I make a prediction about B2B marketing below – one that I’m fairly certain of – but first, some sunshine…
The Wimbledon tennis championship finished last weekend and, for once, rain didn’t interrupt play. I grew up near Wimbledon and the onset of the tennis seemingly always brought with it two inevitabilities: the pubs in Wimbledon Village would be full to the rafters; and we were all in for a topsy-turvy fortnight of sun and rain (which my mum used to love because it was good for her hydrangea).
Rainfall at some point during the tennis was about as predictable as eggs being eggs. But not this year… it’s been parched for weeks. In London we’ve had the occasional forecast of showers – or even thunder & lightning – but of late its been drier than Venus. In fact, the UK has just seen its hottest ever May and its driest ever June. BBQ and ice cream marketers must be delighted, sitting in an office somewhere doing mini fist-pumps.
And few saw it coming until it was upon us – because we all know the weather is harder to predict than a drunken clown…
Prediction or fiction?
Despite an array of supercomputers, the combined talent of a sea of scientists, a huge catalogue of trend data, advanced predictive models, satellite imagery, and the constant measurement of sea temperature, wind, barometric pressure and other contributing factors, it is still notoriously difficult for experts to answer the simple question “do I need to take my brolly to work?”
Before the meteorologists’ union gets on my case, it’s important to state that weather prediction is about a complex a problem that any human can face. Long before I re-trained as a marketer, I learned about atmospheric physics and fluid dynamics at university, and I vividly recall it being as complicated as Brexit.
Other than in places such as the Atacama Desert, where you can be pretty sure you’ll never need an umbrella (at least not for rain protection), it’s almost impossible to tell what will happen weather-wise more than a few weeks into the future (or even more than a few days, in many cases). Of course experts predict well some – if not much – of the time, but they certainly don’t get it right all of the time (see the funny video at the end for more on that point). And they can sometimes get it spectacularly wrong. All of which is because there are too many variables involved to be sure. Which, I think we also all know and find, is just like B2B marketing…
Predicting campaign results in B2B marketing
Predictive analytics is one of the vogue, trendy new things in marketing. It’s a broad topic with a range of applications, such as helping marketers to understand what buyers are searching for at the moment. One of its other central tenets is using lessons learned -and behaviours seen – from the past and present in order to predict what might happen in the future. To help identify sweet spots in future sales opportunity by finding new buyers that have similar needs, profile and context to past buyers. That’s no different to how marketing has always worked, but the use of data and machine learning has taken the approach to a new, more scalable level.
I personally hope that predictive analytics fulfils its potential – life would be so much easier that way. Early breakthroughs would suggest it has a semi-decent chance of helping marketers in B2B companies whose customers buy in predictable patterns. I suspect it will have a tougher time in transactional sectors where no-one knows when or where the next opportunity will arise… Take agencies, for example – where it can be hard to predict when a marketing team will want to change its agency roster, or decide to re-brand. The legal sector is another good example, where it can be hard to predict where or when the next major dispute will arise.
Yet, while I can see lots of potential upside with predictive analytics, one thing I am fairly sure of is that predictive analytics will never deal in certainties. Like the weather, there are just too many variables influencing purchase behaviour in B2B. Here are just some of them:
- you might have a compelling proposition for a tightly defined group of customers, but your messages may get lost in the noise or simply fail to persuade those buyers;
- marketing communications tactics that were surprising, fresh, interesting and ultimately successful last year, may have been copied and repeated so often that they’re now just fatigued and forgettable;
- the buyers may just have other priorities or be just too damn busy to care about you;
- they may be ambivalent towards your brand, or maybe just not like your salesperson;
- your pesky, scheming rivals – those relentless scoundrels down the street – may be either launching a new innovation or alternatively undercutting you on price – pulling the rug out from underneath you either which way;
- the economy may be playing a factor;
- or maybe the buyer just has a really stinking, Sancerre-induced hangover on the day you make contact.
The variables are almost infinite. Which means that understanding what has worked in the past should never be ignored and will almost certainly tip the odds in your favour – but will not guarantee success in the future.
And understanding what has worked in the past will also never predict or explain the breakthrough successes that sheer creativity has brought to many B2C and B2B brands. Who could have foretold the revenue turnaround that deodorant brand Old Spice experienced with its ‘the man your man could smell like‘ campaign. Or who could have predicted the global buzz a B2B brand (Volvo Trucks) could create simply by getting Jean Claude Van Damme to do the splits. During my B2B marketing career I’ve seen campaigns succeed just by sending sponge fish or moisturiser to customers. No one could have predicted the huge client response received from either of those.
Creativity – the realm of original thinking and never-tried-before ideas – always has had, and always will have, the ability to help a brand succeed out of nowhere.
An ageless truth of B2B marketing communications
In my opinion, it is an ageless, inconvenient truth that all marketing communications has ever been about, and will ever be about, is improving our likelihood of success. No matter how well we target potential customers, we can not be certain that our approaches will work. All we can do is maximise the likelihood that our messages will get noticed, earn attention and persuade action.
I think predictive analytics stands every change of helping us to improve our likelihoods – and so I for one intend to continue considering its potential. But I equally won’t forget that data and machine learning will never be the answer on their own – and that they can’t predict the potential that creativity and innovation can bring to our brands.
In the immortal, cautionary words of Bill Bernbach: “We are so busy listening to statistics, we forget we can create them.”
Stay sunny fellow marketers 🙂
To end on a fun note, here’s a fun marketing campaign based upon weather prediction…