There is an increasingly popular school of thought circulating among Marketing leaders that ‘digital’ is proving to be the great equalizer between the worlds of B2B and B2C Marketing. More specifically, that both consumer and business customer needs are growing more and more similar as we progress through an age where information is easy to access, and where peers and subject-matter experts are easier than ever to connect with.
And indeed, the parallels do seem apparent. Whether as consumers or as business customers, people are experiencing the strange combination of feeling both simultaneously empowered yet increasingly overwhelmed in the digital age. ‘Empowered’ because they can. People’s ability to research independently online gets better by the day. ‘Overwhelmed’ on the other hand because that ability comes with a noticeable trade-off: ‘effort’.
So, what can brands do address this and help customers find what they need to in a more effortless fashion? Well one increasingly popular response has been to deliver a more targeted and customized experience. Or in other words, to get better at personalization.
Consequently, customer data acquisition along with investment in personalization engines that utilize customer data to message customers at scale represent growing portions of the CMO’s Marketing budget.
But all of that focus and investment begs a couple of simple but necessary questions…What kind of personalization do customers truly value? And is there really no distinction between the worlds of B2B and B2C in the digital age?
The Surprising Parallels Between B2B and B2C Personalization
The first key finding from Gartner’s research is that the most effective personalized messages are ones primarily intended to help people. More precisely, to help them through their customer journey in a brand-agnostic fashion. This theme of help is as true for consumers as it is for business customers.
Interestingly, the least effective messages were ones perceived by customers to be highly customized but lacking any sense of help. In other words, messages that demonstrated a great deal of customer knowledge but that also appear to communicate a message that “We know you”. This type of message also runs the risk of being perceived as ‘creepy’ by customers if a vast amount of customer data has clearly been used.
Hence, in order to get the most out of all personalization efforts and investments, there are three steps Marketing teams must consider:
Step #1 is to prioritize the highest-value opportunity to help. Since ‘help’ is key to effective personalization, the two questions companies must address here are:
a) What type of help do our customers need the most? (e.g. reassurance that they are making the right choice? A speedier purchase journey? Specific guidance? Etc.)
b) What sources do we have to help us identify high-value opportunities of customer help (e.g. previous customer surveys, focus groups, win-loss data etc.)
Step #2 is to select and build the best form factors to deliver that help. More specifically, companies should carefully select form factors that cater well for that type of help and/or are well suited for the intended target audience.
Step #3 is to choose data dimensions intended to maximize resonance with targeted consumers (i.e. Select data dimensions that will increase the accuracy of your help and maximize the quality and accuracy of that help with testing).
By following these steps, Marketers can deliver more helpful personalization at scale.
Two Critical Nuances that B2B Marketers Cannot Ignore
Despite the strong parallels between business and consumer audiences in terms of what they expect from personalized communications, Gartner research reveals two surprising but critical differences that B2B Marketers cannot ignore.
The first difference is that, whilst consumers value helpful messages that are also ‘lightly’ customized based on their relevant needs, business customers seek information that is simply ‘helpful’. This is presumably the consequence of the changing nature B2B buying, where not only has access to information and choice increased, but so too as the number of active stakeholders involved in a typical purchase. Long-story short: B2B customers are particularly overwhelmed and thus value any information suppliers can provide that is both helpful and actionable. The customization part matters less.
The second difference is the danger of deploying poorly personalized messages via one specific channel: email. Gartner research revealed that highly customized messages that were also unhelpful had the most detrimental commercial impact (Gartner’s ‘Commercial Benefit Index’ tested against multiple attributes, including customers’ brand affinity, purchase and repurchase). However, that negative impact is almost four times worse for B2B audiences than it is for consumers when done via email. In other words, the worst thing B2B marketers can possibly do is to send emails where the primary message is “We know a lot about you”.