“We’re in challenging times,” everyone says. That’s a fact. But here’s a question: When is that not true for B2B marketers? Sure, things are definitely tougher than usual at the moment. But, who are we kidding? You’re always hustling, in bad times and good, to either outperform the economy or beat your competition. So, let’s take a moment and talk about how you can accomplish both of those goals, in good times and bad: Artificial intelligence (AI) and personalization. And, more importantly, how you can make AI and personalization work together for your customers… and for your company.
The Core of Personalization in Marketing
If youll allow me to grossly oversimplify a complex topic for a moment, every B2B marketing plan in existence can be summed up by a similar set of steps. What every effective B2B marketer must consistently do is:
- Uncover customer needs
- Create offerings that address those customer needs
- Let potential customers know those offerings exist
- Build trust that your offering actually works
- Work with your sales team to encourage your prospects to hand over their money in exchange for those offerings
I know, easy, right? Of course I’m skipping some details; if there ever was a case where you’re allowed to say, “the Devil’s in the details,” this is the one. That’s why it’s called, “grossly oversimplifying.”
But the fact remains that everything you do as a marketer and a manager exists to help your current and potential customers achieve their goals, to create offerings tailored to what they need at the immediate moment. Fundamentally, thats all that personalization is at its core again, as long as you’re willing to grossly oversimplify it.
Why You Struggle to Deliver Personalized Experience
The problems with accomplishing this in practice and at scale blow that gross oversimplification completely out of the water. Forget what I said before. This is where you can say that “the Devil is in the details.” As our Chief Product Officer mentioned the other day, its true that both the future of marketing requires delivering personalization at scale and that a number of significant challenges exist that makes it difficult to do that. These include the following facts:
- While digital channels like your website, email list, and social media presence make collecting information easy at least relative to the past its tough to make sense of the sheer volume of data now available
- The technology necessary to handle such large volumes of data can be expensive and difficult to implement and maintain
- Customers are increasingly uncomfortable with letting you collect and store their personal information and tools like intelligent tracking protection (ITP) and enhanced tracking protection (ETP) exist to make it hard to do so
- Regulators, always willing to listen when large numbers of voters, um… people have concerns, increasingly create barriers to collecting and storing customers personal information (think GDPR/CCPA/other alphabet soup regulations)
- Companies frequently must create rules to address steps in the customer journey and the content that supports each of those steps
- Despite your best efforts, its impossible to know many visitors to your B2B website and other digital channels because you cant get their personal data or because their individual information isn’t relevant to their business purchases
- And, the costs associated with addressing these non-trivial challenges makes it tough for you to deliver an impressive ROI for any investments you make in personalization quickly, which is even more important in the current post-COVID environment.
Thats not “a gross oversimplification.” Its just gross.
Fact: Personally-Identifiable Information (PII) Won’t Be Around Forever
Privacy and its implications for data collection are worth diving into in a bit more detail. Privacy regulations as well as customer attitudes about privacy will require marketers to shift focus away from personally-identifiable information (PII) and towards some other source of anonymous, but still useful data. This appears inevitable.
For instance, Samuel Scott argues persuasively that personalization is this years most overhyped marketing practice,. In particular, Scott cites concerns about privacy as the biggest risks for both companies and their customers. Given the downsides of cost and legal risk associated with data breaches, those concerns seem warranted.
And, to be fair, there is a lot of hype around personalization. The European Unions General Data Privacy Regulations (GDPR), the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and similar legislation didn’t come from nowhere; many jurisdictions clearly take the hype seriously.
You also want to consider how little personal information about B2B buyers is even relevant to your selling process. Does the fact that your buyer is “42 years old, drives a midsize crossover SUV, and has affinity for dining and travel” help you progress them towards a purchase of your products or services? I didn’t think so.
What some forward-thinking marketers are moving towards and I believe must move towards is using anonymous behavioral data instead of PII. Various techniques exist that allow you to offer personalized experiences without PII and still drive improved business results. My expectation and to be 100% honest, a big reason we founded a company that does this is that successful B2B marketers will increasingly seek out options that provide the benefits of personalization without the regulatory or brand risk associated with capturing and storing vast amounts of PII about their customers. But to do that well, you’ve got to add artificial intelligence into the mix.
The Role of AI in Personalization
Knowing how to personalize without PII isn’t easy. It requires a fair bit of data about your customers’ on-site behaviors, about your content, about what makes customers click and connect, and how to tie all that information together in real-time. That’s where your ability to use AI in your personalization efforts matters. As a friend of mine likes to say, “AI makes big data… little.” Artificial intelligence and machine learning must play a key role in helping you make sense of the data you’re gathering so that you can put your oversimplified marketing plan into action. Or, even better, the real-world, results-oriented, complex marketing plan that you actually put together.
AI-powered personalization tools can help you make sense of the continual streams of data the torrent of data that you collect. A well-designed AI-powered personalization platform can be run as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) to minimize implementation costs and complexity. And, if done really well, personalization driven by artificial intelligence would use customer behaviors not increasingly regulated, increasingly unavailable personally-identifiable information to connect customers with the content they need. Hmm… I wonder who could possibly have made an AI-powered, behavior-based personalization tool that works that way…
Fact: AI in Personalization is Coming
All kidding aside, we’re not the only ones who think this way. Recent data from Adobe shows that 9 out of 10 companies show a positive ROI from their personalization efforts, with more than 40% seeing greater than a 6:1 return. But few organizations only about 4 in 10 feel that they have the personalization capabilities they need. This is the gap that B2B marketing executives your competitors are working with their IT colleagues to close. Why? Because there is also significant data showing that customers prefer personalized experiences.
For starters, take note of the potential returns already mentioned. Also, B2B buyers have said in study after study after study that they expect personalized experiences and will find a better option if you don’t meet those expectations.
Oh… one more reason it’s important for you to think about how to provide these experiences? CMO tenure has reached its lowest point in a decade. Not many marketing executives can afford to miss out on these kinds of opportunities… or at least not for long.
Conclusion: Why B2B Marketers Must Embrace AI in Personalization
We live in challenging times. Whether those challenges come from the difficulties of coping with large amounts of data, customer privacy concerns, regulatory changes, IT integration efforts, costs, global pandemics or all of these at the same time your job as a B2B marketer is hard. There’s no way to grossly oversimplify that fact. Adding to the complexity, it’s clear your buyers expect personalized experiences that help them achieve their objectives or they won’t be your buyers. And pressure to deliver from the C-Suite isn’t making this any easier.
Your competitors increasingly use artificial intelligence to interpret and understand the sheer volume of data they’re gathering. Remember, AI makes big data little. But also remember that personal information is going away. And it may not even matter in B2B in the first place. Instead, effective, forward-thinking AI-powered personalization platforms use anonymous data to determine not only where customers are in their journey, but also the right messages and offers to present customers from existing content.
So, yes, “we’re in challenging times.” Again. And this probably won’t be the last time. But you’re going to be fine. Artificial intelligence and personalization can help put those challenges to rest. And that’s a fact you can happily embrace… even when times are tough.