Marketing Automation and Thought Leadership

Marketing Automation and Thought Leadership

Marketing automation is the next big thing. It has worked wonders for Amazon. But now vendors are pitching it to companies that sell B2B products and services.

They’re promising B2B firms that they can attract prospects with content and then manage them all the way to a sale. Marketers are buying that story, but it relies on some seriously questionable assumptions, including:

  • Companies can produce the thought-leading content that will attract prospects
  • Prospects will register to download that content
  • Prospects can be measured and managed all the way from registration to sale

If any one of these assumptions prove wrong, the automation effort will crash and burn. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

Assumption #1: Companies can produce the thought-leading content that will attract prospects.

Actually, most companies can’t produce thought leadership that will cut through the noise and attract prospective customers.

To understand the volume of the noise, and therefore your odds of being heard, take financial consulting services. If you search LinkedIn for financial consulting firms, you’ll find about 2,000. If you search Google (for financial consulting firms) only four make it to the front page: Mesirow Financial Consulting, Bain & Company, The Hackett Group, and FTI Consulting. (The other six returns on the first page are directories of financial consulting firms. Your search results of course may not be exactly the same). As we know, page two on Google doesn’t count for much, so consider how powerful your content has to be to rise above the other 1995 firms to reach page one. It can be done, of course, not least by focusing on a specific part of financial services consulting, but it’s demanding and few firms are able to do it. If you search on dodd frank consulting services and look at page #20, of the 10 returns, eight are from companies touting their expertise on the subject. (One is a publication and one a CPA organization). Again, there are a lot of people to beat if you want rise to the top in a search, even when you specailize.

Secondly, consider, as Velocity Partners has here, the demand for resources to produce this thought-leading content. Nearly every marketing department is producing more content year-on-year; all of them need more people to do it, and they are all struggling to find the talent. Consequently, the vast majority of content that will be produced will be poor. (Velocity Partners cheerfully forecasts a “Content Effluent Deluge,” unpleasant as that may sound.) Poor content simply won’t attract people to the sites where it’s hosted. And why should it?

Assumption #2: People will register to download that content.

Amazon can automate its marketing in part because it obtains people’s details as soon as they buy something. And that something may be as small as a toothbrush.

B2B companies don’t sell toothbrushes one at a time. They sell big, expensive products and services – at least the ones that can afford to buy marketing automation. So instead of collecting data when customers purchase (which is too late because their purchases are infrequent as well as large), they rely on visitors registering for that thought-leading content we were just talking about.

Have you ever declined to download content because you first had to fill out a form with your personal contact information? I thought so. I am not sure anyone has accurate numbers on what proportion of people are deterred by this sort of gate, but there are many experienced practitioners who are certain it’s substantial. David Meerman Scott argues here that the volume of ungated downloads is 20 to 50 times higher than gated ones. So if you actually have thought-leading content that people are downloading already, expect those numbers to decline dramatically when you gate it. And why would you want that?

Assumption #3: Prospects can be measured and managed all the way from registration to sale.

The B2B buying process, as anyone who has ever been involved in it knows, is anything but linear and logical. For any purchase of any size, there are many players whose opinions count, some more than others. There are formal processes that may not be visible to the outsider, and there are informal ones that certainly won’t be. The average sales cycle takes months, and any number of players, criteria and priorities can change before it closes. For me, the notion that this complexity can be managed or influenced in any meaningful way by a third-party’s computer system doesn’t pass the sniff test.

Yes, the customer has become the hunter and the marketer the hunted and the prospective customer has done most of his research before he reaches out to vendors. That’s a good reason to make sure your best expertise and experience are published where prospective clients can find it. But it does not follow that from the moment they do, you should stalk them so you can . . .   Well, what? If you’re not Amazon, and you can’t assume (as it can) that people who bought a toothbrush would be interested in buying toothpaste, what advantage can you really glean from knowing that someone downloaded your article on the new anti-money laundering regulations? And what are the chances of misjudging that interest and sending the wrong content, invitation or other message, wasting both your time and your prospects’? Just think about your own experience when companies have targeted you or your firm with customized marketing messages. Did any of them ever get it right? And if they did, was it because a program figured it out for hundreds of prospects at once, or because an actual person took an interest?

The problem with marketing automation is not that these assumptions may be wrong some of the time. It’s that all of them have to be right each time for it to work. If each of them is right half the time, they will all fall into place 12.5% of the time (being ½ x ½ x ½). And I think even that dismal success rate is wildly optimistic.

The data is starting to come in now and it isn’t pretty.  David Raab, a marketing technology consultant, recently explained here how the data shows marketing automation and lead nurturing to be among the least effective and hardest to execute marketing tactics. Joby Blume explains here why his company went bust using marketing automation. The main reason was that it did not have content “that people would swap their contact details for.” In other words, assumptions #1 and #2 failed, which made assumption #3 a non-starter.

I’m pretty confident that the marketing automation vendors will say that companies aren’t doing it properly, or well enough, or simply aren’t spending enough money with them.

We don’t plan to spend any.

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