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Major changes to the tech landscape, buyer behaviours and the digital advertising supply chain are on their way, creating a perfect storm for the world of B2B marketing. What we’ve been using relatively successfully in the past is about to change significantly; it’s a new paradigm. It is one fraught with risk, but one that also presents marketers with opportunities for driving significant improvements in both inbound and outbound marketing activities, creating greater transparency, control, and most importantly, taking ownership of their digital destiny.

Some of the most significant changes happening within the digitisation landscape, began last year. They will continue to present ever-increasing challenges for those B2B marketers who have failed to identify, understand and either act on or prepare to react to what lies ahead.

Parallels can be drawn with the industry’s approach and preparation for GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), when businesses were given two years, from May 2016 to May 2018 to prepare for and implement new GDPR measures. Yet many failed to act quickly enough to what was a clear strategic issue in marketing terms, even as regulators began announcing significant fines for GDPR infringements. I experienced first-hand the industry dynamics that divided businesses en-masse as to their awareness, comprehension and subsequent action (or inaction) in preparing for such a significant change.

Don’t let this be another GDPR moment.

Going cookieless
The move to a cookieless environment is well underway. Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox browsers have already eliminated third-party cookies, while Google is expected to deprecate third-party cookies from Chrome in 2024. B2B marketers rely on access to customer data and identifiers for their digital marketing campaigns and inbound and outbound actions and activities. With the deprecation of third-party cookies, things like cross-domain tracking, retargeting, and serving digital advertising are grinding to a halt. In a recent survey by BCG and LinkedIn, 39% of marketers said that they were already seeing a negative impact on their marketing performance from the changes.

So, what alternative strategies are out there that will allow you to target prospects and maintain an effective digital marketing strategy? B2B marketers cannot afford to wait for clarity before advancing their capabilities. They must start looking immediately for ways to overcome the loss of third-party data access.

The B2B data analytics dilemma
Google Analytics (GA) may be the marketing world’s go-to web analytics platform, but the new reality is highlighting the fact that with hindsight, it was never the most effective tool for B2B. It was simply the only tool that was available. At its core is an individual, i.e., it is a person-tracking solution. What B2B needs is the ability to track accounts and the decision-making infrastructure that exists within that named account. GA cannot handle named account tracking and multiple stakeholders, and therefore offers no means of tracking long sales cycles, and the reason is that GA relies on web cookies, which are being phased out.

GA doesn’t measure every page view, but rather samples of page views, designed for modelling data in large-scale environments, such as B2C news websites. B2B needs precision monitoring, not scaled modelling. GA lacks the monitoring tools that are particularly relevant to B2B marketers, and while it processes basic demographic data such as gender and age, it lacks data around job roles and firmographic data, i.e., company size, industry and specialism which is critical for B2B publishers and advertisers.

The Internet is a consumer device, not a business device, and the system produced by Google is and will continue to be predicated on the B2C footprint. This is crucial when it comes to the way that data is analysed. Descriptive and predictive data mining are two key techniques for discovering patterns and trends in large datasets, but they are quite different. Where descriptive data mining analyses historical data to identify patterns and relationships, predictive data mining uses statistical models and machine learning algorithms to identify patterns and relationships and make predictions about future events. Predictive modelling in a B2B environment is not realistic because it is a completely different audience.

What you are doing is exchanging your extremely valuable first-party data with Google and other providers of analytics, including major ABM vendors and major tech companies Meta (Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram) AWS, and Microsoft (Bing, LinkedIn, Skype) in return for analytics that were not developed with B2B marketing in mind. It’s their model, interpreting your data, in a way that impedes your ability to turn it into actionable insights. Your data has become their data.

Today’s digital marketing mechanics enrich the data set of those providers in the ABM space and major tech vendor peers of Google. Vendors transact in part or in whole and as part of that transaction give their data to the vendor who in turn adds it to their ever-increasing centralised pool for their own value increase.

This brings us to the concept of data sovereignty, and we need to consider this in GDPR terms. Today you must be aware and able to identify a person’s identifiable data physical location. Now apply that thinking, and the process required to understand your GDPR ‘readiness’ to the sovereignty of your digital advertising and analytics data and you’ve started down a challenging, but ultimately very rewarding, path on behalf of your business.

The most successful B2B marketing leaders and functions of the future will need to operate in two ways:

  • Data ownership. Whether as a whole or in part, vendors will go down a path of transformation to own and retain the data that their actions germinate. This is data that they own and can be modelled and learned from in their own form moving forward.
  • Fair Exchange. This involves identifying and working with vendors who will facilitate the same data being transferred, where compliant, to the vendor in lieu of their own in-house capabilities.

Changing B2B buyer behaviours
We are also seeing the rapid digitisation of the B2B buyer journey, with more time and effort required to be invested in marketing that is delivered digitally to a digital platform using digital methods.

A key catalyst for changing buyer behaviours has been the transformation of working patterns resulting from the pandemic, and the subsequent blurring of the lines between professional and personal; home and office; environmental factors never previously seen in B2B. In addition, there is a younger generation of buyers in B2B who are more digitally enabled and more digitally savvy. Advertising has to be tailored to their context, and increasingly that includes messages that are more readily accepted and received effectively in what we would consider to be a consumer environment; social media channels. B2B activity on platforms such as Instagram and Tik Tok is on the increase.

The number of B2B buyers in your target audience is also very small. At any one point in time only 5% are in-market to buy. They have already done their research online, and as a result, they are more than halfway (57%) through the decision-making process before contacting the vendor.

B2B buying decision behaviour is no longer linear, as explained in a Gartner report. It is circular, with buying jobs happening almost simultaneously rather than sequentially. Customers engage in what has been described as ‘looping’ across a typical B2B purchase, revisiting each of several buying jobs at least once. The B2B marketing function can no longer market to a linear path and certainly not to the path subconsciously engineered by the linear, quarterly reporting construct of the company they work for, because that path simply doesn’t exist. As they bounce from job to job, B2B buyers will value those suppliers that make navigation of the purchase process easier for them.

The digital advertising supply chain
The whole programmatic display supply chain is a dark art and has been so for a long time. A study by PwC found that on average, only half of the advertiser’s money reaches the publisher and that 15% of advertiser spend is contractually unattributable. That is a significant figure, which the researchers attributed to a variety of issues with data access and data quality.

And yet, according to research from Gartner 56% of B2B marketing expenditure on delivering the message to the market is delivered via digital platform. In the coming months, that 50% to 60% of your marketing budget is going to become increasingly difficult to measure, report back on, manage and act on to demonstrate success or failure in your outbound activities.

Moving forward B2B marketers have no way of managing their business with certainty. The majority do not own a platform. They certainly don’t own the data; it belongs to someone else, and what we’ve been told about the data doesn’t make any sense. This is creating a value-changing and value-challenging situation. The focus has to be on investing resources, people and money, in solutions to the tangible challenges that lie ahead, rather than speculative vanity projects with uncertain outcomes, including those involving new tech such as generative AI. The CMO will need to have a better conversation with their CFO about the coming changes and the rationale of spending 60% of the budget on risk in terms of its ability to affect positive outcomes. It’s about being more sophisticated and getting to grips with the complexities.

Be the master of your digital destiny
The challenges you face as a B2B marketer are already impacting your ability to manage your effectiveness in your business. How do you take control of this? Potentially by working with a partner that specialises in B2B advertising solutions that can help you unlock the full potential of your data. Alternatively, you take the entire process in-house, a long-term option requiring significant investment, but one that will allow companies to control their own data in a transparent and manageable way. Whichever path you take, you will have greater ability in terms of control, transparency, measurement and action.

The most shocking thing about the current state of play is that publishers, agencies and marketers have all been complicit, even wilfully ignorant of the realities and limitations of the supply chain that they have been buying into to deliver their digital advertising.

My personal journey has embodied many emotions; ignorance to partial understanding, many questions and then a gradually increasing comprehension fed by genuine shock, in this specific area over the last few years. The reality is that we all have been complicit, Clients, myself included for 25 years, were, and still are, consciously ignorant. ‘If it works don’t fix it’ is the ethos of publishers, agencies and the myriad of other providers within the supply chain, with no real impetus to change accordingly.

So, what should we do about this? Take time to truly understand your current data landscape. Work with your team and your agency partners to understand, mitigate for, and take advantage of to secure your digital future, and establish a cleaner and more robust ability to market to your target audience. By developing a more transparent, accountable method of getting into market that we can measure, and that we own the data for, we can be the masters of our digital destiny.