The Marketing Strategist:

Key Takeaways from ITSMA’s Marketing Vision Conference

November 24, 2015

  • Commentary

This year’s annual conference once again captured the speed and scale of the major changes happening in B2B marketing. It also highlighted the evolving role of marketing, from shaping the brand and driving revenue to helping deepen relationships with customers.

As I mentioned in my opening remarks, the focus of marketing—understanding, creating, and keeping customers—hasn’t changed, but many of the tools and approaches available to us are changing the role that marketing will play. Marketers have the opportunity to become the central hub for customer information in the company, much like the central nervous system in the body. The central nervous system is so named because it integrates information it receives from and coordinates and influences the activity of all parts of the body.

Now I’m sure most marketers would not claim that they coordinate and influence the activities of all parts of the company, but I believe marketing is moving down that path, especially those teams that build the right systems, processes, skills, and organizational model. With that in mind, here are my key takeaways from Marketing Vision 2015.

Marketing May Look More Like Engineering, but Marketing Technology Is Only as Good as the Experiences Enabled

Scott Brinker, president and CTO at ion interactive and author of the award-winning Chief Marketing Technologist Blog, described the intersection of software and marketing as software functionality and flow woven into the narrative of the customer’s journey. As customer experience and engagement become the center of all things marketing, technology must become part of marketing’s DNA, even if not every marketer needs to be a technologist.

That’s a tall order, and the dizzying rate of change in marketing software doesn’t help. The landscape has exploded in the last three years and now includes more than 2,000 providers. That’s tough to deal with for a function with occasional Luddite tendencies! Brinker’s talk left many of us with a new appreciation for the potential insight but also for the complexity we have to manage to get there.

It’s the Big Story but also the Stories within the Story

Branding consultant Kate Manasian, managing director of Manasian & Co., reminded us that finding what we want to say—what describes our organization in a more compelling and distinctive way—is critical to communicating the message. She used a good analogy to illustrate how vital it is to focus on the most important message: if you try to throw someone a handful of sugar cubes, they won’t be able to catch all of them. If you only throw one, they will.

Even so, there isn’t one simple story to explain a complex organization. We need stories that nest within the big one, like a Russian doll set. The smaller stories enrich and build on the big story while also reinforcing it. Manasian pointed out that stories aren’t just about words, either. You can tell them with data, images, personality, beauty, emotion, and certainty, as well.

That’s all the more clear when we look at successful thought leadership programs and the ways they expand the conversation. The good ones do it by telling important stories based on data. IBM’s is a great case in point. Eric Lesser, who is research director at IBM’s Institute of Business Value, discussed the findings of the Institute’s latest Global C-Suite study on perceptions of technology and business change among large corporations. While the Uber syndrome is putting CxOs in established businesses on edge, the Torchbearers—those outperforming the market—are more focused on customers than they are competitors.

Focus on the Buyer Journeys

ITSMA’s own Julie Schwartz, senior vice president of research and thought leadership, made clear that there isn’t only one process, funnel, or journey for all buyers. ITSMA’s 2015 How B2B Buyers Consume Information survey data shows that whom buyers reach out to and when depend on the type of solution they are buying: mature, transformational, or bleeding edge. For marketers, this means supporting the multiple buyer journeys across our offering portfolios and adapting the marketing channels and content according to varying needs. It also means creating a seamless experience for the buyer, something we’re doing a better job of than we might think but still have plenty of room to improve upon.

Schwartz’s research once again confirms that even among the digitally savvy, about half the buying process for complex services and solutions takes place offline. Buyers want to interact with people during the buying process. Across all types of buyers and solutions, provider subject matter experts (SMEs) were the number one most-trusted source of information, even among mature and bleeding edge solutions. Making more effective and coordinated use of SMEs starts to look like a very worthwhile investment in this context.

This idea that people—actual humans—are at either end of that connection was a central theme in the panel discussion led by Roanne Neuwirth, senior vice president of the Farland Group. As David Coates, director of customer marketing at Iron Mountain, emphasized, it’s not B2B, it’s H2H. Janis Fratamico, director of relationship marketing at Bloomberg, put it this way: “People want their sales to come with a hug, not just a transaction.”

Data and Analysis Are Driving Change and Demonstrating Progress

Judah Phillips, partner at Knowledgent and author of Building a Digital Analytics Organization, Digital Analytics Primer, and Ecommerce Analytics, gave us his views on how to get the all-important marketing analytics function right. His advice is to start with the important stuff: ask the CEO what business questions need to be answered. The ability to answer those questions depends on technology, yes, but more importantly, it depends on skilled people who understand analytics and your company’s business. Putting an effective analytics engine in place requires identifying the right approach for your organization and a change program to get there.

As if to reassure us that large-scale change is possible, Stella Goulet, executive vice president and CMO of Avanade, and her colleague, Lise af Ekenstam, senior director, digital and marketing effectiveness, discussed their three-year marketing transition. Avanade’s marketing effectiveness program delivered four main elements: standardized processes, digital capabilities, centralized campaigns, and new skills.

Goulet emphasized the importance of stakeholder management, as well as setting and meeting their expectations. By delivering promised interim results, she was able to keep the long-term program going. Af Ekenstam played a central role in helping to establish key performance indicators (KPIs) and implementing the technology tools, including a new marketing automation platform needed to track and report on marketing’s impact. She has also helped lead an internal education process to instill the need for data-driven insights for everyone in marketing.

We Need the Right Skills to Make It Happen

The idea that we need the right skills to make this happen isn’t anything new, but just about everyone who spoke made that point in one way or another. It’s also an important question when it comes to thinking about your career and what to do next, especially if you’re just starting out. That was one of the questions posed to the ITSMA expert panel: what would you recommend to someone just starting out in marketing? Having a high level of comfort with technology was one. As Brinker said, everyone in marketing needs to understand technology, but not everyone needs to be a technologist.

Our panel of ITSMA experts also picked up on the critical skills that aren’t easily substituted or replaced: understanding customers (especially through buyer personas), focusing more on improving the integrated customer experience (online and offline), spending time with sales to get insight into their world, and learning how to tell better stories.

All told, this year’s conference was one of the best in covering the new vision for marketing. With eagle eyes, marketing will have command of its new role as the central nervous system of the company, creating better customer experiences, building relationships, and driving revenue. We hope you will join us next year at Marketing Vision 2016!

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