Everyone -- especially technology vendors -- agrees that personalized, contextually relevant marketing is the most effective way to attract, engage and convert buyers. Do it right and you’ll break through the noise and spur your buyer into action. Excel and you’ll build a positive, persistent relationship with your customers.

The vision is alluring. If only the reality delivered.

For real time marketing to deliver on the promised ROI, marketers must be able to decipher, understand and act on the buyers’ intent. Intent is not some macro action but a very specific action coupled with the emotions and beliefs the buyer holds about the outcome of that action.

Despite all the rhetoric, the reality is that technology is not mature enough to fully deliver on the real time marketing vision. Vendors are able to detect intent at a macro level, such as an imminent purchase, but not at the micro level, such as a buyer evaluating vendors on a specific feature based on prior customer feedback because they had a frustrating experience with a competitive product. Andrew Dixon, senior vice president of Sales and Marketing for Igloo Software, sums it up well with “vendors are pretending to be listening to buyers but aren’t really. They are play acting.”

What Two Companies Promise and Deliver

Thunderhead.com claims to listen to all buyers and can understand intent at an actionable level. Its “One” solution, which Glen Manchester, CEO of Thunderhead.com, admits should be called their “Engagement Cloud,” orchestrates “CRM insights to transform interactions by making conversations relevant to the customer.” The solution determines what is relevant to customers and how to treat them based on the contextual history of interactions, SF/CRM history and the customer’s pattern of engagement.

Using predictive analytics based on past behaviors and outcomes, One can identify where that buyer’s journey is and the level of the buyer's engagement in their journey. Based on the path the buyer is on and how this behavior matches to previous patterns, Thunderhead.com guides the agent in real time on how to handle the relationship.

Thunderhead.com does tear down internal silos and provide a more holistic view of the customer, but I continue to challenge that they do not know the buyer’s intent at each step in the journey.

SDL gets closer. They combine social, campaign management, web content management and analytics into a robust global customer experience platform that “automates and makes sense of the whole customer journey and what buyers are thinking” says Mark Lancaster, CEO and founder of SDL.

SDL’s solutions include behavioral marketing capabilities that track anonymous and known visitors on websites and deliver personalized campaigns in real time. What is delivered to the visitor is driven by comparing their real time behavior with similar persona profiles which then drive what content, offers, etc. is served in various blocks on web pages. The SDL platform is powerful with a drag and drop UX interface that can, to the uninitiated, appear complex. SDL simplifies the process with tools, template campaigns by journey step, training and consulting services to help customers figure out where in the journey their consumers are and how to respond.

What sets SDL apart is they have productized qualitative research and incorporated that knowledge into the platform. According to Lancaster,

We aggregate data from a wide range of social sources to identify the buyer’s sentiment at various points in the buying cycle. From there we are able to identify various buyer patterns for the different stages of the buyers’ journey.”

SDL’s researchers based in Vietnam use patented algorithms to identify keywords patterns that are then analyzed much like sentiment analysis. The result is a list of keywords for each journey stage which is then used to measure where buyers are. These listening patterns are developed by geography and industry to take into account cultural differences and provide insight into buyer context. From all this SDL creates a single customer view, along with a score that measures a buyer’s commitment to purchase, to the brand and to sharing content.

SDL addresses head-on Dixon’s observation that “social is a way to capture what’s on the minds of your customers.”

Social analytics can tell a company how customers are engaging with each other and with content,” says Dixon. “The patterns and trends that come from measuring customer interactions are key to promoting the right behavior you want your employees to repeat. But it can’t be done in isolation within your CRM system; social analytics need to be glued into all your systems back- to front-end.”

'We Expect the Customer to Know Their Buyer'

To understand the context of buyer intent, marketers need to adopt specific, proven methodologies. Vendors focus primarily on technology for the simple reason that they do not have nor understand the methodologies that reveal the true nature of the buyer.

Truth be told there’s more margin to be made in selling technology and SaaS subscriptions than delivering services. So lots of vendors don’t bother and punt. Adam Blitzer, vice president and general manager of Salesforce.com Pardot candidly shared what a majority of marketing vendors believe but won’t tell you -- “we expect the customer to know their buyer.” His advice is sage “you need a strong play of common sense when using today’s marketing platforms. Step back and look at what the predictive analytics tell you.”

That’s too bad as technology by itself will never create and maintain a personal relationship with a customer, even if your definition of an ideal customer relationship is the one depicted in the movie “HER".

A few technology vendors, like Demandbase and Aprimo/Teradata, have figured out that their customers are significantly more successful and can realize higher ROI from real time marketing programs when their selling path includes customer experience professional services that help them to know their buyer. Both vendors use big data to uncover insights into buyer behavior but are realistic enough to admit that that’s not the whole picture. They deliver the rest of the actionable picture with specialized services.

Technology plays a part and can shed much light on the customer journey, intent and experience expectations as well as automate many customer interactions. But technology is not a "throw it over the wall" answer. People understand people and the best advice for marketing vendors is -- help your customers to know their buyers by showing them the way.