Do our B2B customers really want personalisation?

Fresh from her travels, Heidi Taylor came home to find data and privacy issues dominating the news. Here she discusses if personalised marketing is really what customers want.

As those who follow me will know, I've been socially silent about B2B marketing for a few months while I went travelling. And when I returned to London in mid-April, personal data and privacy were dominating the headlines.

Most likely, the vast majority of us (myself included) haven’t thought much about the personal information we exchange in order to use social platforms. They’re free, right? Nor have we understood how companies are accessing and using that information to sell us their products and services, influence opinion on major social issues or even manipulate public discourse.

How personal is personalisation?

There's just so much personal information so readily available; technology, marketing automation and advanced marketing analytics are enabling better targeting of our marketing activity and creating a more personalised approach. The theory is that this personalisation is more effective than mass marketing or even targeted marketing – both one-to-many approaches – through one-to-one marketing.

It’s become such a cliché, but marketing has always been about being in the right place at the right time with the right message for that person who is ready to buy. But are we confusing what we actually mean by and intend with the word ‘personalisation’? Isn’t our real challenge in B2B about making marketing personal to our customers? In other words, moving from our product-/service-centric world to a customer orientated one?

Maybe it’s semantics, but I believe the words we speak and the language we use impacts the ways in which we think and behave. So, I looked up the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary:

Personalise means to design or produce (something) to meet someone's individual requirements; its synonyms are ‘customise’ and ‘individualise’.

On the other hand, personal means of or concerning one's emotions; its synonyms are ‘intimate’ and ‘subjective’.

That’s a fundamental difference in meaning. And a fundamental difference in what we choose to do as marketers. Especially in light of the issues around our privacy and personal data.

Do customers even want personalisation?

Are we too infatuated with what we can do, instead of what our customers actually want?

At the end of April I saw an article on consumer online expectations, based on a report by a US digital services and solutions provider called Avionos, who conducted a study in December 2017. The article concluded that US customers want personalisation, but they don’t really want to share much beyond name, email, gender and age – information that we’ve all been sharing with many companies for years. But when asked about more personal information such as buying preferences and habits, personal hobbies and interests, and even location – things that would enhance personalisation of their buying experience – respondents were far less likely to share that information. I actually downloaded the entire report and while it provides some interesting insight into how people buy online, I’m not entirely certain I agree that the data supports the conclusion for more personalisation.

Similarly, that same article referred to a YouGov survey on data privacy conducted in the US, France, Germany, Italy and the UK in February of this year. Some 78% responded that they try to limit the amount of personal data they share online and with companies.

Both these reports suggest to me that our customers are not as enamoured with personalisation as marketers may think.

Predictive analytics and personalisation

I officially ended my B2B marketing sabbatical by attending the May meeting of the BMC (Business Marketing Club) where we had a presentation and discussion around ‘predictive analytics’. This is another of those new phrases that make me want to cringe. But it turns out predictive analytics has actually been around for quite some time. Essentially, it’s an assessment of future scenarios using statistical analysis and machine learning to identify the likelihood of specific outcomes based on historical data. In the context of marketing, it’s about assessing buyer behaviour.

The main tool that organisations use here is regression analysis, which correlates specific variables to buying behaviours and thus the degree to which each variable affects that behaviour. What follows is scoring the likelihood of a purchase. We’ve all done this to some extent for most of our marketing careers. For example, we extrapolate customer lifetime value or forecast sales or create word clouds on trending topics; these are all forms of predictive analytics. Together with progressively sophisticated data aggregation technology, we have the possibility for greater insight into how and why our customers buy from us. And, accordingly, predicting who is more likely to buy from us in the future, thus better focusing our marketing investment towards that buyer or buyer audience.

I continue to wonder, though, why we marketers persist in inventing new words for what is at bottom basic marketing practice, albeit with new tools. Isn’t predictive analytics just one more tool in our marketing kit? Isn’t personalisation just really good targeting?

Be aware, though, one of the assumptions we make in using predictive analytics for human behaviour is that past behaviour predicts future behaviour. We conveniently forget that although we as human beings establish and repeat patterns of behaviour over time, we do change. Furthermore, given there are typically many people involved in the B2B buying process, how do group dynamics influence this behaviour?

Which all leads me to question: do our B2B customers even want personalised marketing? And are we so enamoured of what we can do that we’re losing sight of what our customers actually want?

GDPR: 5 reasons why B2B marketers should embrace it

Far from signalling the end of marketing, GDPR should be seen as an opportunity to rethink your marketing strategy and reposition the function as a source of genuine competitive advantage.

I don’t believe you, let me read it

GDPR: 5 reasons why B2B marketers should embrace it