2020 was a disruptive year for everyone. A global pandemic changed everything. The health measures needed to fight the coronavirus shut down large sections of the real economy, leading to a shift to digital. Marketers followed suit, curtailing the global events calendar and boosting digital marketing programs in their place. Webinars became so common that the concept of webinar fatigue is now a talking point.
After a challenging 12 months, 2021 is the year in which the digital business model becomes the new normal. Balancing this with previously successful in-person strategies will become important later in the year. First, marketers need to overcome the operational challenges that prevent the digital approach from reaching its maximum potential. There are still significant barriers in terms of data, technology and process that need to be solved.
In 2020, the pandemic exposed weaknesses in digital programs that could be ignored in better times. Too many marketers simply weren’t generating enough leads from digital channels. Events were relied upon to fill gaps in the funnel, while telemarketing was used as an alternative to lead nurturing. Such shortcuts were no longer possible in a world dominated by remote working, and digital programs were restructured to fill the gap. For the first quarter, experimentation and incremental gains were sufficient to improve results. In recent months, more long-term fixes have been required.
Many organisations have now identified the structural weaknesses that hold back their digital efforts and are working to address them. This takes time, and many funnel improvement programs won’t bear fruit for another few months. Marketers are familiar with the best digital channels for getting new leads. Use of webinars, content syndication and social campaigns have exploded during the last few quarters. Finding the right channels and content to keep those leads engaged until they’re ready to buy has been more of a challenge, particularly for organisations that haven’t had success with lead nurture in the past. Deciding the right entry and exit points for nurture, and when to transition leads to sales or telemarketing can be challenging and is often an iterative process.
Further down the funnel, gaps are frequently the result of poor sales and marketing alignment. Sales processes have changed significantly during the pandemic and will continue to do so now that digital selling is embedded across the board. However, not all marketing departments have adapted to the new sales behaviours. Hand-off processes, SLAs and lead quality definitions all change in a digital world.
Digital selling changes what sales need to know about their customers. Marketing are being asked to up their Sales Enablement game, by providing more information about leads and how they qualified, as well as creating additional collateral to support the sales effort in a virtual environment. Traditionally, many ISRs have relied on meetings, events and phone calls to drive the sales process forward. These methods need to be replaced by content and email streams based on the types of discussions that sales traditionally have had with their prospects on the phone. Not all marketing departments create bottom of funnel content for sales reps to distribute to their customers. Those that don’t have struggled to convert opportunities as quickly as they would before the pandemic.
Tech Stack Consolidation
The pandemic accelerated digital transformation, leading to five years of digitisation taking place within a few months. This put strain on digital infrastructure across all sectors. For marketers, there was already a focus on optimising existing tech stacks. Technology budgets have exploded over the past decade as tech stacks have expanded, yet the capabilities enabled by all this technology hasn’t always kept pace with spending. The coronavirus driven economic slowdown caused many marketing departments to look for efficiencies in their technology budgets. Even more will need to make such sacrifices in 2021. Marketers were able to absorb pandemic-induced budget cuts in 2020 by cancelling the events budget. They won’t be able to do the same thing this year, leading to a greater drive for efficiency across the board.
At the same time, the switch to digital campaigns has caused marketers to reassess what functionality they require from their technology stacks. Additional capabilities are needed to automate digital campaigns end-to-end, improve data quality, or optimise the funnel. At enterprise scale, the desire to increase operational efficiencies often leads to the consolidation of individual product or regional marketing teams onto a single framework on one tech stack. This generally requires major changes to core CRM or marketing automation platforms. At a smaller scale, those same efficiencies can be made by aligning segmentation, lead scoring and lead routing much closer to the requirements of the business as a whole. Elsewhere, the need to justify budgets when money is tight requires improved reporting dashboards, as well as the need to collect the data required to power those dashboards.
AI enters the Mainstream
The new capabilities required to support digital strategies do not necessarily require new technology. Updating the existing tech stack to work together more closely while taking advantage of unused capabilities within those platforms is sufficient in many cases. Many organisations are finally rolling out the Einstein features within Salesforce, the Sensei features within Adobe and the AI capabilities of Oracle, Microsoft or HubSpot products. Lead scoring and segmentation are seeing the biggest increase in AI usage both from technology vendors and from marketing operations teams.
The biggest area of new technology investment at the moment is in data management. Marketing operations are looking to consolidate customer data and the processes needed to manage that data into one enterprise wide database so that it can be combined into a single customer view for more effective use across both marketing and sales. As part of that, the use of machine learning to organise the disparate sources of data has become an essential part of the marketing operations toolkit. There is now too much data for such processes to be done manually.
While there is a lot of data within businesses, marketers are still struggling to separate good data from bad data. Much of the data currently in marketing databases is either out of date, of dubious quality or simply isn’t usable due to gaps in contact and account profiles. That’s not a new problem, but the drive to replace generic content with personalised experiences makes data accuracy far more important than previously. Good segmentation and effective personalisation are essential to the success of digital campaigns, otherwise messages get lost in a market that is saturated with content. Marketers have woken up to this and are now trying to be more granular in their targeting than in the past. However, data quality is limiting the ability of marketing teams to run effective campaigns in a way that it wasn’t two years ago.
As such, marketing operations teams are now being asked to fill in many of the database gaps they’ve long known about but have previously overlooked. There is no longer a single best approach to data management, with a wide variety of tools and suppliers on the market to solve the challenge. The particular set of data sources, tools and processes depends on the types of data already available across the business and the types of data needed to run campaigns. Every organisation is different, and the specific information necessary to build a complete database varies drastically, even between direct competitors. Before a data management strategy can be mapped out, marketing and sales teams first need to come together to agree what information they need about customers and prospects, so that operations teams can decide the best way to acquire it.
There are multiple ways to improve data quality, and a successful data improvement strategy needs to use all of them. The traditional approach of buying in the missing data still has a place, particularly for firmographic data. However, GDPR and other data protection laws make it much harder to purchase usable contacts than in the past. Data providers vary drastically in quality and many are struggling with the same accuracy and recency challenges experienced by marketing operations teams. Some categories of data can be calculated in-house using data management platforms, or can be collated from other departments. One example of this is customer identification, a long-standing challenge that typically requires cross-departmental collaboration and bespoke integrations to solve. ABM and the desire to expand cross-sell and up-sell initiatives mean that it can no longer be ignored.
Data improvement is not just a one-off project though. Previous data improvement initiatives have often been wasted because there was no process to maintain data quality after it had been fixed. Marketing operations teams are very aware of this and are now putting in place processes to ensure it does not happen again. Critical to this goal is to automate as much of the data management process as possible, while ensuring new contacts can be added by marketing and sales teams as needed without compromising data quality. Operational flexibility is essential here. If data quality standards and data upload processes get in the way of business as usual then they will be ignored, leading to the compliance nightmare of data stored outside of the proper databases.
Return to Normality
Event organisers are planning their post-Easter schedules, and there is much talk about when travel can resume. Both marketing and sales are desperate for in-person engagement with their customers, but initially this will mostly be based around smaller seminars rather than tradeshows or big conferences. International travel restrictions will still be in place throughout the year, limiting the ability to organise larger events. As such, events will need to be smaller than before the pandemic, and the number of leads generated by events will also be smaller as a result.
Marketers will need to think about how in-person events can support existing digital campaigns. Larger events will take place in the second half of the year, but will need to be live-streamed for remote audiences unable or unwilling to attend in person. The most successful events will be those that reach both virtual and in-person audiences, allowing interaction and two-way communication between audiences and exhibitors regardless of location.
2021 promises to be a return to normality. Spring will see a re-awakening for these sectors of the economy most affected by the pandemic. However, the new normal will not be the same as the old normal. The new digital ways of working and the old in-person methods will continue to co-exist. The most successful marketers in 2021, will be those best able to combine them.
Written by Alan Chatfield – Digital Marketing Consultant, CRMT Digital