Intent-Based Marketing: The Early Bird’s System

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The early bird catches the worm, or so the old saying goes. More loosely translated, it means that those who act early, before anyone else, will have a distinct advantage and be more successful.

Unfortunately, a lot of the traditional marketing approaches that many companies are still using today don’t give them access to the worms (customers) until after they’ve made a purchase, which might already be too late.

Take, for example, Commvault, a supplier of data protection services to medium-size and large organizations. Commvault’s traditional marketing approach was based largely on trade show lead generation. The company attended industry events, collected leads, and then reached out to them.

A few years ago, problems arose. “We were reaching a point where we needed more leads, so we expanded our reach at trade shows,” explains Anthony Lombardo, director of marketing technology at Commvault. The company attended more shows and began scanning all attendees’ badges rather than just those who stopped by its booth. The end result was that it got more leads but even lower conversion rates.

That was when the company decided, albeit reluctantly, to take a chance on the latest marketing technology, called intent-based marketing.

“Frankly, at the start, we were scared; we had no track record with these tools, had no real idea about how well they would perform, and yet we were basing our future sales on their performance,” Lombardo admits.

Commvault’s apprehension is understandable. After all, intent-based marketing, though not an entirely new concept, relies on some pretty new and sophisticated technologies, like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. The idea is to provide companies with better insight into impending purchases so they can better focus their marketing and sales efforts at the potential buyers who are most likely to buy.

Intent-based marketing, at its core, relies on website monitoring, search results, data analytics, AI, and machine learning to help companies recognize potential buyers early in the sales process and coax them toward their products or services with relevant content at the right time in their customer journey.

“Intent-based selling transforms the marketing process from passive to active,” says Manny Medina, CEO of Seattle-based Outreach, providers of a sales engagement platform. “Companies are not waiting for customers to act; instead, they shape each interaction.”

Also adding to the apprehension that companies like Commvault have felt toward intent-based marketing is the fact that it, like so many other marketing terms today, lacks a precise definition and overlaps with many of the other new buzzworthy industry concepts, like personalization, customer journeys, account-based marketing, and targeted marketing.

Intent-based marketing really came about as a result of companies’ growing ability to collect and analyze more information about customer interactions. “Traditionally, corporations might have at most 10 transactional or demographic pieces of information about a customer,” says Larry Kavanagh, CEO of NaviStone, a provider of technologies to help marketers target the right website visitors and include them in direct marketing campaigns. “Nowadays, they have hundreds and even thousands.”

REMAKING MARKETING

Newer technologies have enabled companies to create more customer touchpoints. To make intent-based marketing work, companies need to collect data from all of these touchpoints, which include websites, contact centers, social media, point-of-sale systems, and a lot more, as well as from more sophisticated marketing and sales applications. Information can also come from external sources, such as third parties selling potential customer lists.

Such information then needs to be consolidated. A key component enabling this is an inference engine, with which various data points can be correlated and connections made between what companies present to potential customers and how customers react to it. At a high level, they try to determine whether website visitors bought anything, what types of information they examined during their evaluation phases, which steps they took during the process, and which marketing materials resonated with them.

The idea is that such information will provide companies with that single bullet that will be most effective rather than taking the shotgun approach to marketing, trying to hit as many leads as possible in one nonspecific blast.

Intent-based marketing doesn’t stop there, though. It also leverages historical data to identify the most promising prospects, deliver targeted content to them, personalize the experience, and ultimately increase conversion rates.

If, for instance, marketers know that a consumer will visit a website 10 or even 20 times before making a purchase, they can shape the interaction by delivering compelling content to that buyer as he progresses through his journey. They can create content with the most persuasive messaging and deliver it via the best marketing channels at a time when the customer is likely to be most receptive. It means delivering the right advertisement or collateral material, like a white paper, at the exact moment when the buyer needs background information.

In some cases, determining exactly which information to present is easy. It makes a lot of sense for an online travel company to display advertisements for cross-country flights when a customer enters New York as his point of origin and Los Angeles as his destination. But for most companies, knowing what to present and at what time is a lot harder. For them, intent-based marketing just might be the answer.

THE VENDOR LANDSCAPE

But it’s also important to know which type of solution to use. Because companies collect information from so many sources, a wide variety of intent-based tools are available. They start with web and search analytics information from firms like Google. Media producers like TechTarget are also developing these services, and third-party data providers like Dun & Bradstreet are dabbling in this space as well. Marketing technology vendors like Bombora, Everstring, Evergage, Ignite Technologies, and the Big Willow are among the first to offer such tools.

VTEX offers the multi-tenant True Cloud Commerce platform with patent-pending Smart Checkout technology. Companies using VTEX have seen a 54 percent increase in conversion rates and reductions in cart abandonment. The platform is used by companies like Sony, Coca-Cola, Disney, Levis, GE, and Walmart.

The intent-based marketing movement is touching established marketing channels as well as newer digital ones. NaviStone is a direct mail firm—a niche not typically associated with digital transformation or other cutting-edge technologies. A few years ago, the company began supplementing its traditional tools with web information. It developed software that shows how website visitor behavior correlates with buying intent, so their customers can deliver direct mail collateral at different times during the sales cycle.

The potential benefits are clear: ensuring that marketing dollars are spent on those website visitors who are most interested in their products. “There is a cost to sending out a mailing,” NaviStone’s Kavanagh says. “Rather than blasting everyone with a message, we are able to send information to those getting close to a key point in the evaluation or to making a purchase.”

Infuse, which has 250 employees and has been in business for seven years, is another marketing company embracing intent-based marketing. The firm, whose clients are mainly B2B tech companies, has a homegrown application that takes information from customer and third-party sources, like Dun & Bradstreet, to garner intent. Infuse slices and dices the intent data in numerous ways to help its customers improve their campaigns.

A CHANGE IS NEEDED

However, using these tools effectively can be challenging. One hurdle is changing current marketing mind-sets. Marketers need to overcome their myopic view of newer digital touchpoints as simply being faster or cheaper versions of traditional marketing channels that haven’t worked very well in the past. Companies need to see web, mobile, and social media as more than just online lead generators or digital billboards.

Then they need to overcome their basic fears of new digital technologies in general. In many cases, marketing departments feel more comfortable simply increasing the volume of their traditional interactions than trying a new approach. Such strategies are bound to backfire. “We found that customers will punish companies that deliver nonrelevant content to them,” says Martha Mathers, practice leader for marketing and marketing technology at Gartner. The market research firm’s survey data found that companies that delivered irrelevant content had perceptions about them drop by 4 percent; meanwhile, companies that presented relevant content saw perceptions of them improve by 16 percent. Information such as step-by-step guidance for implementing a complex system or a list of things to avoid when buying something resonate more with customers than endless emails touting a system’s feature sets.

Another issue is that consumers take many routes before they ultimately make their purchases. They “meet” companies through many channels: a website, a billboard on the highway, a TV ad, an Instagram post, or even a print ad. They meander through websites, download information, and attend webinars or industry trade shows.

With the number of potential touchpoints growing, the volume of information that has to be correlated swells as well.

“When we first started, we were overwhelmed by the data,” Commvault’s Lombardo admits. “Initially, we wanted to know everything about every customer.”

That’s not only unnecessary but can result in companies wasting time and money targeting customers who are not close to buying. Instead, companies should collect, cleanse, and prepare only the information they need. They then can create their baselines and compare things over time. For instance, a blog presents new content every day, and lots of visitors click on different stories. Companies need to pinpoint deviations among the people who read the information but do not purchase and those who read and eventually buy.

With ever higher volumes of data to sift through, companies have a growing number of options to help them sort it out. Daily, new Big Data, analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning solutions are arriving. All of them claim to offer help. The process of getting the right tools to provide meaningful data involves trial and error.

“Intent-based systems are quite complicated to assemble,” notes David Raab, principal of Raab & Associates, a consultancy specializing in marketing technology and analytics.

The complexity of these systems means that marketing firms need to make significant investments in technology and personnel, especially data analysts and data scientists. About 15 percent of NaviStone’s staff focuses on data analysis issues, and Kavanagh expects that number to grow to 20 percent or 25 percent in the coming years.

Demand for data scientists is much greater than supply, so these individuals command high salaries, usually in six-figure territory. Indeed.com lists more than 30,000 openings the United States for these positions. The pay for entry-level positions is in the $60,000 to $80,000 range, while experienced professionals start at $150,000.

So are the investments worthwhile? “Marketing always complains that sales does not close enough leads, but firms usually say they do not have a good idea about how strong those leads are,” Outreach’s Medina says.

It didn’t take long for NaviStone to notice a change in the leads its intent-based system was capable of generating. Like many firms, it buys marketing lists from various suppliers, and it often found overlap, sometimes as high as 90 percent, among them. With intent-based marketing, the company started generating and cultivating more new leads. “My theory is the lists identify customers that recently made a purchase, so they are about six months behind where the market is,” Kavanagh explains. “Intent-based systems are six months in front of the purchase cycle.”

But companies need to be realistic about the potential results. “In sales, there is no quick and easy silver bullet,” Medina cautions.

With intent-based marketing, a company needs to allocate significant resources to test and figure out what works. In fact, a year or two could pass before marketers start seeing tangible results.

Compounding the challenge is the fact that the process is ongoing and dynamic. What constitutes relevant content is always changing, so companies need to constantly tune their intent-based systems.

Additionally, how solutions work varies dramatically and requires a great deal of customization.

Then, after all of that work, the rewards might be negligible. “Intent-based can be a helpful add-on, but I have heard that sometimes their lead volumes can be small,” Raab points out. The tools currently available might not be mature enough to capture all of the potential leads.

That’s not to say that early adopters haven’t seen some promising outcomes. In Commvault’s case, in the past two years, its marketing strategy has focused less on trade shows and more on intent-based marketing, and the company has seen better results. NaviStone has also noticed a verifiable change in the quality of the leads it is getting from its intent-based system.

Intent-based marketing tools are emerging as potentially valuable supplements to the growing arsenal that companies have at their disposal to maximize their marketing investment. They can improve yield, but they require a great deal of customization, ongoing tuning, and patience.

Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who specializes in technology issues. He has been covering CRM issues for more than two decades, is based in Sudbury, Mass., and can be reached at paulkorzen@aol.com or on Twitter at #PaulKorzeniowski.

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