Content Strategy

The Age of the Invisible Customer

The Age of the Invisible Customer

It’s 10 o’clock in the morning, the day after Google finally turns off the third-party cookie in Chrome. Do you know where your prospective customers are? Do you even know who they are?

This has always been the contradiction at the heart of digital marketing. For as long as technology companies and internet evangelists have been pushing the idea of one-to-one personalization, consumers have been concerned about how that personalization is being achieved. The proportion of people want more personalized marketing – about two-thirds – has always been mirrored by the proportion who distrust the mechanisms of that marketing.

It’s a particular problem in B2B. Third-party cookies aside, B2B buyers have been withdrawing from the sales process for some years now. They prefer to do their own research, only raising their hands as potential customers when the purchase decision is all but complete. Research by Gartner found B2B buyers in-market spend only 17% of their time meeting potential suppliers, compared to 45% researching independently either online or offline.

In addition, the growth of stakeholder committees on the buy side, and account-based marketing on the sell side, has increased the number – and diversity – of people that need to be served with relevant content. Gartner also found that the buying committee for B2B businesses is now between six to 10 people, who each bring an average of four pieces of content into the evaluation stages of the buying process. Without third-party cookie-based tracking, these potential buyers will be anonymous until they choose to make themselves known, by which time much of their decision-making will be complete.

Change is inevitable

It gets more complicated. For big-ticket B2B purchases, the length of a typical sales cycle has always meant changes can happen between a potential customer entering the market and the conclusion of the sale. Now, in a business environment accelerated by the pandemic, those changes are all-but inevitable.

Different requirements

Changing circumstances can mean customers suddenly need different things. The changes caused by the move to hybrid working are a perfect example.

Different customers

In the most extreme situations, companies’ requirements may have changed so much that they are in the market for entirely new solutions, from new suppliers.

Different buyers

The composition of a B2B buying committee can change dramatically as the company’s requirements change. A single incident, such as a security breach, can bring a planned purchase to the attention of the CEO and result in them becoming a key stakeholder in the buying process. Changes in other areas may also mean the role and job title of your principal contact may be different in future.

In other words, not only is it impossible to know who your prospective customer is and what they want at the start of their purchase process, they may be a different person with different requirements by the end.

Search for the invisible customer

All this means the new priority for B2B marketers is to encourage these invisible customers to engage with them as early in the purchase process as possible and establish a first-party relationship. But there’s another contradiction. How can you ensure your content is relevant and targeted enough to drive a sign-up before you know who you’re targeting?

The answer is to adopt an iterative approach. Every piece of marketing is effectively a trial to see what you should do differently next time. That means attribution is crucial. You need to know how each piece of content performs in terms of driving sign-ups, and who it engages. Make your changes, measure, and repeat.

Then the other crucial factor is the relationship between marketing and sales. Feedback from the sales team about lead quality is your other main source of information about how your marketing needs to change. However, a 2021 survey by London Research for Demand Exchange found only 43% of respondents saying the relationship between sales and marketing in their company was ‘very joined-up, with shared leadership and KPIs’. If that’s not you, you should do something about it right away.

Because test-and-learn allows you to sidestep the questions posed at the start. You can’t know who your prospective customers are until they tell you. But this way, you’ll at least know what they look like.