can create engaging and effective marketing content and thus reduce the need for human content creators.

As you might expect, this question has triggered quite a debate in the marketing community, and there are respected voices on both sides of the issue.

Some experts argue that generative AI can produce some types of content as well as human marketers. For example, Mark Schaefer recently wrote"One of the common arguments in marketing is that AI can never replace the human voice. False. This technology levels the playing field and makes everybody an excellent content creator." 

Other marketing pundits contend that generative AI can't replace human content creators because it lacks human emotion and the ability to empathize. Therefore, content produced by a generative AI app can't engender an emotional connection with members of the audience. Many of these pundits also point out that generative AI can produce factually inaccurate content. 

I've been experimenting with ChatGPT and Bard (the generative AI chatbot by Google)  for the past several weeks, and my conclusion is that they can produce some types of marketing content very well, with, of course, appropriate human supervision.

For example, I uploaded a draft of this post to ChatGPT and asked it to produce ten social media posts (for LinkedIn and Twitter) based on my draft. The posts created by ChatGPT were, on the whole, just as good as I would have written.

There is, however, one type of marketing content that the current incarnation of generative AI applications can't produce.

Thought Leadership Content Is Different

Generative AI apps can't create thought leadership content because true thought leadership content must meet three core requirements.

  • Relevance - True thought leadership content must provide insights that are relevant to its target audience, and the best content will address topics that can have a major impact on the business success of the target audience.
  • Authority - Real thought leadership content is authoritative. The information provided by the content must be supported by sound and persuasive evidence.
  • Novelty - Merriam-Webster defines the word novel as "new and not resembling something formerly known or used." True thought leadership content provides insights that add something new to the body of knowledge about a topic that the audience can't find elsewhere.

These three requirements are equally essential because real thought leadership is like a three-legged stool. And we all know what happens if you remove or break one leg of a three-legged stool.
Real thought leadership content is always based on information and insights that did not previously exist, and this explains why generative AI applications can't create true thought leadership content.
Generative AI apps such as ChatGPT are built on large language models, and these models are "trained" using vast amounts of data (i.e. information) published on the internet, in books, and in other sources.
When you ask a generative AI app to create a piece of content (e.g. a blog post), it bases the content on your instructions (a "prompt") and on the information it was trained on. A generative AI app cannot draw on any information that wasn't included in your prompt or in its training data. This makes it impossible for a generative AI app to create real thought leadership content.
In one of his great Almost Timely News newsletters, Christopher Penn succinctly captured this limitation when he wrote:  "More often than not, they [large language models and generative AI] create mediocre to good results, but rarely excellent and never unique, never-before-seen results. That's because their nature is an averaging of what already exists, tuned to deliver above average results."
None of this means that generative AI has no role to play in the development of thought leadership content. For example, I've been using ChatGPT on an experimental basis to vet possible thought leadership topics.
To develop novel thought leadership content, you obviously need to avoid topics that have already been adequately discussed by others. I've been using "conversations" with ChatGPT to get a preliminary indication of whether a possible topic has already been widely addressed. In essence, I'm looking for topics that ChatGPT doesn't know much about - or doesn't know specific things about.
The bottom line is, content must meet a high standard to be considered real thought leadership content. The generative AI applications available today have amazing capabilities, and the apps that will be available in the near future will likely make today's apps look rather simplistic. But, the development of real thought leadership content will require human creators for the foreseeable future.

Illustration generated by DALL-E 2.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

[Book Review] Why Human Intuition and Judgment Still Matter In Decision-Making

Source:  John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Marketers make many business-related decisions every working day. Some are routine and not all that consequential. Others, however, are high-stakes decisions that can significantly impact their company's future success.

Thanks to the explosion of online communication and commerce, marketers now have access to an immense volume of data regarding customers, potential buyers, and the performance of marketing programs.

The benefits of using data and analytics to support marketing decisions have been proclaimed so frequently over the past several years that "data-driven marketing" has essentially become synonymous with good marketing. As a result, many marketers now question the legitimacy of using intuition to make marketing decisions.

A new book - Decisions Over Decimals:  Striking the Balance between Intuition and Information (John Wiley & Sons, 2023) - written by Christopher Frank, Paul Magnone, and Oded Netzer persuasively argues that human intuition and judgment are still vital components of good decision-making.

The authors bring academic rigor and real-world business experience to Decisions Over Decimals. Christopher Frank is the Vice President of Global Marketplace Insights at American Express, and Paul Magnone is the Head of Global Strategic Alliances at Google. Both are Adjunct Professors at the Columbia Business School. Oded Netzer is the Vice President for Research and the Arthur J. Samberg Professor of Business at the Columbia Business School.

Frank, Magnone, and Netzer have developed an integrated approach to decision-making they call Quantitative Intuition (QI) (TM), and Decisions Over Decimals describes the QI decision-making framework.

What's In the Book

The basic message of Decision Over Decimals is that business leaders can make better and more timely decisions by combining quantitative analysis with human judgment and intuition. The authors write:

"Numbers alone can never provide a perfect solution or answer . . . No amount of purely quantitative information will provide certainty and the answers needed to run an organization, grow a business, or lead a team. Combining quantitative information with intuition - human judgment developed through experience and close observation - is indispensable."

The Quantitative Intuition decision-making framework contains three major components - precision questioning, contextual analysis, and synthesis. Decisions Over Decimals is divided into three major parts that generally reflect the structure of the QI framework.

The first part of the book (Chapters 1-3) covers assessing the situation that prompts the need for a decision, framing the problem or issue that needs to be solved or addressed, and "working backward" to identify the data and analysis you need to make a sound decision.

The second part (Chapters 4-5) discusses contextual analysis, which includes assessing the quality of the data used to support the decision and putting the data into the relevant business context.

Part three of the book (Chapters 6-10) focuses on synthesis, which refers to the process of transforming data analysis into insights that will support sound decisions. This part also discusses how to manage the "decision moment," use storytelling to communicate decisions more effectively, lead the decision-making process, and develop and nurture a QI culture.

The authors conclude Decisions Over Decimals by describing their view of the future of data-driven decision-making.

My Take

Decisions Over Decimals isn't specifically about making marketing-related decisions, but it will be valuable for any marketer who is responsible for, or involved in, making decisions that can have a significant business impact.

The techniques described in the book will be particularly valuable for marketers who must make important decisions when the available data is incomplete or inconclusive, or when the outcome of the decision is otherwise uncertain.

Frank, Magnone, and Netzer dispel the myth that data and quantitative analysis alone will consistently identify optimal decisions. The authors convincingly argue that, no matter how much data are available, they never provide a comprehensive picture of the context in which a decision needs to be made. Therefore, intuition and human judgment are still vital to effective decision-making.

The message of Decision Over Decimals is especially timely given the rapid advances in artificial intelligence we are currently witnessing. I've been experimenting with ChatGPT and a few other generative AI applications for the past several weeks, and what these applications are capable of is truly amazing.

As companies incorporate AI into their business operations (including marketing), business and marketing leaders will be tempted to use the output of AI-enabled mathematical models to make more complex and high-stakes decisions.

And, as AI applications and their underlying models become increasingly powerful, it will become harder for leaders to remember that even the most sophisticated AI tools have limitations that can lead to bad or sometimes catastrophic decisions.

Decisions Over Decimals reminds us that human intuition and judgment should always play an important role in business and marketing decisions, and it lays out a decision-making process that will enable business and marketing leaders to gain the benefits of both data and human intuition.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

[Research Round-Up] NetLine's Latest Research On B2B Content Consumption

(This month's Research Round-Up discusses the latest B2B content consumption report from NetLine Corporation. NetLine publishes this report annually, and it consistently provides a wealth of real-world insights regarding how business professionals actually consume content.)

Source:  NetLine Corporation

Virtually all B2B companies now use content marketing in some form. But ironically, the popularity of content marketing has made successful content marketing more difficult to achieve. As companies produce more and more content, the total volume of content available to potential buyers increases exponentially. And, so does competition for buyer attention and mindshare.

Understanding how business professionals consume content is critical to success in these circumstances. The 2023 State of B2B Content Consumption & Demand Report by NetLine Corporation provides many valuable insights on this vital issue.

NetLine operates a content syndication platform, and this report is based on data about more than 5.4 million content registrations that occurred on its platform in 2022. The NetLine research is particularly valuable for two reasons.

First, it captures the real-world content consumption behaviors of business professionals. The data used for the report was not derived from a survey or interviews, but from actual engagements with B2B content.

And second, the report is based on first-party data. The business professionals who use the NetLine platform voluntarily share information about themselves and the organizations they work for in exchange for access to the content resources available on the platform.

NetLine tracks content consumption for more than 400 job functions, more than 300 industries and sub-industries, and organization size. Therefore, the NetLine report contains a wealth of detailed information about content consumption behaviors, and I encourage you to review the full 59-page report. 

Here are a few of the report's highlights.

The Continuing Growth of Content Consumption

As measured by registrations on the NetLine platform, overall B2B content consumption in 2022 increased by 18.8% compared to 2021 levels. NetLine found that the total demand for B2B content has grown by 54.8% since the 2019 edition of the research.

Content consumption by C-level executives is also still on the rise, growing by 7.3% in 2022 compared to 2021. However, there were significant differences in executives' content consumption behaviors depending on the size of their organization.

In 2022, C-level executives at companies with 100 or fewer employees requested 96% more content than in 2021, while executives at companies with 1,000 or more employees requested 56.7% less content than in 2021.  

Most Popular Content Formats

The ten most requested content formats on NetLine's platform in 2022 were:

  1. eBooks
  2. Guides
  3. Cheat Sheets
  4. Research Reports
  5. White Papers
  6. Tips & Tricks Guides
  7. Articles
  8. Book Summaries
  9. Live Webinars
  10. On-Demand Webinars
Collectively, these ten content formats accounted for 85% of all content registrations on the NetLine platform last year, and eBooks alone accounted for 33.6% of total registrations.
The Consumption Gap Shrinks
One of the most useful insights provided by the NetLine report relates to the consumption gap, which NetLine defines as the time between the moment content is requested and the moment it's opened for consumption. This data point is important because it constitutes a guide for timing follow-up contacts with potential buyers. After all, it makes little sense to contact a potential buyer about a content resource before he or she has actually reviewed the content.
In 2022, the average consumption gap across all job categories was 28.7 hours, down from 33.3 hours in 2021. It's worth noting that the 2021 consumption gap was the largest ever recorded by Netline. In 2020, it was 29.7 hours, and it was 28.5 hours in 2019. So, the decline in 2022 may be more of a return to normal than the beginning of a long-term trend of shrinking consumption gaps.

Content Consumption and Buyer Intent

Marketers have been told for years that it's important to have content tailored for each stage of the buying process. This advice was and is based on the common-sense notion that buyers' interests and information needs change as they move through the buying process.

The NetLine research shows that the content format a potential buyer chooses to consume can be a good indicator of where he or she is in the buying process. This point can easily be seen by comparing the consumption behaviors for eBooks with white papers and webinars (live and on-demand).

As noted earlier, eBooks accounted for just over 33% of all content registrations on NetLine's platform in 2022. Meanwhile, white papers and webinars accounted for, respectively, only 7.5% and 3.5% of all content registrations.

Clearly, eBooks were far more popular with business professionals than white papers or webinars. However, overall popularity doesn't tell the whole story of the importance or effectiveness of a particular content format.

NetLine's analysis revealed that white papers and webinars were more likely than eBooks to be associated with a near-term buying decision. For example, Netline found that business professionals registering for live webinars were 22% more likely to make a purchase decision within three months than professionals registering for other content formats.

Beyond functioning as a good indicator of near-term purchase intent, white papers, webinars, and other "weighty" content formats play an important role in the later stages of the buying process. As potential buyers move further into their buying process, they tend to want more detailed information, and information-rich content resources such as white papers and webinars fill this need.