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“One thing I love about customers is that they are divinely discontent. Their expectations are never static—they go up… Yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary.’” – Jeff Bezos, 2019.
Jeff is right. Expectations are constantly changing in both our consumer lives and in our business lives. Our need to embrace digital transformation, especially in these unprecedented times, is evidenced by the fact that B2B ecommerce spending is expected to hit $6.6 trillion this year, eclipsing online spending in B2C. (Source: eMarketer, “B2B eCommerce 2018.”)
To keep up with this shifting world, B2B marketers need to change. We are no longer managing the demand funnel, beholden to archaic KPIs around lead conversion, MQLs and opportunities. We are orchestrators of experiences, architects who design compelling reasons for our customers to not only buy our products or solutions but to partner and be advocates of our brands.
The buyer is king, and that buyer is leading us toward ever more complex engagements. At the same time, buyers expect simple, frictionless experiences. They expect brands to remember their last actions, offer them next best actions, move them forward, educate them, and further their careers—all seamlessly.
One example: Uber does not forget the places I travel often. The company knows my home address, it remembers where I’ve been, and it removes the friction from my experience by suggesting rides to those places when I use the app. We have a duty to deliver B2B experiences of that caliber.
Experience 1.0 and 2.0
There has been a major shift over the last few decades in our ability to serve rich experiences to our clients. In the early 2000s, technologies and data allowed marketers to deliver simple, static journeys. Those experiences were extremely linear, and they relied on unchanging firmographic and demographic data. Marketers also relied almost entirely on email to reach their audiences.
Throughout the 2000s, we saw amazing new capabilities come into play, with massive advancements in site personalization, connected media, programmatic, and real-time bidding opening up the capability for truly personalized media experiences. Massive advances in predictive scoring enabled us to determine who was likely to purchase, and behavioral and surge data helped us better understand how our customers and prospects were engaging with our earned and owned platforms. Finally, the advancement in dynamic creative capabilities across all media enabled us to think differently about how we build personalized content in real-time.
Though these advances ushered in the first wave of dynamic journeys to B2B customers, they are still very siloed, with many marketing teams still focusing on their areas of expertise and corresponding KPIs. Siloed teams aren’t sharing client data across relevant internal audiences, thus forgetting the steps customers have taken. Marketing automation platforms (MAPs) tried to be the “stitch” quite early on and saw huge successes over the last two decades. However, these systems presented two key challenges for enterprises:
1) They attempted to own all aspects of customers’ experiences by being a single platform for all interactions. While this was somewhat achievable in mid-market companies, it was never feasible in complex enterprise environments where practitioners needed to have best-of-breed, scaled solutions to run their functional areas.
2) They relied on a linear journey design, one that required marketing teams to build personas and journey flows in PowerPoint and then build corresponding nurture flows. This method left us with partially connected environments, splitting behavioral data among multiple platforms and failing to create the 360-view of our customers’ experiences. Expanding to the thousands of experiences we truly needed to connect with individuals would become too resource-intensive, and so we tended to optimize within the limited number we had. The most common complaint from marketers I heard during this era was, “We just do not have the resources or content to meet all of our customers where they are in their journeys.”
The Third Generation: Turning the Paradigm on Its Head
We are now entering the third generation of customer experience, where we can leverage all of the wonderful aforementioned advances—and then some. Today, we’re able to stitch together the technologies that provide rich customer experiences, leveraging traditional database marketing practices but in a far more agile way. Multiple forces—including massive advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, cloud tools and cheap storage; better identity management; API connectivity among tech platforms; and consolidation in the martech space led by Adobe, Google and Salesforce—have advanced what’s possible. In addition, data has become contextual and scaled with advances in connecting consumer and business profiles. These innovations are manifesting themselves in the new breed of experience and customer data platforms (CDPs), designed to be the true “stitch.”
This new modern marketing stack enables us to turn experience design on its head. Instead of prescribing a journey and driving customers through it, we can tap into a surplus of data and apply machine learning to determine the most trodden path, inform us of where the journey is broken, and allow us to quickly implement fixes to improve. This is known as the “next best action.”
Next best action (NBA) creates unified experiences that can be started in one channel (say, the website) and completed in another (say, with a sales rep). That channel of completion would have the exact insight into how the customer got to that stage and what the next best action would be. NBA even provides scripts and advice to progress the customer journey. When connected to modern dynamic creative engines that can compile content in real-time, we can create endless experiences that are truly personalized to the individual. Customers will feel remembered, and if we’re lucky, they may become brand advocates with higher lifetime value.
Here’s how B2B companies today can get started in the world of customer experience 3.0:
- Understand your current state, where your data resides, and where it ebbs and flows through your tech stack.
- Understand your most critical customer behavioral data. In most B2B marketing organizations, this information can be gleaned from one’s site, MAP and CRM.
- Think through your most immediate needs—and do not try to boil the ocean. There are always a couple of cases that will be most critical to your business. Focus there and try to drive immediate value (e.g., within 90 days). Build from there.
- Expect to run a parallel environment. It’s highly likely you will need new technology to deliver on experience 3.0 expectations, but you will also likely not be able to wind down your 2.0 setup right away. Be prepared to run parallel environments and test continually.
- Engage a partner to facilitate technology deployment. Though a lot of platform providers will position their tech as “the answer,” it rarely is unless it’s accompanied by personnel who can activate it properly.