The Gist

  • Out with the old. B2B marketers must throw out the old playbook and focus on true demand creation instead of demand capture.
  • Pinpointing and engaging. Intent data combined with predictive analytics is key to identifying in-market accounts and engaging them through multiple channels.
  • Joint undertaking. Marketing and sales must work together as a team to achieve account-based success.

With all the new tools at our disposal and a wide variety of channels designed to reach prospects, you’d think B2B marketing would be easier than ever. But most marketers would agree the opposite is true. In fact, when I talk to CMOs, I hear that it feels harder than ever to create pipeline and achieve business goals, especially when budgets (and teams) are tight.

This difficulty stems from a fundamental problem: B2B marketers developed a playbook over the last 15 years, partly inspired by my own work at Marketo. Fast-forward to today, and we’re still relying on those same tactics — even though they are working less and less.

The primary reason the existing playbook isn’t working is buyer indifference. Buyers have become numb from being bombarded by the same tactics — ebooks, nurturing emails, social posts, SDR outreach, etc. — for years. And we can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting different results.

Also, the very focus on generating pipeline and revenue that I helped preach has caused B2B marketers to overly focus on demand capture versus true demand creation, which perversely makes it harder than ever to generate pipeline and revenue!

So how can we move on from this and start seeing results again? The answer is to throw out the old playbooks and start over. Here’s a summary of the new B2B playbook, mapped to the basic buyer's journey of Awareness, Consideration, and Decision.

Awareness: Condition the Market to Your Solution

You have two goals in the early Awareness stage. First, you want to help potential buyers become aware that they have a pain/problem — this is true demand creation. Second, you want to build awareness and trust in your company. The challenge is to get your message in front of otherwise unidentified buyers, since you don’t have permission to reach out to them, and they aren’t coming to your website.

The old playbook would try to capture these buyers' emails with gated content, but that tactic just isn’t working like it used to. These buyers are unknown and want to stay that way.

This is a great use case for digital advertising, but unfortunately, most advertising solutions are built for B2C marketing, not B2B. That can easily result in 50% or more of your spending going to the wrong people at the wrong accounts, and the majority of your budget getting sucked up by just a few large accounts. Fortunately, I’ve seen that with the right ad tech, built for B2B, you can not only reach the right people at the right accounts, but you can do so efficiently.

But there’s a trick. You need to drop the old playbook’s lead-generation mindset. These ads are not about getting a person to click, or download your ebook, or any of the traditional calls to action. Arguably your ad shouldn’t even have a button to click. These ads should connect at the emotional level and engage the buyer’s reptilian brain to stimulate fear around the types of problems you can solve and feelings of trust and safety for your company.

Success here means dropping traditional B2B demand generation metrics such as cost-per-click and cost-per-lead. The goal is moving accounts through the buyer’s journey — in other words, helping the right accounts become aware of the problem so they move to start considering solutions. Fortunately, this works! My company recently ran an advertising A/B test, and we found that 62% of accounts that were exposed to our ads moved to the next stage, compared to 45% of accounts in the control group — that’s 38% more accounts moving forward because of our advertising!

Related Article: Are You Creating the Best B2B Buyer Customer Experience?

Consideration: Engage In-Market Accounts

OK, so our buyers have been hidden from us, but now they know they’re experiencing pain, have “named the problem” and are starting to look for solutions. Now is the perfect time to engage, before your competitors, and help guide the rest of the journey.

So how can you identify this magic moment when buyers are just starting to search for solutions? You can use quality account intelligence, combined with predictive analytics, to understand the behaviors your best opportunities exhibited in the days and months before they entered the formal sales cycle with your company, and then look for similar accounts that are showing the same behavior patterns.

The key here is to leverage what’s known as intent data, which looks at the content a company is reading about on the open web to find patterns of interest in a topic or category. As an important aside, such an approach is totally privacy-compliant since it’s only at the account and not at the individual level.

Learning Opportunities

From there, you can work to engage these accounts in multiple ways. Keep in mind that if you’ve succeeded in building trust in the prior stage, they’ll be even more open to your outreach. One tactic that works well is intent-based advertising, in which you target your ads not only at the right companies, but the specific people who were the ones showing intent in your category and solutions.

At our company, this generates up to seven times more engagement than generic targeting. Note that in this stage, you are trying to attract the accounts to your website and you’ll measure results in “lift,” which refers to increases in qualified web traffic to your site. With this air cover in place, you should continue to engage these in-market buyers with other channels, including targeted direct mail, customized web pages and personalized human outreach.

When one global leader in banking solutions and retail technology systems set out on such a journey, they focused on selecting target accounts for fit, then reviewed and optimized based on engagement. Such a program led to exceptional results, including 100% reach achieved, 83% engagement of target accounts and 850% click-through rate (CTR) increase over benchmark. 

Related Article: Today's B2B Customers Don't Want to Talk to You. Is That OK?

Decision: Orchestrate Sales and Marketing

In the old B2B playbook, marketing would now pass the “lead” over to sales to continue the journey into an active buying cycle. But we can no longer rely on the traditional handoff between marketing and sales, as if the buyer journey was a linear relay race.

In the new playbook, think of a soccer game instead. The ball might get kicked back the other direction and picked up by another player on the buying committee as it moves up and down the field throughout the process. All the players, including marketing, sales and even sometimes customer success, need to work together as a team to achieve your goals. In fact, analysts have found that the top indicator of account-based success is the coordination between marketing and sales.

This also should change how you gauge progress and measure success. If everyone is touching the ball all the way from one end of the field to the other, it doesn't make sense to waste time trying to attribute some of the goals to marketing and some to sales. Rather, just look at the total pipeline (“all-sourced pipeline”), and you’ll elevate your sales and marketing orchestration further.

Account Selection: Focus Your Limited Resources

I hope all of this sounds good. But you will never have the time or resources to follow this playbook for every possible account in your target market. This playbook only works when you tier your accounts and focus more resources on the best accounts — and fewer or no resources on the others.

I recommend that sales always owns the account selection and tiering, since otherwise, you risk the whole thing being just a marketing exercise. But marketing can and should guide the process in two ways. First, by helping to define exactly what entitlements and investments you will make for an account in each tier, and therefore how many accounts in each tier you can support. And second, by giving the sales reps quality data to prioritize their selections. This is best done following the acronym FIRE:

  • F is for Fit: Look for accounts that fit your ideal customer profile (ICP) using firmographics and technographics.
  • I is for Intent: Find the accounts that have shown general interest in your category.
  • R is for Relationship: Look for some context and history with the account (perhaps a user from another company recently moved jobs).
  • E is for Engagement: Identify accounts that have spent some time engaging with your company.

Combining these together is a great way to select and prioritize your target accounts for the new playbook.

The Takeaway on the New Playbook for B2B

There’s no question that challenges are numerous for B2B marketers right now, but there’s also plenty of reason to believe we can all overcome them. Embrace the new playbook this year, and you’ll be well on your way to a smarter, more successful go-to-market.

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