Audience Marketing: Death to the Product “Selfie”

Companies may not intend to be narcissistic. But they unintentionally produce a lot of “product selfies.” Marketers start out right. They consider customer needs when answering the question, “Why buy my product?”  Then customer focus stops there. Most companies give only superficial attention to the context in which their audience will consume their message.  However, an IDC study finds that the situation is about to change as leading tech companies ramp audience marketing to a whole new level.

Customers perceive content to be self-serving when it talks only about the features and benefits of the product with insufficient effort to match these to the buyer’s context. What’s missing are the answers to the question, “How can we help the buyer consume this message? What does the buyer need to hear, understand, trust, and accept our value proposition?” When content is offered without a true audience filter, product messages have the same tiresome, annoying, self-centered demeanor as your teenaged niece’s 15th selfie. No matter how cute she looks in her prom dress.
 

Isn’t Audience Marketing Pretty Basic?

While IDC found that almost all tech companies surveyed use some degree of audience marketing (indeed, segmenting customers should be Marketing 101) only about 26% of them can be considered advanced — and even the advanced companies have significant opportunity for maturity.

What is changing in the most advanced companies is the depth, degree, and focus on the audience. Said one expert interviewed by IDC, “Buying a list of hospital CIOs and slapping a photo of a nurse on your website isn’t vertical marketing.”  Audience marketing requires today’s marketing organization to take on a much larger and extra layer of work on behalf of the customer. Leading companies are stepping up to this task by dedicating audience-focused resources as an “ambassadors” for their customers.

Reversing the Effects of Sales Erosion

For B2B companies, it used to be salespeople who primarily filled the customer context gap. It was salespeople who were trained to listen for customer need. Salespeople translated the company offerings into something meaningful to the customer. Salespeople still have this role — but they can only perform it when they have the opportunity. And that opportunity continues to erode. IDC’s annual IT Buyer Experience Study consistently reports that for the average IT purchase, buyers are nearly 50% of the way through their decision journey before talking with sales. The increased percentage of buyer engagement through digital communication channels has also eroded the critical customer context cushion.

Audience marketing is the function that replaces this cushion. By devoting staff and program dollars as audience ambassadors, marketers will identify this gap and execute appropriate programs to fill it.

What Do Audience Marketing Leaders Do Different?

The most distinguishing factors between companies advanced in audience marketing compared to average or beginner companies are the following:

Appointing an Audience Marketing Leader: Advanced companies are about twice as likely as average or beginner companies to have a named leader in charge of audience marketing. When a company puts a leader in charge of an initiative and makes a practice a corporate-wide mandate, the culture starts to change in a big way. Audience marketing gets visibility. Metrics get put in place. People begin to get recognized and awarded for skills learned and for achievements. Investments and resources are allocated.

Branching out to explore many audience marketing strategies: IDC examined the popularity of various audience marketing strategies and found that advanced companies use a broader variety than average or beginners. Overall, segmentation by Functional Role (C-level, IT, HR director, etc.) is the most popular strategy and is used moderately or extensively by 100% of advanced companies and over 80% in the other groups. Vertical Industry is a close second. Buyer behavior segmentation is the hot, up-and-coming strategy — but it is more difficult and more sophisticated than the other segmentation strategies studied and thus is used the most infrequently by companies at all levels. 

However, advanced companies are moving ahead strongly, and IDC expects to see use of behavioral segmentation increase significantly in the next few years.

This blog first appeared on LinkedIn and is a summary excerpt from the IDC research report Audience Marketing: Replenishing Customer Context authored by Kathleen Schaub #257372. Subscription required.

B2B Audience Segmentation Strategies that Work

As companies develop buyer-centric communication, one of most important questions is – how do we effectively group buyers into segments? We perceive that somewhere between the one-size-fits-all dinosaur and the unicorn-like “market of one” exist segmentation strategies that work better than others. But which ones? The secret is discovering self-identifying groups.

 
Great segments are built around groups that have naturally formed and are already connected.
 
For B2B marketers, the most effective audience segmentation strategies are vertical industry (e.g. hospitals, banks, retail), job function (e.g. CFO, head of HR, VP of Analytics), and geography (e.g. location, language, culture). In some cases, communities of interest can also be valuable. Communities of interest evolve around passions and may exist only online.  Examples of communities of interest relevant to B2B marketers may include those interested in security or privacy or a tech company’s installed base. These attributes are ones that buyers will not only easily recognize about themselves but tend to be the stimulus for group formation.
 
Using self-identified groups as a primary segmentation strategy has two huge benefits.
  • Content will be more relevant and can be leveraged and streamlined. Self-identifying groups such as the ones described above respond to the same value propositions. They tend to have similar opportunities and/or problems. They will have similar compelling reasons to buy and are served by similar solutions. They tend to have similar business models, organizational structures, and environmental conditions. They share a common vocabulary. They ponder the same questions. They read the same editorial. They understand the same stories; respond to the same examples and analogies. They react to the same warnings. You can create highly relevant, effective, content and sales messages for these groups and that content will work hard.

  • The social network will market and sell for you. People with the attributes described above (vertical industry, job function, geography, communities of interest) are connected in social networks.  They go the same trade shows and recruit each others’ executives. They respect the same experts and analysts and use the same suppliers. Social media has revealed to the world what we all know from our own buying experience – people rarely make big decisions by themselves. We seek help and advice from those we trust. We look for stories about how “people like me who have had this problem” have succeeded or failed. We collaborate with like-minded adventurers to try something new.  Imagine your message as a small marble. Throw your marble onto a Kansas wheat field.  Throw another. What are the chances that those two marbles will hit each other? Now imagine throwing your marbles into a shoe box. They bounce into one another with the slightest jolt.  Already connected groups create an echo chamber that can dramatically extend your own outreach effort
 

Consider company size, buying role, and risk profile as secondary audience segmentation strategies.

 
  • Buying role and risk profiles are very useful but used alone are insufficient. Within the overarching audience segmentation strategy, you may want to create sub-segments such as different kinds of buyers and influencers (e.g. financial buyer, technical buyer, decision-maker, researcher, or advisor) or risk profiles (e.g. early adopter, majority, conservative).  Content will be less relevant and you will get virtually no support from the social network. Both of these segmentation strategies are helpful. Buying role helps identify the different objectives and questions that must be answered by content. Risk profile is useful for content tone.  For Early adopters tend to respond well to opportunity-oriented messages (“look how great you can be!”) whereas conservative companies tend to respond well to risk-avoidance messages (“look how much pain you won’t feel!”). However, unless you are a very large company with brand dominance and a horizontal solution, these strategies are less effective by themselves for winning new business than those described above.

  • Company-size segments help sales but not marketing. Dividing buyers into tiers defined by company size such as enterprise accounts or small and medium sized business (SMB) may be a useful strategy for some business decisions. It informs sales management tasks such as territory definition, quota setting, and sales methodology selection. Company size is also useful for pricing strategies. However, Wal-Mart and GE have little in common other than size and complexity. However, company size provides almost no support for audience messaging.
 

For B2B audience segmentation strategies, your ideal group is the triple crown of vertical, functional role, and geography, or in some cases, communities of interest.  Your particular situation may have some unique requirements.  However, whatever segmentation approach you consider, make sure it passes the litmus test – self-identify as a group that experience similar problems and shares a social network.