At the heart of the business-to-business marketing black hole is data. We use the term black hole, because for many B2B campaigns, their attempts to meet a more strategic brief is met by the collision of sales targets and an information vacuum that drives a purely creative-led strategy to generate cut-through. All too often this collision leaves the light of marketing intelligence far behind.
So while the work wins plenty of accolades and awards, it rarely delivers more than a tactical return on investment. And this is a crushing problem – not least because the outcome, at a superficial level, is attractive to nearly everyone. The agency is happy because it gets to produce some “eye-candy” work on a regular basis. The marketing department is happy because it’s easy and it gets to have some fun. And the sales guys are happy because it gives them something to talk about.
Wheels in motion
But does it deliver to the business strategy in the long term and does it give a platform to evolve a coherent strategy both for the sales and the brand? After all, when you’ve sent out a micro-scooter, what next?
Our belief is this situation can only be improved by adopting a coherent strategy. A strategy that understands the context of the brand and the way in which our communications can be made more relevant and more compelling to consumers. In this respect, B2B marketing strategy differs little from a business-to-consumer environment. But it is data, or rather the difficulty of establishing its integrity, that makes formulating such a strategy tougher in the world of B2B marketing. But, perversely, the data means there is greater opportunity for cohesion in the B2B arena.
In consumer markets, insurance information, in particular the capturing of renewal data, is ubiquitous and a core part of any direct insurers’ acquisition strategy. This reflects the maturity of the market where the depth of information now held at individual level allows sophisticated behavioural profiling, even on a campaign targeting prospects (rather than existing customers).
By contrast, business insurance renewal data is not available on the open market – in fact, the business insurance market reflects the consumer market of 15 years ago. It is dominated by a proliferation of brokers working on the basis that the inertia of their clients will protect their margins. Undertaking work to capture this information can be both difficult and expensive. But the reward is a market-leading position where triggered marketing is delivered effectively, to known decision-makers and on time.
It is not surprising that the client currently adopting this strategy has seen dramatic increases in business levels in the past year. So in this instance, the strategy is executed by the creation of a unique data set – thus bypassing the inadequacies of the information available to B2B companies.
Still within financial services, Alliance & Leicester Commercial Bank (ALCB) faces a challenging situation in business banking. Up against the big four, which despite the Cruickshank Report, still hold more than 80 per cent of the market, ALCB has the objective of broadening its offer from its core market of small independent retailers.
Qualitative and quantitative research has helped to create a new position away from the (consumer-focused) retail bank and, combined with a new product and data strategy, has helped to generate dramatic increases in business levels from this time last year. Data profiling for targets has had to look at propensity to switch product, switch provider and to switch to ALCB. As the challengers to the big four look to make ground – most notably Halifax Bank of Scotland and ALCB – it is the ability to refine data and act on it that sets the strategy for successful activity.
In the technology markets, product providers are often at least one step removed from their customers. In this world of re-sellers and distributors, the issue is more about persuading your intermediaries to represent you in the way they can afford, that underpins (rather than undermines) your brand and that shifts product. Understanding more about the needs of this target market has enabled Mitel to deliver sophisticated tool-kits to the distributors and re-sellers of their VOIP product range. This hard-working marketing activity across different channels and five countries not only improved performance, it simultaneously engineered a great deal of goodwill from the intermediary base.
The three Rs
None of these initiatives took the easy option of producing good-looking work for the sake of it. Everything was initiated by customer insight and driven by the pursuit of finding the right thing to say to the right contact, at the right time.
Many of the issues that prevent these difficult but successful campaigns being more straightforward concern UK business data, which is collated very differently from our European counterparts. Heaven help French businesses that do not accurately provide details of their reports and accounts. With the UK, it is a murkier, messier, more complicated picture.
There are at least six main providers of “pooled” business data in the UK – some significantly better than others. In comparison to the consumer-profiling techniques, business profiling in the UK is still very one-dimensional in its outlook, although the work of PH Group and Information Arts is certainly heading in the right direction.
So for those who want to grasp the nettle, there is a real opportunity to do something greater than merely deliver more leads with a sexy gimmick. There is the opportunity to really understand who these potential customers are and how to turn them on.
Managing director, TDA
1996 Founder of TDA (The Direct Agency) Ltd
1995 Group account director at Target Direct
1993 Client services director at Hamilton Wright
1990 Senior marketing controller at Sun Alliance
1989 Account manager at Comag Magazine Marketing
1987 Associate editor/advertising assistant at The Magazine Distribution Book – Blitz Magazine