Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Using Audience Targeting to Own the Latent Pipeline

B2B marketers are intimately familiar with the concept of a funnel or a pipeline. Whichever term you use--you might use both--the ideas are the same from company to company. A lead is entered into a system at some point in time. It might be someone inquiring on the web site, or it might even be a name from a list. From this point onwards, that lead can either move forward, do nothing, or drop out of the system. The resulting graphic looks like a funnel.

Having covered that ground, let me state up front that this post is not about pipeline management, acceleration, nurturing, systems, or email marketing. This post is about a fundamental problem with the funnel concept as operationalized at most B2B marketing organizations today, and what I think is a pretty seminal idea on how to fix the problem.

The problem with funnels is that they're missing a lot of the folks that are actually going through the purchase process. This is because we as marketers are dependent on our own internal systems to track these folks. Our own websites; our own emails; our own sales reps; you name it. However, we know there are many individuals with needs that are going down an awareness / consideration / trial / purchase process that we are completely oblivious to. I call this the latent pipeline. For analytics geeks, this should be a comfortable term. It is the implicit pipeline that we don't have information about but that we know exists.

I'd argue that the latent pipeline can be broken into two parts. The first part is the upstream part of the funnel that could be defined as "pre-company web site". This is when latent prospects are starting to think about their needs and what they're going to go do. Today, this is going to be largely addressed via search, assuming that we can intersect people when they type in search terms. There is no question that this is a powerful tool for intercepting prospects, but I'd argue that there's an even more powerful way to target them. More on that later.

The second part are the folks that are going through our stages, as defined via our systems, that we don't know about. So, when we have 10 leads that are "qualified", there are another 50 leads out there that are being qualified by other companies. We don't know about them, so chances are, we'll never get to pitch to them. Ouch! That's pretty harsh.

So, we've defined a pipeline that has an explicit and a latent component, that will look something like this:

This fundamentally changes the concepts of B2B marketing, when you think about it.
  • Acquisition marketing really becomes about understanding the top of the latent funnel
  • The scope of CRM can be expanded to include not just leads / opportunities in our CRM system, but to leads / opportunities in other company's CRM systems

I'm not suggesting that we all go do industrial espionage and steal other firm's CRM data. I'm suggesting that through online audience ownership, we can extend the CRM layer from the explicit to the latent, via display advertising. I already posted on this once, so read that one. Basically, I'm arguing that we need to take a few steps to own the latent pipeline:

  1. Understand our audiences
  2. Map their typical B2B Internet behavior and map their pre-buying cues
  3. Build analytical models to tag them
  4. Target them via display advertising before they ever come to our site
  5. Keep doing search marketing

In other words, create a rich, targeted online tapestry that is always on, and no longer shackled to company web sites and email. B2C marketers are ahead on this, but B2B has so much more potential.

I know this needs more detail. Next post will be on how one might do the steps above and make it work.


Adam Gierisch said...

I could be misunderstanding this, but I think what you're saying, albeit in a different way, is that B2B marketing is limiting itself with its use of "traditional" marketing channels (direct mail, email, outbound dialing, etc.). These channels have historically been used for the purpose you mentioned, target identification and internal tracking, but are ineffective in capturing the world outside our known universe of prospects. Recently I've seen an uptick in B2B, above-the-line marketing, most notably by shipping companies (UPS and the USPS, specifically). My initial thought was that these organizations were using a tactic more traditionally associated with consumer marketing (TV) to break into the small and medium business market based on the belief (accurate, in my mind) that small business owners essentially ARE consumers and can therefore be marketed to as such. This broad based advertising also accomplishes much of what you discuss above - i.e., educating a potential customer on our services prior to internal knowledge of their existence.

Looked at a different way, most large companies already have their big fish locked up. For example, Dell knows and pays attention to its billion dollar clients and also pays close attention to its competitors' big fish, and for good reason. This is an example of having awareness of both your internal pipeline AND your latent one (although it's less latent when you know about it). However, no organization could devote resources to acquiring this intel on clients with say, less than $100 million, in revenue, but that doesn't mean there's not significant opportunity there. In the absence of broad awareness marketing, however, Dell and their competitors are all taking shots in the dark about where the ripe prospects are. In other words, they're ignoring those folks in their latent pipeline. With more consumer-styled advertising, however, they're generating awareness and, more importantly, educating the consumer on their terms and therefore loading the deck in their favor when a buying decision comes. This probably also shortens the sales cycle in many instances.

The real question is, what's the ROI on this compared with the more traditional B2B sales efforts? My guess is that it would vary significantly based on industry and existing brand recognition/consumer penetration.

heyrobertdavis said...

Andy - interesting thinking. However, there are a couple things I think need to be thrown into the mix: first, your implication that a competitors lead can't also be your lead, latent stage or otherwise, doesn't true up to one key element of B2B buying behavior - buyer's desire to assemble a broad range of information from multiple sources early in the process, and their creation of the "long list" prior to making their "short list" later in the process. (gap varies of course by degree of consideration, complexity of purchase, price tag, etc.) I think the other point is that search is one way to get our content in front of the latent funnel - but the social web is another place we need to do so. Latest research from both IDG and TechTarget quantifies the impact of social media (and also breaks out which social media types by purchase stage, too) in influencing B2B buying processes. Buyers use social media at every stage of the process - and even if their take on the impact of social media is overstated by 100%, it's still significant.

Additionally, the #1 early stage influence on vendor name selection always has been and continues to be WOM from colleagues. This is where customer relationships - and how well issues such as upgrade and maintenance costs, service and support must be aligned with marketing via a common vision of how the brand serves its customer. What kind of WOM do you think Salesforce gets vs. Oracle, these days?

Good stuff and great fodder for conversation. Thanks!