If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.
Having the right marketing intelligence really makes your journey easier, more efficient, more effective, and hopefully more enjoyable.
Think about your own life and how you might plan for some well-deserved time off. Unless you have no cares in the world or constraints of time or budget, you are not likely to set out on a trip without at least checking a map or being self-aware enough to know whether you need an adventure, an educational trip, or a relaxing stay at the beach.
Whether you're setting out on a rebranding process, an annual or long-range strategic planning exercise, or a short-term campaign planning initiative, it’s critical that you do your homework so you are set up for success. This chapter covers different aspects of marketing intelligence that you should familiarize yourself with to help you on your journey.
For many B2B companies, investing in their brand has been a “nice to have” option in the past. A few spec sheets or brochures and a basic website were all you needed from marketing. Not anymore.
Now more than ever, it’s important for B2B companies to have a better sense of who they are, what they stand for, and what customers and employees think of them. Marketing communications activities, while likely not the star of the show in most B2B organizations, have grown in importance as other traditional differentiators between products have dwindled. So companies need to learn how to market better, and maintaining a strong brand has become a differentiator in an increasingly undifferentiated world.
If you’re like most businesses, you want to both attract new customers and employees and retain those customers and employees, an endeavor that is much easier when you have a strong brand and know where you stand. Can your employees succinctly express what makes you different and what your company stands for? Is everyone saying the same thing? Do your communications all look like they belong to the same family and convey a consistent message?
Take stock of your brand, where you stand, and what you stand for. It’s a critical step in building your marketing intelligence and setting you up for success.
STRATEGIC PLANNING CHECKLIST
There are a lot of items to keep track of and consider when gathering your marketing intelligence and assessing what you have in place. Download this handy checklist, an easy-to-use strategic planning tool to make sure you are on the right path.
Of course, there are internal market/business intelligence teams or outside firms that provide market share estimates and other data that are valuable for helping your company know where you stand relative to your competitors. But such data often tells you “what” is going on with the competition. The “why” is usually harder to determine. Sadly, many will only get this far in understanding their competition.
Competitive research is often based on comparing spec sheets. Chances are, as a B2B manufacturer or service provider, you think your product has some special or unique feature and that’s why your customers buy it. That may be true. But chances are it’s not really that different from your competitors’ products or services.
Staying on top of what truly differentiates your brand is an ongoing effort, and many times it has nothing to do with your actual product or service. In countless surveys of B2B customers, the manufacturers are almost always seen very similarly by customers in quality and features. However, the way the customer is treated in the channel (i.e., at the dealer, distributor, agent or point of sale), the relationships they build there, the customer service they receive (whether at the point of sale or from the manufacturer), and the proximity of a dealer (along with the price) are what start to differentiate competitors. These are actually the reasons someone will choose your brand over another. How often is your brand trying to understand these issues and actually doing something to improve them?
Monitoring the content that your competitors publish on their website and social channels is an excellent source of competitive marketing intelligence, and easier to gather than trying to understand their dealer sales experience or pricing structure. If your competitors are good content marketers, you’ll be able to infer what their strategy is for attracting an audience, and maybe get some ideas for your own brand as well.
Regardless of what competitive intelligence gathering you do, it is important to do it regularly to avoid becoming complacent or getting left behind. As more and more products become relatively commoditized, marketing is where the differences are. Thankfully, most of that is on public display for you to understand and respond to.
Know Your Audience
It’s not always easy to research B2B audiences (we’ve written on this topic in the past). After all, your best opportunity to reach them — either to complete a survey or talk to you on the phone — is probably in the middle of their workday. And if there’s a last-minute conflict between helping a customer and helping a researcher, guess who’s going to win? Recruiting for focus groups can also be challenging, since finding enough participants who are all available at the same time in one market can be difficult.
And with many B2B purchases, there are a lot of people involved, so understanding their individual roles and importance in making a purchase decision (a common research desire) can also be a challenge.
Your company's sales team is a good source of insight about your customers, but unlocking that insight can often be challenging because of less adoption of tools like Salesforce or lack of collaboration between sales and marketing.
So yes, it’s a challenge to truly know your audience and gather intelligence about them. (Sensing a theme?) Still, you should try!
B2B Audience Survey Tips
Follow these tips and you’ll be on your way to overcoming the many challenges of understanding your audiences and their needs.
Use your data.
Analyze what they do on your digital channels.
Do your homework.
Know what you know versus what you are truly missing so you can be more efficient with your research time and dollars. Avoid survey scope creep.
Respect their time.
Provide them with an incentive for helping you with your research.
Respect their time.
Don’t survey them every month, because you’re probably not the only company that wants a piece of their workday.
Respect their time.
Don’t ask them stupid questions. (Yes, there is such a thing as a stupid research question.)
Respect their time.
Know that it might take a little (or a lot) longer to connect with them and get the information you’d like.
Make friends with your sales team.
Show them the value that marketing can bring to their efforts if they meet you halfway.
Know Your Data
You’re probably awash in data. You might have 17 zillion dashboards that get sent to you every month (or every week!) filled with data points you can sort in infinite ways. Or maybe you have to keep reminding yourself what definitions for each of the data points mean and what the benchmarks are to know whether your data is trending well or not.
While most data sources will tell you what has already happened (particularly if you are just looking backward at results), you’ll need some predictive analytics and data modeling to tell you what might happen in the future. Oftentimes, marketing departments and budgets don’t have the resources (either internally or with a partner) to accomplish such a future vision, but it is an important step that companies should work to prioritize.
For the data to be helpful and meaningful, you also need to analyze it, look at it in different ways, and determine why you got the results you did. Was it a great piece of content? Did you spend money on media to drive traffic? Were competitors particularly active during the time period and it drew attention away from your brand communications? Don’t just take the numbers you see at face value.
A blip in the data or an upward or downward trend should prompt you to ask more questions. You need to get to the “why” with your analysis if you’re going to use your research to help you make better decisions. Otherwise, it’s just numbers.
You can always do something to get your insight gathering started. Sometimes, you just don’t have the time or the budget to do it “the right way,” but that doesn’t mean you should just go with your gut.
There are a few quick and easy (and mostly free) things you can do to get started learning about your audience, your competitors, or your industry. Here are a few from our bag of tricks.
Check out the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you want to learn what goes into an audience’s daily job, how much they make on average, or other facts, this government data is a good starting point. Also, search job boards and try to find a job description; these descriptions typically provide a rich overview of what that role does on a daily basis and some of the challenges they might face. Finally, trade magazines in an industry usually have an audience profile or some data about their readers. Just download the media kit and see what you can learn. Sources like these can really help you sketch out a basic audience profile and get a jump on ideating content ideas, for example.
Here again, most trade publications or trade associations can provide you an annual industry overview on the big trends and players. Or, subscribing to an industry report service like IBISWorld, can save you time and aggregate all the information for you at a relatively low cost. The U.S. government also keeps data and information on industries and businesses (though not as frequently updated); navigating through the U.S. Census site can yield some information if you really dig in.
There is no shortage of databases or listing companies that can help you identify a competitive set. You can make some good progress before you have to pay for the info, depending on your needs. Searching a database such as Dun & Bradstreet or Thomas can generate a list of industry players. So, too, can those industry associations, assuming they make their lists public. And be sure to see what Google suggests that other people search for when you plug in a company and follow that trail.
With research, you can find a lot of good general information for free. It just takes time to sort through and follow through on all the links and leads you uncover. But you can always find something helpful to get you on your way to building better marketing intelligence.
Finding the Insights
When you know about your business and brand, your competitors, your audiences, and what your data is telling you, you have a lot of information. But you don’t necessarily have any insights. Collecting this information may have seemed very challenging, since many companies have data in silos within departments and have not set up a comprehensive intelligence system to make accessing and analyzing data efficient.
However, the hard part is just beginning. Now you have to figure out what it all means and what to do next. All of these research elements can form the backbone of a strategic planning process, development of a content strategy, or a marketing campaign initiative. The insights you derive from the marketing intelligence are what determine whether you have a winning plan, something average, or a failure.
Given the importance of insights, you’d think there would be some surefire method for finding them or a process to follow that always points the way. Sadly, there isn’t one magical recipe. But the best approaches have these tried-and-true elements in common:
Get the right people in the room to help you. You don’t have to come up with insights all on your own! Collaboration is key to understanding all the factors that could impact your thinking, including seeing things you might be blind to.
Use a whiteboard, flip chart, a colleague, your agency, or whatever method you prefer that can help you work through the challenge. Get the ideas out, don’t censor yourself, and sort it out later.
Explore the possibilities. Don’t feel like there has to be only one solution or option that could work. Although you do need to align on a format for delivering and sharing your insights that makes them clear and understandable to your audience.
Finally, do make a decision and have the courage to defend your decision with the marketing intelligence you’ve gathered. That’s why you did the homework and collaborated with others — to help you make a good decision. Don’t chicken out! (Remember, you can almost always undo the decision or pivot if you need to.)
With some practice, you’ll be on your way to a solid plan.
Lead your organization with marketing intelligence and insights
Marketing leaders who are good at gathering marketing intelligence, finding insights, and using them to guide decisions can help their organizations succeed. Gone are the days of gut decisions that give marketing a bad name and further reinforce the old adage from retailer John Wanamaker, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
With the right marketing intelligence and insights, hopefully, you’ll be spending your marketing communications dollars better (and not wasting them as Mr. Wanamaker fretted), or at least know which communications aren’t working and change them.
Having great facts and strong insights, rooted in the audience and competitive data, will strengthen your seat at the table in your B2B company and show those scientists and engineers that they aren’t the only ones who can use data.