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B2B buyer engagement is a year-round endeavor - and AI isn't going to solve it

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed May 8, 2024
B2B buyers have changed - but has sales and marketing kept up? I believe the answer is no - and an AI hail mary isn't going to fix this. There's a better way to engage informed buyers. For the first time, I pull content strategy, analyst/influencer relations and creative event design into one illustrated flow.


Most agree that the traditional sales funnel is either limited or discredited. Today's B2B buyer is far too unpredictable to adhere to funnels. The "funnel" obscures how enterprise buyers control their own adventures. They partake of the content/advice that helps most at any given point. Good luck funneling that!

At diginomica, we apply these concepts into our own B2B Informed Buyer methodology, which I turned into a longer d·book (see the blog post: Reaching the informed B2B buyer - our new publication explains why marketers are getting it wrong, and what to do about it).

B2B buyers have changed - but has sales and marketing?

Here's where agreement spills into to disagreement. I hold the pot-stirring view that if the buyer has changed, sales and marketing must fundamentally change also. Shiny new analytics tools and "hyperpersonalized" AI campaigns are not, by themselves, going to solve the problem of reaching today's B2B buyer. Bring on the debate!

Those who study B2B buyer behavior do agree on this much: buying behavior has changed, and traditional buyer's journey maps are too simplistic. In the d·book, I quote the stats we've all seen:

  • B2B buyers do 70 percent of their "buying journeys" before talking to vendors - and are likely the ones to make first contact.

As I wrote:

There is no sales funnel in the classic sense. Buyers defy sales orchestration. That’s why the so-called "buyer's journey" is anything but linear. We need content resources that anticipate buyers’ shifts.

Four ways to respond to enterprise buyer autonomy - but which is best?

But that consensus falls apart when we ask: what to do next? Most vendors pursue these (flawed) options: 

1. Up the ante with branding and costly advertainment - attempt to go viral and/or entertain (problem: B2B entertainment is hard/expensive, and broad branding, even when it hits, reaches many people with no connection to the buying process, or even the vendor's ecosystem). 

2. Limit marketing investments to lead generation activities and targeted campaigns (problem: even successful lead gen is like fishing in the same pond; replenishment requires new tactics. And: a relentless focus on lead-gen is a turnoff from a trust-building perspective, as we are all reminded when we visit vendor web sites, and are immediately confronted by a lead-gen-sniffing chatbot).

3. Look to analytics upgrades and AI "hyper-personalization" to reach buyers, by anticipating their so-called "context." (problem: hyper-personalization is easier said than done; it is easy to alienate those we want to reach with tone deaf approaches. An individual buyer's context changes constantly; asking AI to determine real-time buyer context is an overreach, despite how useful AI can be for thing like content distribution and sales triggers, when used smartly). 

All three approaches have merit- if they are not overdone. But as I argue in the d·book, most vendors fall short on an essential fourth pursuit:

4. Build opt-in communities around your buyers. Reach buyers with differentiated content - and earn your place in that "network of trust," through compelling and/or helpful expert content. Earn buyers' trust through relevance, not viral attempts at entertainment

By the way, this fourth undernourished approach also generates the first party, opt-in data trustworthy AI systems need to get a good result. If we pull off this fourth option, we address two aspects of B2B buyer behavior the other options don't:

Buyers aren't always buying. We're missing a crucial first step in this so-called journey: Contextual/trusted networks that arm executives with the know-how and peer insights they need.

I have yet to see a buyers' journey model that starts here - but that's where most budget holders are. According to data from LinkedIn Research, only 1 in 5 B2B buyers are in buying mode at any given time.

Opt-in communities generate better buyer data

The good news? You can reach buyers who aren't in buying mode - with well-executed content. But there's a monster catch: it's the toughest type of content for companies to produce. Why? Because it's the least brand-centric of any content you will deliver.

Yeah, this is an organizational challenge - but it's also an chance to stand out from the social noise. The second issue we must face:

Buying is increasingly a consensus process. Buyers rely on "trust networks" inside and outside of their company to make buying decisions. It's not just about reaching buyers, it’s about reaching their networks.

To earn buyer trust - and meet them on their own terms - salespeople must become advisors and marketers must become educators. In 2014, I wrote about the end of golf course relationships in B2B selling. No, that's not entirely over - and relationship-building still matters.

I get it - not everyone will jump headlong into this mindset shift. But here's the nifty thing: this can be incorporated into other approaches. Because opt-in communities generate better data, this serves the interests of everything from brand campaigns to lead gen to AI personalization.

This shift also explains my obsession with emphasis on creative/interactive event design, and the need for different forms of influencer/analyst engagement. Why? We need to sustain these threads of buyer engagement across content, events, and year-round virtual engagement.

B2B buyer engagement - tying together content strategy, analyst relations and creative event design

But I haven't take it far enough: my deep dives on B2B buyers, content strategy, analyst/influencer engagement, and creative event design have never been tied together. Will, it's time to change that. So I took a crack at some wireframes. Here's the overview:

diginomica content and events strategy - overview
content and events strategy (all rights reserved)

Here's a closer look at the dynamics of attention during this year-round engagement:

dynamics of B2B attention - diginomica
dynamics of B2B attention (all rights reserved)

(These images work best blown up at large size - I'll add links to those upon publication - or you can contact me directly if you want to see the whole eight frame series).

Wireframe takeaways: 

We must tie these concepts back to customer success. The most important criteria is delivering better projects - and more customer value.

These overview slides lead to more detail: defining the types of B2B content, and how that content will be measured. You can also tie each aspect into different phases in the so-called buyer's journey (Ludovic Leforestier recently did this for analyst relations, explaining exactly why the sales funnel is dead, and how to engage analysts differently).

And yes, measurement of the outcomes is important. At diginomica, we do this through our "next gen stats" for our publishing partners, led up by Alyx MacQueen. Alyx has been able to take us well beyond volume metrics, documenting things such as: social engagement of content, reader engagement by industry, total immersion time per article, total engaged minutes across article topics, and, perhaps most importantly, tracking link journeys between diginomica pages and external sites. We've been able to do all of this with first-party data - data that is strictly anonymized and GDPR compliant.

Of course, measurement doesn't stop there. Any proper understanding of B2B buyers requires multi-touch attribution models, and a clear understanding of all the touch points that go into a successful customer wins/engagement.

My take - to serve modern buyers, we must learn to measure what really matters

Some of the most potent B2B buyer experiences can't be measured. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't push our metrics into new frontiers. I've designed events where we stir the networking pot, to get peer groups talking by role or industry. Watching the project war stories unfold, I found myself thinking, "This is why a customer gets on a plane," or "This type of conversation is worth thousands of consulting dollars."

Both those statements might be true - I certainly believe they are. But we still need to tie exceptional experiences to metrics. That also includes content that sparks relationships. Most of my best industry relationships (and business partnerships, including diginomica), either started with my content or someone else's. Once upon a time, we could witness the power of differentiated content, and not have to worry about documenting it. That time has passed.

Recently, I've had great talks with event planners, analyst relations directors and content strategists on how we deliver not just next gen stats, but transformative experiences. Such experiences may be rare, but they do happen - and we can design to make them happen more often (Can we fix enterprise events - by designing for serendipity?) Or, in the case of analyst/influencer engagement, the back-and-forth of a Zoom meeting can spark go-to-market changes - or a new project referral. I saw it happen many times during the pandemic. If vendors can find the resolve for truly interactive online events, it can still happen.

How we document that value is a question not fully answered, but I've seen progress on everything from AI-based sentiment analysis, to post-meeting documentation, not just of topics covered, but of insights that led to actions. One thing is certain: if the impact isn't documented quickly, it won't be possible to assess it six months later. Good solutions will emerge that involve smart data capture, and AI-enabled value scoring. Later, that can be tied to everything from lead generation to strategic planning.

I remain concerned we are measuring the wrong things. But I've also changed my stance: we must attempt to measure the right things, rather than let the metrics be defined by volume-chasers who buy into reach, versus reaching the right people. KPI culture isn't going away. If you can't document the magic that occurs around content and community engagement, then you can expect the funding for that to wither, even while brands like Salesforce double down on community - powered by the buyer engagement metrics they've already proven out. Yes, opt-in data is part of how we win with differentiated content, but the results go far beyond that. 

But for every Salesforce, there are twenty other software vendors that are indifferent to how year-round community drives buyer engagement, or they are somehow baffled about making this a reality, despite the body of work that proves this is is eminently doable. Enough with the KPI rebuttals. Claiming this can't be measured is just BS at this point. A good chunk of it can be - certainly enough to challenge vanity metric obsessions. Oh, and by the way, the proliferation of AI-generated content noise is going to ruin the stats/content volume game, so those who are still determined to play that game may want to give that a long hard thought. 

Nevertheless, the metrics do matter. Those of us who believe in the types of approaches I've advocated here should not downplay the metrics discussion, just because we know the power of these ideas. That doesn't resonate - we can do better.

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