For the past decade, B2B marketers have aspired to achieve the level of personalization now common in B2C marketing, particularly among disruptive direct-to-consumer brands.

Yet, 42% of B2B marketers say their marketing efforts are not fully personalized, although 77% agree that personalization builds better customer relationships. Accordingly, more B2B brands are turning their attention to improving personalized content, with an impressive 82% of B2Bs saying they'll use artificial intelligence to help personalize customer experiences online in the next three years.

At the same time, while personalization is becoming table stakes for effectively communicating with today's B2B buyers, the B2B customer journey itself is undergoing rapid transformation—which is being accelerated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

As B2B marketers plan their personalization road maps, they need to be doing so with a new reality in mind: The B2B buyer journey of the future is going to be even more self-directed.

Align, don't hijack

Today's B2B customer relationships have been heavily built around a reality that has quickly vanished in the face of COVID-19—and doesn't show signs of returning anytime soon.

Massive industry events where "getting business done" was a primary focus, along with masterfully crafted in-person meetings and outings intended to establish relationships with prospective clients, have all gone by the wayside. And though some of that face-to-face activity will be renewed over time, much of it might not be.

That's because buyers were already heading down an increasingly self-guided path, well before COVID-19 struck. Future planning for B2B personalization needs to recognize—more than ever—that marketing and sales teams are even in less control of the buyer journey.

As physical experiences such as tradeshows and in-person meetings continue to be less commonplace across all industries, B2B marketing organizations must work to effectively align with the self-directed buyer journey, rather than hijack it.

Before identifying themselves to the businesses they are evaluating, today's B2B buyers are taking themselves further down the path to purchase funnel than ever before:

  • They're familiarizing themselves with the critical data.
  • They're talking with social professional cohorts about the solutions they use.
  • They're having deep discussions internally about their needs and budgets.

By the time they actually engage directly with a prospective vendor, they already have a strong sense of what they want.

B2B organizations must therefore transform their approach to engage this savvy buyer, and reposition touch points along the prospective buyer journey as data-driven value exchanges rather than entry-level sales handshakes.

Personalize with everything you have

Even though today's B2B buyers aren't raising their hands for communications and coffee meetings early in their research doesn't mean they remain unknown to marketers.

Every B2B transaction begins with a search, and every search has the potential to be captured in a database and used to trigger a more personalized journey.

How people search for a solution says a lot about their needs. For example, let's say an executive is researching new video conferencing solutions because of COVID-19. She might be investigating price points or required technology infrastructure, or she might be more focused on security risks and what other companies in her company's industry are doing.

All those research strings are discoverable and measurable, and the insights gleaned can help companies understand what's important to prospective buyers and what resources could be provided to help them along their way.

The key to aligning with the B2B buyer journey is to harness all the knowledge you possess to personalize and contextualize the touches being provided to a prospect.

You might have search information that indicates their specific interests, or you might also know the industry or even company in which they work. That knowledge should be used to customize the content and engage prospects in a more value-focused way so that they quickly identify their needs within your messaging and solutions.

The goal is to encourage that individual connection—a value exchange in which they identify themselves to your company (often with an email address) in exchange for information that can aid them make the best ultimate solution choice.

Once that virtual handshake happens, personalization efforts can transition to the individual level.

Prepare for the buyer-directed world

As B2B marketers adjust their strategies for buyers' self-guided journeys, they must also recognize buyers' increasing desire for direct engagement with businesses.

In the coming years, B2B e-commerce is going to skyrocket, just as the consumer market has over the past decade. Many B2B organizations are still built around long-term channel relationships and fulfillment through third parties, but for a growing number of clients that approach will be a nonstarter.

But, considering the massive scale of many B2B transactions, enabling seamless experiences and self-serve transactions for some solutions will require a massive rethink at the corporate level.

B2B organizations that invest in the enablement of direct, self-guided buyer journeys today will be well rewarded tomorrow, in the form of both new client relationships and enhanced customer loyalty.

We're already seeing major players, such as Cisco, take a page from leading consumer brands (think Starbucks) by investing in unique, personalized site experiences, as evidenced by the company's My Cisco customized workspace integration.

Step into the world of tomorrow

As companies build out their views of their customers, they'll be better positioned to take the next step toward true customer centricity: anticipation of, rather than reaction to, new customer needs.

Just as the Amazons of the world have already shown, deep customer understanding not only improves existing customer relationships but also enables companies to understand what customers—in aggregate and at the individual level—will need next.

By continuing to align around the self-directed buyer, organizations will simultaneously start to build the capabilities needed to truly anticipate and delight their customers in the future.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Michael McLaren

Michael McLaren is global CEO, B2B Group, at Merkle, a leading technology-enabled and data-driven performance marketing agency.

LinkedIn: Michael McLaren

Twitter: @michaeljmclaren