B2B Personalization — Does It Mean What You Think It Means?

Personalization is the holy grail of marketing and sales today, driving ever greater investment in marketing technology (MarTech) platforms, data and digital commerce. How important is it to marketing leaders? 92% of B2B marketers say it is a must, according to Adobe’s 2019 report Progress in personalization. How B2B brands are keeping up with rising demands for personalization. The same report reveals that 91% of senior decision makers say their companies need to improve personalization capabilities. That sentiment is striking in several ways.

Effective personalization — one size does not fit all

In marketing today, the topic of personalization is ubiquitous. Exploding your inbox, the media, LinkedIn, and beyond, the volume of personalization chatter feels incessant. Analysts pontificate about it and MarTech vendors promise outsized growth because of it. Organizations are prioritizing it and striving to collect and leverage the data required to deliver it. Marketers define programs around it and spend millions of budget dollars to track and push their offers to prospects across their omnichannel ecosystems. There is a flood of examples.

Inevitably, it seems, Amazon becomes part of the conversation as the idolized best-practice model, the ultimate success story of digital commerce personalization done right. Facebook, on the other hand, has become the poster child of personalization abuse, unleashing the unintended consequences of personalization engine algorithms.

Business loves “best practices” and there is no shortage of “marketing personalization best practices” to be discovered via search (“About 23,000,000 results” according to Google). Analyst and vendor case studies are abundant.

There is one problem though — personalization “best practices” is discussed and consumed in aggregate, as a one-size fits all discussion and with a heavy reliance on technology over context.

The B2C model of Amazon is one retailers and digital commerce marketers dream about, but B2B is not retail. And, frankly, “Dear <firstname>” is not personalization, at least not to any senior B2B decision makers I know. Without consideration of the distinct differences between B2C and B2B buyers, purchase paths and other criteria, B2B marketing personalization is commonly misaligned and misdirected — and your audience recognizes it.

What does personalization mean to B2B buyers?

In the movie The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya is the Spanish henchman to the Sicilian criminal Vizzini. Throughout the movie Vizzini, upon encountering unanticipated events, repeatedly declares “Inconceivable!” Montoya finally says to Vizzini, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

B2B marketers often use tactics they consider to be personalization best practices, applying whatever data they have, but often fall short of their audiences’ expectations as well as their own. It’s not a small problem.

The inevitable question is this — what does true personalization look like for your organization and market? More important, what does personalization mean to your prospects and customers?

Poorly done, superficial personalization can look a lot like stalking. And, unless vendor personalization attempts are meaningful and add true value, they are just background noise. B2B buyers are different. Full stop. High-dollar B2B transactions are very different, possessing long and complex sales cycles among multiple decision makers. This changes the meaning of personalization.

B2B buyers want personalization, in human terms, within the context of their roles and priorities. Putting your target’s first name in the emails you keep sending to them is not personalization in the way you think it is. Business decision makers want and need trustworthy information, perhaps more now than ever. They do not want or need more emails and programmatic ads shoved into their browser based on information your organization has acquired. Rather than validate the trust you think you are building, cheap “personalization” tactics undermine it.

Personalization is powerful

Personalization is powerful and the data confirms it. 87% of marketers report a lift in success due to personalization according to data reported by outgrow.co. However, personalization is not the same for all, and again, the data point lacks clarity without some definition of “personalization” tactics and some understanding of the audience reporting improved performance. In other words, the context matters, which is largely the point.

Buyers of commoditized products behave much differently than the buyers of complex business solutions and services. Those differences matter.

Meaningful B2B Personalization

How do you design meaningful B2B personalization into your marketing and sales engagement? Begin by defining what personalization means to your prospects and customers. Place the emphasis on their needs, understanding the context and priorities of their roles, how their buying process works and the kinds of outcomes and information that is relevant to them. The right content, at the right time, for the right buyer is the goal of personalization. Defining what that means at each stage takes work, but it’s the secret to doing it properly.

Define your brand value and story — Every successful B2B organization has a customer value proposition. Define what makes yours unique — and what does not. Make sure everyone in marketing and sales understands it and how to use it. It defines your brand. Your prospects don’t care about your brand, your product or service, until they have a reason to care.

Historically, before digital transformation engulfed the universe, the role of giving B2B prospects a reason to care about your business solutions was done almost exclusively through personal interaction. Helping people buy has traditionally been the role of salespeople. That has changed.

Today, B2B buyers rely on a significant percentage of digital discovery, education, and interactions before engaging with sales. Buyer information needs haven’t changed, in fact, they have grown, but their methods have changed. Personalization helps make potential buyers care.

Define your audience. Understand the context of their business roles and priorities — The first thing to recognize is that you are not selling to a business. You’re selling to a person (likely multiple people) and there is a high likelihood that your product or service is not on their list of top priorities. How well you can position your solution to align with their priorities depends on how well you understand them and where your solution fits into them.

Creating Buyer Personas allows marketers to identify and understand the human being behind the role. By understanding the context and complexity of your prospect’s role, business needs, challenges and frustrations, you can develop messages and content that supports sales interactions by filling the digital chasm between a buyer’s identification of a need and buyer’s decision to engage a salesperson.

Identify how your business value aligns with your target audience’s business priorities — Consider where customer value resides in the context of the customer’s workday, professional interests, and primary function. What are their priorities and what big problems are they responsible to solve?

Every business has a formal set of objectives that cascade from the top, guiding the priorities of each department leader and their teams. This is what your audience is focused on. Whether formal or subconscious, every executive decision maker has a list of their top needs, challenges and frustrations. How and where do your value propositions intersect with the broader objectives? Find the contextual relationships and prioritize those with the strongest business impact.

Understand your B2B buyer’s journey, needs and timing

The fundamental buyer’s need for information has not changed. What has changed is that B2B buyers prefer to educate themselves before engaging a salesperson, using a fractured discovery process of many micro-events triggered by self-guided navigation and research. Digital due diligence helps buyers refine their business needs and objectives. It is standard buyer behavior and proportional to the cost and complexity of a project.

While there are several models, segmenting buyer journeys into progressively active pre-sales discovery stages is common. But beware, though the stages may seem linear, B2B journeys are neither linear nor concise.

Develop and deploy content accordingly

What do B2B buyers want and need to make informed decisions? Relevant information. Trustworthy content and guidance that helps them solve a business problem. Buyers have been telling us this for some time as evidenced by the recurring Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact studies.

It’s important to also recognize that your “buyer” is a group of individuals. No two of those individuals is moving at the same pace nor will they participate in each stage with the same interest. Each decision maker and influencer endorsement will require a clear value proposition and they will educate themselves as required by their business role and the stakeholders they represent.

Marketing teams that personalize content and messages to meet the needs of individual target prospects throughout their decision-making process, demonstrate authority in their space and earn trust as a potential partner understand B2B personalization.

“Dear <firstname> <lastname>,” is not personalization to B2B decision makers. Providing the right information and guidance, at the right time and helping decision makers become smarter buyers, is personalization.

This article was first published on Medium on Feb 11, 2022.

To Gate, Or Not To Gate? A Question As Old As Digital Delivery

Marketing Charts — https://www.marketingcharts.com/industries/business-to-business-108001

Why gate content? Leads. Gating content is about generating leads say 62% of B2B organizations as recently reported by Marketing Charts. And, though the answer to “why” surprises no one, the summary of the research they published highlights some interesting responses and related metrics worth deeper consideration.

Several of the highlights are intriguing:
“45% of respondents believe gating content adds an air of exclusivity to it.” I think users have quite an opposite reaction to gated content and see through that.
• As for the leads generated at the gate, the data is never as clean as hoped. 47% provide personal email (or a dedicated junk mail account address)
31% refuse the transaction cost of providing personal information for content. 45% of VP-level decision makers refuse.

Gating is a barrier to audience trust and the mission of your content. Period. Full stop.

Gating is as old as content marketing. It is the digital descendant of event raffles and the aggressive corralling of wanderlust trade show attendees for badge IDs. Tactically speaking, it is what marketing has always done — support sales and generate leads. I understand the rationale.

But the conversation and decision about gating content must go deeper. In fact, the simplicity of the question — to gate or not to gate — betrays a strategic and deliberate approach to the role of content today. Too often, the check-mark is defined simply by content classification rather than audience personalization such as role, journey stage and opt-in alternatives. Consider first how and where your content fits a prospect’s discovery path; does it meet their specific needs?

Faced with the question to gate or not to gate content, the first and most important question to consider is if, in the eyes of your audience, the content is worthy of the transaction cost. Most content is not. In fact, the 2019 Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study concludes that quality thought leadership is scarce — only 18% of business leaders consider vendor content excellent or very good. But take note, the impact of quality content is real and has a measurable impact on trust and reputation. 70% of decision makers will follow an author or organization that brings value (and not promotion). Conversely, “done poorly, it can harm business.” 60% of decision makers will stop following authors or organizations after reading thought leadership while 29% decided not to award business because of their thought leadership (or lack of it). Your content better be in that 18% of excellent/very good or risk the disappointment and loss of trust from your audience.

Gating is an internally focused tactic that ignores emergent trust and relationship challenges every digital business faces today. It also over-simplifies buyer behavior in complex sales cycles. But I understand the rationale, marketing is doing what marketing has been trained to do — support sales & generate leads.

There is an ironic and important paradox here. The chorus of business leaders and analysts evangelizing the importance of a more personalized and empathetic, customer experience — from end-to-end — has been rising for years now. Gating content is a contradiction.

Is there a place in the engagement process for requesting and acquiring prospect information? Yes, absolutely. Generating interest and sales opportunities is the heart of the marketing mission. Webinars are an example of a registration-required format that users readily accept. They understand there can be logistical limits and requirements when “live.” It also demonstrates legitimate audience interest by the act of registration and a calendar commitment to attend.

I’m all for strong content that informs prospects and can drive well qualified leads for sales. To be clear, it’s vital to create opportunities for users to provide personal info, but how and when you do it matters. Invoking “pay to play” access early in a prospect journey, before trust or authority has been earned, will close many doors that would otherwise remain open.

The Takeaways
1. Demand generation is a marathon. Slow down, nurture digital relationships and allow them to evolve. Trust and authority are earned, it’s not an algorithm.

2. Show, don’t tell; inform, educate and demonstrate why your solutions matter. Stop selling and stop talking about yourself; let your subject expertise be the star. Your trust and authority scores will increase immediately.

3. Be creative in creating opt-in opportunities like webinars that will demonstrate expertise, insight and customer value. Give your audience a reason to want to explore a relationship with your business. The prospect data you earn will be cleaner, will yield more productive nurture programs and increase lead quality.

Building trust and relationships have always been the first rule of sales success. Just because buyers don’t engage with sales until late in the sales cycle doesn’t mean prospects aren’t judging you. The importance of developing buyer-seller relationships based on trust and authority remain, but how those relationships evolve has been redefined. Until a buyer decides to speak to a salesperson, your digital behavior and your content is your salesperson.

This commentary was first published on Medium on Apr 17, 2019

New Marketing Landscape, Same Old Marketing Conversation?

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

If you’re involved in marketing, it’s no secret that change is everywhere. Technology has had a profound impact on all aspects of human behavior personally and professionally. The media we consume, how we consume it, and how we interact with brands – not to mention each other – has changed. The emergence of digital has altered everything, and marketing’s role today is not the marcom of yesterday. It’s a new game, with new rules, and an overwhelming number of new media, channels, and tools.

If you’re currently in a marketing leadership role and you find change scary and uncomfortable, now would be a good time to consider a career change. Conversely, if your personality is one that thrives on uncertainty, exploration, and opportunity, know this: Success will be elusive, but you will probably enjoy the ride. This is the reality of marketing today.

The need for transformation

There is endless analysis and conversation today about business transformation and innovation. It is a dominant theme among analysts, technology media, and executive management. Marketing is no exception.

Many of today’s B2B marketing conversations are data-rich, wrapped around annual surveys of marketers and buyers summarizing sentiment, budgets, and priorities. When done well, they capture the preferences and pain points of a profession in transition and have legitimate benchmark value. They clearly document changing trends and challenges, and the best of them deliver true insight. Yet at the same time it feels like something is missing.

The trend of “more” – content, measurement, and beyond

“More” is a recurring theme in recent years for marketing. More media choices, channels, and formats are complemented by the need for more leads and measurement. And, of course, more content. Seventy percent of marketers surveyed in 2015 by Content Marketing Institute (CMI) plan to create more content, but only 8% of B2B marketers rate their content efforts as “very effective.” That’s not a great return on investment. Given the continued challenge over measurement and attribution, one has to wonder about the 8%. Is it tightly measured? Or is it based on circumstantial evidence, or worse, is it assumptive?

This is one of the troubling trends that CMOs are being pressured to correct. Only 5% of marketers surveyed by CMI rate their organization’s efforts to track ROI as “very successful,” and a 2016 DemandWave survey says a full 35% of marketers don’t even have an attribution model, let alone one that is working well.

Content Science reports a couple of equally disturbing success metrics that seem to have survived the analog age of marcom – 27% gauge success by the creation rate of content, and 71% gauge success by “meeting deadlines.” Though no one will dispute the need to hit delivery dates, these metrics do not reflect the performance of content. In fact, they suggest a highly quantitative checklist approach at a time when quality and scalability matter more than ever.

This is all part of the ongoing conversations marketing is having among themselves. But as relevant as these conversations are, they are beginning to feel a bit like redundant noise. That may sound harsh, but most are rich in describing how digital customers have changed buying behaviors, the urgency of digital transformation, and the latest assessment of marketing tactics. Yet, when considered in aggregate, something is missing.

Changing the conversation inside and outside of marketing

Are the conversations around content, marketing, and advertising too narrow? Are they focused on the right things?

This recent Advertising Age article titled “The Big Agenda” is encouraging. It highlights the need to replace short-term thinking for the longer view and reflects a focus on “making marketing work better.” From readers surveyed, these are the top three priority issues in 2016:

1. Making marketing more efficient (55%)
2. Improving creative excellence (54%)
3. Finding new ways to reach consumers as they block or skip ads (52%)

What is missing from the conversation today is the important new role marketing must unequivocally accept – marketing is now a direct and substantial part of the sales process. The new role is not about creating more content and publishing more often; it is about being more effective at earning audience attention and driving demand.

The 2015 B2B Marketing Trends Report from CMI highlights a key organizational challenge that must be part of the new marketing conversation. It is the wide distribution of accountability across organizations for content marketing: C-level (23%), product marketing (19%), demand gen (18%), PR (15%), social media (6%), or the omnipresent “other” (14%).


The distribution metric is significant because it documents a fractured model aligned to traditional internal structures.

Unfortunately, most attempts to adapt and improve marketing performance have been tactically iterative, constrained by legacy assumptions and habits. Technology, consumers, and communications have changed too much for incremental evolution.
Everyone needs to turn off autopilot and re-think the entire approach, right down to organizational structures and processes. Process is key to efficiency, but a process based on an old set of rules is industrialized disaster. For many, this is the status of B2B marketing today.

Until organizations accept this, marketing execution will be marginalized by the lack of a holistic vision and execution strategy. New, operationally sustainable strategies will need to break old habits, processes, and role-based silos. Digital business requires transformation at every level, perhaps most of all in marketing.

As Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.” Are you ready to change the conversation of marketing?

This article was originally written for and published by Content Science Review.