The future of B2B marketing: ABM and AI
Columnist Peter Isaacson believes Account-Based Marketing and artificial intelligence hold big promise for bringing B2B marketers closer to delivering personal, one-to-one customer experiences.
If you’ve been in marketing for a while, you’ve probably come across a copy of Don Peppers and Martha Rogers’ book, “The One to One Future.” (If you haven’t, it’s a good read for any B2B marketer.) Written in the 1990s, the book painted a bright future — one where marketers could connect with their audiences on a more personal, one-to-one level. The idea was simple: all of the new technology and data flooding marketing at the time would pave the way for personalized, incredibly relevant customer experiences.
Two decades later, we’re still not any closer to making this vision a reality. In fact, I’d argue that the technology we’ve deployed has, in many cases, pushed us further away from that 1:1 connection. We’ve taken innovative technologies and platforms like marketing automation and digital advertising and used them to spam our audiences with millions of untargeted, irrelevant messages.
As a result, marketers haven’t been able to deliver on what our customers really need: a personalized message with relevant information.
While technology has pushed us further away from our customers, I believe that we are on the cusp of actually (finally) using technology to help restore that 1:1 connection. We’ve already started to see this happen, and it’s made possible by two important things: Account-Based Marketing (ABM) and artificial intelligence (AI).
ABM and the return to customer-centricity
I’ve written about ABM before, usually in the context of why it’s good for marketers. It helps them be more efficient, deliver more effective campaigns, prove ROI and actually impact the business — benefits that are music to any marketer’s ears. In fact, we get so excited about how an account focus will help us drive more results, we don’t always talk about why.
In reality, ABM benefits our prospects and customers quite a bit, because it forces us to learn more about them and get them the right messages at the right time. Once we’ve slimmed down our traditional demand-gen activities and focused on a narrower target account list, we have the opportunity to give them the right experience at every phase of the funnel, from first touch to close to measurement.
The problem is that while delivering that white-glove experience to 10 accounts is feasible, it gets harder when we have a target account list of 500 or 1,000. That’s because to deliver that experience, you need to have quite a lot of in-depth account knowledge about each account: what their priorities are, what challenges they face, who their competitors are and what needs they have.
Without that information, it’s hard to build relevant messages and campaigns, or even start the conversation. And as you move to more accounts, getting that information becomes more of a challenge.
The challenge of scale
Despite all the promise of ABM, we still haven’t achieved that 1:1 connection that Peppers and Rogers predicted. And while ABM has been around for some time, marketers just haven’t been able to scale it.
We have to choose either to limit our target account list or to limit the quality of our personalized messages. Unfortunately, neither of those choices is particularly appealing in a largely digital world.
The need for a better option is the reason for the surge in ABM-focused technology over the past few years. Many marketers (and vendors) have invested a great deal in technology that can help them merge a highly personalized account strategy with a flawless digital experience. They’ve made some great progress, and more and more marketing and sales teams are leveraging new technologies to implement ABM across digital channels.
AI: The final frontier
While this progress has made an impact on B2B marketers and their businesses, it has still been a challenge to convert data into insights and action in order to truly deliver a 1:1 connection at scale. That’s largely due to all the research and in-depth knowledge that’s required to develop the insights to make each message as relevant as possible to our audiences. Even ABM technology, as great as it is, has not been able to solve that issue for us, until now.
We know that no human can do that much research in a cost-effective way, but now, with the introduction of AI, we finally have the superhuman ability to source massive quantities of data and convert it into the insight and action needed to scale our 1:1 interactions.
Modern AI technology has the ability to ingest unstructured data and deliver relevant information about your target accounts — what they care about, who their competitors are, what they’re reading, talking and writing about and more.
And perhaps even more importantly, it gives us the ability to leverage that information across our most critical digital channels. Suddenly, we’re able to nurture that 1:1 connection without compromising the breadth of our targeting and programs.
Delivering on the promise of digital
While the benefits of digital marketing are obvious, the challenges are more nuanced. We have to be always on. We have to interact with anonymous visitors. We have to engage prospects immediately, or they might lose interest and never seek us out again.
Nowhere are these challenges more pressing than the B2B website. It’s the channel where we most need that 1:1 connection but have the hardest time delivering it.
Arguably, as B2B marketers, our websites are our most important digital channels, which makes it all the more painful when we fail to leverage them successfully. But who could blame us? We’re serving so many different audiences at different phases of the buying cycle, it’s hard to make sure they all get what they need.
We’ve started to address this problem with ABM, by personalizing certain sections of a website for a number of segments and accounts. And while we’ve seen great success and engagement with our efforts, we’re still choosing a set of our most important segments, rather than engaging our entire target audience. That’s where AI comes in.
While ABM gives us the framework we need to target and market to accounts, AI helps us generate the insights we need to give customers the experience they want. The combination of ABM and AI gives marketers the ability to deliver highly personalized website experiences — at scale.
Beyond just personalizing for segments and accounts, marketers can recommend content for each individual visitor, based on their individual needs and interests. In this way, every account gets the relevant messages they need as they move across the funnel.
Marketers no longer have to worry about their prospects getting frustrated and leaving. Instead, they can deliver a unique, 1:1 experience for each website visitor.
We’ve only scratched the surface of the possibilities ABM and AI have to offer. While the website is one of our most significant digital channels, we want to deliver that same personalized experience consistently across every channel.
Soon, you’ll see ABM and AI’s combined capabilities extending to other channels, like advertising, reporting and email. By connecting across channels, we’ll all finally be even closer to the 1:1 future that Peppers and Rogers envisioned.